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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature." ~ Joseph Campbell

On a recent morning a few days prior to the first storm of winter when the snow fell and the wind roared, Atticus and I woke up long before the sun. Whenever we wake up that early I figure we should make the most of the day. So instead of pulling the covers up, rolling over, and going back to sleep, we got out of bed, had breakfast, grabbed my backpack, got in the car and headed off to hike.

It was a cold morning, a mere seven degrees, and we were on the trail before sunrise, my headlamp pushing the darkness away. We moved quickly over the hard frozen trail to warm ourselves up and it wasn't long before I was taking off my jacket, then my hat and gloves. Soon my outer shirt came off as well and we were well on our way.

When it comes to winter hiking one of the hardest things to do is to simply get out of bed. It's cold and dark and my first inclination is to sit down to a nice hot breakfast, put on a sweater, and stay warm and safe inside. But on those early mornings when I put off comfort for adventure I'm ultimately glad I did.

And on this morning as we climbed the mountain while the sun was just cresting the horizon I was doubly happy to be out and about. The woods were empty, not just of people, but of other life as well. Oh, I suppose something somewhere was stirring, but not that we could tell. In other seasons bird song greats you or chipmunks scurry by. Even the trees themselves are different because of their lush leaves and their softer bark, and the earthen path has a scent to it. But in winter before the snows fall, especially at such an early hour, there is nothing. No sound, no smell, nothing moving. It's simply the dark gray of tree bark and the unyielding trail below our feet. Being alone in the cold like that you'd think I'd long for the comforts of home all the more, but that’s not the case. There was the gentle thrill of being "out there" by ourselves.

When we reached the first set of ledges after a mild but sweat-inducing climb, we watched the sunrise. It was warm and golden and we sat for several minutes admiring it. It's not rare that we get to see the sunrise, at least not in winter because it comes so late, but often we think so little of it. We witness it because we have to, because we are up early for work or off on some errand. But to sit on the side of a mountain and welcome the day - well, it's a wondrous thing. It is a gift to great the day on your own terms.

We were climbing South Moat and much of the upper two thirds of the hike are ledges. While there was no snow there was plenty of ice, just not enough to wear my crampons. Instead I wore Microspikes but they weren't always hardy enough and I slipped and fell three times on our climb. Atticus had little trouble. He picked his way around the icy slabs and often sat above me bemused as I slipped and slid down the mountain for the third time. I went a good ten yards before I could grab onto a tree. As I lay there gasping for breath, taking inventory of my bones, making sure I was merely bruised and not broken, he sauntered down the way he came and looked down at me. I laid there for a moment longer, got to my feet, and then followed him up the trail.

Because of my falls I considered turning back but I was doing okay and the ice was diminishing and the views started to come into play. Never underestimate how your spirits soar when you are tired and bruised but seeing stunning sights.

There was Chocorua peering up over the shoulder of South Moat. There were the views down towards the Ossipees and the sea of thin clouds filling in the valleys to the south. Then came Whiteface and Passaconaway, the Sleepers, Tripyramids, and Osceolas of the Sandwich Range stretching off to west just below the Kancamagus Highway. The higher we climbed the more we saw and the happier I was that we’d continued on. Eventually, with one last push, we stood on top of the mountain and the world revealed herself to us. Everywhere we looked there were mountains and they were bathed in the early morning glow of the sun. The higher peaks were topped with snow but none more so than Washington.

South, Middle, and North Moat have turned into my favorite mountains for that very reason. There is not a place in the White Mountains are the views more fulfilling for me. And no place is more underrated. You can see so many of the great peaks of New Hampshire without restriction and yet it is so close to the hustle and bustle of North Conway. The contrast is telling. Nature towers above the outlet stores, hotels, and restaurants, making them insignificant. Turn to the west and you put society behind you and the Pemigewasset Wilderness in front of you and life feels as it should.

We stayed on the summit for quite some time and then walked over to Middle Moat. There we lay on our backs under the sun and fell into a blissful nap. It no longer felt like winter, but more like spring.

After a couple of hours of enjoying the top of the Moats we made our way down. Once again I slipped and slid while Atticus wondered why I had so much trouble, but after we passed the last of the ice and I started to relax we encountered our first company of the day. Other hikers were making their way up the mountain. We ran into four groups, the last was just leaving the parking lot as we returned to it. Each time I warned them of the ice but also told them of the views.

Oh, there’s something grand about taking a great adventure and yet being home at noon. It’s part of the joy of living in these mountains, and of getting up before the sun.


Karl said...


I enjoyed your post. I saw your slides on this journey a week or so back and it inspired me to plan my own trip up there for this past Monday, since I was off from work. However, the weather didn't work out so well for me. We got quite a bit of snow and wind down here, and I think the ride up would have been long and I aborted my mission.

I will certainly make it up there in the next few months to climb South and Middle Moat. I'm looking forward to the views. Sounds like I will certainly need Micro-Spikes at a minimum!

I can't wait to one day live up there so I can hike, watch the sunrise and be home by noon as well!


Thomas F. Ryan said...

Karl, hopefully by the time you hike the Moats you'll need snowshoes. It's a great snowshoe hike, and if there's enough snow on the ledges it makes them even safer.

Keep working towards it and you'll surely have a chance to live up here. Your new baby will love going to the little elementary school here in Jackson when you move. You'll also love the new library. It's absolutely stunning!

Jan said...

Sounds like you had a beautiful hike even though it was cold. I hope you and Atticus had a good Christmas!