Half Ass Expedition Guide
TO THE NORTHERN SUMMIT
Saddleback Mountain, Maine, January, 1999
As we attained the trail after the requisite pit stop, Novak had addressed the Half-Assed Website readers, and inexplicability explained that the crew was now hopelessly bogged down in the forest zone, and told them that on December 29th, the team had finally started to move after a prolonged rest and with the weather now well below zero, the expedition would begin a trek along the previously days packed trail, and thus to the beginning of their final assent to the summit. Joking about Blanteev's and Niermeyer's decision to kick back in camp all morning long burning Logs of Death composed of what appeared to be pieces of the shelter, he blogged on that he suspected they had wasted entirely too much time talking about meeting women, great haebars of HAE, and drinking beer.
Trailing in the trips itinerary did not make Blanteev happy. "It was really a good team, but there were only two of us, we were old, and dang if were weren't slow, "They were the strongest you can be at thirty-nine or forty-one, but that still means you be danged slow," Another half-assed Climber, Jim Fife said, "In my mind, when I was on Mt. Abraham, standing with Rex Walters right in front of me, they just left us behind in a cloud of JB and Novak chuffed snow, probably costing us a couple of hours when they had to backtrack on the ascent to fire up a haebar with us.
Within two or three hours after leaving the outhouse, the Half-Assed climbers began to climb out of the timber line, and by 3 PM, they had thoroughly gotten lost several times, only to be brought back onto the trail by feeling the slipstream of stronger hikers before them, a path of summer AT hikers who's influence could still be felt this deep into the snowbound Maine winter. Climbing in the slipstream of JB, the HAE team would wait around until he broke trail after the haebar was done, and then on occasional spurts, Mark would find the old Indian trail. Obscured by the elements he could still feel the pull of the worn path, even as a confused JB would power way off trail into a nearly identical looking arrangement of rock strewn tundra.
For a couple of hours Blanteev and Markus climbed through dense forest and then began to slow down after they had passed several plateaus etched in short, hardy, softwood trees. Mark recalled that as they left the Camp, he had told Blanteev that he felt lethargic, without much energy, but as they climbed both were having difficulty finding their stride. Their previous days trail breaking efforts and difficult sub-zero camping conditions that forced them to continuously cut wood for fueling the fire despite the extensive use of Happy Hour consumption, were leading up to what he considered "a really lousy day." At several places along the climbing route, according to Jim Fife, the two climbers had to come to a dead stop, not because of difficulties or problems, but because Novak had instructed his hiking buddies "for the first part of the summit day" not to even try and put more than about a one snowshoe between the two hikers "until" they had finished the first of three trail designated haebars, in order to keep wind blown snow from the omnipresent tree cover from extinguishing the burning piece. Blanteev, accustomed to independence of action as a climber, has said that he was frustrated at having his decisions tied to the common denominator of the climb. He felt that being one of only two HAE team members on the mountain, it was only common sense not to be separated, had "forced" him to give up his personal commitment to self-reliance and independent decision-making. He missed the trail busting power of a four man team, HAE hikers not present on the mountain, their presence would have allowed Blanteev the latitude he felt was needed to work faster up ahead, hyper-chuffing the unbroken trail ever upwards.
The differences between Novak's and Bellantoni's philosophies of hiking were emblematic of the ongoing debate raging between readers blogging onto the HAE website's message board. The two camps of belief can be roughly divided between the "rationalizationists," and the "perfectionists." The rationalizationists argue that in leading risky half-assed adventure, no system of rules was needed to justify their unpredictable and screwed-up behavior, and that just about any old excuse that comes to mind is sufficient to rectify problems caused by incompetence, trashiness, stupidity, and whatever half-assed fucked-up events that occur. The perfectionists, believing that a little common sense and adherence to some simple rules was needed to counteract brain-dead behavior and dumb-assed decisions, ask that personal freedom take a back seat to following a well-thought out plan.
