Wild Card Days in Vermont

After the family fiesta that was A’s and N’s wedding, and a couple of days of R&R (including a visit to Martha’s Vineyard- more on that later), it was time for our wild card day and night of adventure. In my family we’ve always called those days where you have just a general idea of where you might end up that night wild cards. And sometimes they end up being some of the most fun – or at least the most different.

J had randomly selected from the internet a very small town of 3000 with a historic (and very cheap) inn as our destination. The exact name shall remain unstated, so as to protect the innocent. The inn, dating back well into the 1800s, was grandiosely described as “dominating” the town common, and we envisioned a sort of quaint New England town, with old growth trees and clapboard houses.

This particular wild card day was to take us from the South Coast of Massachusetts all the way up to visit some dear friends in Saratoga Springs, New York. More on that later, also. Somehow we plotted a course that took us through four states – Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Notwithstanding such anonymity, I will mention that on our way there we happened upon The Vermont Country Store. What a treat! I’ve shopped their catalogue for years and the store is a real life version. We spent an hour enjoying trips down memory lane perusing items such as Windsong and Charlie perfumes, Lincoln Logs, and those glass Christmas ornaments that all of us who were children in the 1960s and 70s remember.

We arrived at our destination about mid afternoon. Think Bob Newhart. That is, the second show when he retired to run an inn in a small village in Vermont.

We knew something was amiss when we went to check in. The inn was indeed right at the edge of the fairly small common (could have been described as an unmanicured field with sidewalks), which had buildings only on one of its sides. My favorite shop was the bookstore, which was closed, but a sign in the window specified if you were there to pick up an order you could stop by the nearby CBD store and ask for the owner.

But back to check in. The “lobby” area was right at the front door, a desk area behind which were old fashioned mail boxes and keys hanging nearby for each room. Not particularly high security. After ringing the service bell several times in vain, another guest walked by and wished us good luck. That was not propitious.

Eventually an elderly waitress emerged from the back dining room to see if she could help us. Unable to find our internet reservation- I was becoming more and more surprised these folks were on the internet- she tried to text the official desk clerk. After another delay said desk clerk arrived, managed to check us in, and gave us somewhat rambling directions up a few flights of stairs to our room. She seemed uncertain as to whether we should turn right or left and exactly what floor we were on.

Nonetheless, we found said room – perfectly adequate although the mattress left something to be desired, and the fact there were locked French doors going out to an upstairs porch that only the other rooms could access seemed a bit odd.

We decided it was happy hour and therefore time to explore the local watering holes. Two were listed on the internet – an Irish Pub and some other place, called something like Ye Olde Tap Room, which was our place of choice. On our way out the elderly waitress seemed anxious that we make a dinner reservation so we complied. However, it turned out she actually did not know how to make a reservation on the IPad storing such information, and had to enlist the assistance of her much younger companion server. Another delay.

We marched along by the strip of shops, hunting for the address- which we could not find. Eventually we determined we must have missed it and made a u turn – only to find ourselves back at the inn. It turned out they had a separate address and name for their little hotel bar. It was closed. We opted for the the Irish pub.

The Irish pub was actually quite nice and had a remarkable selection of whiskeys. It was clearly one of the local hangouts and it looked like 10 pm was a late closing night for them.

After a pleasant time imbibing their specialties, J and I felt fortified enough for dinner. It turned out to be served only on the inn’s front porch – the dining room having been closed since Covid – and our elderly waitress appeared to be the only server. While the menu looked rather comprehensive, she first announced a list of things they did not have, which reduced the menu to a series of about five choices. I picked the vegetarian entree, the central feature of which was to be various grains. When it arrived – about an hour and a half later – there were no grains to be had. And, even though we were in Vermont, they were out of maple syrup. So much for the majority of desserts. On the flip side – there was a really good pie, the contents of which I no longer remember.

We awakened the next morning eager to try out the breakfast part of the bed and breakfast experience. It was a bit difficult to locate the breakfast room, as we appeared to be the only guests eating. There was a circle of people in Ye Olde Tap Room who seemed to be holding a 12 step meeting of some sort and they graciously directed us to the right spot.

There was a thermos of coffee with just enough for two cups. Two slices of bread each carefully wrapped in plastic for toast. A slightly brown banana. And a couple of yoghurts. I was hopeful that either we were the only guests or that everyone else had eaten.

