This is an personal essay I’m working on….still twisting and tweaking but the bones of the search and rescue mission are here! Feedback’s always welcome.
Jack walked up to me in the Storehouse Bay. It was unusual for him to be here on a Saturday afternoon and he walked in with a hyper tense energy I’d only seen him carry when his boss was on his case about something.
“Can anyone here go on a SARs?” he said. He looked at me with pleading eyes, his hands gripping a small notecard.
I didn’t know what a SARs was. If anything, it sounded like a disease I didn’t want to catch. I raised my eyebrows.
“It’s a search and rescue. We’ve got three French Canadians up on Huntington’s and we have to send up people to see what’s going on.”
I looked to the right where the fridge and freezer had their lights off and doors closed. To the left, there was the deserted loading dock and towering box pile. No one in Storehouse but me.
Storehouse is the logistics hub of the Appalachain Mountain Club and it’s wedged in Pinkham Notch in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We pack food for the lodges, backcountry caretakers and teen trips. We also provide transportation, and all my co-workers were out of the office, driving various roads of the North Country in vans with canoe trailers, trucks, and other badass mountain vehicles.
Today the gray clouds hung low over Wildcat, frosting the summit and the rest of the peak nearly to the base.
The weather meant the desertion of Pinkham Notch and the resulting deficit of bodies to send up on a SARs explained why Jack was asking me to go on the mission. I can hike. I get up and down mountains fine, but I’m not the fastest, strongest, or most experienced climber out there in the Whites. The toughness scale here runs high, so working your way up it takes time. Even after months and maybe even years of living in the mountains there are still challenges. Very real portions of blood, sweat, and tears must be spilt.
I had heard crazy things about Huntington’s and planned to climb on a beautiful sunny day (read: not today). The steep rock scrambles which litter the second half of the trail allow hikers to climb 2000 feet to reach the summit of Mount Washington. It’s one of the top ten most difficult trails in the Whites and New England.
“I would go, but I’m working,” I said, relieved to have an excuse to bow out with grace.
Jack left to check the employee housing for anyone hanging around who wasn’t working. I went back to packing food in boxes.
Ten minutes later he was back. “There’s no one around. Can you go?”
My boss overheard us from his office. “You should get your gear together, Bethany. Make sure you have some layers because it will be cold up there. Bring overnight stuff as well. Water, food, you know the drill.”
Hmmm what was the drill? No time for questions. I was punching out.
I stuffed my essentials into my day pack: fleece layers for top and bottom, rain coat, two wheat bagels, half eaten jar of Nutella, chocolate, a lighter, headlamp, and map. Checking in at the front desk, I learned two very fast, very experienced male co-workers were to join me in the ascent. A little lump of nerves pitted in the top of my stomach. I don’t hike with the guys at work much. They are hiking machines in disguise as humans. But the plight of the French Canadians called and we left the front desk with radio in hand.
To get to Huntington’s Trail, you have to go up what I call the Mount Washington superhighway: Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. Double the width of most trails in the Whites, it’s lined with large boulders on the bottom. Drainage ditches gauged through the path at regular intervals which require leaping over. We headed out around 4pm, so a steady stream of weekend hikers headed down the trail while we hustled up it. Like I thought, my hustle was supremely slower than the hustle of my co-workers who I could barely make out above me, bounding up the rocks. Even bounding sounds too heavy. They nearly flew.
Less than a mile in, I thought I was hyperventilating. I had flashbacks to when my parents would take me hiking in elementary school and I would start crying for water. My asthma that was never really asthma made me avoid hiking for many years. After this, my co-workers let me lead.
“The last thing we need is another search and rescue,” they said. They put me at the front of our little pack. I felt relieved and demoralized hiccuping along the trail in front of them. I heard them breathing behind me, chatting about all the weight they’d lost since coming to the mountains. Grumble. I’d only managed a few measly pounds.
We crossed two or three streams by this point. The rocks were covered in a lush green moss that cushioned our footsteps. As we continued upward and off the Tuck’s Trail, the path narrowed and the mist thickened.
“This is very mystical” I said to no one in particular. Maybe I spoke to the mountain or the clouds or myself. For whatever reason, I stopped hating the hike. I stopped blaming my soft body and my overthinking mind. I started listening to everything on the mountain that wasn’t me.
We stopped briefly to respond to a radio call from the front desk. Word was that the cartaker up in Tuck’s had helped the three Canadians down from the steepest part of the ravine and everyone was fine. We were to continue hiking up until we met the party, then escort them back down to the Notch.
We met the group at the bottom of what they call the Fan, a large boulder field which lays below the steepest section of the climb (nearly vertical). Spiders were our only non-human company and their webs spanned the huge gray boulders catching the day’s condensation in their spindley gray threads. The headwall was invisible although I was told it lay directly before us, leading up to the summit. Everyone was in good spirits and happy to see us. The way down took far less time and the mountain clouds cooled my skin. I whistled a little tune, something from the Wailin’ Jennys. Here amidst the damp, dewy air and spongey moss, I was okay to listening to myself. I envisioned a small portion of blood, sweat, and tears added to my slowly growing tally.