Critics of the perfectionist philosophy argue that an unencumbered half-assed position that minimizes any actions based on common sense was being promulgated largely out of fear of ending up being dragged out of the woods in a body bag the following spring by the doughnut squad. To them the perfectionists appeared anal and obnoxious, a constantly negative approach, easily panicked in critical situations where things did not go exactly according to plan, and quite fearful regarding the bad publicity and legal actions resulting from a lack of demonstrative "responsibility." The rationalizationist, on the other hand, felt that bad publicity was, well, still publicity, and that absolute perfectionism had no placed in a half-assed adventure. It was on these accounts that the battle was clearly being won by the side favoring chaos and half-assed action, although both sides agreed that proper preparation and backpack loading of party materials were critical for a successful expedition, regardless of how it was critiqued in hindsight.
According to Blanteev, at 2:30 P.M., he and Mark, after stop and go progress that had cost them more than an hour, reached the timberline at 3800 feet, but stopped there and hunkered down over their snowshoes, not willing to advance any higher out into unprotected sections of the Appalachian Trail.
At about 3800 feet I began to encounter uneven snow drifts, but my progress was still quite slow because we didn't have Tim and the rest of the crew to help out breaking trail in front of me. I arrived at the timberline somewhere around 2:30 P.M. just as the sky was completely lost in a foreboding, dark, swirl of grayness and menacing cloud streaked ceilings. Looking at that sky and toward the completely obscured Saddleback summit, the arctic ice-laced winds pounding us from all directions, I judged that we had unbelievingly brutal weather conditions to worry about.
At the timberline the HAE climbers almost immediately bunched up. At this natural resting place about the size of an over-priced SUV, climbers used the chest heaving pause to take a swig from their first booze canister, to drink some liquids to rehydrate, fire up a second haebar, and if they had the energy and coordination, which they didn't, to take some photographs. Mark said that at that position, he and Blanteev were moving from a position of minimal shelter from the elements to "a place where we couldn't think at all about how dangerous that stretch of trail ahead of us really was." They were parked right at the beginning of a classic Northern New England "Death Zone," that stretch of vertical rock strewn real estate between the timberline and the summit of a glacial hewn mountain-top where the prolonged exposure to the arctic winds howling strong enough to knock a hiker clear off their feet, and complete lack of discernible trail markings caused by near zero visibility, would conspire to quickly get a hiker lost, cutting him down while desperately wandering around looking for that needle in a haystack hole in the timberline, the way back out. Lingering above this timberline entry point had all the pleasurable possibilities of picnicking around a terrorist's bombing target.
The HAE climbers knew that the trail would have to found and memorized, both by sight and feel, if they were to proceed. Both knew that the Maine Appalachian Trail Club were good at marking and maintaining the trail, but at this point they seem to be counting more on the good conditions afforded to summer hikers than markings sufficient to be useful in the dead of a winter storm. Mark related, "I....knew that the trail had been fixed for a long time here, as it was a popular summer route, but we knew it was not going to be long before we couldn't see shit out there, man.... we were late, the conditions were getting worse. I thought we were going to leave by 9:00 A.M., but we ended up bogged down at camp that morning, and couldn't get out until nearly 10:30 A.M." Tim Novak agreed. "That was my understanding of what was supposed to transpire." And Fife concurred, " I heard specifically from Tim and Mark, who had both hiked the entire AT, that the trail there on Saddleback was well marked, and that JB and Mark should be able to stomp right up to the summit like a couple of gomers heading to L.L Bean from the overflow parking lot."
Most of the members and readers of the Half-Assed Expeditions website agreed about what was supposed to have happened. Another Northern New England peak was supposed to be bagged by the terra-forming mountain-trash hiking machine known as HAE. But that's not what was happening at the moment. Neither Blanteev or Markus had yet moved much past the timberline, the team bogged down trying to figure out how they would backtrack along the endless twists and turns in a steep trail that could only be discerned maybe 50 feet in either direction at any one time.
