Climbing Mount Madison

I’ve done some casual hiking in Switzerland  (an ascent of Mount Tendre, the highest peak in the Jura canton; and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller above the Rhine River valley) but I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never climbed anything substantial in New England, especially the region’s tallest peak, Mount Washington (6,288 feet) in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hailing as I do from Cape Cod, a flat sandbar, my outdoors pursuits have been monopolized by the sea and sand, yet the urge to scale something tall in the woods has been growing for years.

Last winter’s literary obsession with mountain climbing tales led me to join the Appalachian Mountain Club, buy a backpack, a stack of maps and drag a nice pair of mildewed Asolo hiking boots out of the closet. While I have positively no Mittyesque desires to ever bag a 8,000 meter peak (e.g. Everest) as the odds are bad enough for experienced climbers in their 30s let alone abject amateurs in their 50s; I do love a challenge, particularly one that kicks my ass, and over the past few months that challenge looked like a Presidential Traverse — a visit to all of the peaks named after Presidents in the White Mountains, an expedition traditionally accomplished on or around the Summer solstice when daylight hours are at their max. This post is not about such a Traverse, but a warm-up to one.

My good friend, extreme sport fiend, and CRASH-B sprint coach: Marta, is renting a place at the foot of  Mount Washington in Jackson, New Hampshire on the banks of the bubbling Ellis River. She’s an amazing athlete and mountaineer, especially when it comes to backcountry skiing, telemarking, winter climbing, and the real hardcore New England winter sports that hark back to the early days of skiing before chairlifts, bunny slopes and ski chalets.  Marta, like me, is into doing stuff the hard way, a fellow hater of luggage with wheels. She’s been up and down the White Mountains countless times — running the trails, cycling up the Mount Washington Auto Road against the clock, a few Presi Traverses — and hence was the ideal guide for my first ascent.

We left her place at 6 am and drove north on Route 16 accompanied by spectacular views of the eastern slopes of the range. We parked at the Great Gulf Trail trailhead, paid $3 for a self-service parking permit, shouldered our packs and set forth down an abandoned road to a suspension bridge pocked with crampon marks over the West Branch of the Peabody River and then west, upstream, along that river on the Great Gulf Trail (which eventually reaches the summit of Washington). After two miles of relatively flat walking — which was enough to start me, the original Mr. Aquaman, sweating under my 30 lb. pack — we split off on the Madison Gulf trail to the northwest up an increasingly steep trail that forded Parapet Brook several times. Marta’s dog Gus balked at one stream crossing, but was generally kind of astounding to watch work up the trail with his four-paw drive. The air was cool and as since we were shaded in the spring canopy, the conditions made for relatively easy going as we worked uphill through the trees, with no views to give an orientation of altitude or progress. Finally, after an hour and half we popped out of the trees on a rocky knob and had a great view into the Great Gulf and the northeastern flank of Mount Washington.

After that tease the trail ducked back into the trees and the climb got steadily steeper to the point that I was basically drenched in sweat, stopping at one point to take off my shirt and wring out about a cup of fluid. Hydration was obviously going to be the first order of the day, and anticipating that I had 100 ounces of water in my pack’s Camelbak, and two additional liters in the side pockets. The Camelbak kept me going through its hose and bite valve and Marta continuously hounded to drink, drink, drink.  All told I pounded down over 200 ounces of water during the day  (and one RedBull) and micturated exactly once.

In a bit of a surprise, we came upon a pair of fellow hikers, a husband and wife in their 50s or 60s, making a descent — something unique as the AMC guidebook explictly says the Madison Gulf trail “is not recommended for the descent, for hikers with heavy packs, or in wet weather.”

They explained they had lost the trail the day before on their way uphill to spend the night at the AMC Madison Hut. Instead they were forced to bivouac in the open forest, in very chilly temperatures, pulling on all their clothing and cuddling for warmth. They asked us to pass along their names to the Hut staff because they had a reservation and didn’t want to kick off a search and rescue effort on their behalf. We offered them food and water, but they declined and passed behind us.

