After a long hiatus, a memorable experience inspired this post.

I’ve traveled and hiked throughout the U.S. visiting many National Parks. A few favorites are Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Crater Lake. Hiking local trails is one thing, experiencing National Parks is another. Thank you, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt Stephen Mather and Horace M. Albright. The Grand Canyon has been on my list for a very long time. Experiencing the GC alone was never in my plans. Sharing everything about a visit there was my desire. A good friend Pat told me of a trip he did 10 years ago with friends from Boxford, MA. Hearing the story, I wanted to experience a similar adventure. This wasn’t the first adventure Pat and I have done together. I was a pacer for his Wasatch 100 run near Salt Lake City and we’ve done multiple climbs of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Knowing we’re both comfortable with discomfort, this was going to be an epic adventure.

Pat arrived on a Friday in Prescott, Arizona where I’m working a contract. After his long flight from the east coast and two hours’ drive, we transferred his gear in my FJ Cruiser and headed north for the two-hour drive to the Grand Canyon (GC). Arriving at 6 PM we checked in at the campsite office. We were fortunate to be able to reserve a site only a few weeks before. In light rain, we set up the tent then drove a short distance to the El Tovar Hotel and Restaurant parking area. All I could see when parking was the barrier wall and overcast skies. As I walked to the viewing area, the expanse of the Canyon left me completely speechless. The core of my heart and soul pounded in awe. We viewed the Canyon only for a short time since we had to prep for the next day and went in El Tovar for an adult refreshment and a quick decompress. We were fortunate to have a front row seat at large picture window and invited another couple to share the large table we were directed to by the host. In a few minutes I was more relaxed than I have been since arriving in Prescott two months previous. With El Tovar restaurant booked we walked to a family style restaurant for a simple meal and get back to camp. Rest was needed for the long, strenuous hikes over the next few days.

We settled in quickly and slept better than I thought in my small two-person Mountain Hardwear tent. Waking at 6:15 AM we quickly went to the Bright Angel Lodge to put our name on a wait list for any type of lodging at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon. This is what we were instructed to do a few days earlier. We arrived early and first. When asking to put our name on the wait list, we were informed the list was a page long. Disappointment, I mentioned I called the previous morning at 5 AM to get on the list. Checking my name, the staff said, WAIT! You’re number one! Disappointment reversed itself and turned to excitement. He said you will surely have a choice of a tent spot, bunk or cabin. We chose a bunk house (Which I’ll never do again…) over a cabin since $200 each was not necessary for one night. I bought coffees for us and the park attendant who looked like had as little sleep as we did. We left in a rush to break camp and drive to the parking area to take a shuttle to the Kaibab Trail trailhead. Packs were loaded and we were on our way. The GC Visitors Center was becoming crowded with people scurrying like ants. We hopped the shuttle and a few minutes later we were at the trailhead to start a long descent into this mind-bending creation. Soon we were away from the fair-weather hikers in nice clothes, holding Starbucks cups and smelling of eye watering perfume and cologne.

The 6.3 mile, 4860 ft elevation descent to reach the Colorado was the longest descent I’ve made. It was strenuous on our legs, especially with 30-pound packs. Descending views were incredible which took discomfort away from tired legs. Weather held up most of the time with only light rain a few times. We watched a large ominous black cloud pour rain into the Canyon northwest of our direction. Three and a half hours later we were finally at the Colorado River showing off in emerald blue. Above the river was a very well-engineered steal bridge. It felt good to walk the bridge and on flat ground as our legs were hitting discomfort. A good rainfall quickly came in above us for 15 minutes. When it tapered, we pushed the last quarter mile to Phantom Ranch and checked into the bunk house. I threw my pack on the last available bunk, up top next to the door. Pat and I rushed to listen to a camp talk by a Park Ranger about the creation of the Canyon in a 24-hour virtual time period. As tired as I was, I kept my eyes open for the hour-long talk. What took place millions of years ago and what took millions of years to create is unfathomable.

We broke from the group who were staying to ask questions. Showers were needed along with dinner. With a Mountain Safety Research Windburner stove, I heated a few cans of Amy’s Natural Minestrone soup. To add there were other sides. Cheese, cured meat, crackers, peanuts, and more. It didn’t matter. We were starving and no matter how healthy or unhealthy every calorie would be burned the next day. We were the only two in the bunk house not opting for the $50 steak dinner and $45 breakfast the next morning. Word was prices were high since food had to be brought down on pack mules. After cleanup Pat crashed. I waited at a picnic table for the tavern to open for a beer. When tall grass moved, I turned on my headlamp and saw my first ring tailed cat. Very cool. Although not a cat, it’s a mammal of the raccoon family with a very similar tail to a raccoon. When the tavern opened, I went in and browsed and decided I wanted, NEEDED, sleep and returned to the tight bunkhouse shelter holding ten of us.

Pat was counting Z’s, and I was the second one to hit the bunks. I figured the other eight roommates would be sacked out since the hike down hit them hard form earlier conversations. I did my best to sleep. Some came in quietly and some let the door slam a few feet from my head. I did the best to sleep and finally did. When morning came. I exited last since Pat and I didn’t need to rush to the mess hall. I dressed, packed, made Starbucks Via instant coffee, and boiled water for oatmeal and to re-heat a few hard boiled eggs that made the descent unscathed. The night before and in the morning, we ate much as possible knowing we were burning thousands of calories. I also wanted less weight to carry for the ascent. Cans of soup and eggs aren’t recommended backpacking food because of weight and fragility, but I figured having the weight descending would be fine. I’ll rethink that next time. To save weight I decided to leave a can of fuel and a partially opened bag of garlic sauerkraut behind to not have smelly gear and clothes.

We packed and headed out and UP. Yesterday’s emerald Colorado was now like the brown Mississippi from the rain north of us the day before. Total miles out were a slightly longer than down at 7.8 miles but, we save a big 20 feet of elevation gain (sarcasm). My battery died in the cell phone I brought for tracking our hikes with. Weather was perfect for the hike out on the Bright Angel Trail. Clear and cool. We made a lunch stop at Indian Garden and a half dozen short rests. I give Pat loads of credit. At 71, he’s a machine!!! He keeps on pressing. I may hear a few grunts but no moans or groans. He can tuck away discomfort. The last mile of this steep switch backing ascent our bodies were done! We were ready to stop ascending and get to a new campsite, IF any were available. The last mile included dodging humans with freshness I was jealous of. Looking slightly weary, some gave us kudos for making the journey. I’ve known people to run the loop we did in one day called a Rim to Rim run. Run down the South Rim on the Kaibab and up the South Rim on the Bright Angel. The real crazy runners run a Rim to Rim to Rim. Down the South Rim, up the North Rim, back down and up the south Rim. Serious kudos to them!

