February 15th 2014
I took a few duckling stumbles in my rented snowshoes; lifted my foot up too high and toppled into a snow bank. The New Englanders in the group sniggered at my christening. When I was planning my first semester at college in Vermont from my warm, Virginian bed, winter mountaineering through feet of snow seemed like an abstract concept, like calculus. It exists but not really, you know? Sure, some people do it for fun but not anyone I knew and not in any place I’d been. When I saw it listed under possible orientation activities, I leapt at the chance to participate in the absurdity.
The first two miles to Marcy Dam was easy enough, roughly flat and optimism was high enough to encourage small talk as the Loj recedes in the distance: How’s it going, What classes are you taking, Beautiful day isn’t it, the same questions that would be repeated for the next two years. We dropped our packs at a lean-to next to the dam and began the real journey up the VanHoevenberg Trail, fives miles of gradually increasing terrain that follows the riverbed and then slowly winds its way up to the ridgeline. Not that we ever made it that far. A mile beyond the dam and we stopped for the fifth time in what feels like ten minutes; one student couldn’t go on, so we turned back.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, and although I joined the Mountain Club and had every intention of spending loads of time appreciating this wilderness, I never did make it back out. Not once, not camping or backpacking or even a hike, not for two years.
Life happened, a lot of good and then a lot really, really bad. By the time last December rolled around, I was a shell of myself. I’m not ready to write about the why but the point is, Connor was a fucking mess. Disempowered. Anxious. Afraid. The only thing helping me function from day to day was my best friend, and then she went abroad. I talked about big exciting plans for the semester, about all the clubs I would join and the things I would do but it was just that, talk. Mom made me read The Power of Positive Thinking when I was a youth, so I had to try.
When someone suggested I try to take Adventure Writing during J-term, I dove at the chance for catharsis. We had to submit a project proposal to get into the class, Mount Marcy immediately came to mind. What better way to get my mojo back than climbing a fricking mountain in the middle of a Vermont winter? And not just any mountain, but one with whom I shared so much history. I needed the wilderness to lead me to peace but I couldn’t go into it alone, not yet.
January 13th 2016
Cooper’s eyes seem blue under the library’s fluorescent bulbs but the more he talks, the more I see, now two dark violet limbal rings barely contain the rays of light green and blue bursting from the circle of brown around his pupil. They’re beautiful eyes, wise eyes, eyes that have seen much more than most twenty-three year olds’. There’s loss there, a lot of pain but also a lot of knowing. He doesn’t try to hide the glimmer of vulnerability; we both know it’s there. Freckles splash across his nose and cheeks.
“That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, let go of all that sadness and grief and negative thinking and be able to live my life in the present and pick the good out of it where I could.”
For ninety minutes he’s sat across from me and spoken softly about tragedy that I cannot begin to comprehend; his best friend, car crash; his mother, cancer; his father, heart failure; and his own Bipolar Disorder. And now he talks about hope. He leans into the table and illustrates with his hands, telling me about the group for students he helped start on campus, The Resilience Project, a movement to offer the voices of struggle and triumph a space to share their stories and create a community of resilience. He talks about the translating work he does at the Open Door Clinic and about his rock jar filled with pebbles marked with friends’ names. He tells me how he survives. Not just survives but truly lives, and not with the somber quietness I would expect from such experiences but with a self-deprecating assuredness and amusement that baffles me. I don’t know where to laugh or where to cry, it’s all woven together into one mess and that, I think, is his point.
“I so often would go back in the past and relive those experiences all the time and so many things would remind me that oh, I don’t have parents.”
His voice matches his eyes, cautious but firm. He speaks gently, expressing his thoughts in such a way that every word is given its due diligence, each following carefully after the last in perfect harmony, allowing us both to appreciate their weight. He doesn’t second guess and rarely pauses for long. It’s not that he’s given this answer before, it’s that he’s speaking from a well-examined heart.
“That was what was ailing me, not being able to let go of that and live in my life in the present.”