As we continued to climb I saw the granite face of the Madison Gulf headwall to my left, a green-grey monster that rose 1,000 feet from the floor of the cirque. Things were getting steeper and I was forced to use my hands for propulsion, wondering how we were going to scale what was obviously a very serious gain in elevation.

The answer was the Chimney, a sheer stack of white boulders and rocks that goes straight up the face, a gurgling stream/waterfall bubbling unseen underneath. Marta went first, Gus scrambling with her, and I watched her foot and hand placements before making my own moves on the face. Keep in mind I have an unreasonable fear of heights, but for some reason I was okay with the first part of the Chimney,  and actually felt very impressed with myself thanks to four months of  training at Cape Cod Crossfit which has given me a whiff of the upper body strength and flexibility needed for rock climbing.

I was nervous as a slip would have meant a serious disaster, maybe not instant death but definitely a bad injury. Marta later said the Chimney might be categorized as a Level 2 climb, meaning a fall would result in injury, but not a Four or Five which would lead to death. Pitons, rock nuts, and other classic protection are definitely not needed on the ledges, but there were some “interesting” moments when I was pressed flat on the face, very conscious of the weight of the pack on my back, looking for my next handhold and ledge for my toes. Gus the dog was not into some of the sections and started back tracking down to me, leaving the Chimney route in search of another more dog friendly one. Marta had to downclimb to get him, and her theory of why he was balking on a climb he had done before seemed very prescient — my silent anxiety was giving off a vibe that was causing him to doubt himself. In any case, he made it, I made it, and the feeling at the top was pretty awesome, giving me my first empathy with the lunatics who risk death to climb Annapurna or K2.

I have to give Marta credit, she didn’t quote this passage from the AMC’s White Mountain Guide Book to me before the climb:

The section of this trail on the headwall of Madison Gulf is one of the most difficult in the White Mountains, going over several ledge outcrops, bouldery areas, and a chimney with loose rock. The steep slabs may be slippery when wet, and several ledges require scrambling and the use of handholds — hikers with short arms may have a particular problem reaching the handholds. Stream crossings may be difficult in wet weather. … Allow extra time and do not start up the headwall late in the day. The ascent of the headwall may require several hours more than the estimated time; parties frequently fail to reach the hut before dark because of slowness on the headwall.”

Once out of the Chimney we climbed above the tree-line at 4,500 feet (Madison is 5,367 feet). The deciduous birches and cathedral of the pines flora from at the foot of the climb had given way to stunted evergreens, and then, above that, a barren rock pile interspersed with arctic tundra and cheery bunches of blooming alpine flowers. Signs warned us to stay on the trail and off the sensitive vegetation (what little there was). The air temperature above the tree line dropped dramatically from the 60s in the valley to the high 40s and my soaked shirt and shorts suddenly became a bit of a liability. Hypothermia kills a lot of hikers in the Whites (an excellent book about Mount Washington fatalities is Not Without Peril, by Nicholas Howe), and the unofficial motto of the White Mountains is “cotton kills” — meaning a person in a t-shirt and bluejeans caught in the wrong weather will see all their body heat wicked away from them. One either wears performance synthetics or wool if they want to survive a bad turn of the weather on the summit.

I dragged a polar fleece out of my pack, put it on over my wet shirt, and followed Marta up past Star Lake in the col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison, and down a short rock trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Hut, the oldest of the hut system in the range. A work crew was busy digging out rocks around the recently renovated bunkhouse and dining room. We said hi, popped inside (where Gus was immediately banished), refilled a water bottle, and inspected the bunk rooms where beds stacked four high with ladders offer a place to spend the night for a modest fee (reservations are necessary as demand is very high).

“They’d evict me for snoring, ” I observed, but Marta said the place was a “symphony”  when filled to capacity.

We decided to eat our lunch on the peak of Mount Madison, a few hundred feet above us to the east. We climbed to the summit via a segment of the famous Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine,  slowly picking our way up the boulders and scree to the summit, a very stark and exposed knob with magnificent vistas all the way around. I shucked my pack, unwrapped a turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich, and shooed away bee after bee homing in on the only food for miles around.