Our check out went more smoothly. It was time to hit the road again. And our next destination was a hike up Bromley Mountain via Mad Tom Notch. Somehow very appropriate.

Off of the Saddle – Return from Mt. Baker

After our excessively long summit day, I slept soundly, which is not as easy as it sounds when you are overtired and sleeping on a slab of ice in a sleeping bag on an ancient thermarest pad. I’m not exaggerating- when we took the tents down we discovered that’s exactly what we were all camping on. See photo!

After more oatmeal – which I was definitely getting tired of – we reverse hiked our way back to the van, starting with the Railroad Grade. This time, instead of wearing my mountaineering boots I chose to wear my brand new Merrill’s, breaking one of the cardinal rules of hiking – don’t go a long trek in brand new boots. The downward slog caused multiple top of toe blisters and no less than five toenails paid the ultimate price.

But I digress. The real marvel of the Railroad grade, which, you will recall, is a slim reed of a trail with precipices on either side, was my mountaineering boot miracle. T had tied them to the sides of my pack, where they inelegantly protruded out in an apparently not very secured way. At the steepest and narrowest part of the trail, I could feel one fall off. I wisely thought, well that’s it, there’s no way I’m going after it – only to have said boot drop right at my feet with nary a roll to the side. With luck like that I really thought I should buy a lottery ticket.

The other odd part of our hike out was that at one point J, who was still not feeling well, managed to pull ahead of me. It had to do with a river crossing that I took my time at….while another group was well behind. For what I’m sure was a brief few minutes, although it felt longer, the trail started to look terribly unfamiliar. I called out to John to no avail, and started to convince myself I must have taken a wrong turn – not that I even recalled seeing any paths veering off. Finally, some other hikers walked by and assured me I was indeed on the way to the parking lot. I was relatively sure that there could only be one such parking lot on Mt. Baker, so that calmed my frazzled nerves.

We finally all made it back to the parking lot, in a state of bedragglement. After all, we’d been wearing the same clothes for four days, some of us had been ill, and we were all footsore. We were too late for our planned celebratory lunch, so we stopped at a Food Coop in Mount Vernon, where we had a very elegant little picnic sitting on a wall in the store parking lot under the overpass.

After surviving Seattle’s quite notable traffic we made it back to the Mountain Madness office where our little band of adventurers broke up and went our respective ways. We’d all bonded on the trip – one of the great things about mountaineering is the relationships you can form with a good group of people. And another is the relationship you form with the mountain. You don’t climb it – it lets you do so.

I had been apprehensive about putting my crampons back on. But this trip confirmed that thrill is still there. Now we just have to pick our next adventure.

Sliding Down the Saddle – Descent of Mount Baker – Part 3

Just a little the worse for wear

My goal of cranking out our entire Mount Baker trip in a few weeks has been waylaid by work, as so many things tend to be. But fear not; we haven’t been stuck on the summit forever – we did in fact make a not very elegant but nonetheless effective descent.

One thing I inadvertently omitted from the account of our trip up to the summit was the eerie, almost tropical breeze that accompanied us at the beginning of our summit night. It was a harbinger because heat was the theme of the way down.

Of course, the first challenge of the descent was to reverse our way down the Roman Wall. As the smallest of our team of four, I was assigned the front of the rope, which meant I had the responsibility for picking out the footsteps we would follow on the way down. I had last led a rope line on Mt Elbrus and I was terrified as guide S short roped us (so he could control the rope better) and I cast a look down at the truly steep slope before me. He’d done the same short rope up the Roman Wall as well, which gives you some inkling of its incline.

It was much harder to get into a steady pace on the switchbacks on the way down, as we had very varying speeds on descent. To my surprise, the really vertical part was actually easier than the switchbacks – it required a boot plunge into already carved steps that you slid into – some almost 18 to 24 inches – but they felt fairly secure. The only problem was that so many other ice axes had already traveled that way when you dug your axe in you were just as likely to hit an existing hole and get absolutely no purchase.

I’d forgotten how much I liked leading a rope. The Roman Wall demanded absolute concentration and my legs felt shaky at times – nerves – but that complete absorption in the moment is one of the things I love best about mountain climbing (and glaciers, in particular). As our guide said – every step had to be purposeful. I’m afraid there are no photos of this. My hands were otherwise occupied.