When he was debriefed from the climb, Blanteev said that a member of the HAE crew who had failed to show up for the climb had told him, "Already have all the stuff you need to smoke, you need nothing," Subsequently when G. Mount Da Gomerly wrote about the climb for publication, he cast suspicion on that explanation, saying that guys like Tim Novak and Jim Fife who should have been told that there was a change in plans were not and that Vincentoli Blanteev and Mark Niermeyer both left Camp way late carrying the base camp stash kit in their packs, an action, "for which there would have been no reason," if they had already previously rolled haebars in advance."
Da Gomerly's "evidence" has been troubling for some, who have found it circumstantial. The team had not arrived at the timberline until late in the afternoon, and by several accounts were, at best, extremely tired. In the gale that was blowing, with the happy hour of camp on his mind and struggling with his own well-being, it seems entirely within reason that Blanteev had gotten the report from Mark and felt he had one less thing to worry about. To not consider that scenario - is to suggest the possibility that both JB and Mark made a purposeful decision to hold a haebar rolling session on the top of Saddleback Mountain in the middle of a screaming January storm. Either action would have seriously compromised the summit attempt, and it could be theorized that the 3 haebars rolled back in camp had somehow been vaporized, forcing a dangerous situation.
As for the papers and stash that Niermeyer and Blanteev had carried up the mountain, many experienced Appalachian Trail hikers have wondered, why not? A climbing hiker would take it onto the mountain for the same reason you would keep extra screens in your head kit. Shit happens. A rising storm could suddenly throw a haebar into oblivion. You could bargain with other hikers for beer. An alternate route might be established, forcing the use of pre-rolled haebars prematurely. Your information could of been given to you by Novak, and thus would be 100% unreliable.
At 3958 feet a series of rock steps better suited for summer hikers than the snowshoe wearing team members had to be negotiated, and they began to clamber up from that point towards the summit at 4252 feet. Neirmeyer, after all the waiting at the timberline, said he felt numb from all the climbing and couldn't see very far ahead,
I had agreed with Mark and said I thought it was reasonable observation, and I offered him the canister of booze I was carrying. I was feeling well acclimated and strong, and I knew I would be okay to go ahead. My original intention had been to leave the booze and retrieve it on my decent, but when I considered we were running late and Mark was looking a bit fried by the entire effort, I offered it to him and he accepted it.
With Niermeyer trailing behind, Blanteev suddenly broke over the edge of the ridge, where the trail flattened out, tantalizingly close to the summit. As Blanteev and Niermeyer advanced, Blanteev began to motivate him to hike faster.
I started to hurry, because we had been up there for quite a while finding the trail and we were falling behind schedule. I was really in a full scale summit fever panic at this point, afraid of not reaching our objective, and with the gray dark light of the storm coated afternoon rapidly slipping away, unsure on how we would be able to find our tracks back. I looked back and could not see Mark so I stopped. Thinking that he would soon catch up to me I waited, and then we could have our talk.
Finally, after not seeing him after waiting, I backtracked some, thinking that he had lost the trail. Moving back I could see Mark in not so good condition, not moving too cheerfully.
At 3:10 P.M. Blanteev had made it to the broad summit plateau that resembled a Saddleback, thus giving the mountain it's name. Ten to fifteen minutes later, by his recollecting, he was followed by Mark. Blanteev remember thinking they were getting late and said, "I was getting very antsy," Basically the problem was that Mark was unwilling to going any further. He apparently had only one thing on his mind and that was turning back. We had already fired up our third and last pre-rolled haebar. The windchill was right off the charts, despite the heavy, layered clothing, the hikers felt like they were wearing swimming trunks in a dry ice factory. Each was in their own hypnotic consideration of the scene developing in front of them. Each of them had begun to consider turning back.
