For me, New Year's Eve festivities took a far different turn than other years. While most people were counting down the hours and minutes with parties, fireworks, games, and celebration (as I usually do), I was slogging up the side of Mt. Abraham in Maine in a foot of fresh snow, hoping but not knowing if I would make it to the summit. For many of us, our lives are somewhat predictable. We have clocks and watches to measure the day. We have our notebooks and computers to tell us our daily/weekly schedules. We like to have our days neatly boxed with no surprises. That's part of our human nature. We use our intellect to resist the dynamic and powerful forces that surround us. And we usually win. However, on this weekend we mostly lost, when attempting to summit a chain of mountains in Maine.
There are those times when our well-ordered designs get tossed around and thrown out the window. The natural world that we are all a part of has a way of doing that to us. We fight against it, but we sometimes lose and the best thing to do is to just give in to the natural forces that are superior to us. We get frustrated and sometimes upset because our carefully ordered life has been disturbed. This was the case for a judiciously planned four-day hiking trip in Maine over the New Year's holiday. With five others, Doug, Susan, Fran, Kevin and Guy, we made plans several months in advance to summit five mountains: Abraham, Sugarloaf, Spaulding, Saddleback and the Saddleback Horn. These plans fell far short of this goal.
The first day we planned to climb Abe, which included a long road walk due to the access road enveloped by two feet of snow. This climb also included hiking above tree line for half a mile. We knew this task would be difficult due to the cloud cover enshrouding the summit. Visibility would be poor and winds could be a factor. With that in mind we set off on our first day of climbing. We drove as far as we could on the access road, with Doug getting his car stuck in the snow. At that point we began our two-mile road walk to the trail head and started the climb to the summit of Abe. As we approached tree line, we entered a land of rock, clouds, wind and snow. We slowly made our way to the summit, celebrating our accomplishment and, after a few pictures, hustled down the mountain, success was ours.
The following day, Fran and I decided to tackle Sugarloaf and Spaulding, while the rest of the group went to Saddleback to break out the trail to the summit. Fran and I had a rather easy climb up the ski trails of Sugarloaf and made it to the summit in good time. But the trail to Spaulding was not broken out and we had two feet of fresh snow to plow through. We checked our watches and realized that the two-mile hike to Spaulding would take us much longer than anticipated to break trail. After an hour of breaking trail we realized we would be benighted soon, so we wisely turned back knowing the mountain will always be there for another winter attempt.
The third day of our excursion, climbing Saddleback and the Horn proved to be a more daunting task. We listened to the weather report and heard nothing that would deter our plans: no storms, pleasant temperatures and calm winds. Off we drove to the abandoned ski area of Saddleback Mountain. The snowshoe up the slope was uneventful, just a slow and tedious climb. Once we neared tree line we felt the wind rising and temperatures starting to plummet. We layered up, putting on extra clothing, mitts, face mask and goggles. When we left the shelter of tree line we were hit by 40 mph winds and white-out conditions. We could see only a few yards ahead of us. We stumbled along, trying to stay upright and hoping conditions would improve, but they only worsened. Our small party moved slowly along, trying to follow the cairns that mark the trail to the summit. We ducked into a knoll and when we emerged no cairns could be found. At that point we realized we could go no further without the risk of getting lost and succumbing to wind chill. Frost bite was a distinct possibility.
At this point we made a group decision to turn back. We found our way to the trail head and down to the base of the now empty ski lodge. The forces of nature had again proved stronger than our determination to reach the goal, as was the case yesterday. Our best laid plans had been shattered by a power stronger than ours. Disappointment and failure showed on our faces. Humility is virtue we often lack in our modern self-centered world. We later learned that we were only 200 feet from the summit before we turned back.
As we discussed later, we had made the right decision to turn back from our quest. The risk was just too great. The mountain will always be there and we began to make plans for our next attempt. The Gods of Nature had once again confirmed that they have the ultimate say in our designs of conquest. I was reminded that our neatly ordered world is often at the mercy of the forces outside of our control and in the wilderness this is especially true.
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