Not quite sure about this angle but this is what it felt like

We made it down the Roman Wall in decent time and then reversed positions and I was now at the end of a long rope. Our guide, SH, was concerned about speed because temperatures were climbing and water was getting low also. Apparently my Florida heat training helped because I got down with water to spare.

But this is where the different trekking speeds really slowed us down. If I went too fast the rope would pool around J’s legs and he’d trip so I had to keep stopping and we never got a good downward rhythm going. It took almost five hours to get down (recall it had taken about eight to ascend), and it was an enormous relief once we could unrope and slip and slide down the last little bit.

Crevasses presented a few adventures on the way down also. The glacier is always moving and the cracks in the snow were no longer where they were or the same width. In fact, although I didn’t see it, T reports to me that M had a “crevasse crash.” The snow at the edge of one deep crevasse had gotten slushier, and you needed to dig in your crampons before hopping across it to get traction. As M approached, she couldn’t get a good foothold, and, worried about breaking her leg if one foot slipped in, chose to dive headfirst across the crevasse with full momentum. According to T, she quickly uprighted herself, sat up, and started laughing.

Back in camp everyone was exhausted. Poor J was still enduring whatever stomach issue was plaguing him, and M was also having to cope with feeling unwell. We had a latish dinner of spaghetti and needless to say, all were asleep at an extremely early hour.

Next up – the hike out, the miracle of my mountaineering boot drop, and had I actually gotten myself lost somewhere on the trail system of Mount Baker.

Into Saddle and Onto Summit – Mount Baker Part 2

The first night of our expedition was the coldest of our three camping nights, and my feet never got warm. For some unknown reason I had failed to wear socks.

But the day dawned bright and sunny. This was to be our rest and training day. We were treated to a non oatmeal breakfast of surprisingly good scrambled eggs from a powder, topped with cheese and turkey bacon jerky. Who knew. SH had dispensed packets of instant oatmeal to everyone for the remaining days, which led to great confusion as to who had the right number of packets and what that number was. He’d also doled out lunches for the next days – wraps that we were already calling salami bombs and I’m sure they added to the weight of my pack.

A view from our tent – that steep bank in the distance is the Roman Wall

After a leisurely breakfast we donned crampons and climbed up the nearby snow bank. There we proceeded to practice movement on the snow (duck feet, French technique), self arrest (flip your ice axe around, pick side down, plant it, dig in with your knees and feet, hips raised, and kick), and movement on a rope with a team. It had been four years so I was glad of the practice. M, one of the folks from Canada,was definitely the most adventurous on the self arrest practice – she picked up a lot of speed as she simulated her fall down the slope. J and I were a bit more cautious.

We spent the afternoon reading, napping, and prepping our packs for a 1 a.m. wake up call. I also spent quite a bit of time observing our comrades from other groups – campgrounds are second only to airports for people watching.

We had an early dinner of rice, orzo, the ubiquitous salami chunks, followed by a sunset walk, and were in “bed” by 8. Needless to say, sleep was hard to come by, but I know I must have drowsed off, waking about five minutes before the alarm, just in time to force down my two packets of instant oatmeal. At least we also had dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips to add to them.

We finally started off at 2:15 a.m., only 15 minutes after our appointed time. Slow was definitely a theme of this trip – after all, it was referred to as the “slow Baker” expedition in the marketing materials. But let me also add a little flavor. Of our five merry climbers, only M, J and I had worn crampons before, and M had not done so for years. T (friend of absent S) and TF (the other person from Canada) had never worn them. So all in all, I think we made a pretty good showing.

It’s always spooky to take off in the dark, accompanied only by the glow of the headlamps, but the air was perfectly still and I was hiking in only a soft shell jacket. We started off with our crampons on – which was great as we avoided the agony of having to struggle getting them on somewhere on the glacier in the dark.

After about 45 minutes we crossed a rocky area with a bit of scrambling and it was time to rope up – we were well onto the glacier. SH led a rope with J, T and me; H led the other rope with M and TF. Z and C were on their own rope. Z did decide to wear something other than his kilt for the summit day.

