The sky in the distance was lined with a deep pink, almost red, barely visible through the trees. The air was rich with that special fragrance between winter and the promise of spring any day now; breathing hope and new beginnings.
The sun was setting quickly, but I wasn’t frightened at all. I had my head lamp and the .2 mile path back was well defined. Preparing to camp in a cabin at Grayknob just below Mt. Adams, I was exhilarated. I was enjoying the winter wilderness with friends from REI, kindred souls who shared my appreciation of the majesty and remarkable beauty of the mountains in winter. Today we had struggled up Lowe’s Path. The initial part of our ascent had been easy, but the last mile or so was steep, icy, and unrelenting. It was the kind of hike where you instantly know what equipment you’ll replace upon your return home. My borrowed pack weighed like an albatross around my neck and swung every time my weight shifted, my snowshoes, later dubbed ‘toy snowshoes’ just didn’t have important enough crampons. Every layer on my body was soaked through and I had yearned to be at my destination as one foot found purchase, my hands grasped trees or I swung my ax into ice and used it as a lever.
Now, I was sitting with my bottom balanced inside a hole, slightly above our water source. My backside rested against ice and I needed to move deliberately or risk my rear falling in the puddle beneath. Slowly, maddeningly slowly, I was scooping water into a gallon container for us to drink. Water wasn’t emerging from the pipe, and the jug wouldn’t fit into the narrow opening below the ice where the water flowed. I had used my ice ax to chip away at the perimeter, but it would have taken a very long time to make much headway. Now I was faced with the slow repetitive motion of scooping water into the jug.
The movement was mesmerizing. I found myself almost hypnotized by the sound of trickling water, one hand supporting the jug while the other methodically scooped a meager 8 ounces, and then did the same again, and again. My back was pleasantly numbed and the cradling of my body inside the ice hole was relaxing.
Watching the sun set through the trees, our tough hike was a distant memory, the hard work well worth the reward.
The following day, we scrambled over rocks and snow fields to reach the summit of Adams, the sign encrusted with ice like a flag. Mt. Washington to one side looked benign and touchable, and called to me as did Madison to the other side. Only hiking experience told me that neither peak was doable in the time I had left. But, oh I yearned.
I have hiked for years in the summer but this was only my second winter hike. Hiking runs through my veins like blood. When I scramble over boulder fields or exert my body on any ascent, I do so with a smile that refuses to be subdued. I am at one with the mountains and at home there in a way I cannot always replicate in any other way in my life. I am a woman who appreciates the value of a manicure, well coiffed hair and enjoys matching, well-fitted clothing, but when I hike, all of that fades into the background and the real me, the one who knows everything in life has its purpose and that happiness can’t be hurried, the one who relishes the bruises, messy hair, hands lined with scratches, is allowed the freedom to be. She is the one I long to hold onto, but she dances out of my grasp like a shadow when I am not on a mountain summit.
The day after I balanced my bottom over the icy hole that provided our water, my friends let me be the first one to summit Adams. I was on top of the world. I was alive, I was who I was, and life made sense.
There are those that can’t fathom the need or the drive to push one’s body to stand on top of the world. I am not one of those. I live to climb, and climbing gives me life.