Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Fiddling on the Brink of Hell; Winter Death

Fiddling on the Brink of Hell

Maybe we had planned it during our Thanksgiving break from college or perhaps during that magic summer, the one that’s almost religiously devoted to partying at the beach. You remember the one, the one which ignited an era of transition and independence as yet to be experienced in your life as a high school student. It’s the summer that kisses thirteen years of public school education goodbye. Was it at a keg party during that magic summer, or while we sat on the trunk of someone's car listening Rock ‘n Roll, drinking beer, and watching Frisbees slice through the humid night air of the semi illuminated parking lot at Weed Beach?

The three of us differed greatly in character, personality, intelligence, interests and background but we all had a few things besides graduating from the same high school in common, and that was the love of the wilderness — especially backpacking. All of us had varying levels of backpacking experience as well.  As far as personalities go among them, I guess you could say they ran the gamut. Karl was somber and quite serious at times, clever, and often quite witty. I was somewhat the opposite, spontaneous and impulsive, forever joking and clowning around at someone else's expense. Tom was the glue that held us together. He was the nucleus and had a different kind of bond with both of these two friends of his. He had spent four seasons running track with me and enjoyed my spontaneity and endless attempts at humor. We doubled dated, partied, enjoyed the same music, and did some backpacking together. We were pretty tight. Tom and Karl were no less solid. They ran a small house painting business over the summer between graduation and college. Although their relationship had to be more serious at times, Tom appreciated Karl and his seriousness about things. The summer before his graduating, Tom had done a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership Training School) course out in Wyoming up in the Rockies.  It was rather intense and prepared him well. No East Coast challenge could compare. Tom, in his senior year of High School was captain of the cross-country, winter and spring track teams. He graduated with 9 letters in track and only 9 because our High School started at 10th grade instead of 9th grade, like some other high schools. He also had a 4.0 GPA to boot.  He was quick witted, friendly, humorous and rather good natured. 

It was truly a magic summer, and we were all, to some degree in love with the feeling of being in love with this brief, but special chapter of our lives.  While under the influence of this strong chemical cocktail of dating pretty girls, adrenaline, infatuation, electricity, excitement, and a big transition in life, we planned a week long winter backpacking trip to High Peak region of the Adirondack Mountains in Up-State New York near the Canadian border. We would hit the trail on January 1st, 1977.  

While I had gone the whole ten yards to get my Eagle Badge, Karl lost interest in scouts soon after he entered high school, but he pursued his interest in backpacking, and meanwhile, he gained some advanced skills in Winter/Wilderness Backpacking. Comparatively, I had neither the experience nor skills that Tom and Karl had. I was more used to the semi-rugged Appalachians and Berkshires mountains. So was it fate, a random convergence, or a combination of both that brought the three of us together to embark on a seven day trek into the High Peak region of the Adirondack Mountains that would include climbing to the summit of New York State’s highest peak in the middle of winter. We left Southern Connecticut on the last day of December, 1976, after each having experienced a semester of college in different parts of the country. Tom and Karl cajoled me into using my old beat-up but undying 1966 white Convertible Volkswagen Bug for means of transportation.  Tom and Karl chipped in and bought me a case of oil (24 quarts took us up and back) for the 6 hour ride. We would pull into a gas station and ask the attendant to check the gas and fill up the oil.

So we set out with me driving, Tom riding shotgun and Woody in the back seat, wedged between back packs, snowshoes, sleeping bags, etc.  The trunk in front was almost bursting at the seams with gear as well.  It began to snow near Albany, which meant it began to snow inside the car, too.  No one I know can ever remember any Volkswagen having a functioning heater and this one was no exception.  The two passengers got in their sleeping bags and put on their down jackets. It was about 18º F, not counting the wind chill factor in the VW.  Sheets of snow began to pelt the tiny bug as it meandered pitifully up the Northway, blown side to side by the blustery winds. The driver’s side wiper would pitifully rise an inch or two and then droop down with a whimper to back from whence it came. It was useless and was just there to taunt me as I fought to see the snow pelted road through the fogged and frozen windows. Needless to say, the defroster didn’t work either.  After a while, I had to open my window to manually scrape with one hand and drive with the other.  It was a shame visibility was zero because someone should have witnessed this comedy of errors and reported it to the proper authorities. The ship of fools was being tossed and pounded by each gust of wind and wave of snow, breaking through the drifts as she went, putting Albany behind her.