Stopping for lunch was not my best move. The four-hour ascent had thoroughly worked my legs and suddenly stopping caused them to cramp and go beserk with lactic acid. Sweating and drinking as much as I had during the morning had washed most of the salt and electrolytes out of my system. I started to see the symptoms when my hands  began to cramp into claws and my hamstrings went into knots.

It was going to be a long descent.

Psychologically, one thinks a lot about the descent during the climb, comforting oneself with the thought: “Hey, once you hit the summit it’s all down hill and no more climbing the perpetual stairmaster.” The bitter reality is that descending is worse than climbing. The mountaineers adage that one hasn’t really climbed a mountain until you get back down to the bottom, and that most mountaineers die on the descent stuck in my mind. The problem in descending is that one is constantly arresting one’s momentum, fighting gravity, using the legs and hips to slow things down. This immediately causes bad things to emerge around the hips, knees, ankles and toes as one’s foot is repeatedly rammed forward into the boot. I broke out my telescoping trekking poles and with a hi-h0-away-we-go, began to follow Gus and Marta down the Osgood Ridge Trail, the continuation of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that would loop us down and back to the Great Gulf Trail and eventually the trailhead on Route 16.

The Osgood Ridge is completely exposed buttress that runs above the treeline from cairn to cairn with an occasional white painted blaze to mark the AT.  The going is horrible: a constant descent over lichen covered rocks (I hated those rocks, told them they were shitty rocks on several occasions), painfully picking through the maze with only great views and a cool breeze to alleviate the suffering. I click-clacked along with the trekking poles, moving slowly as Marta and Gus flew away ahead of me, always in sight but seeming to descend effortlessly as they moved to the southeast down to the treeline unseen beyond the final knob.  Add to the misery a swarm of gnats and blackflies, and I was quickly losing the exhilaration of the summit to a serious case of self-pity and trudging drudgery. Eventually I stepped on a loose rock, the trekking pole slipped and I pitched hard onto my shoulder and face. That sucked, but no harm done, no bruises or abrasions, just a miserable feeling of being old and tired and embarrassed.

“I fall down,” I joked. Creaked back to my aching feet, and asked Marta to stick a lost water bottle back into my pack. “Falling is not a good idea,” she said. I got the point.

I smeared DEET over my ears and neck (and immediately tasted copper in my mouth, such an encouraging trans-dermal reminder that I had just smeared poison on my skin) to keep the blackflies from having intercourse with my ear canals. After an hour that seemed like two, finally stepped off of the ridge and down into the treeline. Marta warned me — its either rocks or roots — and apparently the Appalachian Trail, because it is so heavily trafficked, is always in rough shape, with very little soil, and as far as the Osgood Trail is concerned, a steep straight-down-no-switchback descent down a chute of rocks and boulders.

The descent of the Osgood through the trees was the worst segment of the day in terms of pain and tedium. It was a never-ending exercise in looking down at the trail, picking a rock to step onto, planting the poles, painfully bending a knee and side stepping downwards. My knees were so trashed I started fantasizing about asking my orthopedic surgeon for a knee replacement.  Eventually I met a trio of hikers coming uphill and had a flash of schadenfreude that at least I was leaving the mountain while they had the flies and rocky ridge well above them to contend with. A man about my age at the back of the string of climbers puffed “Fucking rugged climbing” as he passed me.

The terrain gradually turned more forest-like, the bugs vanished, and up ahead, was Marta and Gus standing by the base of the trail. My knees and hips were trashed. Beyond salvation, and somewhere inside of my right boot I imagined my middle toe had turned black from the constant ramming of my foot. It was an understatement to say I was exhausted.

“Say I fell and broke my leg. Like a real compound fracture. Who would come get me and how the fuck would they get up here?” I asked Marta, beginning to explore my options.

“Helicopter. Definitely a helicopter for someone your size.”

I wanted that helicopter ride. I also wanted a beer. So, not wanting to dawdle and let my cramping legs twist themselves to the point that I couldn’t move them, I drained the rest of my water, leaving a cup in reserve to wash down a handful of Advil back at the car. We descended to the Great Gulf Trail, and backtracked on the same trail we used to start the climb seven hours before. I was aware that my capacity for conversation had ended, but made an effort to be sociable as I over-thought every painful step. At least there were no blisters, a testament to the mighty Asolos, a darn fine pair of Italian hiking boots. Soon I heard the encouraging roar of the Peabody River down below,   and gradually, as we passed hikers headed to the tent platforms with coolers full of beer, I could see the end of the expedition ahead.

