Half Ass Expedition Guide
TOWARD THE RUSH
The following morning the weather still looked bleak and unsettled, the team of Mark and JB, as they had discussed after returning from the aborted summit attempt, began the excursion by hanging out over at the campfire and formulating a new plan. As Mark and I agreed that the enormity of the task ahead would be ahead of us, and that we might not want to do something hasty, like pack any of the portable shelters now lashed down against the storming wood, and hike with loaded backpacks to do something difficult like scout the trail to the timberline.
Because both Novak and Fife weren't even in base camp, and Niermeyer and Blanteev were pinned down on a tenuous Camp III, the hikers were left to think for themselves. We were unsure that we could take this climb, in these awful conditions, without the full crew, still, there was no talk of abandonment. Novak, sensing the teams predicament, and wanting to climb it himself, had scheduled the Return to Mt. Abraham Expedition for the 2001-2002 year, to occur whether or not the 1998-1999 team was successful, on a recommendation from Blanteev. This was going to be bigger than just this attempt. The wood, all around was staggering in it's immensity made the team realize that even if everything worked out according to the revised schedule, that they still would have to return, not only just to Abraham with a four man crew, but every year to the winter wilderness. The Hall Mountain Adventure, Bemis Mountain and more, HAE would continue to hike the great white north.
Every year we hike and climb, and every year it same, we feel as bug under foot of mountain, impossible situation created by half-assed action. I remember Blue Mtn.-Elephant Mountain trip when...
Blanteev's voice trailed off, now he began distantly staring at nothing in empty expression, and then mumbling, he stumbled into a nearby couch. G. Mount Da Gomery realized that maybe something had finally snapped, neurons in total breakdown, as Blanteev in a schizophrenic jumble, frothing, seemingly began to recall trips years later, or before, he wasn't sure, but it was what happened. He was lost in an infinite continuum of winter camping...hiking, consuming, hiking, consuming. Da Gomerly sat fascinated, and quickly changed recording tapes as he listened to Blanteev trying to understand what he had just been talking about, now seemly lost in the endless fractal expansion of jumbled mountain peaks and snowshoe bound frozen landscapes.
And as in a matrix formulation, when invariant under a single years transformation, Blanteev's narrative formed a tensor right in front of Da Gormely eyes, with an ice cold arctic wind blowing everywhere around the team of JB and Mark, suddenly a portal into the future had been opened in front of their very eyes.
It was a year that when the HAE team arrived at the Rt. 4 trailhead, it was fiercely cold. Having already driven by it, the call was to continue north into Rangley for supplies at the general store. "I remember this store, me and Tim got shitfaced here!" Mark exclaimed, and went on to chronicle the sequence of events. So with new shovel now in hand, the team of Mark and JB are back at the Appalachian Trail trailhead, and along with the brush axe were now busting through a towering snow plowed snow-wall at the entrance of the parking lot.
I knew we would be back and so we were. It was to be the expedition of expeditions, but we stepped out in to the snow realizing that the two man team of Mark and JB would have to once again attempt to open Appalachian trail up to a Northern Summit; Saddleback Mountain. Formidable and boding, it rose almost directly away from the roadside.
Why us again, I thought, to myself, after the battering we took at the hand of last years epic ice storms on the side of Mt. Abraham? If JB and Mark thought that was enough, apparently it was not, they had loaded up Mark's ride and headed North on December 27th, 1998, nearly a year later to the day that the duo had climbed Mt. Abraham in the disastrous ice storm conditions of the 1997-1998 northeast ice storm. Once again Tim Novak and Jim Fife were not able to make the necessary arrangements, they seemed, "apathetic, withdrawn and distant," and had gone missing on the mountain. But I knew HAE would still return because we truly believed that Maine could dish up some of the coldest wintah' camping in New England. One did not even have to step outside the car to tell you that it had been delivered for the Saddleback Mountain Trip with the truly amazing force of nature. The weather was so unbelievingly cold and getting colder that I was staggered by the immensity of my panic after nonchalantly standing around the outside of the car for about 5 seconds. I immediately dived into the trunk, the back seat, pulling out all winter clothing.