The push of each hike down and up the Canyon wasn’t just about the physical stamina or stopping to enjoy the incredible landscapes and vistas, it was having great company to share all of this with. Making the South Rim to flat ground at the Bright Angel Lodge we caught the bus back to the FJ. The Canyon was getting busier. We drove to the camp area office to see if there were any sites left. We secured the LAST ONE and set up the tent in short time. This time, in the daylight and without rain. Driving to El Tovar, passing a few leaf eating elk, we had to see if we would be fortunate to get a reservation. We were still “prime” (smelling) from the hike. Pat went to the restaurant host and I was able to land a table in the lounge we were at a few nights before. Pat came back with a grin. We were in! We could eat in a half hour, at 4:30 or wait until 8:30. Wanting to rest and get human, we decided the later time and had an adult refreshment and nachos. Man, it felt good to sit for a while. Almost too good. We kept the time reasonable and went to the campsite to get fresh clothes and hit the showers.

There was an hour and more to spare before dinner. I wanted to have dinner at El Tovar ever since Pat told me of the restaurant and what I’ve read. The hotel opened in 1905. Theodore Roosevelt stayed and ate there in 1911 and 1913. As much as I can eat anything in the back country I’m a foodie and prefer eating out as an experience not just a meal. The ambiance was perfect. The waitstaff were perfect and the meal was excellent. Lobster bisque was very good from a place far from the Atlantic Ocean where us New Englanders can be picky about lobster dishes. Pat had the trout. I had the lamb shank and we shared a bottle of red wine. Made to order gluten free parmesan herb biscuits were crazy good. The meal was the most pleasant I had in a long time. Again, not just the location and meal, but Pat’s company and conversation.

Returning to camp we crashed hard. Coyotes woke us late in the night and late in the morning. Late as in bright morning. An unusual experience. We broke camp for the last time, prepped day hike packs and went to the Bright Angel bus stop to be dropped off at the Hermit Trail trailhead. This gave me a first-time view of the western part of the Canyon which had a slightly different look than near the GC village. To mention, because of recent rain, the dry Canyon had green plants and bushes and small flowing streams that will not exist in another months’ time. We hiked 3.5 miles down to more great views even though our legs were telling us not to. We were at the GC. We had to! At the stopping point, Pat and I sat for 5 to 10 minutes absorbing the views continuing conversations that always continued and went from one topic to another. We returned to the trailhead and caught the bus back to Bright Angel with enough time to get the packs in the FJ and find coffee. Exiting the park, the masses were making their way in. We drove in on a Friday without lines of vehicles. Now, Monday afternoon, multiple lines extending for a mile were inching their way through the entrance to see one of the most beautiful land creations/formations in the world.

As I mentioned, this trip/adventure has been on my mind and bucket list for ten years or more. To be able to have this adventure with Pat made the experience the best it could have been. I’m grateful to have friends like him to share adventures and stories with. The way each unknown episode worked out on the trip boggles my mind. Maybe karma was in the right place!

If you haven’t experienced the Grand Canyon, share the experience with someone who will appreciate it as much as you will.

Peace, as always. – Greg




Numerals, Letter, Star, Captains Star

Swimming was my first competitive racing sport leaving me with good memories and providing a rite of passage not realized until later in life. I swam for the Whippets at Windham High School located in the worn town of Willimantic Connecticut trying to revive itself after a prosperous early 19th century.  In 1828 the young American town was home to one of the largest thread mills in the world and the first to use electric lighting.

Willimantic, the Native American Algonquian term for “land of the swift running water” hosts the river with the same name flowing more aggressively in past years. The rapid Willimantic River powered the mill who’s riverbed provided grey granite blocks for the large structure housing hundreds of embedded windows. A current landmark of the river is Frog Bridge with two eight foot high bronze frogs atop concrete thread spools. For a reason I don’t know of, the slogan Romantic Willimantic was given to the town, if only for the reason it rhymed. The town is getting back its lost charm, but my memories from the 70’s and 80’s recollect there was little romantic about the unfortunate drug ridden town with a main street drug haven hotel named Hotel Hooker which is now thankfully shuttered. A star for Willimantic is the plethora of excellent Greek style pizza restaurants.

I grew up in the much smaller neighboring former dairy town of Columbia not populated enough to house its own high school. The town has a lake for residents that provided years of successful largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing. There wasn’t a fishing hot spot on the lake I didn’t know of from fishing there for over 15 years. In grammar and high school I was rarely seen without a fishing pole in hand or taped to my bike. Columbia Lake provided, recreational swimming, swimming lessons and my first job as a lifeguard making joining the Windham High swim team a natural progression.

Swimming provided dedication and perseverance to tough practices and new athletic goals individually and as a team. During my sophomore year I earned the coveted high school letter, repeating the award each year after. Through a team vote senior year I was selected as a co-captain of a competitive Central Connecticut Interscholastic League team. Thin framed, eyeglass wearing Mike B. was the other co-captain who I only saw once after high school at a busy rest area along the Massachusetts turnpike. I wasn’t too surprised when he slowly pulled his maroon hood back to show his shining shaved head and small braided pony tail announcing he became a Hari Krishna being influence by the Beatles. Our leader, Coach Ken, was a great coach and University of Connecticut swim star who created just survivable practices and race line-ups to plan strategic swim meets with positive outcomes. Coach taught us to train hard, win with excitement, lose with grace, have fun and promote team spirit.

At times I dreaded going to the pool area to read the grueling workout marked on the blackboard but knew the results would make me a better swimmer and, unknowingly at the time, building the core of lifetime athlete. I still remember clinging to the edge of the pool exhausted between sets, tasting the chlorinated water and watching the second hand of the lap clock counting down to the next set of laps. With clipboard in hand, stopwatch around his neck, and whistle in the corner of his mouth like James Dean lipping a cigarette, Coach knew how to push us and shortened rest times when we weren’t delivering our best performances. He taught the harder we worked through a set a longer break would be our reward before beginning the next set. Besides a few of life’s challenges this is something I carry forward with life today, work hard and enjoy a personal reward whatever that may be, a vacation, a wish list item, or time with friends.

Swim meets were anticipated with excitement, especially swimming at home where our ritual was leaving the school grounds at the end of classes to visit one of the many pizza places in town for pre-race carb loading. A few of the best choices were Mama’s, Papa’s, Tony’s, and Giant. Mama’s was the closest serving thick crusted pies and Italian dishes. We could smell the small pizzeria from blocks away. Walking into the booth filled restaurant I always admired a black velvet paining of a toned Bruce Lee holding short fighting sticks. Eventually I bought that classic painting and regret not having it today.

Twelve of us Windham Whippets would pile into a few booths being silly, as typical young teenagers are pulling pranks on each other. The best was when Rich pranked himself after loosening the top of the salt shaker and emptying it on his own fries in a rush to eat them when returning from the bathroom. My staple was shells and sauce coated with a layer of Parmesan, washing it down with an over carbonated Coca Cola. After scoffing down race fuel and thanking Mama we had a few hours to let our full stomachs settle. How we didn’t purge in the pool is beyond my comprehension.

Back at the pool, first year christened freshmen were preparing school colored maroon and white lane buoys, and multi-colored backstroke flags for the meet. A duty we all had to endure as underclassmen. When the opposing team settled in the pool area we gathered in the locker room wearing our Whippet logo’d sweats for words of encouragement by Coach. Marching in line from seniors to freshmen we’d enter the crowd cheering pool, some of us wearing U.S. Marine style hats as if preparing to line up for a boot camp locker check. Cheers echoed in the pool area making twenty fans sound like hundreds. We’d peal down to our little maroon Speedos for warm-up laps before the National Anthem then chant “Go Windham” begin the meet. It was time to put to action the hundreds if not thousands of laps given during training sessions.