I could feel myself slipping into that zen like state of a steady pace where focusing on putting one foot in front of the other is the only thing in your head. I’ve so frequently channeled our guide Ossy’s instruction to me on Cotopaxi in Ecuador that you have to find your own way up a mountain. This time I also repeated SH’s mantra – step purposefully. Surprising how these mountain directions do a lot for everyday life.

The trail was moderately sloped with a couple of flat platforms at 7000 and then at 8000 feet. There weren’t a lot of other groups but we were passed by some who were huffing and puffing – my goal was not to do that! The sun eventually rose and we could see the shadow of the mountain cast along the valley.

There were any number of crevasses that we had to wind our way around or step over, sometimes with the help of a snow bridge and sometimes without. The widest was perhaps 18 inches. They are eerie. You can see blue ice lining the sides and no bottom, and it looks like a fall would usher you into some completely other world.

The crater

We ultimately reached the crater. The mountain is still an active volcano but I wasn’t really aware of any sulfur; it certainly wasn’t anything like Cotopaxi. I was conserving my energy so didn’t walk over to look into it, but I did enjoy my salami bomb. I was making a big point of eating a lot as I know in the past I have failed to do so and that does not work well in the mountains. In the meantime, I learned later that both J and M were feeling unwell, but what troopers! They soldiered on without a word of complaint and still with appreciation of what we were experiencing.

Finally we reached the so-called Roman Wall, unclear why it was so named, but it provided the source for a running series of jokes about the ancient Romans and their visit to Mount Baker. The Roman Wall is indeed steep; it is really the head wall of the mountain and considered the crux – that is, the hardest part. It’s the part I’d been dreading. It averages about 40 degrees according to what I’ve read, and starts at about 9750 feet.

The first part is a series of switchbacks that nicely ameliorated the steep slope. I’ve always said you can climb most anything with enough switchbacks. But near the top, they cease and there’s a straight vertical climb. Kick into the step of the person before you, step up, and repeat. Twenty five or so straight up feet of this. A few more switchbacks and suddenly you’re back on a relatively flat area with the summit not far away.

The summit is a small 50 foot high or so mound that protrudes off the flat area. Unfortunately I kept having the image of a pimple, which does not appropriately capture the grandeur of the view or experience. We all collapsed for a few minutes and I took my obligatory yoga pictures – but couldn’t wait to start up the final steps to the summit. It was about 8 hours since we’d started our jaunt.

The views were spectacular, as the photos show. And I once again had that top of the world feeling, that exhilaration that I’ve never really been able to capture anywhere but a summit.

I later found out that TF’s parents were from South Africa and in the early 1950s, when they were in their 20s and had been married for four years, had travelled to England, bought a 1933 London taxi for 50 pounds, and proceeded to travel 6,000 miles throughout Europe, camping along the way in their taxi. So many people asked them what they were doing they painted the facts about their journey on the outside of the vehicle – the media picked it up and the taxi became known as their traveling suitcase and they the “traveling suitcase couple.”

What a spirit of adventure! I’d say that TF – and all of us on this trip – were carrying on a bit of that legacy, even at much more advanced ages. I’m sure TF’s parents would approve.

But as I’ve frequently said before here, what goes up must come down – and so it was with this trip also. That’s for next time.

Ordinary Time for Extraordinary Days

Unless you are an Episcopalian or otherwise have a fascination with the liturgical calendar, you may never have heard of “ordinary time.” It’s that seemingly neverending period that starts right after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost) and lasts until Advent, with a few saints days thrown in for good measure. The color is green. As a child I remember thinking those endless Sundays (the “xxth Sunday after Pentecost”) would never end – the same way the long days of summer stretched out like an endless road back then.

Lest you wonder what in the world ordinary time has to do with the adventures of FromSwampToSummit – suffice it to say that I think we all need a little more of it. For example, I wrote this post while climbing on the stepmill at the Y. Is that really the best way to do it? Don’t we all need to slow down a few minutes and experience the boredom that allows our minds to roam free without the constant interruptions of stimulus?

I’m particularly sensitive to those needs right now because I’m about to enter a phase of extraordinary time. A and N get married in just over two weeks in New Bedford, MA. We will be seeing family and friends we haven’t seen for years, some due to Covid and others the vagaries of time. And all in one fell swoop.

