Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Trouble on Mount Madison

My apologies for not following up the last post in a timely manner. All is well with Atticus and me, so please do not worry. I thank those of you who have written in to make sure we are okay. I’ve been preoccupied with the book and finishing up the proposal for my agent.

On our hike up the Pine Link Trail, I did encounter more than I was ready for. It was an off day and I struggled from the beginning of the hike. We got an early start to beat the heat, but not as early as I would have liked. In the first half mile I felt dehydrated and the thick foliage of the forest seemed to hold the heat and humidity in. My head grew hot, my ears were burning and I drank as much as I could. I kept waiting to hit stride and find a rhythm but that wasn't happening. Some hikes start out a bit rough, but your body catches up with you. But that would not happen as we climbed up the trail on this day.

I knew I was in trouble when we got to the second outlook and looked up at the summit of Madison. It was only a mile and a half away but it looked more like it was 15 miles away. When your head plays tricks on you like this it is a sign of fatigue. And yet we continued on.

Atticus was doing well and showing none of the signs of wear and tear I was so the problem wasn’t so much with the day or the trail but with me. This surprised me since up to this point in the season I’ve been hiking much faster than I was last year. I’ve literally been flying over the mountains compared to previous years - something I attribute to the herbs I've been taking. But on the Pine Link Trail I suffered more than I ever have in any spring or summer hike.

When we merged with the Howker Trail we sat in the shade for a bit and ate something. Atticus kept looking at me with a cocked head. This is atypical of him, so I suppose I should have taken it as a sign that I wasn’t looking all that good but I was feeling well enough to trudge on. And that's exactly what this hike turned into - a trudge.

Meanwhile the black flies and the mosquitoes had made a meal out of me that day. They were as bad as I’ve ever experienced them. The black flies were in my eyes, nose, ears and mouth. I had placed my bandanna under my sunglasses so it would shield my mouth and nose but they still found the openings. Even bug juice would not keep them off my arms or legs. At one point I looked down at my legs and saw a lot of blood. I was not cut, it was simply from all the bugs I had killed.

The further we went the more breaks I had to take. It felt like I was spending more time hanging over my trekking poles than I was walking. Eventually we made it over treeline and the sun was beating down on us. Off in the distance rescue helicopters played their haunting song looking for the 70-year old hiker they would never find. I hate this sound, it's like a banshee song and I think the worst whenever I hear it.

We rock hopped above treeline and after a short while I took a nasty fall. My head and neck snapped backwards and I hit a rock. I sat and took inventory. The summit was not too far away but I was getting a little weak. My goal was to make the summit of Madison, continue down to the hut and then rest there and drink as much water as I could before our return trip. However, I fell a second time, this time landing on my back. I didn’t dare move for fear that I’d done some damage. Atticus was soon upon me, looking down at me and I could see visions of him circling me like you’d see in cartoons. This was not good. I waited and slowly moved each body part to make sure I was doing okay.

The two falls were uncharacteristic for me and a sign of my dehydration. Then when I checked the color of my urine I knew I was battling dehydration. It should have been clear but it was almost brown. Not a good sign.

We were less than half a mile from the summit when I decided that while I may be able to make the summit, I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to get back down again. It was decision time.

For the first time ever in a non-winter hike, I turned back shy of the summit.

The return trip took forever. I stumbled continuously but never fell. But poor Atticus, with each stumble I took, his head would snap around and he’d come running back as if he was going to catch me before I tumbled once again. Good dog.

The Pine Link Trail has some very steep sections and I struggled with them. There were many times when I just had to sit down and let my head stop spinning. At one point I even lay down and closed my eyes and fell asleep. I awoke with a start - Atticus was tucked up beside me with his head on my chest.

I am happy to report that while the hike down was painfully slow, we eventually made it back to the house (only a 14 mile ride) just fine. I climbed into a cold shower and then went to bed where I slept like a drunkard.

It took a few days for me to find my center again and we haven’t hiked since, although that has more to do with the rainy weather and concentrating on the book than anything else at this point. We’ve been doing some longer road walks on the back streets of Jackson and I’m happy to report that other than a few back spasms, I’m fine. The climb up the Carter Notch Road is a steep one and the loop we’ve been doing is actually tougher than some of the mountain hikes we’ve done.

I cannot say for sure what did me in that day, but it just goes to show you that even when you are feeling strong and fast, bad things can happen on a mountain. In the end, a hiker is responsible for getting himself to safety and that’s what I did. As the great climber Ed Viesturs has simply but elegantly stated, “Getting to the top is optional, but getting back down is mandatory.” This is not just true for the likes of Everest; it’s also true for a mountain like Madison.

We will be returning to the trails as soon as the weather improves.


Leanne @ Wild Things said...

Glad to hear you made it back down alive...that sounded like a bitch of a day and I cannot believe you didn't turn back! You boys are tough! :)

Come visit us and Leigh & I will fawn over you.

Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Tom,

Good to see your post today. I was getting a little worried too. Atticus, what a great partner, looking after you so well.

The weather is dreadful down here in coastal NH. Longing for some sun.

Cheers, Ellen

Cindy said...

Sounds a bit scary. I can remember fighting the urge to keep going because its just a little further or to stop and return now before it gets worse. I sometimes wonder why I push myself when clearly i shouldn't just don't want to give up, I guess. The good news is you've lived to climb another day.

David Olson said...

Wow, Tom. That sounds rough -- I'm glad you made the choice to turn around when you did. I know all about those days when you wait for your body to catch up with your goals...

Hope all is well.

Dave O.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm still not sure what hit me but whatever it is has had plenty of time to take a hike and leave me alone with all this rain we're having.

The weather is looking better this weekend. I'm hoping to get out once or twice. Perhaps we'll finally climb Black Mountain, a Jackson peak. (Like all Jackson peaks, it's not too long a hike, but it goes up, up, up.)