The first race was of a meet was the 200 yard medley relay. The disciplines were 50 yards of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle in that order. In this race I swam butterfly and during the meet I’d also swim freestyle sprints in individual and relay events. Backstroke racers, Bill was ours, would start in the water raising themselves up to the starting blocks then spring backwards in the pool at the sound of the starting gun. Next was our breaststroker, Kev, bobbing up and down two lengths of the pool. I followed next for the butterfly impatiently waiting, situating my goggles then timing my long shallow dive with Kev’s hands touching the wall. After a few dolphin kicks my body would surface the water then begin porpoising for two lengths of the pool.

The butterfly is a stroke of power and finesse. A swimmer’s hands reach overhead as a conductor’s would when orchestrating a symphony then slice into the water cupping, pulling then pushing water underneath the body. At the end of the stroke both feet kick in unison to propel the body up and out of the water like a dolphin jumping alongside a navy vessel providing room for the arms to swing forward along the top of the water to begin another stroke.

Crowd noise dissipates when performing during a race. Out of the corner of my goggles I could see Coach Ken or teammates on the side of the pool providing cheering motions, with distance of hands telling of a lead or trail. Completing my two laps and touching the wall I could sense our freestyler Mike leave the blocks and take first place if our team was in or near the lead. Mike had great speed and his then frame allowed him to swim like the fast skinny pickerel.  I found sharing a team victory on a relay was more enjoyable than winning a solo race. As was said in a different context, “Some things are meant to be shared.”

During close meets Coach would approach me head tilted down looking over the top of his glasses and say my nick name with instructions. “Chokes! You have to swim your best time to beat this guy. You’ve got that time in you.” He’d show his strategic clipboard with the time to accomplish, provide a motivational tap before sending me to the starting blocks. Being on the blocks hearing my name called as an Olympic athlete before a gold medal race provided added motivation to coach’s words. My small 5’6”, 120 pound frame would be ready to leap off the block like a frog escaping danger.

The inspiration and lessons learned I received from Coach would stay with me for years in competitive and non-competitive sports.  The most important being preparing and training hard. As I mentioned earlier, not until later in life did I realize the effect of having a trusted mentor who set a trigger to prepare for an athletic endeavor of a race, a winter climb of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, or just a standard training regimen. Training, knowledge and preparation are key. I consider my high school swimming experience a rite of passage for the age I was more than having a party for turning 16 or 18. Knowledge is gained by learned lessons and rites of passages are actions through a ceremony. My ceremony for this rite of passage was swimming for four high school years earning school and personal awards. I didn’t challenge school records, but challenged myself to perform my best while having fun times with teammates.

I’ve won races and lost races. It felt great to win of course, but looking back the lessons learned were a rite of passage and created the competitive spirit which stays with me today, win or lose. Race results are kept in my scrapbook of swimming and my scrapbook of life provides memories of personal wins and losses contributing to growth as powerful as swimming the butterfly.

Peace and Thanks Coach! – “Chokes”

“Every positive change, every jump to a higher level of energy and awareness involves a rite of passage. Each time to ascend to a higher rung on the ladder of personal evolution, we must go through a personal period of discomfort, of initiation.” ~ Dan Millman

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously.” – Thich Nhat Han

Facing fears, taking a risk to move across the country, leaving what was known to venture to the unknown has led to needed positive change. Previous posts of the Westward Journey only slightly tell of the challenging times. This is what transpired.

I left New England in darkest of personal times, unemployed, bankruptcy looming, an unsuccessful relationship, an estranged sibling relationship, and spinal health issues. Knowing if I didn’t take the risk at this time regrets would be haunting me. Traveling west along ice covered roads in high winds and snow distracted from the thoughts of future unknowns in Oregon, a state where I knew few people. Balancing those thoughts were stunning sunsets providing inspiration to continue forward to the area I connected to on previous travels. My mind can be an adversary or a friend.

This recent Thanksgiving marked the one year anniversary of arriving in Oregon with almost everything I own. The last and longest leg of the journey to Portland was a push of 700 miles and 11 hours from Montana. Physically and mentally exhausted I was welcomed and well fed at my cousin’s home. Taking a day of rest, possessions were placed in storage until locating a new homestead. While acclimating for a few days my truck was a casualty of a hit and run. Gone were the days of getting upset. There was more to be concerned about. It was disappointing, but the truck was drivable.

West of Portland and an hour from the Pacific Coast, Beaverton and Hillsboro were places of interest from a visit the previous spring. Three weeks into the effort to make it work there the area was no longer calling. A need for environmental connection to my surroundings was becoming apparent. Remembering Hood River, an outdoor town set along the mighty Columbia River, nestled between the double mountains of Hood and Adams is where I knew my effort had to be. This journey wasn’t taken to encounter failure. I made multiple trips each week as the Christmas holiday season began and year ended. This “knowing” of Hood River eased tensions as I had to keep moving forward and enjoy the upcoming holidays.

In Portland, friends provided a home base just off Alberta Street where good food, cafés and weirdness exists. The phrase “Keep Portland Weird”, is a change from conservative New England. The Alberta Rose Theater was the venue for The White Album Christmas: Beatles Tribute and Holiday Circus Spectacular. A truly Portland event with a band performing the Beatles White Album on one side of the stage while circus acts are performed on the other. Slightly different (weird), fun and enjoyable. New Year’s Eve was spent with an eclectic group of new friends from Anna Banana’s café for the relighting of an antique Rexall Drug Sign out for years. The event wasn’t the dropping of the ball at Times Square but a landmark time for the locals. New acquaintances included the café owners from Hawaii, writers, students and Bob, a radio voiced gentleman wearing a biker’s jacket and a multi-colored boa. All were welcoming to Oregon and supporting the effort of the move west. Keeping connected with the local scene and humankind was good for the soul.

After the holidays, against the odds of finding a place to live in Hood River, so I was told, an apartment missed on Craig’s List a week earlier was in the local paper. The owners are from Stonington, CT and Belmont, MA. Two areas I know well living close to each of those towns in past years. The lease was signed and a week later I relocated to the quiet place close to the town center overlooking the Columbia River with a sliced view of Mt. Adams in Washington. Moving to Oregon was taking the first big step, finding a new residence was step two. In the most uncharacteristic and unorganized way I went through everything as I unpacked and downsized yet again. A truck load of stuff brought to the local donation center would have kept things falling from the U-Haul trailer each time I opened the doors on the trek out.

Feeling better having a place to call home, now was time to find work. This was another challenge to overcome after being unsuccessful back east. I knew the drill. Network. Before moving to Hood River the task began at the chamber of Commerce learning of the Gorge Technology Association (GTA) and that the area is the unmanned aircraft capital of the world. Although considering to be away from high-tech, the surrounding beauty would offer the needed lifestyle change and environmental connection. January through February were spent at the library and using Wi-Fi at every coffee shop in town and across the river in Bingen and White Salmon, Washington. I networked at two local Rotary Clubs and attended every GTA meeting. Integrating into the community was the way of success to make this move work.

