One summer when I was in college, my roommate Joyce and I - with two days off from our waitressing jobs at the Union Oyster House - we were going to climb Mt. Washington.
To say that we did not know what we were doing is a vast and cavernous understatement.
For equipment, we had a couple of old Boy Scout canvas knapsacks, cheap cotton no-warmth sleeping bags, a WW II canteen. Among other essentials we lacked (including common sense) were hiking shoes. The sturdiest shoes we owned were our white waitress shoes, so that's what we wore. (When questioned, we claimed they were special Italian hiking shoes.) We had packed some food - ham sandwiches and a couple of Table Talk cherry pies.
We took a Trailways Bus to the base of the mountain, and were standing there - in tee-shirts, cut off jeans, and flip-flops - figuring out what to do, when the loudspeaker boomed out: "You, the two girls who just got off the bus. Come up here."
We went up to the building - some sort of ranger station/info center - where a couple of rangers told us we were idiots, and warned "you could get killed up there."
But we thought, well, we thought what smart-ass, know-it-all twenty years old have always thought when someone older tries to give them advice: f-you!
Equipped with the map the rangers had given us, we started up the trail, pulling off after a few feet to change out of our flip-flops and into our special Italian hiking shoes.
Holding our sleeping bags in our arms - we didn't know enough to attach them to our backpacks - we started hiking up Mt. Washington.
We were soon overtaken by the first of several real hikers who would at least partially help us out.
Real hiker number one had some twine and he fixed our sleeping bags to the Boy Scout knapsacks.
This helped us immeasurably, and we slowly and happily made our way up to the base of Tuckerman's Ravine (where intrepid skiers sky down a 90 degree angle surface 12 months of the year -or something like that).
At the base of the ravine, there were lean-to's we could sleep in, which got us off the ground.
There were also a whole slew of real hikers, taking off their real backpacks, and taking out their real camping equipment and making themselves real meals on camp stoves using collapsible pots and pans.
One of them generously fed us part of his meal - steak and corn on the cob - but we were embarrassed to help ourselves too much.
After partially sharing the real hiker's real repast, we slunk off into the woods to gorge on our ham sandwiches and Table Talk cherry pies. We were too embarrassed to let anyone see what we were eating that we shoved the card board pie boxes and the pie tins in the rocks.
During our night in the great outdoors, some sort of insect bit Joyce in the corner of her eye.
By dawn, her eye had swollen to the size of a grapefruit - a grapefruit we sure wished that we had for breakfast.
We stumbled back down the trail, disappointed that we hadn't reached the top of Mt. Washington, but eager to get Joyce's eye looked after.
With no Trailways Bus in sight, we hitch hiked back to Boston.
One of our rides, quite fittingly, was in the back of a big, black hearse that some guy our age was using as a car.
I think we ended up at the MGH Emergency Ward, where Joyce got a shot for her eye.
This adventure came to mind when I read an article in The Boston Globe on all the idiots who, armed with little more than cellphones, GPS trackers, and Power Bars, go mountaineering in the White Mountains.
These days, there are warning signs:
In black lettering on yellow, is blunt: "STOP. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."
They ain't kidding about the worst weather. The highest wind speeds on record have been recorded on Mt. Washington. And years ago, I drove up to the summit with friends - a scary and perilous drive in its own right. It was in the 80's at the base of the mountain, and snowing and in the 20's on the top.
For those who want to leg it up the mountains, high tech has emboldened them to try their luck on the White. Each year more than a few of them get stranded and need to get rescued.
LAST YEAR, THE NEW HAMPSHIRE FISH AND GAME Department, national forest, AMC, and other groups assisted in 164 incidents, about 75 involving injured or lost hikers. Search and rescue missions in 2007 cost the state $150,000, plus thousands of volunteer hours. About $42,000 of that was spent aiding people who were later deemed "negligent."
If you're found negligent, you have to pay for your rescue.
One who was rescued was Bernie Dahl of Winterport, Maine, whose cellphone call for help was answered,
...but not before Dahl reconciled himself to dying on the mountain. "Freezing is a nice way to go. You have an abnormal sense of warmth. I did not pray for rescue, I prayed for understanding and acceptance. I risked my life, and others had to risk theirs. That's not right, I don't deny it." Today, he speaks to groups about the "spiritual experience" and maintains a website (mtwashingtonmisadventure.com).
The night that Joyce and I camped at the foot of Tuckerman's, it didn't get that cold.
It was a nice July night, and our cheap-o sleeping bags worked just fine.
If it hadn't been for the act-of-God bug-bite to Joyce's eye, we would have no doubt forged on and - in those days before cellphone, GPS, and Power Bars - who knows what would have happened.
Curiously, we decided we like camping and a couple of summers later, we drove cross-country, camping all the way.
The next year, we camped our way around Europe.
But by then we knew what we were doing.
We had Kelty backpacks, and Coleman lanterns. LL Bean tents, and Gaz stoves. Collapsible cooking gear and 20-below sleeping bags. Long underwear and waterproof camping jackets. Maps and an axe.
And forget about those white Italian hiking shoes.
By then, we'd both invested in a pair of solid hiking boots.
But we'd sure started out as idiots so, as much as I want to completely make fun of the dopes who head up Mt. Washington with their cellphone and a smile, I have to pause and say, 'There but for fortune...'
Labels: environment, growing up, holidays