The journey had begun and the first signs that it was not going to be a walk in a sunny copse was that it was extremely uncomfortable and cold in the bug, and not only for the passengers. The driver was baring the brunt of the difficulties. Just the eight hour drive to the John’s Brook parking lot in Keene Valley was fraught with challenges.  Although we made light and fun of all the above mentioned problems, the romance and chemistry was quickly wearing off. Reality was beginning to set in, especially as the temperature plummeted the closer we got to the High Peak region.

Things Usually Get Worse Before They Get Better

What should have been a six hour trip was closing in on ten.  Frozen and stiff, the VW bug, which was now literally caked with snow, slush and ice, pulled into John’s Brook Parking area in Keene Valley at about 6:30 p.m.  It had already been dark since four O’ clock. There were a scant few cars in the parking lot, all 4-wheel drive late models.  We spied a garbage barrel where I urged Tom to deposit the 8 empty cans of motor oil. I then secured the car which wasn’t a big task because it couldn’t be locked. Tom suggested that I hide the screwdriver that I ordinarily used as a key, under the seat.

Extremely stiff and very chilly, we set out down the trail to John’s Brook lean-to which was somewhere from 2-3 miles away. The snow had stopped and was spitting down a flake or two. The sky was now, for the most part clear and cold, glistening with a countless number of stars. The trail had a couple of inches of fresh snow but was quite well packed underneath.  All in all, the snow had to be about 4 feet deep. The moon was beginning to make its way over the peaks and gave us enough illumination to move comfortably along the trail.  Occasionally a clump of snow would fall from a spruce or fir unexpectedly down the back of someone’s neck. The cold night air was, indeed, quite brisk but after a few minutes, we were warmer than we had been any time in that last ten hours. Having arrived at John’s Brook lean-to a little after 8 p.m. we thanked our lucky stars when we found the lean-to quite empty. The thermometer that hung off Woody’s jacket zipper was dropping to just below 18º F, while the three of us were figuring out how to get comfortable in our goose-down sleeping bags on the hard wooden floor of the Adirondack style lean-to.

Boots and canteens were placed in the bottom of our sleeping bags. Frozen Gorp, pieces cut from an equally frozen stick of pepperoni with a couple of slices from a brick of cheese were washed down with a cup of hot chocolate. Anything close to a prayer before bed time resembled the plea; “I hope I don’t have to get up to take a leak!”

Nights spent outdoors in low temperatures are not always so conducive getting some good sleep.  For those of you who know the experience, one night like that can literally seem like a week.  You say to yourself, ‘oh man, it must be almost time to get up, what a long night’- and then you check your watch and it is 11:30 p.m. This happens about every 5 minutes throughout the night. 

Then maybe an hour before first light, you find you have a great urge to see a man about a dog.  Subconsciously you’ve been suppressing the nagging urge for hours already. Granted, it’s cold in your sleeping bag, but much more so outside. You wait until it’s almost too late and then after a flurry of rustling in your bag trying to get out, you take the plunge into frigid winter air.  You waited too long, so you weren’t able to throw on a coat or even a pair of wool pants - just a pair of long underwear and down booties. Hello! Your wool pants have a buttons instead of a zipper and your trembling fingers just seem to fumble at each button. Finally, with great relief, you manage to drill a deep yellow tunnel into the snow, wondering if you made it all the way to the duff layer. Then a mad dash back into your bag which still has trace elements of warmth left to it. 

A gray dawn ushered itself in gradually, cold and overcast but the temperatures later warmed up to around 20-25º F.  The first mile found Tom, Woody and Brian re-adjusting straps, stripping off coats or mittens as they broke into a sweat.  Icicles hung from beards and hair.  All had ice axes strapped to the back of their packs but Tom and Woody each had strapped on a borrowed pair of snowshoes. To me they looked like they were taking this a little too serious. They had suggested to me earlier that I ought to rustle up a pair for myself but didn’t get around to it. I did price them at a local sports store but to him the prices seemed prohibitive. The heck with it, ‘I won’t really need them,’ I remember thinking to myself.

