Saturday, July 24, 2004

Trail of Tears
Last weekend, my wife and I attempted to summit Mt. Adams (5799') by way of ascending the King Ravine. The approach trails into the ravine are steady and gradual, which means that most of elevation gain necessary to reach the summit of Adams will be packed climbing the headwall. Navigating in the ravine itself is quite difficult as the trail meanders through a jungle of granite boulders. In fact, the trail splits into two and you can either take the Elevated route over the surface of the boulders, or the Subway which takes you under them. After a short distance (but time consuming) push through the boulder maze, the real work ascending the headwall begins. I had taken this trail once before, alone, and in that time had rarely felt more challenged or exhilarated. Climbing up the big rocks requires care and attention. The incline is relentless (the headwall is 0.5 mile in distance, yet climbs over 1000 feet in elevation - so one step up for every two forward).

There comes a time about halfway up the headwall, when you turn around, look around you, and have an Oh Shit moment. My first time in the King Ravine was, as I said, a solo journey. Sometimes I like hiking alone, but oftentimes I get creeped out. Your mind begins to think of all sorts of what if scenarios that usually involve the fragility of your mortality. That first time on the headwall sketched me out. It was me there, tired, surrounded by rock, my destination obscured by encroaching clouds, and cautious respect for the Presidentials constantly reminding me that this terrain can be a dangerous and deadly.

Danger aside, the King Ravine is also a tremendously beautiful place - a gulf of hardy plants struggling to survive in a harsh and meteorologically unforgiving land. This mixture of challenge and inspiration was something I wanted my wife to experience too, which is a reason why I wanted to return to the King Ravine even though there are other trail choices one can take to reach the summit of Adams. Coincidentally enough, this second time in the ravine was proving to be like the first - challenging, unsettling, and awe inspiring. Like the first time, clouds were obscuring the destination ridgelines and the loneliness of the ravine unsettled us even though we were together, climbing upwards, hoping and expecting resolution.

The Oh Shit moment hit us halfway up the headwall. The gathering clouds were building with strength and purpose. I with my camera, and my wife with a Powerbar heard the first distant rumbles of a typical midsummer thunderstorm. It was far in the distance, but it was unmistakable - and terrifying. We had exhausted ourselves traversing the boulder riot that carpets the floor of the ravine, and the push up the headwall would only go so fast as you could give. Indeed, that Oh Shit moment demanded that we give, and give hard because we needed to get out of there - fast. Away went the camera, away went the Powerbar, and immediately thereafter it was for each of us a solitary race for the next rock above and ahead. To our benefit, the boulders that reside on the upper reaches of the headwall shrink in size - allowing for easier footing and a quickening of the pace. My wife pushed on ahead - fueled by resolve and Powerbar, while I, with a perverse sense perhaps, kept interrupting my climb to look back and check on the incoming storm. Part of me wanted to get caught in it. Not out of a death wish desire, but I guess more out of a desire to experience terror in its natural, unadulterated form. Roller coasters are a good way to experience terror, but you're also reassured for the most part because you know that this terror has been engineered by human hands and human minds. There are boundaries to this terror, controls and limits. It has been calculated. However, up there, climbing out of the King Ravine, you just don't know - and that kind of terror that accompanies the unknown is rare indeed when so much of everyday life is spent traversing the worn pathways of routine, familiarity, and expectation.

To be honest, I had been here before. That advance knowledge armed me with understanding of what lay beyond. Indeed, things improve once out of the ravine. The AMC Madison Hut is a welcome and necessary outpost of safety that hikers can rely on. We pushed through the keyhole which is where the King Ravine trail meets the Airline Trail of Durand Ridge and ends. Thunder rumbles increased in frequency and volume, but our relief at the sight of the hut gave us reassurance. We pushed on down to hut, relieved to be descending for a change. We had given up at this point our original intention to summit Mt. Adams. It is bittersweet to come so close, having endured so much physical exertion to get this far, yet decide to leave and complete the task at another time. But we know that the mountain will be there for us another day. Our interest now was to eat some of the hot soup that the hut offered, rest a bit, and take the sheltered Valley Way trail back down to the car. I was not disappointed. My last time up the King Ravine had ended in the same fashion, with me tired, emotionally tapped, and weather of a foreboding nature. There's value in knowing your limits - and also being smart and not putting yourself beyond risk. The trail itself is an experience. Summits are a reward, but not the only one.


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