observations and opinion
The first thing to know about climbing up a mountain, as it turns out, is that it’s much tougher climbing back down.
The White Mountains are a magnificent stretch of peaks, great heaving piles from millions of years past, green and lush in the dawn of summer, and of course, huge and cold and white through the long winters of New Hampshire. Mount Osceola is one of the junior members of the club, a mere 4,300 vertical feet up from the base.
Mount Osceola and the White Mountains generally are a gift from time, from God and also, from the United States Government. White Mountain National Forest is not, technically, a national park, but part of the huge land holdings of the U.S. government protected for no, or limited, human exploitation. The White Mountains are, essentially, a kind of national park managed by the Forest Service. This investment by the U.S. in its own territory, preserving it for various uses – and sometimes, for no uses at all – is an extraordinary success that only government could accomplish. The fact that my teenager could clamber up the side of a mountain like this in the year 2014 is due entirely – entirely – to the foresight of wise people a century ago, and the ongoing wisdom of public servants ever since. No doubt there are many valid complaints and criticisms of the U.S. national parks and forests, but there is only one thing really wrong with them: the public doesn’t appreciate them enough.
Which on a busy, hot Saturday in late Spring may be a good thing. Mount Osceola was crowded enough. We approached the mountain in blissful ignorance – led by an experienced hand, but somehow oblivious to what it would mean to go up, and then come back down, this mountain. It may be true that you’re better off tackling something really difficult if you don’t know precisely how difficult it’s going to be. You might not tackle it at all, if you knew.
The way up sparkles with anticipation. What will the path be like? Are these the only boulders we will scramble over? Are these bigger boulders the worst we will cross? Does the path consist only of boulders? As you peek through gaps in the tree line, the view changes; the other mountains shrink, the clouds seem larger, their shadows stitch across the green of the valley below.
It’s a grind going up. The inexperienced or ill-equipped climber gets winded, falls back, takes a break, slugs back the water, wipes his brow and then lurches forward again. The pure fun wears off within a half-hour and you know you’re in for work, albeit with a magic reward at the end. Also true is that mountain climbing is one of those “chasing your sunk costs” situations – having scraped half way up or more, it is irritating to contemplate not finishing. So you labour onwards. And you know that if you can keep on going, if that branch holds and you don’t slip off the rocks, you will eventually reach the summit.
At the summit is glory. The top of Mount Osceola is a rock shelf, a perfect place to stand in the wind, breathe in the fresh air and scan the horizon encircling you. Before reaching it, you imagine that a sense of accomplishment will suffuse you, that you will revel in what you’ve done. But that’s not what happens. Instead, as the path flattens and you walk out from the trees to the hard plain rock at the top of the mount, you and your triumph disappear. You behold a greater glory: the world below you, endless and green and the sky above, endless and blue, and the clouds stretched out across the vista like sleeping white lions.
It may be one of the hardest things you will ever do and yet its reward is to make you small, smaller than you have ever been. But it also makes you part of something much greater. It’s like swimming far out from shore, only to be swallowed by a whale.
But then the whale spits you back out, and you begin the long, slow, staggering tumble back down the boulders and stones and trees and muck you had ascended. Your body is hot and fatigued from the climb; the stop at the summit was not nearly long enough to truly recover. Picking your way carefully, step by step through the debris of a million year old mountain, your mind and joints and bones and muscles can be stretched to breaking. And the hours stretch too. This is no toboggan ride.
Sometimes you recognize memorable parts of the path you climbed before – the sloping wet stones as big as cars, the jagged pile of rocks that puts you one mis-step from broken bones – but oftentimes, coming at it from the reverse direction the trail is unrecognizable and more than once you wonder: have I left the path? Am I wandering out onto the far side of the mountain and will I be here for hours? More than once we stopped to breathe, to look around, to feel vaguely miserable or vaguely happy that somewhere down there was the world. Then we would begin again in haste, stumble, fall into things, get scratched and get going again.
It soon becomes clear that you have to worry about each footfall, mindful of risk. On the way down, your steps – because they are delicate and dangerous – really matter. This pulls the mind from the great outdoors to the deep, dark interior of oneself. Just as the climb made you small and part of something transcendently big, so too the descent shrinks the world – you swallow it all up, you become magnified. Eyes that a short time ago beheld an endless valley and a sky of cloud, are now drilled into the ground between sharp stones and tree roots.
After many mirages, the bottom looms upon you. There is an end to it, eventually. You exit the trail, blink in the open sun and feel the wash of relief that the descent is, finally, over. The huge and magic thing you became part of is gone; you are yourself again. What you have now is a memory, a sense of surprise and of course, something to brag about.
Was there a particular moment that lives in the memory as the toughest part of climbing up and down Mount Osceola? My 13 year old hiking companion had her own opinion: “the middle 8,600 feet were the hardest.”
What happens on a climb, it seems, is that you learn something. How fit you are, or unfit; how patient or impatient; how determined or how fickle. You learn how to do it and how not to do it. Hours after this first climb, I heard words of wisdom that I would not have understood had I heard them before ascending and then descending Osceola:
“On the way down there are two things to remember: don’t stop, and don’t rush.”
Good advice when you’re on the side of a mountain. In fact, good advice almost anywhere, when you think about it.