I knew it was coming. I could feel it. My heart was racing, I was breathing hard. One foot in front of the other, hand over hand climbing we made our way up the Beaver Brook trail on Mt. Moosilauke. I knew we were going hard and fast up this impressively steep trail that was aptly described as ‘arduous’ in the guide book. It seemed the unspoken plan was to hit it hard and get the suck behind us as quick as possible. I also knew this was probably a mistake. “I should stop and let my heart rate recover,” I thought. But at that point, it was already too late. The crash was coming. The only thing left was how I was going to handle it.
I’m light headed as I call ahead up to my buddy to tell him I’m going to take a minute. That minute turns into twenty. I can’t slow my heart rate, and my vision is graying at the sides. I sit on a nearby rock at the edge of the trail and try to regain my composure. I’m trying hard to stay focused on getting my breathing under control. I don’t know how much time passed. I can hear the waterfall. I can’t see.
Are my eyes open? Uh, no. That can’t be good.
“Open your eyes, dude.”
“Open your eyes. Now.”
I see the tree in front of me, and the cliff just beyond it that leads to the falls.
“Nah, man. I’m good. I’ll just sit here for a while.” My eyes get heavy and I hear the voice again.
“Open your eyes and get on your feet. Right. Fucking. Now.”
“Ok ok, I’m up.” I grab the tree and hoist my increasingly heavy body up onto my feet. I call up to Chris. I’m in trouble.
I’m leaning against the tree and its slowly starting to come back. My hands are tingling and I sit back down on the rock. A minute later he comes down from the trail above. I tell him about the crash and he immediately gets me to take in some calories and some water. I feel like shit, and I probably look worse. I can’t figure it out. I’m in good shape. I run, I’ve climbed mountains. How the hell am I having an epic crash on this hike.
We sit for a minute and I repeatedly apologize for slowing us down. I feel like a jerk. The tingling in my hands subsides, and it occurs to me that I have a decision to make. We’re only 40 minutes and a few hundred feet into the climb and there’s a hell of long way to go. The safe play is to call an abort and head back down to the truck. At the moment it seems like the obvious choice. The other option is to press on to the top. Is this an isolated incident? A relapse at a higher altitude is going to be more dangerous than down here. Am I willing to take the risk and continue to the summit? I take another drink, and I’m starting to feel better.
“What do you think?” He asks. “Wanna try going slow?”
I pause and consider the options. We didn’t come all this way to quit. It’s a contest of wills. We’ll just go slow. One step at a time.
“Yeah man,” I reply as I get back on my feet, “Lets give it a shot.”
Thats how it started.
The first third of the Beaver Brook trail is by all counts, absurdly difficult. The book tells you it’s rough and arduous. The trail signage says its extremely tough and for experienced hikers only. Every hiker we encounter along the way said the same thing: It sucks… hard.. You just gotta get through it. They are all correct.
The views of the falls are spectacular, and it is the shortest route to the summit. Thats why we’re here. As we (very) slowly climb up out of this leg of the trail we run into a group of hikers on their way down. Concerned about the weather, they turned back at the shelter a little ways ahead. They didn’t want to risk coming down this steep trail in the rain. I don’t blame them. The good news, they tell us, is that we’re just about out of the suck, and the trail eases up not too far ahead. That is good news. I’m feeling pretty much back to normal and our pace feels good, but I’m looking forward to putting this leg of the hike behind us.
Once we reach the shelter, Chris walks down to check on a young through hiker that past us while we were talking with the other group. A little trail karma is a good thing. Maybe helping this kid out with some extra food might keep the mountain in a forgiving mood. Maybe. As I wait at the intersection, another hiker comes down from the top with his Great Dane. He stops to chat for a minute expressing an obvious reluctance to descend down in the the steep section of the trail. After a few minutes, the dog decides its time to go and they’re off. I wish them both well and we head on.
As promised, just past the shelter the trail becomes significantly easier. You know, for a mountain. The grade is a bit more forgiving, and we settle into an easy, yet not crawling pace. From here to the summit the views are unimpressive. Most of the trail is under tree cover. We can sneak a peek at the valley from time to time, but unlike the other mountains we’ve climbed it’s not bare and rocky at the higher elevations. It robs us of the view, but might be useful if the weather goes bad.
