the Clamb, anus clenching adventure

Vincentoli Blanteev
Half Ass Expedition Guide

and G. Mount Da Gomerly



After the first light on the morning of December 31st, the HAE team crawled from their tents and began preparation for their excursion Northwest onto the slopes of Mt Abraham. The day for the first real assault on the mountain, Blanteev recalled, was dismal and cold. During the night the members had listened an approaching storm front drop hail, ice and corned snow on the encampment, along with big drops of wet rain. It would not be an ideal day for a summit bid, because the weather had been quite unstable for several days and the winds continuous.
What the conditions would be on the mountain when the team arrived was anybody's guess. Weather on a New England mountain, like the people with backpacks who climb them, cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. The AM/FM radio equipment was left behind at Kingfield, a neglecting that I regretted as much as the time I climbed all the way to the summit of Bigelow's Avery Peak before I realized I had left my down booties on. Here on the trail to the base of the steep climb it was obvious by the sheet of ice frozen into the fabric of pitched tents that if there was one thing was on the mind of the hikers, it was distinct possibility for a very nasty ice storm.

Most of the Half-Assed expedition members had not reacted dramatically to the slight increase in temperature and precipitation they had experienced during the night. The resting respiratory rates had returned to a normal deep sleep rate resting after three long hard days of exertion caused by hiking with backpacks in deep snow. One of the members had said that it was sleeting outside, with a warming trend causing him to venture outside for a whiz, he stumbled back into the shelter faster than a hiker with a three Hot-Toddy fog. "It's fucking hosing out there," I recall him yelling.
A few of the team members were still struggling with smelly farts and hangovers, but none were complaining too loudly, wanting to put on the best face on their condition, not wanting to "talked about feeling like shit from that 151 rum in a fuel bottle and ahh shit we are about to be iced on real bad too," as one camper would describe the situation.
For Neirmeyer this would be his first trip into the Abraham wilderness. As casual and relaxed as everyone tried to appear, both Neirmeyer and Blanteev knew the history of the obstacle ahead. Since their earliest days off keeping score via newspaper clippings, they have read countless reports of people who have died in Yankee icestorms.
A precipitative, blustery mass of multi-pressured air patterns, ice cold arctic Canadian air down low interacting with higher and warmer moisture ladened air, the Icestorm transforms the countryside. It's descending precipitation, pouring on the unfortunate soul in seemly perpetual motion, coats everything in it's path with thick layers of tenaciously sticky ice. Blanteev recalls "I see ice on shelter tarp so I hit with big stick. Ice shatter like windshield of American car I drive too fast."
To cross the ice coated landscape to establish a Camp II Advanced Base Camp at the base of the mountain the hikers still had several miles to go in deep snow. To assist the climbers in their negotiation of the route, the ice coated snow was "shredded" before each backpack climbing session by the team hikers.
The "Chuff Doctors" as the work detail is known among the crew, is the dangerous job of finding and breaking trail ahead, some of which provide means for the hikers to ascend through deep snow using a packed down snowshoe trail. Given the distances that have to be covered, sometimes three or four pieces of survival equipment is carried along. The challenge is to get as far as possible in daylight, and then follow the snowshoe track back as quickly as possible after dark. The "Chuffing" is mostly done with a pairs of Sherpa SnowClaw snowshoes with teeth integral to the binding that allows the hiker to walk on easy ice. Less often, and usually in wind blown vertical sections, climbers might switch to ice crampons.
Moving through the woods you hear creaks, cracking, and booming, because storm winds have the trees always on the move. Your hoping that none of the sounds happens to be the catastrophic event, one that could cause a large tree section to topple on the route, or a hiker to disappear in a river crossing.

By early in day three the folly of moving backpacks was obvious. When the team had arrived, temperatures had held below zero, but a rapid warming with the smell of rain quickly softened the deep snowmass. Novak had told them that "You will chuff the mountain!" and that the only way to qualify was to get the requisite photo at the summit. The stakes were high, and Blanteev said, "The Hot Toddies are over, and we're into the hamburger helper big time!"
For most of the first section the pace was steady, but soon both were bogged down. With only two hikers to traverse a knarly half forested hillside field, they were sweating profusely doing the twice as much work that would be normally required by a hiker in a four-man team. Late afternoon found the team up to their waists in cement snow in a rising forest section. Advancing, stepping out one snowshoe of snow, then another, their snowshoes clanking and occasionally snagging, the climbers often found themselves surrounded by snow or sliding a section, that in a misstep could send the hiker for a bone crunching fall. If they were found and reached after a fall, the could imagine a helicopter extraction with compound fractures and concussions.
According to Niermeyer, "there are large drainage cracks and fallen wood obstacles. There are no ladders available to span a gorge or hillside washout, so the only recourse is to find some away around it and back onto the trail. Eventually you are going to say to yourself, can this be jumped here or do I need to go further up. You need to be well-balanced and not easily intimidated." Lighting fast reactions help, catching a snowshoe while sliding a steep descent is cause for a serious injury, a hiker has but a few hundredth of a second to extract the shoe before it's launch time.