February 15th 2016
Ever since seeing Top Gun in the 7th grade, I’ve wanted a jeep like Cooper’s, a classic black Wrangler. My father always cautioned me against it because of the bumpy ride but of course I never believed the old man. As we drove from Middlebury to Marcy, I tried to get some film of Cooper and I as we talked about deeply important things like our life aspirations and respective sex lives. Or, in my case, my lack of both. There’s so much bounce in that footage you’d think the camera was tied to the back of a bronco bucking its way through Vermont’s single-lane gravel roads. Cooper took his hand off the wheel to answer his phone.
He cheerfully explains to another friend that he didn’t get the position at a Physician Assistant school in Ohio, hangs up, and begins shuffling through iTunes. I groan and compliment the speaker system.
“Yea, I love this car. Repairs have really been draining my bank account but I could never part with her.”
Snow covered trees flow past my window; I assume those are the Adirondacks occasionally appearing through their branches. I certainly hope so anyways. To me, any vaguely tall mound could be Marcy. Truth be told, I still haven’t figured out what or where “The Whites” are, or “The Greens” for that matter. I was an exemplary Boy Scout but somehow orienteering never quite stuck. I am inexcusably awful at geography on any level: world, country, or state. Probably should’ve told Cooper that before dragging him into the middle of the literal “Wilderness.”
Ah well, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Probably.
I’m so focused on trying to hold the camera steady on the early sunset in front of us that I forget to tell Cooper to turn. He doesn’t mind that I remember ten minutes later. It’s not fair how unflappably well tempered that boy is.
“You can’t really expect your friends to fix your problems. You have to be mature and realistic and ask, what might they be able to do, can I ask them to do that for me?”
By 4:00 we’ve pulled up in front of the Adirondack Loj, named by the same fellow who invented the Dewey Decimal system. Dr. Melvil Dewey purchased the building from Henry VanHoevenberg who’d fled to the mountains years previously to escape the horrid Hay Fever that plagued him in New York City. VanHoeveneberg operated his fine establishment from 1880 to 1889, constructing some fifty miles of trails and entertaining hundreds of travelers until financial hardship forced him to sell it to the Lake Placid Club and it’s then-president Dr. Dewey. Dr. Dewey, being the creator of the simplified phonetic spelling system, saw no reason why a perfectly good building needed five letters when three would do just fine, thank you.
When Cooper and I started up the trail, it was the VanHoevenberg path we took, the shortest but also the steepest of three possible ascent options. Roughly two and a half miles to Marcy Dam and then another five and a half to the summit, fifteen miles round-trip. Piece of cake.
“Maybe that means asking, hey, I’m having a really hard day, can we just go on a walk?”
Because of heavy snowfall, the park requires either use of either snowshoes or skis on the trail. We’d tried to rent the former from the college gear room when we picked up all our other equipment, but they’d all be checked out by orientation leaders training to leader this year’s FOO trip. It was an amusing coincidence until we realized we had to rent them from the Loj, $40 a piece.
We grabbed our packs from the car, dutifully clamped the golden snowshoes to our boots and set off. Surprisingly, rented snowshoes are not the best maintained. At first I thought I had attached them wrong but no amount of adjustments could fix that god-awful racket. Each step reminded me of a car dragging its rear bumper down a cobblestone road. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. Meanwhile, Cooper traipsed ahead with the silence of a wraith. Some people have all the luck. Five minutes later, not even the sting in my wallet could make me take another step.
“Coop, I’ve had enough. Fuck. Snowshoes.”
A few moments later, we were off again, Satan’s shoes tied to our packs and the crystalline ambiance of the woods restored. A nice older couple in matching red jackets walked towards us from up ahead, “Hey the ice is pretty thin back there, you’ll want to wear those snowshoes. We saw someone’s foot go straight through the ice.”
“Oh thanks, we’ll make sure to do that.” Nope.
A few minutes later we stumbled onto a nice straight part of the trail. I unlashed the full-sized tripod I’d been lugging so we could walk by the camera like I’d seen in those snazzy professional films.
“God damnit. COOPER. I left the attachment piece in your car!”
“What? Why don’t you just rest it on top?
“Because then it won’t be stab…oh fine. You’re right.”
“But the lighting’s pretty bad, don’t you want to wait till tomorrow when it’s brighter out?”
