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 Winter Woods on Waumbek

"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.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Anatomy of a View

As many times as I seen it, I'm still moved by how much this little dog loves the mountains, specifically the views. I'm impressed by the lengths he'll go to, the heights he'll scale, and the amount of time he sits and ponders. Check out this short slide show of the Little Buddha. He ended up sitting on this perch for about fifteen minutes and only came down when I told him it was time to leave.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” ~ John Muir

The mountains remain a mystery to me. It’s deep in December here in Jackson and it feels like winter with temperatures dipping close to zero nearly every night. The ground is frozen solid. Rivers and ponds are well on their way too. The only thing missing is snow. How strange to be this close to the holidays and be faced with a completely brown Christmas. Usually there is at least a trace of snow, but not here.

Just twenty miles up the road though – or ten miles as the crow flies – in Crawford Notch, winter rages daily. I know well the icy winds in the upper reaches, just a stone’s through from the Gateway to the Notch, but yesterday it was so bracing that Atticus and I nearly got right back into our car and headed home.

Weather in the notch can fool the uninitiated. It is not unlike a dog whose bark is worse than his bite. You simply have to put your head down, ignore the hungry howls of the wind, the whipping flecks of snow and ice, and head with faith towards the woods. But it’s not always an easy journey. That was the case yesterday. The storm fought us every step.

With Atticus in his Muttluks and me in my snowshoes we pushed through snowdrifts and snow flying directly into our eyes and hurried towards the shelter of the woods. The wind roared. The cold found its way into our bones and joints. But just as is nearly always the case, once stepping over the threshold into the forest everything stopped. I couldn’t even hear the wind and the snow drifted harmlessly about us. We had entered that realm that comes with the winter woods. It is a separate world. Sure it was still cold, but not to us. If anything it was like returning to an old friend whose been gone for nine months.

The trees were caked with thick, fluffy icing and the ground was soft beneath his boots and my snowshoes. I’m always amazed by this phenomenon – how the outside world literally disappears. You leave everything behind.

John Muir once wrote, “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.” That new world is called enchantment.

At a junction we turned left for the trail to the summit of Mount Willard but recent rainstorms had turned the shallow stream into a large pond and there was no getting around it. We tramped around in the woods a bit just to make sure there wasn’t an easier crossing but after finding none we turned back. Once back on the main trail I figured Atticus would head for the car, knowing his post hike snack was be waiting for him.

I should have known better. After all, he and I have been at this for a while. Instead he turned up the trail towards the Willey Range. I let him lead. It didn’t matter to me where we went and since he seemed to know where he wanted to go I followed. Our next stream crossing was easier to negotiate but still too deep and wide for Atticus so he hitched a ride on top of my backpack.

At the next trail junction we had another decision to make: right towards Mount Tom, left towards Mount Avalon and Mount Field. Atticus chose left and I followed. The climb gets steeper in that section of the Avalon Trail and the snow grew deeper. At the next intersection the wind was audible above the trees but not able to get at us and Atticus had another decision to make. It was up the short steep pitch to the summit of Avalon or continue on towards Field. He stopped, waited for a minute as if trying to decide, then turned back at me looking for direction.

“It’s up to you,” I said. “Go ahead.”

He chose Avalon. There had been on-line reports that someone had climbed it recently but with the new snow it was impossible to tell. We pushed through the virgin power and when Atticus topped out his ears took flight in the wind. Now others might feel the frozen fury and step back behind the rocks, but Atticus stepped out towards the edge of the mountain where he was more exposed. He stood on the edge and looked back at me to make sure I was there. When I cleared the top he turned his face and looked off into the storm.

There were no views and it’s not like this is the weather or the time of the year for summit sitting, but he seemed content looking off into the gray abyss. For the first time since we had entered the woods I felt a shiver run through me and I wondered how much longer he wanted to stay. But Atticus didn’t seem to mind the cold. Watching him like that, it was one of those moments that seem a lot longer than it actually is, where time slowly moves forward. I shivered; he faced the wind, his back towards me. Then, as if satisfied, he turned towards me, looked up at me and then pushed gently by and made his way down the mountain back into the refuge of the trees.

On the drive home, just four miles down the road we were back out of the storm and there was no more snow on the ground. In the rear view mirror I could see it still raging behind us. But here we were driving towards a partly cloudy blue sky.

It is days like this where you might not want to get out of your car, where there are no views, and it feels as cold as death that you are happiest that you decided to venture further. It reminds you that you’re alive and everything has much more meaning.