A MAGICAL, MYSTERIOUS JOY ABOVE TREELINE (August 2001)
by Dana Snyder-Grant
The hut master read the forecast at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, August 29:
"The summits will be in the clouds this morning. Visibility, 50 feet. Wind gusts, 30-50 miles per hour. Temperatures in the forties. Wind chill factor, 7 degrees. The valleys will be in and out of the clouds all day. Be careful out there."
Madison Hut, at 4800 feet and above treeline, was full with fifty hikers. Outside the windows was a swirling mist. We knew that the oatmeal about to be served was essential. Hiking companions turned to one other to assess plans. Jean and her husband, who we had met the night before, were ending five days of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary. They decided to take the most direct trail down the mountain, the Valley Way. It was protected from the wind by dense trees.
I turned to my husband as he passed a platter of scrambled eggs, and asked, "What will we do?" We had hiked up the sheltered Valley Way from our cottage on Tuesday, due to threats of thunderstorms. The forecast had predicted clearing today and we had hoped to hike down the Knife-edge, a sharp crest on a ridge of Mt. Adams, above treeline. It afforded gorgeous views into King Ravine, a large glacial gulf cut into the slope of the mountain. After twenty years of multiple sclerosis, I hike in these mountains. Three times slower than anyone else, but I walk on. As much as I wished to experience the Ravine, I recognized the weather might make it unsafe today.
Jim and I agreed to reassess in a couple of hours. We could walk the few tenths of a mile to the Knife Edge and turn back if necessary. I remembered the sign that greeted us when we began our hike yesterday:
"STOP. The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died here from exposure even in the summer...Turn back now if the weather is bad."
At 8 am, after comparing notes with other hikers, Jim and I began to strip our beds in the large bunkroom we had shared with twenty-five others and gather our belongings. I glanced out the window and saw that the mist was beginning to lift. I felt buoyant and decided to take a walk around the hut to evaluate the wind and temperature. I told Jim I would return soon. Now, I truly understood the reason for warnings to hikers about preparedness. I was glad to have put on my turtleneck, sweater and fleece tunic with my leggings and pants, and even more pleased to have my hat and gloves. I remembered leaving Acton in ninety degree humidity the week before, and laughing when I packed this outerwear. Laugh no more.
I grabbed my trekking sticks and went into the dining room. Hikers sat at tables, talking. Others were on their way out the door and into the elements. We exchanged wishes for a safe trip. I stepped outside and felt the cold air, pleasantly surprised that it seemed mild. But the wind blew and intimidated me as I navigated the boulders. One moment, I would be in fog and could barely see beyond a few rocks in front of me, and the next, I would look up and see the top of Mount Madison with blue sky above her. I felt like I was in Brigadoon, the mythical Scottish village that appeared out of the mist every hundred years. Magical, mysterious and joyous.
My task accomplished, I went back inside to report to Jim. He was packing our knapsack, including trash. The hut crew's skit of a bride and groom who vowed to carry out their trash for life had taught us well. Their focus on care for the natural environment and for hikers enveloped us all.
At 9:30, Jim and I were ready to leave for the Knife-edge. Blue sky had been present for almost fifteen minutes. We thanked the hut crew and said our good-byes.
We moved in and out of the mist on the rocks. We reached the Knife-edge and looked down into a deep ravine of beauty. Wavy lines of green scrub and gray rock were carved into the ravine's slopes, forming a kaleidoscope of form and color. A hawk dove into the ravine, then lifted to the sky. I was mesmerized. I would take a long time traversing the boulders down the ridge, but every moment would be precious.
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