The first half of the day was a leisurely stroll up a gradual incline that brought the trio to the base of Mt. Marcy, New York State’s highest mountain.  Conversation was light and pleasant.  This is what a backpacking trip should be, so I thought.  It was still overcast and getting a little darker about noon time.  It was obvious that it would snow shortly.  As we stopped for lunch, we immediately stripped off our sweat soaked undershirts, exposing our bare chests to icy Adirondack winds in order to put on something dry. Some Gorp and granola bars were passed around as Woody heated up some water for some Hot Chocolate.  Jack knives full of lint were pulled out of pockets, shaken and wiped clean on a pant leg. We carved slices off still frozen sticks of pepperoni and petrified blocks of cheese.  As we prepared to saddle up, each took a deep breath and put on a stoic face.  Bare chests were exposed once again and on went the half frozen, half sweat soaked t-shirts. Tom loved it but it paled in the light of bathing in an ice cold stream at 14,000 ft.  A light wool shirt was thrown over top.  We stood at the base of the summit looking up. It was all uphill for at least another 3000 some odd feet.  This is what Tom lived for.  He began to lead us up the trail to the summit, a piece of cake for someone who could run the mile in less than 4 minutes and 27 seconds.  In one of our casual planning discussions, Woody had suggested bringing powdered Jello® in small plastic containers. Every now and then one of us would take a hit of some artificially flavored Jello® for an instant boost of energy.

Since the trail was fairly well packed, it was fairly easy going for the first third of the way. As the climb got tougher, and the temperature dropped, our labored breathing escaped in the form of clouds as soon as it came in contact with the cold mountain air. Cheeks that weren’t covered by ice-coated beards displayed various hues of pink. There was a bit of noticeable transition as we ascended above the tree line. The side of Mt. Marcy was littered with the tiny tops of wispy flag formed spruce and fir. The wind began to pick up noticeably and the trail soon became wind-packed, hard as concrete.  It was decided that I should take the lead now because I was the only fool that that wore leather Reichle® climbing boots with Vibram soles. Tom and Woody sported Sorrels® with toasty wool liners. I didn’t mind. This was my chance to at least remain some what competitive, being the low man on the totem pole in light of wilderness skills.  It was slow going but not too difficult until we came to steep icy sections which took a little more care to negotiate.  Although on a clear day at this elevation, one could usually see the dark outlines of the famous Green Mountains of Vermont but from where we stood the cloud cover robbed us of the fruit of our labor on this particular day. 

Three and half hours later we found ourselves two thirds the way up Mt. Marcy. We had planned to make the lean-to at Lake Tear of the Clouds which was down off the North side of Marcy.  We had been coming up from the south.  It was also getting dark and it was only a bit after 4 p.m., and the wind and snow began to pick up. After a short discussion, Tom and Woody decided it best to pull off the trail on the side of the mountain, at 4000 ft. and set up camp. I didn’t like the idea but knew we didn’t have much of a choice. I also knew enough to trust Woody and Tom although in my mind’s eye I could easily see the three of us and our tent being blown clear off the Mountain. With a little bit of luck we were able to find a semi flat place to pitch the tent. After ditching our packs, I walked over to examine a little tiny Balsam fir poking its head through the snow behind where Karl and Tom were pitching the tent. I then suddenly disappeared completely in a puff of white snow. The tiny Balsam fir I was inspecting was really a five-foot tall Balsam fir surrounded by unpacked snow. When I approached the little wisp of a thing, the snow gave way and I found myself twisted in some strange configuration, on my back, in the bottom of a five-foot deep hole in the snow, wrapped around a little green tree. As I pondered my new dilemma, all I could see through the opening of the hole was gray sky.  The more I struggled, the more stuck I became. My shouts for help were almost completely muffled by the walls of snow that surrounded me. Panic began to hit me and I began to imagine freezing to death alone, only 10 yards away from safety.  Woody, looking for a ‘dead man’ (something heavy to anchor down the corner of tent), stumbled over what could have been a real live ‘dead man.’  He called Tom to give him some help rescuing me. Woody shook his head thinking to himself; ‘Should I be surprised’?  Tom, being the George Carlin type that he was, played the situation for all it was it was worth.

That night on the side of the mountain was intense. The three of us squeezed into the two man tent like three hot dogs in a single bun. The wind was whipping and the sides of the tent were snapping like sails. Temperatures plummeted into the single digits. No clue as to the wind-chill factor but one thing for sure was that it was cold enough to freeze the ears off a brass jug.  It was so cold, we each drew up the draw strings on our mummy bags up as tight as we could, leaving a breathing hole the size of a quarter. Conversation was light and what there was of it, was very strained. I remember taking a bandana and stuffing it in the quarter sized hole of which I drew the opening to mummy bag as tight as humanly possible to keep cold air from coming in. After a while, the part of the bandana on the inside was soaking wet from condensation, and the part outside of the hole was completely frozen. I reversed it a few times in order to get some air flowing.