At an invigorating GTA discussion on the effects of social media causing disruption of community I exchanged business cards with the now director of business development at Sagetech Corporation. A small company of 50 designing and manufacturing transponders for unmanned aircraft. Going online that night there was an opportunity for an engineering project manager. Being a certified high tech project manager and performing this work before made it a great match. I applied the following morning, the day the position was closing. After the weekend there was a phone interview on Tuesday, onsite interview and offer on Friday, then gainfully employed on Monday. The challenge to find work was conquered quicker than I would have imagined by being at the right place, meeting the right person at the right time. Life was beginning to flow again.

With a two ton stone lifted from my shoulders I could now focus on health. Physical wear and emotional stress provided chronic spinal and leg pain for 2 years. Pinched nerves caused dual sciatica and other symptoms preventing the participation in outdoor activities. Mountains were calling and all I could do was gaze while symptoms worsened. Eastern medicine, energy work, massage, physical therapy and spinal injections couldn’t initiate healing. Employment supplied health insurance to begin the diagnosis process again. Surgery was the last option which was immediately recommended by neurosurgeon analyzing an MRI showing two pinched locations of my spinal cord. Preparing for surgery I tolerated discomfort attending yoga classes and gym training. In September a very successful spinal laminectomy was performed. Pain and symptoms were eliminated! Being a chronic pain free human again was another step to contentment. Currently physical therapy is helping hip alignment and strengthen legs and one with an atrophied calf. It will take time to fully recover. My goal is to climb Mt. Rainier with east coast climbing partners in 2017.

Settling into a new area, kicking off a new career, managing pain and surgical recovery has kept me preoccupied throughout the year. Time, patience and faith are providing success. There are other areas of life that need addressing. For now it’s one step at a time as I stay connected with my east coast tribe and focus on what is desired to continue moving forward and healing.

Many of us have our personal challenges with family, work, relationships, career, or health. Humble advice to pass forward is to surround yourself with the right people and address or create distance in negative or cynical relationships. If people don’t understand your difficult times or direction it’s your responsibility to move on. The right people will come into our lives as we align to what is important. Family and friends have been a force of support. Groups of interest including The Tracker School, Mankind Project and environmental education connected me with like-minded people and helped me do my “work”. Reading inspirational books and daily quotes, following people who inspire keep positive energy flowing. Bruce Lee has been inspiration for decades, not only of his martial practice, but of his life philosophy. The Navy SEALs are another because of the desire and will it takes to become one. It takes a strong mind, will and action to accomplish goals.

Notice the mind can be an advisory. Do not let it deter your path to achieve success as you define it. Pray, meditate, and seek professional help if needed. These might be new and uncomfortable. Find comfort with discomfort. Challenging times will make you a stronger person. Connect with nature. Find sacred spaces. Places where you feel at peace. Peaceful environmental settings can provide powerful moments of introspection and distraction from rigors of life.

I will enjoy the last month of this year then plan goals after the New Year begins. There will be more of the Peaceful Pathfinder. As always, thank you for reading.

Have faith and persevere.

In gratitude. Peace – Greg

Direction of the West – West is the spirit of water. It is the direction from which darkness comes. It is the power of change, the place of dreams, introspection and the unknown. The west signifies purity and strength. – Native American Philosophy

This is not a Peaceful post. The latest life lost attempting to summit Mount Washington was an unnecessary death. The challenge was a solo climb in the Presidential Range. The climber was experienced, fit, and goal driven, but ignored obvious weather warnings that deterred the experienced local guides. The practical mind can be overwhelmed by obsessive, ego driven goals that force bad decisions. When applied to Mt. Washington, “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”, bad decisions can turn deadly.

I debated posting this story, but there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy. Almost every year a person perishes in the White Mountains, often due to bad decisions. Although I remain hopeful, further deaths will occur even in the face of documented errors and loss of life. With this in mind, a few personal thoughts became words leading me to write, bringing light to one heartfelt aspect of this latest fatality.

A certain skill set is required for successful mountaineering – fitness, training, awareness of changing conditions, but nothing is more important than good judgment. Being conservative is safe and smart. I read mountaineering accidents and journals to gain knowledge of what can go wrong during an unsuccessful climb. Weighing these new facts against my climbing experience can help inform personal collected knowledge to make future expeditions successful and safe. My experience and review of the recent February 15 incident offer some insight to the tragic outcome, which I now share to demonstrate what can happen in the White Mountains in the winter.

My skill level as a mountaineer is beginner to intermediate. Most climbing has been nontechnical using crampons and a mountaineering axe on terrain not requiring ropes and ice screws. I’ve attempted to summit Mt. Washington a few dozen times only successfully making it half of those attempts. Turning back was necessary when weather became ominous or to assist another climber down not ready for the undertaking. The mountain will be there for another attempt. Rope is carried for emergencies and safety. I’ve experienced adverse weather conditions including a white out on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, battled 70 MPH winds with an International Mountain Equipment guide to get to safety and thrown to the ground in wind gusts exceeding 80 MPH. Experience has been gained from a climbing partner, the International Mountain Climbing School, SOLO Wilderness Medicine School, Tracker Survival School and personal mountaineering experience. There’s a complimentary pairing of what my safe, knowledgeable climbing partner and I bring to a climb. We are usually not only responsible for ourselves but for others in our group. A winter attempt of Mt. Washington is a serious undertaking where weather risks are assessed from days before to the morning of a climb. Changing weather conditions and group safety are monitored throughout ascending and descending a climb and there are set checkpoints where we decide to continue, bail out or proceed to a safer trail below treeline.

When weather conditions change quickly there is little room for error on snow and ice covered mountains. Most accidents occur while descending due to fatigue or because it is technically more difficult to downclimb than ascend. Accidents can start with one bad decision leading to another then another. Injury adds potential danger to the climber and the rescue team. Pure accidents including breakaway rocks or ice happen, this is a risk mountaineers know and take, but risks must be mitigated. What happened recently in the Presidential Range wasn’t a pure accident. This was completely preventable starting with the climber never approaching the trailhead or leaving the hotel for that matter. Monitoring the weather is top priority. Forecasts are provided by the Mount Washington Observatory website including posting of severe warnings which were present on the site throughout the weekend. The article “The Young Woman and the Mountain” details the events that occurred.

The climber, a successful, goal driven, 32 year old woman climbed throughout the world. Her fitness and climbing skill were strong enough to climb Mt. Washington and she must have thought she was capable of pressing through severe weather. During the period of her attempt  Mt. Washington had the second coldest recorded temperature in the world after the South Pole with wind gusts recorded at 140 MPH. Another mistake was setting out climbing alone. A partner could have deterred forward progress or helped with a rescue. Another was attempting an overly optimistic trek to summit the four presidential summits of Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington in a season with a short period of daylight.