Sounds of traffic on Route 16, then there was the suspension bridge … almost …. there ….I creaked up the three wooden steps, swayed across the bridge thinking of the 1938 K2 expedition fording a Pakistani cataract, and then, before I realized it was over, I was sitting on the tailgate pulling off my socks and remarking on how good my poor feet looked. Half an hour later and I was slumped in a chair outside of the Jackson Store with two Gatorades and a bag of salty Fritos, doing my best to get some electrolytes back into my freaked-out thigh muscles. I was cramping so badly that when I yawned my  jaw and lower face cramped into an excruciating spasm. Next time, bring salt pills.

In conclusion: I’ve raced in the Harvard Yale race (rowing) when I was 20 and thought that was the hardest thing I had ever done. I’ve sprinted 2,000 meters on an ergometer in under 6 minutes and 30 seconds and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve ridden my bicycle a century, or 100 miles (with Marta) and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But nothing compared to eight and half hard hours on “one of the most difficult trails in the White Mountains.” My respect for people who climb BIG mountains has rocketed.

Would I do it again? Definitely. I still have yet to climb Mount Washington.

The Buyer Protection Experience at Best Buy

You know the drill, you buy a device and at checkout the clerk asks you if you want to purchase an above-and-beyond warranty or “buyer protection” plan. The smartass answer is generally, “Why? Is it going to break and is the basic warranty no good?” I usually take a pass, but last year, when buying my first Android phone on the occasion of my liberation from a corporate Blackberry, I decided to pay the extra fee given my predilection for being tough on my phones.

The phone broke well within the one year anniversary of the purchase (the charger plug adapter flaked out, a common occurrence on HTC EVOs according to the clerk), so I blithe-fully drove to the Best Buy to get it fixed. Not having a copy of the receipt and original agreement, I went in imagining their customer relationship management software would know who I was and confirm I was covered. I also went in with very different expectations of what a buyer protection plan should do, perhaps one born from the extraordinary experiences I’ve had at Sears with broken Craftsmen tools and L.L. Bean with broken fishing reels and aged Bean boots. In both of those cases I was given the legendary “NQA” – No Questions Asked” experience where a new product was pressed into my hands and I was on my way in minutes, more devoted to the brands than ever before.

No so at Best Buy. The very nice clerk at the mobile department found me in the store computer, confirmed I was cool, and then delivered the bad news.

  1. My broken phone would be mailed off. A “refurbished” one would replace it. Ugh. I don’t want someone else’s hand-me-downs. That sucks.
  2. I would be given a loaner — not the same model — but I would need to place a $150 refundable deposit.
  3. I would need to go to another department — The Geek Squad — to  perform some bureaucratic function and then return to the mobile desk to get my contacts transferred and my loaner set up.

I suffered this news in silence. It was 10:10 am. I walked to the Geek Squad desk and stood stolidly for 30 minutes while the lone service person explained the fine points of expanding RAM to one customer, then virus removal to another. When it was my turn I had to repeat all of the information previously shared with the mobile desk to what was in effect a “human modem” who had to read back my address and spell my name and do all the other Soviet Union triplicate work. A sticker was slapped on the broken phone and by 11 am I was back at the mobile desk.

And then the fun began. Other customers had taken the clerk’s attention so I again waited for them to be served before it was my turn. Then came all sorts of contortions to get my loaner activated.  By 11:30 I was out the door, facing the prospect of a return in three or four days to get the refurbished phone back and reactivated, the loaner returned, and the $150 deposit refunded.

I paid extra money for this process. Someone at Best Buy needs to get on the floor and do some customer experience study, for I won’t buy a phone from them again, nor will I ever take their underwhelming buyer projection plan on any device ever again. The entire process should have been automated, made self-service, and focused on expediting me out the door with a new replacement the instant I walked in. Making me trudge from desk to under-staffed desk only made me grumpy and resentful.