I woke up during the night at least four times and when I woke up, I found myself in utter darkness, unable to move my arms and legs. Wearing wool pants and a down jacket inside a sleeping bag doesn’t afford much movement.  Not knowing whether I was in a coffin or in Limbo, I panicked. I wanted out. I shouted; “Tom, Woody, HELP-HELP!” After awakening them, I sheepishly explained my predicament to them, and we all went back to a fitful sleep, of course not without a couple of deep down guffaws by Tom. After about the fourth time I woke up in a panic, neither Tom nor Woody were too amused, but at least it gave them something to snicker about for the next few days and even the following year to come.  Woody continued to have doubts about my ability to survive this trip and rightly so!  Woody was more off a no nonsense type of guy and hadn’t planned to do any baby sitting on this trip.  After all, the High Peaks at winter’s apex are no place for the inexperienced.

The next morning found us embracing, once again, four degree weather with high winds. It was a short climb to the top of Mt. Marcy, which to our surprise already had a least 15 people milling about on top.  Some had obviously spent the night on top but didn't appear to be too worse for wear. The view was rewarding but not as clear as it could have been. High winds were assaulting the summit furiously.  Faces, toes and finger tips were quickly becoming numb.  Plans to stay on the summit for an hour were cancelled and cut back to a scant twenty minutes. Before we knew it, we were cautiously making our way down the steep icy backside of Marcy. We ditched our packs and made a quick jaunt up Mt. Skylight and arrived at the Lake Tear of Clouds lean-to (at 3,800 ft.) at about noon. Lake Tear of the Clouds is known as one of main sources of the Hudson River.  It was a small frozen over lake, covered by many layers of snow in most areas. Carl, Tom, and I took turns racing each other on snow shoes, and tracking snowshoe hares.

By night fall, temperatures dropped to around zero and nothing is colder than sleeping on a lean-to floor in the winter. Most lean-tos are set up not for practicalities sake but more for aesthetics as was this one. The wind just whipped off the lake directly into our lean-to all night long. I was less prepared for the severity of the weather, and therefore suffered to the largest degree through another one of those painfully long nights.

Tom, chipper as ever, took it all in stride.  Four degree weather the next morning didn’t faze him and it was business as usual for Woody.  As for me, I was struggling from lack of intense wilderness experience was hanging in there for the time being, anyway. 

The fourth day found us making a decision at the fork of a trail which was about 1500 ft. below where we had just spent the night. Should we go down to lake Colden and make our way across Colden and Avalanche lakes through Avalanche pass or climb up to Mt. Colden and spend the night at the Indian Falls lean-to, and then make our way down to the Adirondack Loj via Phelps Mountain? We decided on the latter, which, little did we know, would drastically alter the course of our events

The decision made was to choose the more difficult of the choices before us. We knew it was a risk, and it proved to be a near fatal experience. I guess the word risk has different level of meaning in different situations. 

Starting off in our particular direction, the trail was not at all packed like it had been the from John’s Brook to our present location. I immediately began breaking through the 3’ deep snow at every step, all the way for 5 miles while Tom and Karl effortlessly glided over the top of the snow with their snowshoes. I was becoming more exhausted as the miles piled up, and Tom and Karl were getting frustrated with my slow progress. Why didn’t I listen to them when urged me to bring a pair of snowshoes along??

Four hours later, with temperature still around 4º degrees, and night settling in, I stumbled into Indian Falls Campsite -elevation 3,500 feet above sea level. Tom and Karl were a little cold. As long as we were walking, we were fine. The minute we stopped, our sweat soaked undergarments became extremely cold. They were cold and tired but their snowshoes had saved them a great deal of energy. I had used all my energy up breaking through the snow at every step hours ago and was literally plodding along on pure adrenaline. It seemed like forever before I staggered into the campsite at Indian Falls. Where was the lean-to? Both Tom and Woody swore it was here last year. A sign mostly concealed by months of snow and ice told us that all lean-tos above 2,800 ft. in elevation were in the process of being removed to lighten the high impact camping that the Adirondacks were experiencing during the 70’s.  So, in the dark, wind whipping off the exposed falls, in four degree weather, three exhausted nineteen year-olds began to set up their small North Face™ tent. As soon as the tent left the confines of Tom’s stuff bag, a sudden gust did it’s best to rip it out of Tom’s hand and whisk it away to the four winds. It rippled and snapped like a sail while Karl and I tried to catch the flapping corners. Tom held fast. When the steely, biting wind took a momentary break, the tent settled and rippled gently on the surface of the snow. Tom was now shouting to me over the whipping wind to grab the right corner of the tent. I heard his voice but it seemed so, so far, far away. I could hear him well enough but I was just so tired, and he wasn’t making sense anyway.