She was prepared with the correct clothing and gear, including an emergency beacon and GPS. Missing was a sleeping bag which would have been of use only if shelter was found below tree line. Unpacking a sleeping bag in exposed, hurricane force winds would be impossible. Digging a snow cave would have only been possible below tree line. I’ve seen a shovel become a sail lifting a climber off the ground in strong winds. Removing a backpack would result in it being blown away. Hers was. Bitter cold and roaring winds left her to a crawl hoping to find a place of refuge below tree line she didn’t make. What struck me in this tragedy is this woman died alone in a frightening situation. No one should die alone. Not on a mountain, at home or in a hospital. Not anywhere. This was her bad decision but I do have compassion for her final moments.

I’ve read comments about this young woman’s death and differ with those mentioning, “At least she died doing what she loved.” Here’s my rebuttal you may or may not agree with. When you are in a hypothermic condition being pelted with snow and pinned to the ground barely able to inhale the deafening 100 MPH winds you know death is near. This is not doing what you love. There was nothing spiritual in this tragedy.

Peaceful thoughts to you Kate Matrosova.

In Peace – Greg

Snow was falling leaving Sylvan Lake and the Crazy Horse monument which is easily seen on a clear day was barely visible. The roads of the Black Hills National Forest were unplowed and growing thicker by the minute. I didn’t have a good feeling about this next leg of the trek and tenseness set in.

A friend called to check in on the status of the hike and my safety. The conversation turned to Thanksgiving and I thought of the friends and family I’d miss on a favorite day of the year. Enjoying good food with friends and family provides connection and community not always occurring throughout the year. Instantly I felt overwhelmed thinking of all the people who have been a part of my life. I’m truly gifted to have some of the best friends in the world. I knew I would not only miss them on Thanksgiving but for an unknown period of time. Thoughts that I could or should have waited heading west until after Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Years or even the spring were swirling in my mind. Was this the best thing to do at this point in my life? With a bucket of doubts raining down turning back crossed my mind. A bad idea. I left when I did to minimize the winter weather I would encounter and waiting until the spring wasn’t an option. The time was now to move forward. I procrastinated to head west long enough. I regained composure and continued on the snow and ice covered roads.

Snow, Ice, Wind & 6% Downhill Grade“The Little Truck that Could” pulled hard up the mountains then engine braking down the steep 6% grades. No fun on snow and ice. We, the truck and I, were traveling at less than half the speed limit locked into 4WD. The line the truck took was fairly stable and we stayed on the road away from magnetic guardrails wanting to pull us in. I left finger impressions deeper than what was already on the steering wheel. True white knuckled driving. An hour later entering Deadwood I was craving a cheeseburger. (McDonald’s wasn’t an option.) As much I wanted a one more daylight miles were needed and there was a break in the weather. Finally on I-90 a better speed was obtainable making good miles. So I thought. More snow came then wind. Snow covered roads became ice. My hyper focus on the road was more than when I played the video game Asteroids in high school. I held on with a death grip and had to pry my fingers from the steering wheel to change hand positions. This was crazy, insane even. There were places where if I was blown off the highway there was no getting back to the road. Maybe I could get help from my brother Dave’s Navy helicopter team. My life’s belongings would sit at the bottom of one of these slopes forever. More thoughts of turning back consumed me. The weather wasn’t going to suddenly get better leaving South Dakota and crossing Wyoming. With these wild thoughts building an eagle suddenly flew across my path, wings spread wide, dangling legs and long talons. I couldn’t translate the sign this majestic bird was providing, but I was being guided by another raptor.

Iced Aero TrailerThe weather worsened and I knew the department of transportation would be closing the highway. I just needed to make the next exit in Gillette, Wyoming. Mentally wiped out and hungry I found a busy Mexican restaurant playing an extreme level of La Cucaracha three times normal speed. I would have won a taco eating contest that night and couldn’t leave fast enough even though the tequila menu looked tempting. I finished a much needed beer and found my place of rest. The snow sprayed from the rear tires to the trailer made an aerodynamic design I’m submitting to U-Haul for a patent. The following morning a weather advisory had me sequestered in the hotel where I tried to figure out what exactly was in pre-made waffle batter which made better sponges than a breakfast treat. I was surely not in Belgium!

Iced Over The Toyota is Ready to Press OnBack on the road at 10:00 AM snow was disappearing and I could relax into normal driving. My willpower broke down and treated myself to a double filet-o-fish and a small fry for lunch. I deserved it. The Toyota received a treat of high octane. I left Wyoming with a few mental scars from the previous day. Crossing into Montana the terrain began to change. Outlines of mountains near Bozeman were fading as darkness took over the sky. Cresting a mountain exposed the city lights of Butte which reminded me of pacing in the Wasatch 100. I welcomed seeing the city knowing my head would soon hit a pillow.

Clearing in MontanaMisting clouds broke early the next morning creating rainbows in the mountains. The “Little Truck That Could” pressed on and pulled the heavy load through the mountains of Montana and into virgin territory of Idaho. A state I’ve never been to before. I had to give the truck a name. Being strong, stocky and rugged, Tatonka would be fitting. Meaning buffalo in Lakota. We were gifted with warmer than normal weather and clear skies reducing the fear of sliding off the motorway. Idaho came and went with a long final decent into Washington through Spokane then into the high desert region of the state. Refueling in springlike temperatures felt good and odd. Was this the same month I was in a few states ago? No green was to be seen and as dusk set in I crossed the Columbia River into Oregon and decided to make the final push to Portland. Maybe I would be in time for Thanksgiving leftovers.

Just outside of Portland, fatigued almost to the point being delirious, mixed thoughts and emotions arose while I wondered about this new beginning and if this was the right thing to do. I was here and it was time to move forward. Arriving in Portland my Tatonka - High Desert Rest Areacousin’s family and aunt welcomed me to a warm hello and much needed plate of Thanksgiving dinner.

I was with family for Thanksgiving, thankful for making the 3,500 miles safely and ready to begin a lot of new.

A grateful thank you to Christine, Jill and Bob who were virtual passengers throughout the trek.

Thank you! Peace – Greg

“You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with the best you have to give.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

“There is unknowing until you’re in the throes of your decision.”               – G. Chokas Cross Country Trek With Numbered Stops A special thanks to all of my family and friends who have been with me through this journey west: Mom, Dad, Jamie, Lyn, Danielle, Gram Roy, Jane, Dennis, Christine, Jill, Bob & Catherine, Sue, Phil, Jenn, Keith, Alan & Kim, Stacey, Mike, Rich, Carl & Maggie, Lynne, Vicki, Peter, Reuben and family, Pam, Elisa, Suwan, Kathee, Pat, Bob, Rick, Brooke, Rick 3, Eric, Donna, and to those I haven’t been in touch with for years who have sent messages. If you’re not listed you’re not forgotten!

The silent morning broke to conversing crows. Waking to their caw is welcome over any man made noise. The day was to be one of reprieve from windy highways to hike in the Black Hills re-energizing my legs and my being. The destination was Harney Peak(7,242 feet). The highest peak in South Dakota. A sacred area where the famous Oglala Lakota Medicine and Holy Man, Black Elk, received a great vision.