It was noon and the thermometer said 15 oF, wait that was 14, 13, 12.... The wind was picking up with dry snow and frozen iced moisture swirling all around. JB, now in gear, scratched his chin whimsically as he pondered what had just been accomplished. Mark and JB had been on many a previous years odyssey, including last years epic Mt Abraham Climb. Now they had teamed up for yet a second year in a row, to take on a totally different Maine, the one that all aspire to in the Half-Assed Expedition camping ideal of ideal, as some searing arctic air mass had shown up for the duration of the expedition. Woah. Awesome... and while listening on the car radio I realized that Mark Niermeyer had just slammed the expedition vehicle into a perfect spot in the lot, and judging by our previous handy work we were both feeling already like having put in a full day.
Niermeyer, soft-spoken, measured, and reserved in passing opinion, a tall powerfully quiet personality that is a tall forest pine for the lighting bolt personality of Blanteev. Opinionated and efficient, determined to climb the mountain in these conditions, Niermeyer's valuable experience had us now standing at the base of the climb, after scrambling over huge ice boulders tossed by road clearing machinery. "Guides, we don't need no stinking guides, heck we are the guides, it ain't our fault that, "those other," hikers never showed up!" And 'theres no way I did that'....And when that didn't work he would go about it another way....'so hae, where's Tim and Fife, they are going to miss this awesome stuff.'" Like Fife, Niermeyer has few critics as their professional hiking demeanor keeps the spotlight off the performance, only rarely slipping from character to get in the middle of camp frays.
JB: Tim cooked and Mark cleaned?
Mark: awh....I got this cook stuff too.
That evening we set up our survival gear in the Piazza Rock area. Using one of our whishitwouldlight stoves I prepared hot toddies and dinner entries. Typically, as you advance in the kilometers, you lose your appetite for the same stuff you packed all week, because of todays work I was particularly hungry and chowed down big on a huge hamburger helper blast.. Later as the temperature dropped and cold hypothermia shock overtakes my body, I crawl into my nylon and down based survival system, as the temperature cracks down to -20 below on my pack thermometer, I can tell that my aged sleeping bag was going to be pushed to the limit. I stayed awake all night, carefully regulating every air molecule of every breath, every muscle twitch to keep from freezing to death.
Blanteev's first night on the side of Saddleback mountain was more fitful than those he normally experiences, and he woke with a lethargy not unusual for an HAE hiker advanced in a long winter expedition. Somewhere between 7:00 and 8:00 am., he continued to rest in his sleeping system, barely exposing a glove coated hand and silk balaclava coated face when a hot chocolate is poured. Mark has fired up the stove and is forcing Blanteev to carry on a conversation as it boiled up water. Finally Blanteev emerges from his system in a loud rustle of nylon and pours his own hot chocolate, while trying to unzip an improperly zipped tent flap caught on his jacket Velcro patch.
As Blanteev drank hot cocoa from his foam coated cup, he watched as Mark above him had pulled out the IOD bag and immediately examined the condition of the contents. Selecting a Sven folding saw, he would hunt for wood high above the camp, dragging it down to where Blanteev was to process it, some by snapping in a nearby "V tree." It was obvious that these hikers would not be making their way to the South Summit until an adequate amount of firewood could be procured.
Niermeyer burns wood. (photo © Vincetoli Blanteev)
That morning, standing around the campfire, we discussed our fortune. A thermometer tacked to a post near the Piazza Rock Shelter is in a weak noon time sun, and it's reading -5oF. Packing equipment and then hiking, after a few hours time we arrive at the southern flat which I suspect is a pond area where the water we are drinking down lower originates. But it is impossible to tell as the winter wood is everywhere in blowing snow. Looking around as best possible through a tightly drawn storm parka, I am amazed at the endless expanse around us, the overwhelming cold and snow bearing down on us in relentless constriction. It has been difficult trail chuffing. Backwoods panic shivers down my spine. Any water is locked so far into a winter wonderland that the most you can dig up is a handful of dirty snow. The trail to the summit is daunting task at this point. Our objective to open miles of trail that afternoon despite the deep snow had been accomplished, hoping that our summit bid would be easier, we then backtracked, to survive an difficult, spit-bouncing cold night.