Drenched with sweat from breaking through snow up to my waist since late morning, I began to feel extremely cold. The wind whipping up over the falls was going right through me. I stood there with Tom’s last words ringing in my head; “Grab the right corner of the tent….”

“I remember thinking, “right, what is right? Which hand is right, and how can I know? I think I used to know that —I’m just too tired. I’m so tired….”

Tom and Karl looked knowingly at each other. While I was trying to figure out which was my right hand, Tom and Karl knew that what they were witnessing was more than merely another prank or practical joke. They now had a serious situation on their hands, a life or death situation.

My body temperature had dropped dangerously low because of being wet, exhausted and pushed to my limit through most of the day. My body had used up every calorie and there was nothing left to keep me warm. I was long past shivering and my own bodily functions were not able to get my temperature up where it belonged. And the effects were not unlike that which alcohol has on the human mind. I was greatly puzzled at the concept of right and left.  I thought to myself, ‘yes, I once knew what that meant.  Why should it be important now?’  I heard Tom's voice echoing in my head, “Take off your wet clothes and get your sleeping bag out, sleeping bag out, sleeping bag out.” All I could do was to manage to change my shirt while Tom and Karl worked at breakneck speed to set up the tent. My futile attempts to get my sleeping bag out of his pack didn’t escape the notice of Karl or Tom.  As soon as the tent was barely up, Tom helped me to pull out my bag and lay down my Ensolite™ pad inside the tent.  Without urgency or excitement, he told me to get into my bag and remove all my wet garments. While I went about this seemingly enormous task, Tom shored up the tent while Karl began to heat up warm liquids for me. No discussion ensued; Tom and Karl worked like a team, knowing what each had to do without consulting each other. They used their own body warmth to bring mine up to where it should be, something my body was way past doing on it’s own. Only after monitoring the effects of the warm liquids, the effect of their own body warmth, and a dry sleeping bag could they know if they were out of the woods. Hypothermia in severe weather conditions is extremely difficult to reverse.   

The night itself for Brian was unremarkable and the only thing that really stands out in his mind is that it seemed to take forever for his sweat-soaked hair to dry.

The early morning silence was broken by Brian screaming for Tom to hand over the roll T.P. Tom had stashed in his bag. Tom was laughing so hard that the roll got stuck in the hole where his draw stings closed the opening of the mummy bag.  Between Tom’s hysterical laughing and Brian’s urgent screams the serenity of the wilderness morning was completely shattered. As Brian dashed off into the woods in a red union-suit with the bottom flap hanging down, strips of toilet paper streaming behind him, Tom and Karl knew they were out of the woods, so to speak.

Traveling that day was down hill all the way to Heart lake and the Adirondack Lodge where they rented a cabin with a honest to goodness wood stove, soft mattresses, electricity and bunk beds.  They basked in heat as temperatures rose to almost 40 F in their cabin.  This and the fact that they were a bit dehydrated made them feel as if they had had a few beers under their belts.

They had to jump start the VW Bug but other than that the trip home was uneventful.  Manfred Man's Earth Band's 'Blinded by the Light', was irritating everyone to death.  Every station they turned to was playing it every half hour, on the half hour.  They tried to catch the Super bowl but that was fading in and out.

What was strange was that the three of us never discussed the hypothermia situation together. I caught wind from Tom’s sister that Woody was disappointed in me. In his mind he had thought I was more experienced than I turned out to be. I downplayed the whole event and was embarrassed to discuss it, and for many years tried to bury it.

Thirty-eight years have passed since Tom and Karl saved my life on a frigid, wind-swept High Peak in the middle of winter in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains.  Yet, I never got around to thanking them. Things in life change so abruptly, time passes so quickly. I would never get the chance to thank Karl.  Less than a year later he was struck by lightning and killed while hitchhiking in Virginia.  As for Tom… a few years later he was diagnosed with a disorder that has left him rather incapacitated.  

I haven’t seen Tom since the early 90’s but I keep abreast of him through his sister, Meg.  To this day, I am grateful to both Tom and Karl for having saved my life.

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