Crazy Horse Memorial MonumentIn route to the trailhead I could see the distant Crazy Horse Monument standing 563 ft. tall staring into the eastern rising sun. I knew I’d return later. Missing the trail parking area I was soon at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. A monument I had little interest seeing. The presidential faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln chiseled into sacred land of the Lakota’s after the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie is considered a disrespectful undertaking. The Black Hills were “given” to the Indians who originally resided in the area. When gold was found by trespassing settlers the land was retaken resulting in the Great Sioux War of 1876.

Mt. RushmoreNot wanting to stay long I was allowed to enter the memorial for trail information and a few photographs. Although an impressive sculpture, history and common sense told me this was in the wrong place. I left for the trailhead and noticing the parking area was no place for the truck and trailer Crazy Horse Monument became the next stop.

Construction on the monument began in 1948 by Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. Chief Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota people asked Korczak because he and other chiefs wanted the white man to know that Native Americans also have great heroes. There is some controversy by certain Native American Groups of defacing a mountain but the work continues supported by most. In addition to the monument there are currently seven buildings including the well planned Indian Museum of North America. I watched an introductory video of the construction, perused the buildings and took a guided tour for a closer look at the monument. Impressive is an Crazy Horse Memorial Monumentunderstatement. The exhibits are meticulous and seeing people from native tribes working in the museum providing historic information was good. I highly recommend visiting the monument which is supported only by private funding.

The day worked out well since making the hike on the difficult northern route would have added to the previous day’s exhaustion. The following morning I broke camp at 4:30AM and left the site at 5:30. An 8-point buck bid farewell strolling in front of the truck to see his bedded mate a few yards away. Off I went through the hills to find the southern route.

Black Hills National ForestI’m not sure if the morning caffeine didn’t kick in but I couldn’t find the trail head. The icy road became steep and I engaged the truck into 4WD crawling upwards with areas of no guardrails only to find no trailhead. I drove down the unprotected side of the road to a dirt road encountering a locked gate. Reversing the trailer wasn’t an easy task. It took numerous attempts to back out onto a thankfully rarely used road this time of year. To give the destination another try I went back to where I was sure the trailhead was then down again. With no luck I stopped in the town of Custer with disappointment. Looking at the map a final time and not easily deterred I drove the seven miles up the dangerous road again to finally find the trailhead at Sylvan Lake.

Packed for Camp and the RoadConditions were full on winter with hard packed snow. Fresh covering snow provided enough to see deer and coyote tracks who are smart enough to use a man made trail when humans are nowhere to be found. The backpack had more than needed in case of an emergency in those conditions. With the heavy load and being behind schedule I had to make good time to Harney Peak 3.5 miles out. The trail was moderate taking a few hours to reach the sacred area Black Elk would have his vision quests. The fire tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) in the 1938, an organization my grandfather Chokas was part of in Connecticut. Winds were gusting up to 60 MPH and I ate as much and quickly as possible in the tower to refuel for the Harney Peak Lookout Towerreturn. After a few minutes of personal thoughts and prayer I kept a brisk pace to stay warm and cut time knowing long roads were ahead of me. Fresh coyote and deer tracks were in my inbound tracks. I wasn’t alone and it felt good to have unseen company watching me in the forest.

Hungry FriendsReturning to the truck at 1:30PM a change of clothes was made and I was ready to drive down the unprotected side of the steep, winding, icy hill for the last time. Similar to leaving the campsite I was shown out by deer.

I slowly regained strength and awareness for the trek back to I-90W. The stress of not finding the trailhead, driving the icy roads and maintaining a fast pace on the trail was draining. With snow falling and more mountains for the truck to climb and descend it would make for a long day and stressful driving…

Up next…White knuckled driving and thoughts of turning back.

Peace – Greg

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” – Mohandas Gandhi

Stacked and PackedPutting plan in action I picked up the U-Haul trailer to load my possessions. I thought I was over zealous getting the largest trailer my truck could pull but after trimming down everything fit with little room to spare. Eight AM on November 19 a short good bye was said to my incredible Aunt Jane. The Toyota, trailer and I were westward bound. Wheels in motion to start a new chapter or maybe this is a new book. My mind was racing, “Whoa! Am I really doing this?!”. Thoughts and emotions were churning as I kept driving.

Interstates 84 and 80 provided the western route to the first overnight stop in Pennsylvania 500 miles away. Soon after entering the interstate two red tail hawks, spirit guides, lead the early stage of the journey. I was fortunate to see this raptor along with others many times while crossing the country signaling I was being watched. With the heavy load the ride was uneventful only stopping for gas and slowing for deer grazing casually on the side of the busy interstate.

Uncle Den's Train SetTen hours later I was in Greenville, Pennsylvania. A town once known for manufacturing automobiles and railroad cars. With industry long gone the town has become financially distressed. Uncle Dennis put me up for the next few nights to visit and see the model train set he builds piece by piece by piece. The trains, tracks, and towns are as you would imagine to see 60 years ago. The complexity of the different number of trains and crossings almost require a locomotive license to be at the helm of this train set. The following day I met a special cousin, Vicki, catching up on the many changes in our lives and was reminded as always she’s my elder by 22 days. The time was good to see family during the early stage of this journey.

Leaving Rockford, ILThe next morning the trek resumed. Light snow was in the air and I prayed it didn’t fall any heavier. Travel continued on Interstate 80 until sweeping around Chicago connecting to I-90 making for another 500 mile day stopping in Rockford, IL. After the motel check in I hauled in the next days necessities and a sleeping bag which I find more comfortable (and safer) than bedding in quick stop motels where the “Free” breakfast is marginal along with rubberized hard boiled eggs. A nearby Starbucks saved me with a venti dose of caffeine to begin the day ending in Mitchell, South Dakota, 600 miles later. Not much to see in this truck Ready for the Huntstop town with gas stations and motels. Same routine, check in, necessities and sleeping bag. Early next morning pheasant hunters and their canine companions from Alabama were preparing for the fields. The dogs were more excited than the hunters after a 12 hour drive and six hours of sleep.

The Plains of South Dakota delivered severe headwinds trying to push the Toyota and me back to Connecticut. The drive was unnerving since the Toyota is the shape of a refrigerator towing a giant block. Not aerodynamic to say the least. Completing only 300 miles both the Toyota and I were done for the day which worked well being near my only other planned stop, the sacred Black Hills. A tourist center was just Home in Custer State Parkoff the highway and when asking about camping I was looked at rather strangely since few camp in the winter months. I was reminded it was the off season and cold. Fortunately, one campground was open and my response to the cold was cold is relative. I surveyed local shops for food and supplies pulling this large white and orange container. Driving through parking lots was no easy task since it was the weekend before Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping madness had begun. I found needed items, refueled myself with yet another Starbucks and the truck with a treat of high octane gasoline.

Ramen and ChickenCuster State Park was outside of town and my residence for two nights of solitude being the only camper on the premises. In short time the tent was erected, sleeping gear thrown in and water boiling. If you’ve followed the U.S. Tour posts you know ramen noodles are a personal staple. They were again, only this time I had (store) roasted chicken to add instead of tuna. Nice!