Of course, all of this will be capped off by our trip to Mt. Baker in Washington, with S of Stok Kangri and Elbrus fame. Hence the step mill.

S, J, and me in Ladakh, India

But despite all the excitement, I think we could still all use a little ordinary time. I’m going to try to keep my eye on that clock over the next few weeks.

Danger Lurks in the Garden- A Cautionary Tale from Durham, NC

I was halfway through writing a very pleasant blog post about my latest trip to New Bedford, Massachusetts, home of daughter A and her soon to be husband N, when I was (purposefully) interrupted by a trip to my hometown of Durham, NC to visit my parents. It was a beautiful weekend, the temperature was cool, and I was actually able to do one of the best training runs for Mt. Baker that I’ve done in a while. Turns out running in 70 degrees and no humidity is a lot easier than running in mid 80s when the clouds are about to burst open.

I was so inspired by the spring weather that I felt compelled to start weeding in my parents’ front yard. That was Saturday. My father announced toward the end of my session he thought there was a lot of poison ivy there. I hadn’t seen any and shrugged it off (the fact I was using an old bag that had been filled with lime to store my weeds explained the burning sensation in my hands – or so I thought). (I have subsequently determined that poison sumac looks a heckuva lot like the vines I was pulling.)

The next day my flight left in early afternoon, but what better way to spend an hour than pulling a few more weeds, this time from the back yard. Oh, I haven’t mentioned I rarely wear gloves; they diminish the sensation of the good solid pull you get from bare handed gardening.

I was fine on the flight back to Orlando on Sunday, although I started to notice some itchy sensations. Fast forward to Thursday. I’ve lost several days of training. I’m covered with bumps, red blotches, watery blisters, and pretty much any time I think about any part of my body it starts to itch.

The good news is I discovered Teladoc. For five dollars and setting up an account they found my benefits information and I was on a video call with a “Florida board certified ER physician,” within 30 minutes. She took one look at my red face and almost swollen shut left eye and called in a prescription for what is apparently known as a “prednisone blister pack.” I’ve now taken 4 tablets with 2 left to go for the day. Wondering if this is supposed to make me Uber aggressive and I should be arguing with opposing counsel.

But seriously, a totally fabulous and efficient health care experience. But I suggest you avoid it by wearing gloves while gardening.

Never Say Never – Mt. Baker

S looked at me bemusedly. “Really? You swore you were never again going multi day backpacking where you carry your own stuff after the slog up Long’s Peak.” His words resonated as I found myself buying my fifth or so back pack – this time a 70 liter one. It towers over me.

All it took was a late afternoon chat with SB, of Elbrus and Stok Kangri fame. Steps on the Summit The Trek to Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India As we commiserated about our lack of adventure and travel over the pandemic, SB noted that Mt Baker in the northern cascades had always been on his bucket list. A few internet searches later we were all signed up for a Mountain Madness four day trip up Mt Baker’s Easton Glacier route in August.

In deference to our advancing age we are taking the slow route (relaxed, they call it, I guess like a fit of pants) and there are others who haul up the tents, cooking equipment etc. You “only” have to carry 30 or 35 pounds, but it’s too much bulk for my 53 liter pack.

So, it’s back to training for us. I did stairs twice last week and am forcing myself to run when I can stand it. J’s various Achilles issues seem to have resolved and he’s back to basketball.

But we are really hoping to get more outdoor hiking in….and yesterday was a good start with a beautiful walk in the Lake Proctor wilderness near Geneva, Florida with S and M. It’s a generally shady trail with Florida scrub on one side and views of a small lake on the other. The weather was spectacular- blue skies and in the 70s and we took our time and relished just being outdoors. There was even enough standing water to wade through and around to make S happy. Should all training hikes be so pleasant!

Our Mt Elbrus guide described Baker as a mini Elbrus so I guess it’s appropriate we are doing it with SB. Hopefully I’ve learned some things over the last 9 years and this time will make sure I have sun screen lip balm, not chapstick in my pocket.

Yes, that’s zinc sunscreen but none on my lips.

Florida by Rooftop Tent – The Many Uses of a Little Black Dress

They don’t say a little black dress can be worn anywhere for nothing. A case in point.