Of course I wanted to wait till it was brighter out. I threw my pack off, unbuckled the top, slammed the tripod on top the tent, buckled it back up and shrugged the thing on again. Fine.
“Or, hey can you listen to me talk about this, it’s really hard, I don’t want to keep this bottled up.”
On and on we walked, I’d forgotten how much further distances become when walking through snow with a few dozen pounds on your back. In hindsight, I probably over packed but hey, better a sore back than frostbite.
We were somewhere between one and two miles from our intended camp and darkness had fallen so I thought it’d be a fun time to test the infrared setting on the camera. It worked well enough to catch a ghost of irritation flashing across Coop’s perpetually cheerful visage. Oops.
“Or, I don’t want you to have to feel like you have to solve the problem but would it be okay to just listen and maybe ask me some questions or something?”
Joe Lovelace, one of my orientation guides from two year’s ago had recommended we try to find a spot in one of the lean-tos lining the Eastern side of Heart Lake, named for its shape by our dear friend Mr. VanHoevenberg. A few hundred yards later we did exactly that; a nice cozy three-sided place with beautiful interior decorating etched into the walls and ceiling by hundreds of other hikers before us.
It seemed sensible to take boots off before stepping inside, didn’t want to track in snow after all. Cooper had brought down booties. I had not. Within five minutes I was sitting on my sleeping pad, helplessly cradling my frigid toes while he melted snow for supper. Side note: hand warmers do not take fifteen to thirty minutes to warm up. Those fuckers LIE.
I had scoffed at Cooper for bringing a glass jar of tomato sauce to go with our pasta and chicken sausage. I laughed less when I took my first bite of dinner. And stopped completely when he later filled it with boiling water and put it inside his sleeping bag for the night. Seriously though, we ate like kings. Following Cooper’s example, I filled my Nalgene with steaming pasta water after dinner and stuck it in the bottom of my bag when I crawled into the tent after him, thank god for that. I also took the four hand warmers I’d opened and tucked them inside my socks in case they decided to work at some point. I was asleep by 9:30.
A few hours later, a burning pain on my legs jolted me upright. I squirmed urgently in the mummy bag, terrified that I’d unscrewed the water bottle in my sleep and was now soaked. Nope, sleeping bag wasn’t wet so…those damn handwarmers. Four HOURS later and they were now blasting out scalding heat. Apparently good things do come to those who wait. Not wanting to waste an iota of warmth, I pulled them out of my socks, tucked them strategically throughout the bag, and promptly fell back asleep.
We didn’t have a way of knowing the exact temperature, but let’s just say it was cold. Not cold enough to freeze water before it hit the ground (still waiting for that one) but cold enough to freeze the moisture from our breath and turn the tent into a triangular prism of ice by the time we woke up. We’d planned on an alpine start but a fortuitous alarm failure let us sleep in until 8:00. From the safety of our sleeping bags we boiled some more snow for oatmeal and used the rest to replenish our water supply. I should’ve thought to strain it before that second bit.
“It’s very similar to Life, going out on a hike or summiting a mountain. You’re presented with a challenge and along the way you’re picking up the good.”
We left behind everything we could. Cooper turned the brain of his pack into a fanny pack and filled it with a few essentials; food, water, crampons, etc. I wanted to bring the tripod, a few extra layers, enough food for both of us, and a Whisperlite stove because you never know. I hoisted my still-too-heavy pack with the knowledge that I would be prepared, no matter what. Scoutmaster Pierson would be proud.
We broke out of the trees, strode across Heart Lake, signed into the logbook and took to the trail with gusto. Cooper took the lead as I walked steadily behind cradling my camera, trying to step quickly but gently for a steady shot. We carried on for a mile like this, Cooper walking further and further ahead as I fell behind, treading slowly or stopping altogether to pan smoothly across the trail and sky. I’d jog to catch up, find Cooper waiting some fifty yards ahead and then repeat the process. Eventually I had to justify lugging the tripod along by getting a nifty shot of us crunching past. As I was strapping it back atop my pack, who should appear but Joe Lovelace, the mountain man himself. He came speeding up behind us, hiking poles flashing in the morning sun. At his heels came Emma Erwin: climber of Denali, thru-hiker of the Pacific Crest Trail, Co-Founder of the Resilience Project and overall badass. Behind her was Sebastian Z, the most disgustingly cheerful optimist I’ve ever had the pleasure of envying. And behind him was Ted, a fellow from my class.