Brutal head winds, navigating through Rapid City, locating and setting camp made for an exhausting day. I was looking forward to sliding into a -30 degree sleeping bag even though temps were in the low 20’s, which, by the way, is barely cold to winter campers.

Up next… Mt. Rushmore by accident, The Crazy Horse Memorial, a hike to a sacred area that almost didn’t happen.

Peace – Greg

“When you remove the risk, you remove the challenge, when you remove the challenge, you wither on the vine.”  –  Alex Lowe

Thanks for returning to the Peaceful Pathfinder blog. (Pardon my sabbatical.)

This post is dedicated to my sister Danielle who who provides encouragement while seeing a second brother pursue new opportunities in other regions of the country. Keep smiling Danielle!

Each birthday I plan something special. This year I decided to celebrate the milestone of turning 50 in Portland, Oregon. This was my fourth trip to a very diverse geographic region of the country wanting the Pacific Northwest experience one more time exploring more of Oregon and visiting friends in Seattle. After returning, a few busy months passed and I encountered crossroads of staying in southern New England or make a major life change and journey to the Pacific Northwest. Not wanting regrets the decision was made to go west. A decision I’ve made more difficult than needed with an overactive mind and personal situations. Challenges from layoffs, effects of an ended relationship, and physical issues took their toll. I can’t explain it all exactly. Being stuck, hitting a wall or the dreaded mid-life crisis was in my path. Years ago I told myself a mid-life crisis would never happen. No way! Well it happened and I’m moving on doing my best to leave behind what’s no longer serving me. Time for a lot of new including uncertainty and adventure.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Well, I survived the storm and there’s been an upside of personal growth through travel, a new connection with nature, reading the right books and being with the right people. Currently there’s a relief since the past year provided healing and recovery from health, heart, and ego which bites me now and again (Must be the stubborn Taurus in me.).

Society says at this point in life I should be married, have two point something kids, own a home, have a lot of stuff and work so much I hardly see family. I’ve wanted all of it, even the amount of work if that’s what it took to support a household. These events haven’t happened for reasons I don’t know why. I am where I am and what the future holds is unclear. I can only be the change I want to see and major changes are in process. I’ve sold or donated bigger items of furniture, downsized and minimized personal belongings and will be bringing my life to Portland to see where I’m directed. The drive will be a 3,000+ mile journey where I plan to make road reprieves visiting family in western Pennsylvania and spending a few nights in the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota. Traveling this time of year may present weather obstacles effecting roads and towing a trailer the size of my truck will add to the driving challenge.

The decision leaves behind family and an incredible circle of friends who fulfilled my life with camaraderie, outdoor recreation and support. Being a person of connection, the distance away won’t be easy especially through the holidays. Many friends are as close as sisters and brothers and are part of my tribe. Along with people, I’ll miss the four seasons but there will be glacier covered mountains to climb, rides along the coastal highway and fly fishing in beautiful streams and rivers. Do I have fears and doubts? I sure do and it’s a matter of working with and through them. Faith and trust are by my side.

When starting this blog a goal has been to share interesting trips of India, a 10,000 Mile U.S. Tour and other journeys. Travel was more than sightseeing it was also to provide opportunities to investigate new places to live and experience culture outside of areas I’ve resided most of my life. The Pacific Northwest has been on my mind for many years and I won’t know the experience without making the leap, no matter my age, time of year, or any reason. With personal interests in hiking, camping, climbing, tracking, fishing, hunting I look forward to the experiences.

Thanks for joining this journey. I hope the related posts are intriguing and provide insight to similar circumstances you may be encountering. Feel free to drop a personal note or question as I believe in paying it forward from advice and experience.

Up next… Packing up and beginning the cross country trek.

Peace – Greg

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt


In 2003 I was introduced to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. The highest peak in the Northeastern United States. “Home of the Great Spirit” given by the Native Americans. The 6,288 ft summit may pale in comparison to the 10,000 ft plus summits of Mt. Hood, Whitney or Rainier located on the west coast, but what makes this mountain “special” is the weather. Mt. Washington is “Home of the World’s Worst Weather”. Yes, in the world. Converging storm tracks from the south, west and north, the Presidential Range, and the Atlantic coastline combine to make very unpredictable and potent weather. Formal weather observations began in 1870 and until 2010 Mt. Washington had recorded the highest wind gust speed of 231 mph in 1934. Anything but Peaceful. Since 1849 over 135 people have perished from quick weather changes, unpreparedness, underestimating the task of the final 1 mile summit push, and a lack of respect of not adhering to posted avalanche warnings or soloing less climbed routes. Not Without Peril speaks of some of the history of the mountain and accidents. Care and planning go into each summit attempt with the team I climb with which will be detailed in another post. Two prominent ravines, Tuckerman and Huntington, add to the beauty and danger of this majestic mountain. Early February a team of four of us made one summit attempt. Sustained 55 mph winds gusting to 70 and -30 degree temps along with one broken crampon stopped us at our final decision point. The mountain will be there for another attempt. For current weather temps and information visit the Mount Washington Observatory. Peace – Greg “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir

Mt. Washington from North Conway - Courtesy Fellow Photographer

Mt. Washington from North Conway – Courtesy Fellow Photographer

Approach from Lake of the Clouds Hut

Approach from Lake of the Clouds Hut

Mt. Washington and Mt. Washington Hotel

Mt. Washington and Mt. Washington Hotel

The Presidentials. Left to right Mt. Jefferson, Adams and Madison.

The Presidentials. Left to right Mt. Jefferson, Adams and Madison.

Lake of the Clouds Hut Between Monroe and Washington

Lake of the Clouds Hut Between Monroe and Washington

Tuckerman Ravine Headwall

Tuckerman Ravine Headwall

Ammonoosuc Trail

Ammonoosuc Trail

Looking into Tuckerman Ravine

Looking into Tuckerman Ravine

View of Katahdin on the way to Roaring Brook.

Winter hiking and mountaineering provide beautiful and challenging days out. The contrast of deep blue skies beyond snow covered mountains, the smell of pines and cold crisp air taking your breath away make for unforgettable times. Mountaineering carries an element of risk and weather conditions can be unpredictable and harsh. Having the right team, gear, training and knowledge make for safe and enjoyable times out even in demanding conditions.

The previous statements are true except a winter summit attempt of Maine’s highest peak, Mt. Katahdin (5,269 ft.), tested my patience, resolve and leadership a few years ago. An excellent initial plan to climb this remote mountain contained a few missteps and a precarious situation for two fellow climbers and myself. (Names of the climbers have been omitted for privacy.)

Knowledge learned is knowledge gained…

The Katahdin plan was seven climbers making a trek into Baxter State Park to summit the mountain in a three day push. Hike in day one. Summit day two. Hike out day three. With good weather this can be easily accomplished. Three in the group have climbed this mountain in the winter and one had Mt. Everest to his accolades. An excellent crew to be with.