The other week I was invited to speak to the Florida Young Lawyers division about mental toughness (which I call resilience) and my mountain climbing adventures. Having rejected the urge to show up in full battle gear – crampons, helmet, boots and the like – I decided my REI black travel dress would convey the necessary formality (these young lawyers were much more dressed up than we older lawyers tend to be) while still demonstrating that mountain “savoir faire.”

The event was in Tampa, and our plan for afterwards was to drive southeast toward the heart of Florida to a Hipcamp named Camp Catfish. It advertises itself as one of the top Hipcamps in Florida for 2021. It was a primitive site – no water, portapotties or any amenities (if you consider a port a potty an amenity). Just four leveled off pull in sites on a piece of property bordering the Peace River.

The drive to Camp Catfish took us along two lane county roads wending their way through fields of crops and citrus groves. I know Florida’s citrus industry is on the wane, but you wouldn’t know it when you’re in the midst of acres of orange trees.

Finally our GPS – yes, we had no address, only GPS coordinates- took us to a dirt road. Nestled along side were a few small farms and dwelling places – one was a “peace bus”. Truly looked like a spot for those living off the so-called grid.

We reached the end of the road and pulled into the campsite, marked by a Camp Catfish sign. Each site was large, with plenty of privacy. J and I immediately set to work – even though we’ve gotten a lot faster there’s still a lot of set up to do, and J insists on setting up an awning even for a one night stay. Hopefully some time we can go for two nights and enjoy the fruit of our labors.

Now what I haven’t mentioned is that I saw absolutely no point in changing clothes – hence I found my self erecting a privacy tent and making up the roofnest in a black dress! Well, I did change into tennis shoes. Like I said, those little black dresses go anywhere.

I did find something else to wear for a lovely short hike to the Peace River on the Hipcamp property the next morning. The river is home to many fossils – sharks teeth, armadillo plates, and the like – and the other campers were taking full advantage. They floated sieves in the river, dug up portions of the muddy riverbed and strained it through. They also had the biggest tent I’ve ever seen and I wondered if they were actually professional fossil hunters. After all, it was only $10 per night!

The hike itself took us through hobbit land. Covered in emerald green ferns, gentle rises and falls, and a canopy of old oaks.

I left the best for last. The night was moonless. There were no clouds or light pollution of any sort and the sky was embroidered with a thick weave of brilliant stars. Peace River. A wishful hope in these times.

Rooftop Tent or Five Star Hotel?

Miami

I’m at my first in-person partners meeting in two years, staying at what I’m sure is a five star hotel. Who knows how far into the three digits it’s charging.

But this is life after the pandemic – or at least after we’ve gotten used to the pandemic – and much has changed in the hospitality industry. Or perhaps what I’m really demonstrating is that I’ve simply lost touch with the modern world of hotels over the last two years.

It started when I left my law firm’s dinner at a reasonable hour, returning to a really lovely room in a hotel that shall not be named. I was looking forward to enjoying a super expensive package of nuts from the minibar – which in my naïveté I just assumed was still a “thing.” But when I realized my keycard wouldn’t unlock said minibar I dialed 0 – at least that usually still works – to inquire about the issue. I was informed that Covid somehow had required the emptying of all minibars (despite the fact that minibars, whose ingredients are individually packaged and as pristine as a first snowfall, would hardly appear to be spreaders of Covid).

So giving up on that, I thought I could at least make a cup of decaf coffee in the fancy Illy coffee maker that was on top of the empty locked minibar. But Illy coffee machines should be banned as apparently no one, hotel staff included, knows how to use them.

With all the high falutin’ technology in this room – there was an imbedded TV screen in the bathroom mirror (what??) you would think you could at least turn the lights off with the help of one switch. But no, the switches were multiple and varied and at the end of the evening I found myself looking for manual off and on switches on each light fixture as the only way to power down. At least they still have switches. By the way, that omits the earlier hunt for the bathroom light switch, which turned out not to be close to the door but required a venture into a dark bathroom to find it somewhere in the center of the room over the middle of the vanity.

As I re-read this it certainly sounds like a rant of first world problems. But I’d never have thought that climbing up a ladder to my comfortable queen size mattress in my rooftop tent, illuminated by a little string of built in, battery pack operated LED lights, would be easier than staying in a swank hotel!