Niermeyer loses purchase
Niermeyer negotiates a tricky descent. (photo © Vincetoli Blanteev)

All of the chuffing had been done within four hours and I was generally pleased, but I was surprised that we did not have the self-reliance to move through it without being almost constantly checking the map. The distances we had to traverse seemed far greater than indicated. Somehow, I was afraid, the map was telling me that the situation was out of control. I began to wonder "What is going to happen when it is time to survive, HAE style?"

Blanteev had just begun to fathom the true Half-Assed Expeditions equation. It was an equation that didn't add up. Somehow everything now was a factor, the HAE hikers on the trail, the team members at headquarters, and the New England residents impacted by the conditions. They stood there a metaphor, a way that those stuck without power could say "Hey we ain't doing so bad, yah read 'bout them hikers in 'da Mahoousucs?" If they went up healthy, were properly acclimatized and made all good decisions and their efforts were put good use they knew they could walk out alive. But on what extent could he actually count on half-assed survival , to take the edge off critical situations?
What Blanteev brought to the calculations was his extensive background of getting pummeled by New England weather, the attributes Tim Novak had realized were valuable previously. "When I hiked with him '87, it was less than perfect. I mean, he was absolutely stupid. He didn't do anything that he was supposed to do. I knew who he was; I knew what he was capable of....If anything went wrong I wanted a big named pro right on that potential PR disaster. But instead he's laughing his butt off and he's got the peanut gallery going too."

Our return to hiking the slush-coated snow was uneventful, and we wanted to set-up our Advanced Base Camp at the turned-the-wrong-way. Instead, with some more discussion, we continued on a grade to the unopened section and were more pleased with our success finding a well maintained trail that made hiking a routine process of chuffing snow. As expected we were looking forward to returning to camping and preparation for our next excursion, when we walked right into a clearing for a cabin.

During this rest day, Blanteev had begun to openly question the readiness of the team and the very motivation for trekking this far to a climb. Blanteev, while generally satisfied with team performance, had some concerns about the capacities for climbs ahead and for team members like Jim Fife to hike again, but Novak, Blanteev remembered, reassured him, "Jim will listen to me. He's got the experience; I was talking to him on the phone and he said that he will go hiking on Mt. Rainier on New Years 2000, as part of a bet, and that you were going to fly to Seattle for that trip." And about Markus. "Mark is an old friend; it'll be easy for me to hike with him. For him it's not that big of a deal. He'll have some good food, drink da beers in Base Camp. No big deal."

A half hour since we sighted and passed the cabin and still no sign of the upward trail. We were beginning to wonder if we were caught on some nameless spur trail, thus wasting and entire days worth of valuable energy. Part of our perplexity, we would discover later, was the fact that we had hiked right through the site and were still looking for a trail straight up the steep grade to our left. Back at the clearing for the cabin it is now close to dusk. Our resources to survive are way back down the trail. The dark wood shadows start to play tricks on the eyes, and a persistent feeling of panic that is always difficult to suppress can invade one's thinking.

The backtrack goes without incident, and along the way, the dark outline of mountains on our left, the very same ones that were on the right during the hike up, confirm that the valley we were hiking in was a glacial feature, an undulating sweep of snow and ice about 30 kilometers long that tilts gradually upward and is inclosed on three sides by peaks and connecting ridges of the Mt Abraham, Saddleback, and Sugerloaf, the major peaks in this section of the Maine Appalachian Massif. On this day it offered from it's vantage a clear view only when not obstructed by areas of dense forest. The complete lack of twinkling lights and automobile sound had confirmed that HAE had walked into yet another wilderness area untouched by paved roads and the resultant civilization clinging along the path of it.

Chapter 9, Camp III... CLICK

Copyright 2004 John Bellantoni