Two weeks before departure no one took the lead and the three with Katahdin experience dropped. With no responses I volunteered as leader since planning and safety are engrained from experience, Outward Bound and good friend Rick K. Although not an arctic expedition, it’s one of a smaller scale being more than twelve miles from civilization in barren wilderness. We were quickly down to four. Three of us climbed together knowing each others experience and abilities. The fourth, only known by one in the remaining group, missed a training hike and pre-climb discussion. Meeting all team members before an excursion is important to see the personality, training, fitness, use of gear and mental toughness under stress. Two of us had concerns not meeting her. We were told as a personal trainer she was fit, but being fit is only part of the needed requirements.

The night before heading to Maine one climber tore his rotator cuff snowboarding. He was out after months of training. We were down to three. The next morning our small team met and I was introduced to the unknown, friendly and rambunctious trekker. Five hours later we were in Millinocket, Maine for dinner and a night in a local motel. Rising early we arrived at the trail head with plenty of time to reach Roaring Brook bunkhouse by sunset. The option of hauling gear is Pulking it incarrying a 75lb. pack or “pulking” it in. I opted for the pulk with another climber building and testing it a month before trip. The two of us divvied much of the load from our friend so she would have a less strenuous trek to the bunk house and conserve energy for the following day.

The nine miles in was fairly flat with intermittent views of Mt. Katahdin. Arriving before dark we collected water from a nearby stream and made dinner. Before lights out I called for a gear check. Our newbie didn’t have compatible crampons for her boots and no hooded jacket. Both are a MUST! With some swapping of gear we were able to make compatible boot/crampon sets and I had an extra hooded jacket. Obstacles cleared.

Ready to go at 7AMWe left the cabin at morning light. The three mile trek to the Chimney Pond bunkhouse was a light uphill pull. Discussing conditions and best routes with climbers in the cabin the decision was made to hike Saddle Trail, 2.2 miles to the summit from where we were. Other routes required technical ice climbing gear we weren’t prepared for nor had the experience. We pulled our mountaineering packs from the pulks and set off after signing the register. The trail winded through pines to a steep ascent to the ridge where I demonstrated proper technique for using a mountaineering ax. We were on the ridge at Ascending Saddle Trail11:00 encountering 6 climbers/volunteers of the New Hampshire Mountain Rescue Service. They mentioned conditions were passable after a short conversation. The summit was one mile from our present location and cairns could be seen marking the trail. We carried on.

We were almost there or were we? With 75 yard visibility and 20 mph winds conditions were comfortable. Whiteout conditions can quickly occur and a half hour later winds increased and we were no longer able to see snowshoe tracks from the New Hampshire group. Cairns were fading in the windblown snow. Closing in on the summit, visibility quickly shortened to 25 feet and the wind increased to 40 to 50 mph. We gathered and I motioned we were finished with forward progress. Communicating could only be done by signaling and yelling to overcome the howling winds. Time to turn back. The summit would be there for another day. We turned around and saw our recent tracks already blown over. Panic set in with the others. The ridge was to our right where getting too get close could cause a break away from a possible cornice resulting in a deadly fall (see pics Below). We moved ahead slowly keeping a safe distance from the ridge. A short time later were postholing from our waist to armpits. Getting out of these were laborious. What looked to be princess pines weren’t. They were the tops of pines tens of feet tall.

Panic stricken eyes were upon me and I was asked to take the map out again and again. The wind made it impossible to get the compass on it, plus there was no way to get a bearing to find our location. Three panic stricken hikers was a sure way to make the news in an undesired way. Keeping composure a snow cave came to mind as time passed and conditions worsened. I wanted to be off of the mountain as much as the others but there’s a time staying put is the right decision. Riding out a storm is better than wandering and postholing with the probability of hypothermia…or worse. With time expiring we had an hour to find Saddle Trail. I yelled out to the lead to take his compass and march due east where we would encounter the ridge, hopefully at a safe area. At that time we were opposite of the ridge giving us a break from the wind. Heading east took us back up the mountain. Not the desired direction by the others. With Spartanlike steps we pushed on to higher ground encountering more wind and face pelting snow. I took the rear and looking at my compass making sure neither fell behind and stayed on course. Fifteen to thirty minutes later we crested the ridge noticing the Saddle Trail marker where we ascended to earlier. We were being watched over. I was relieved while watching the other two hugging joyfully.

Safe? Not yet. Most accidents happen coming down a mountain due to fatigue, rushing and being careless. During the steep decent I showed one climber proper technique while the other decided the to glissade (sliding on your butt). “Really? This wasn’t the time.” Thinking to myself. I yelled “Crampons’ off!”. Besides most accidents happening on the decent, most injuries occur from glissading wearing crampons that catch the snow and ice tearing knee and ankle ligaments creating a new set of problems. I’ve seen the ugly results of this first hand on another climb. I turned and continued down. A few minutes later a food bag bounced by. I was expecting the owner to be right behind it. I shook my head wondering what was going to happen next. We gathered at the base of the ridge to collect ourselves and replenish with food and water when I Base of ridge on Saddle Trailheard, “Governor Baxter almost kicked our a$$!!” I was in a horror movie or an alternate scene of the climbing movie K2… This wasn’t something to laugh or joke about. None of it was. Maybe that was their way to deal with the last few hours of uncertainty. We could have been on the ridge overnight making for a very uncomfortable night…or worse.

Shortly after, we entered the cabin to the surprised looking crew from New Hampshire. One said they were about to leave and search for us. A nearly impossible task to perform in pitch black nightfall and whiteout conditions. Unpacking my stove, making a large meal I played the day over and over in my head on how the situation could have went better including my own performance. I was in the bunk room solo with my journal turning the lights off for a restless nights sleep before the others came in.

The next morning I was more at ease and started to relinquish analysis of the previous days events. The trek in Baxter State Park was not only to attempt the challenging mountain summit, it was also to enjoy the winter wilderness, the frozen ponds, possibilities of wildlife, the crisp air and the people I was with, admittedly a struggle at times. After breakfast I took a short walk to Chimney Pond for some final views knowing I would come back again with a much better plan. We packed the pulks and set off on the 12 mile exit having a chance to ride them like bobsleds the first few miles.

Leaving the park I was at times preoccupied taking mental notes of the knowledge gained through this experience. After loading the car I slept most of the way back to our meeting point in Massachusetts. We said our good byes and I received a gracious thank you from one who encountered much more than she imagined. Waiting at a friend’s place was a burger, fries and growler of beer with four people to share an unforgettable story including forgettable moments.

Peace – Greg

“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”  – Edward Whymper, Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Lessons for any excursion (partial):

  • Know your leader
  • Know your team
  • Know your gear and check each others
  • Know how to use your gear
  • Safety is the priority
  • Expect the unexpected
  • Watch the weather
  • One problem leads to another and another
  • Don’t risk injury the night before
  • There is no room for ego on a mountain
  • Know your limitations and those of others
  • Ascend and descend all using the same technique
  • Be prepared for the worst and know bailout plans
  • The mountain will be there for another day
  • Communicate
  • Bring hot chocolate

There are numerous books on mountaineering. Freedom of the Hills is one of the best. My suggestion is if you’re interested challenging yourself to a winter summit of a mountain go to a climbing shop/school, talk with the guides and take a course. Preparation is key.

Famous Pathfinders

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