It felt good to be hiking with a larger group, like each person was contributing energy to a palpable cloud of merriment and adventurous spirit. I understood why Frodo and Sam needed the rest of the fellowship; together we were mighty. But their company was short-lived. I stopped to ostensibly do some filming (catch my breath) and Cooper wanted to tie on his crampons. When I stopped panting they were gone, literally jogging up the mountain.
I proceeded a bit more slowly after that, partially because the higher we went, the more beautiful the landscape became: firs so weighted with snow they looked like mushrooms from Wonderland, icicles dripping from branches and that indescribable stillness that can only be found in wintery woods. And partially because the higher we went, the more steep the trail became and the more often Connor needed a break.
“It doesn’t mean it’s easy or necessarily fun the whole time but you’re having an amazing experience and it makes you stronger, physically, mentally, spiritually.”
Damn right it isn’t easy. I used to think I was fit. Of course I could just roll out of eight months of inactivity and climb the highest mountain in New York. No problem. Nope, more like no chance.
Cooper, on the other hand, was fantastically fit. Whereas my depression coping mechanism had been binge-watching Gossip Girl over and over and over again (Chuck understands me) while eating Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate Brownies, his was going on revoltingly long runs. I grumbled internally but was glad for the pace he set, it’s easier to ignore negativity when you can’t hear it over the sound of your breathing.
“Because I do think you have a choice at a certain point, to push yourself and say you know what, I can find some good in this somewhere.”
Okay okay, it wasn’t all that bad. But I am ashamed to say that if I’d gone at it alone, I might’ve turned around early and lied about making it to the top. Steal a few pictures of the summit from Google, put them in a slideshow, no one would know. Yea, I thought about it. But no, there was Cooper and we were doing this together. That was the whole point, to struggle through and achieve something. The sad thing is, I can’t remember the last time I challenged myself like this, the last time I achieved something that was all the better for the journey it took to get there. Sure I’d overcome some shit but I felt like that had taken depressing sort of passive determination; basically just the will to live a bit longer. Even when I was winning, I was still losing. Here, when I’m winning I’m winning god damnit. There’s something powerful about existing just for the challenge, focusing wholly on planting each foot a little higher with every step.
That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done is let go of all that sadness and grief and negative thinking to be able to live my life in the present and pick the good out of it where I could.
The sign said we were half a mile to the top. On my right rose Marcy’s bare rock dome. To get there we’d have follow the ridgeline up and out of the tree line, into the alpine zone of artic vegetation and then scale the last few hundred feet of ice. Time to ditch the tripod. And the stove. And the snowshoes. When I re-shouldered the pack, my back moaned. So close, I it’s right there.
“There’s no way you could find the good if you’re not like…” He pauses here, for once unsure how to help me feel what he’s feeling “…wallowing in the shit to find the nugget of gold.”
February 16th, 2016. 1:30 PM.
I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get here. When I first tried this mountain two years ago, I didn’t even get within view of it. Now, clear skies reveal blue and white peaks dappling the ground in ever direction, the Great Range and Greens looms to the East and the Algonquians lines the West. I think. That’s Whiteface poking up from the North and The Wilds stretch across the South and our trail back down. Looking at a map for the past four hours has given me a much better sense of place. I can’t quite discern Camel’s Hump in the distance but I know it’s there; the whole world is there, laid out around me. It’s beautiful.
The same winds push at my back that that tugged at Ebenzer Emmons’s in 1837 when he became the first person to summit this mountain with a geological survey crew. Now, 179 years later, Cooper and I read the bronze plaque imbedded into the rock face. It tells of a mountain named after the 19th century governor of New York but that isn’t the only name. The Native Americans called it Tahawus, Cloudsplitter, and although the rock dome is not piercing through the heavens today, it is easy to picture as I stand a mile above sea level. 5344 feet may not be the tallest of mountains but it is the highest in the state and the fourth highest on the East Coast. My soul groans with satisfaction. Cloudsplitter. I like that.