As the Beaver Brook trail joins with the Benton trail, it incorporates two descents on the hike to the top. We descend down into the first col before climbing back up, and from a turn in the trail ahead Chris tells me to walk quietly as I come around the corner. “Great,” I think, “He found a damned bear.”
I make the turn, and I see him crouching down with what appears to be a grouse walking around him. It’s making an odd half growl half clucking noise as it paces back and forth, blocking the trail. I don’t know much about birds, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing. It circles over and for a second looks friendly. Just for a second. The circle, now obviously a flanking maneuver, ends at his back, which is where this warbird decides to strike. In a flurry of wings and clucking it attacks my unsuspecting friend from behind and sends us both running down the trail back the way we came, screaming like school girls. This bird is clearly an asshole.
To get to the summit, we are going to have to get past him. We’re not about to be scared off the summit by a six pound bird. The scene vaguely reminds of something out of a Monty Python movie. I’m half expecting it to ask me three random questions about swallows carrying coconuts and then peck my eyes out when I get the wrong answer. It’s obvious, we’re just gonna have to run for it.
The bird of prey, now between us, has adopted what appears to be a divide and conquer battle plan. Ok, I’m up. I make a dash past it and I hear the clucking and fluttering of its pursuit as I quickly round the corner to safety. Somehow, in its pursuit of me, it positioned itself between us again. Clever little bastard. Now it’s Chris who has to sprint to my position. He makes his move and runs like his life depends on it. I think, for a minute, the bird might actually have him. Fortunately for us, we’re faster and the would be predator gives up the chase.
The trees finally break and the summit is in sight. We follow the rock lined trail up the grassy field to the cross that indicates our arrival at 4802 feet. After taking a couple photos and having a bite to eat we decide to head back. I look across the valley and can see rain showers on the opposite peaks to the west. It’s gonna suck if that hits us. No sooner do I finish the thought, the skies open up. On this exposed section of the trail we are getting rained on pretty good, but we both agree that once we hit the tree line, we ought to be more protected. We are both keenly aware that the last steep leg of the trail, which was already treacherous, is now going to be down right dangerous. We must be cautious.
Choosing my steps carefully, we make our way down. Its slick for sure, but if I can just pay attention to where my feet go, I’ll be able to stay upright. Seems easy enough, right? Sure. Before I knew what was happening, my feet come out from under me. Fortunately, my face broke my fall. Laying there with my face firmly pressed up against the rocks, I do a quick assessment. Nothing feels broken or especially out of place, so I give the thumbs up, “I’m ok..”
“You may be ok dude, but you just landed on your face.” He said more than half laughing at me.
“It looked awesome though. Right?” Is my reply. I collect my battered self up off the ground, dust myself off and we move down into the suck, which has now, in places, become a river. Awesome. In case I wasnt sure before, it is now apparent that this mountain is, in fact, trying to kill me.
We stop at the shelter one last time to check in on the through hiker. We both give him what extra snacks we have. He needs it more than we do. Starting in Maine at Mt. Katahdin, hes been hiking the Appalachain Trail, north to south, for about four months. Its quite an accomplishment. We stay and chat for a few minutes, and wish him safe travels on his long journey. The shadows are getting longer and it’s time we got moving.
The remaining third of the hike is a slow, treacherous suckfest of slippery rocks and poor footing. Nearly falling several more times, we finally reach the bottom, battered and bruised, but otherwise triumphant.
I think every hike has a lesson to be learned. There were a couple on this one. Most importantly, respect the mountain. Not in that tree hugging, mountains are magical kinda way. You have to respect the difficulty and danger in endeavoring to climb mountains. Even the small ones. I knew this going in, but I didn’t respect how hard the first part of this climb was going to be, and my overconfidence was my undoing. I got lucky, it could have been worse. It’s not a race. If you rush, the mountain will win. And losing is not something you can afford. At the end of the day, Moosilauke provided us one hell of an adventure. As this is written, exhausted and sore, I can’t help but wonder, when and were the next one is going to be.