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.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Chocorua in the Clouds

Now that we aren't constrained by any of the various hiking lists (all 48 4,000-footers; all 48 in one winter; all 48 during each of the twelve months; 52 peaks with a view), I let the day dictate where we will hike. If it is sunny and beautiful and there are views to be had, we head to a peak where we can take advantage of the day and look out at a sea of choppy mountains fading to blue as they ride off into the horizon. On a cloudy day we hike places like Waumbek, Hale, or Cabot, where there are views - but they're not all that great.

But the other day we switched things up. It was cloudy and there was a threat of rain in the air and the woods were haunted by a mist that crept through the trees like restless specters. The woods can be extra magical on such days because you stop using your eyes and your other senses take over. You hear, smell, and feel every bit of mystery and the woods can seem truly enchanted.

However, on that day, a voice within me urged me to go up a mountain, high enough that we were above the trees and standing on solid rock, wrapped in the clouds. On such days, on a foggy mountaintop, you can feel as though you are standing on the edge of the world and all else disappears. It's an illusion, of course. The world is still there and mountains are nearby and down in the valleys people go about their business as they always do. However, in a cloud on a rocky summit you can easily forget that and everything becomes surreal.

So it was that Atticus and I drove over to eastern end of the Kancamagus Highway and climbed up Mount Chocorua by way of the Champney Falls Trail. The trail is named for Benjamin Champney who is considered to be the founder of the North Conway Colony of artists who came to the White Mountains during the 1800s. Champney was one of the most prolific painters and he welcomed others to the area. His paintings, along with those of other White Mountain Artists were some of the greatest landscape paintings in the world at the time and they would influence generations of people. Artists like Champney, and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Thomas Starr King, and poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Lucy Larcom brought visitors to the mountains and for those who would never see them, they brought the mountains to them. Their works of art was part of the reason that the forests were ultimately wrested from the hands of the timber barons and given back to the people in the form of the White Mountain National Forest by way of the Weeks Act. But that’s a story for another time.

At first the woods had that mysterious feeling I just mentioned. Fog wreathed in and out of the trees. The trunks of trees were moist and the bark very dark while the evergreens looked lush. We walked along a stream that was rushing by and we stopped for a bit to listen to its song. Then we started to climb in earnest. That's the great thing about the Champney Falls Trail. You're going up and you can feel your body working but it's never to the point where you feel you are exhausting yourself. Along the way we stopped to check out the falls. We sat and listened to the water pounding on the rocks and watched the spray fill the air around the water. Then it was back up again and we kept going, climbing along some switchbacks until we came to the edge of the trees. Having been to that specific point before, I remembered the fine view of the summit you get on a clear day. But standing there in the clouds, seeing nothing but still knowing the rocky edifice was near, was almost thrilling. And that feeling of mystery we'd encountered in the woods surfaced once again. We dipped back into the cover of the trees before at surfacing above the evergreens for the last time.

The rocks were slick with moisture and we took our time maneuvering over them. Step by step we climbed through the clouds and Atticus led as he always has. That we had no view didn't matter in the least to him. If anything it gave him a reason to keep moving because there was nothing to stop to look at. Upward we climbed, higher and higher until we came to the last pitch up to the great cone that has been captured by hundreds of artists and in thousands upon thousands of photographs. When we finally reached the top Atticus took a look around and then sat at the highest point. There was nothing to see but it was clear he wanted to enjoy the summit.

He drank some water, then I drank. We then shared our lunch. Moisture was everywhere. It wasn't raining but everything was wet and I was happy I'd tucked my camera inside a plastic bag in my backpack. There would be no need to take it out. And yet sitting upon one of the most glorious peaks in the state, a place where the views are simply breathtaking, we still enjoyed our summit experience.

First off, the typical Chocorua crowd was not there. The mountain was all ours. And while the views were obscured, the feelings weren't. In the end, that's the reason we climb. It's not for the views or the number of peaks we can reach or check off a list. It's about the feeling we get up there. It is special one – the closest I’ve ever known to sublime. The mountaintops are where earth and heaven meet, where deities were once believed to dwell, where legends were created.

We stayed on top longer than usual, even though there was nothing to see and as we slowly made our way down the great mountain and returned to our waiting car, I felt renewed and ready to go back to the world where we often forget the sublime, where business and politics rule, where our greatest hopes are often lost. But that’s the reason we climb mountains, to bring that feeling home with us. Even on cloudy days. I suppose it’s a lot like faith in that way. You believe in how special the world is even if at times it doesn’t always feel that way.

(The photo is from a hike a few years back. It was taken on Mount Truman. Atticus hasn't had a color on since we moved to the mountains three years ago. Oh my....has it really been that long?)


Ellen said...

I really enjoyed this telling of your climb to Mt. Chocorua. We climbed that particular trail to the peak for the first time this year, so I could imagine each of your waypoints. And so nice to have the solitude on top amidst the mist and the clouds. Good to have inclement weather sometimes for just that reason!

Karl said...

Hey Tom,

I really like this post. Did you see any snow up there? As soon as I saw the pic of Atticus, I was surprised there was no snow in it...then read the footer.

It must be amazing up there with no crowd. I would not know...Jill and I couldn't even get on the top peak there were so many people up there when we went. We had to have lunch just below.

You are so right. The views and the lists are all secondary to that feeling you get. Anyone who has climbed the mountains and fell in love with nature doing so, knows what you mean!