Bellantoni remembered, "I moved back, passing Mark, then going forward again trying to follow the rock cairns that delineated the trail from the high-alttude tundra, and looking for the sign I knew the Maine Appalachian Trail club would have placed at the peak. The only thing I remember about my conversation with Mark at that point was that he was convinced of two things. One was that we needed to turn back around because it was too late. He said he didn't see any way that, given the situation that we were going to make it back by.....eight or nine o'clock, if at all. We had totally exceeded any reasonable turn-around time. The other was that we were at the top, of which I was not completely convinced. 'That's the summit right there,' Mark said, uncharacteristically raising his voice in order to be heard over the roaring wind. Pointing out past the closest trail marker, he continued, "and it's got a fucking two-planking machine on it too." I said that I had gone up the trail beyond our current location and had not seen any summit marker, and that the map clearly showed that we still had several hundred yards to go, with maybe 100 or more vertical feet. Of course, with conditions this bad, way below zero temperatures, high winds, frozen moisture lashing at your face, I could have tossed a rock and hit a two-planking machine at that point and still not seen it, and was quoting the map from memory, when I had studied it back below the timberline."
"It was about ten of four and I had moved back to where Mark was standing. I've been at this for a long time, and I'm pretty good at managing fatigue and hardship. I've just learned how to do it, to survive no matter what the pain - I'm a bicycle racer. I really think of myself as an endurance athlete. And I had been pretty much tuning everything out of my existence and just kind of keep chuffing along. Now that ain't necessarily a compliment, because that's a dangerous thing to do.....going on auto pilot, moving along, one step at a time. And then I'm back at the rockpile where Mark is standing after exploring as far ahead as I dared - I remember this was just below the summit according to the map - I leaned a against that pile of rock and just rested for a moment. I was very, very dehydrated, and I took off one of my gloves to scoop up some snow and chunks of ice, which ain't necessarily the smart thing, but it was the only thing I had to work with. My water was long gone way back down the trail, I had to drink it or it was going to freeze up, even when it was carried inside my storm parka. I realized that all my fingers were frost bitten and numb. And I took off the other glove - same thing. But actually that was really no surprise to me, I already knew that, and my toes were starting to feel numb too, felt like they were soon heading that way also from the pressure of the snowshow bindings. But I guess I didn't care because summitting Saddleback was so important to me, that I was just going to grin an bear it. But as I was waiting , I started - kind of backwoods panicking, a wake-up call in a sense, and I started to think about what was really happening. So as I'm holding up the rockpile there, I now started to look inside myself and really saw my complete state of fatigue. Also you know, there may be breathtaking views up there, some of the most spectacular sights in Northern New England, but right now we couldn't see shit. You looked back, down the mountain, and the visibility was rapidly approaching somewhere between zero and less than zero. What I'm saying is this had to be just about the most horrendous weather that I could ever recall, worse than anything I'd seen on the Bigelow or the Old Speck trips, years ago. And when I asked Mark - I asked him how much longer - I knew we were pretty close - he told me he was not sure - maybe we were up at 4100 feet. I wasn't even capable of - my frozen brain wasn't even capable of - figuring out how long it was going to take. But when he told me that he didn't want to risk it - I realized that at the speed Mark was moving, we wouldn't make it back off the mountain, and my heart just kind of sunk to my feet. I think at that moment it was sort of like a moose had walked all over my tent with me in it. I knew we had a problem, and it was time to survive HAE style. It was not a question as to whether we could go for whatever amount of unknown time it would take to find that summit marker - that wasn't the question. I knew we could, given the time, get to the top. But I started to have serious doubts about our ability to find our way back down to the trail opening at the timberline. I knew that if we missed our chance we were as good as two dead dudes, with our fatigue, sweat coated undergarments, no water, I could feel the cold setting in almost the second I stopped generating heat by hiking. I mean, I have been in tough spots before and I've always toughed it out, but....this was a real quandary. There were two voices talking within me. I mean I still remember this, probably one of the moments I'll never forget. People always have warned me about the inability to reason when high on a mountain, but I'll never forget my brain fade at this moment. I had these two voices in me just ranting away at each other, that one voice, sounding like Tim, just telling me to go for it, 'Come on JB you pasty-white beer-swilling gomer, what's the big deal, Mark can wait here, so just jam up there for the peak bag,' But the other voice in me, I swear it sounded like my mom, was saying, 'Ahem...John, no, you can't see shit because that's the sun going down right over there in the middle of a hell-assed arctic storm, and you will die if you get stuck up here for the night.' And even if we made down into the woods off the trail, without our equipment, food, water, I knew we didn't have the anywhere near the strength left to keep a fire going all night. The northern wood would squeeze and suffocate us like the trash compactor on a garbage truck. To this day, I am actually amazed that I turned around. I told Mark, "OK then, that's it, we are at the top of this fucking mountain, aren't we! Let's do the photoshoot and split."