With the panic subsided by an open pit fire shimmering into the crackling ice cold star lit night I realize the shear awesomeness and power that we as visitors can experience, in all directions around us the great white north beaming and crackling in a majestic sub-zero splendor, pulling at the very heart of my existence. Like a Star Ship Commander on late night TV gazing into a portal of time-space continuums, I look with bemusement at the fire lit snow banks before me, and sense the transformation my soul will undertake in the audacious journey ahead.
A fire crackles.
Voices shifted by the combustion.
Entropy created, lumber destroyed
I was surprised that hikers of our experience had acted in that way. HAE is experienced in climbing, yes, but I thought that our rapid decent was not a particularly smart thing to do, stopping once again this time, this year but in an identical situation as last year, at the base of the summit climb. An extended happy hour would have been beneficial, but that trail breaking hiking, I suspected, had cost us a lot of energy.
That night I am amazed at how cold it really is. In my sleeping system it is getting to be the dead of morning, 4 am...5 am. My air intake is now triple baffled. I am half-awake monitoring every calorie of heat flow, not so much as moving a hair, keeping air stopped throughout the sleeping bag system as I take careful, slow, measured breaths. I can only hope what the light of day will bring.
Awaking on the morning of the 29th, Blanteev could hear the familiar sounds of trees booming, the closer ones sounding like real explosions, but absent is any talk of reaching the summit. Blanteev did not know that Mark had his own concerns about making the bid without having more acclimatization, and a more readily available firewood supply. A few more hours, and as they grudgingly began to move. "We sat up for a moment and talked about a time line. I said, 'You've got to decide that now is the time to go, that it is not the time to wait while freezing our un-acclimated butts off!' Which is what they were doing. And Mark said, 'Well, were not set up to make two attempts, We're only going to make one attempt.' This was no surprise to everyone who heard, because I had just paid good money for fast food and gas, and we would only get one shot at it!...I thought that was not what the Maine State Tourist Commission advertising had said.
JB and Mark had been counting on extra days to continue to acclimatize and open up difficult sections of snowbound trail, because the delays in establishing a higher-altitude camp had not given them enough time for fully testing physiological reactions to the ice cold. Now, Novak, back at HAE headquarters, announced to everyone that the team would be climbing without booze, and JB was furious. "I was saying [to him], 'There's no chance I can hike without a booze bottle...any water will freeze solid nearly instantly.....For years you've supported this policy, knowing the conditions of HAE expeditions...I've been creating my own expectations, training for this...You ain't nothing but a townie trash html bashing-metal head!'
Blanteev had to stop and explain that the Mark and JB team really had no real chance to ascend without booze, and like everyone else, he would fall into line and go on the bottle. Holding tenaciously to this position, Markus continued to harangue Novak for pushing them to 'fit in with yuppie-assed family style trip." from the detached distance of HAE headquarters. "I got mad....it's not something that enforces my respect for a HAE Certified Expedition Leader (HCEL)....we got fucking jacked on this one!"
The issue unresolved, Blanteev and Niermeyer abruptly ended their conversation about the Novak conversation. Blanteev, sensing that he might be able to help settle the dispute, left his tent and caught up with Niermeyer as he was heading toward the quiet and sanctity of the outhouse.
We had little time for our frozen brains to comprehend the Headquarters Directive. Mark told me that it could go well enough, but I was still unable to sleep without using booze. "Tim had got everybody going, he got JB going, he got Mark going. It's obvious that these hikers are from HAE to think that partying and alcohol could be consumed in such frigid conditions, but for whatever reason they wanted to do it, and finally Tim says ok, fine you Legally Gomered Two, you go try it....I mean Tim desperately wanted to get people up that mountain for advertisement's sake...I had told Fife back at the Seattle office,...'Look, you guys have no business giving us directives based on those computer sim-games, we could get our butts dragged out up there, and your going to get more publicity from that then if we ever returned from a unsuccessful summit bid, so you had better consider how easy it is to kick back in base camp and talk smack while we are freezing our asses off on side of mountain.'"