Best Buy sucks.

update 6.5.11: Oh, and they forgot to give me back my 16 gb SD card which is doubtlessly stuck inside the Samsung loaner in some other poor soul’s pocket. Thanks.

update 6.9.11: Card retrieved with no hassle from the Hyannis Best Buy. Staff there is extraordinarily nice and helpful and remembered me as the guy who had to wait a long time on first visit. They even marked down a returned charging cable for me and turned me around in less than ten minutes. Friends urging me to tweet this to get Best Buy’s customer relations team attention. Not worth it. Will post in future on retail customer user experience design and how Best Buy could capture loyalty through the buyer protection plan, increase upsell of those plans, and make all parties very happy.

On Citizenship

I skipped the Bruins game and American Idol final last Wednesday night to exercise my democratic duties and it was good.

My political tendencies are very neutral, conditioned by four years of being a political reporter in the early 198os when any suggestion of partisanship was career suicide. I’ve attended an inordinate number of meetings of selectmen, school board, zoning boards of appeals, licensing commission, legislative subcommittees, and state of the state addresses. I’ve questioned presidential candidates, sat on the dais as questioner in a U.S. Senate race (John Kerry’s first term replacing Paul Tsongas), and countless other brushes with government, politicians, elections, and the public hustings.

Last night I attended my first annual meeting of the Cotuit Fire District, and for some reason, felt closer to the governing process than I ever have before. There is a certain mythology about the New England Town Meeting, a very basic, grassroots form of village government where a Town Moderator runs an unruly crowd through a busy warrant of expenses and amendments before the quorum vanishes and everything falls apart. The town meeting is a cherished American tradition dating back to Colonial times,one that has all but vanished under the pressure of professional town management and charter reform.

In the 1920s Cotuit petitioned the state legislature to form a Fire District so the people of the village could raise taxes and spend them on basic infrastructure services that were not coming from the Town of Barnstable. Those services included a village water department complete with wells, water towers, water mains and hydrants; a volunteer fire department, and a prudential committee to manage the budgets and oversee the village meeting place, Freedom Hall. This unique ultra-form of government has been under assault in recent years, as the neighboring villages of Osterville, Marstons Mills and Centerville consolidated in the name of efficiency. But Cotuit has hung on, even looking into the possibility of seceding from the Town, electing its own boards of fire and water commissioners and prudential committee despite challenges and constant calls to modernize and do away with what some critics feel is an anachronism.

I walked to Freedom Hall, signed in with the monitor as a resident tax payer, collected my yellow voting card, a copy of warrant, and the budgets of the fire and water departments. I sat by myself, surrounded by familiar and unfamiliar faces, the prudential committee, clerk and moderator on stage, the fire and water commissioners below them, at their own tables facing the two columns of seats with microphones standing in the aisle between them.

There were a lot of familiar faces, some from back in my grandparent’s time, but still turning out faithfully each and every may to debate the village issues and get the work done. I was embarrassed in the knowledge that this was my first.

The moderator laid down the rules of order, noted the presence of a Barnstable police officer should anyone ignore her gavel and need ejection (apparently the 2010 meeting was extraordinarily raucous). A second moderator was present to take over the discussion of any warrant articles that might represent a conflict of interest for the full time moderator. Introductions were made, and the meeting was brought to order.

There is a particular species of meeting participant I’ve observed in nearly every small town meeting I’ve covered as a reporter who feels compelled to comment on each and every item, or raise fine points of order to … for lack of a better word, make an irksome point. These people are generally categorized as a “gadflies” — a term I’ve never been fond of, as it reduces often very well meaning involvement to insect status.

I won’t report on the meeting, other than to say it lasted four hours, raised some very interesting points, required a lot of attention to follow correctly, and in the end, presented very efficiently the management of the village for the next 12 months. My greatest concern as a resident tax payer is that the Fire District retain its independence from the Town of Barnstable, as a vital definer of the village’s official identity, and a forum in which I can directly have an impact on how my village is managed and tax dollars spent. My heartfelt thanks to the elected officials, engaged citizens, and village employees for making this form of government work and thrive in times of faceless professional management.