Niermeyer and Blanteev at the summit. (photo © Vincetoli Blanteev)
"That in itself took five or ten minutes, and Mark's actions were decisive, he had already taken the camera from me and was attempting to set it up on top of a rock. But not in this storm. The gusty winds knocked it down well before we could even take a couple of steps back. So we kept lowering it, with the same results, until we had the camera in what would pass as a marmot hole. Still the wind would turn the camera before the shot timer fired, and we got several pics of nothing but a whole lot of nothing. Finally, on the fourth of fifth try, the camera started rotating again, both myself and Mark jumped sideways to follow it. It caught us in midair, silhouetted directly against the cloud obscured sun."
"I would have to sum it up by saying that we didn't think we could have gone any farther and made it back out alive, or, in best case, being forced to attempt to follow the ski lift down, if we could find it. Dam, that would have been dangerous in the pitch black night, we could easily run out of strength long before finding facilities, undoubtedly closed by the time we ever got there, and would be at the mercy of some gomer to save our ass, not to mention hitching a ride all the way around, and then trudging up yet another climb to get to camp. And I think, we are a little different from, I figure, than a number of other people in that I we weren't really subject to a lot of the same pressures. We are HAE after all, and have been at this for decades, fuck it, we will just come back next year. Mark had already climbed this one, admittedly not in the middle of winter, and last year we had both bagged Mt. Abraham in an epic battle with that mountain. It's not like we wouldn't feel like we didn't deserve some hot toddies and a haebar at the end of the day. And shit...I live out in California now. I'd come back home, hanging out with my western climbing buddies and say, 'hey we climbed Mt. Saddleback in Maine!' They would look at me and say, 'yeah...so what, how high is that eastern stuff, a few thousand feet? That's squat compared to what we got out here.' They just don't understand. But I've climbed both. They have never experienced the difficulties, the conditions, the omnipresent grayness, featureless, woods pressing in on you from all directions. Getting rained on hard, hard, at 30 degrees and then waking up to screaming winds at 20 below. You step off a trail and are lost, authorities often finding dead hikers within a few hundred yards of a road. The shear, endless, isolation. Impenetrable brush, zero visibility. Ice coated roots and rocks twisting your ankles to shreds, sudden soft snow drifts up to your neck. Water that tastes like moose piss down low, nothing but dirty snow to melt above. Out west it's bright, it's open, and you can see for miles. The sun shines regularly, and its dry. It lifts your spirits. The clean snow pack is deep, uniform, and consolidated, a pair of 12-points with an ice axe, and you can just motor away. And there are people everywhere. On Shasta it was a zoo, a tent city, hundreds of people, zipping by on snow boards, skis, trudging by, heading up, heading down, gomers short roped by a mountaineering instructors. The parking lot at Rainier was full. On Glacier point in February we even met some women, that was a great night! I've never had the sense of dread and trepidation on a western hike that I often feel regularly in the Northeast, and I've been in plenty of "rough" stuff out there. Maybe some day I will, when me and Fife arrived at Rainier, 5 hikers had just died the week before on one of it's notorious glaciers, then they sent in 4 guys to rescue them, who never returned either. But right now, standing on the top of this Maine mountain, I could feel the fear, and I could see it in Marks eyes also. Controlled, yes, of course, the knowledge that after being roughed up and absolutely getting pounded harder than ever by old man winter on this years trip, we would still survive HAE style. But no elation, no sense of accomplishment, or ambition satisfied, nothing like wow this is awesome and I feel great too."
I put camera away, and give the unexplored trail ahead one more look. Mark took step and turned. 'JB,' he said, 'let's get the mother fuck outa here.'