BOC Expedition Notebook: In the danger zone with Dan and Elliot
By the time we reached treeline, it was almost two in the afternoon, and already the afternoon sun was beginning to get lower on the horizon, casting beautiful alpenglow on the mammoth side of Mt. Adams. Next to me, my climbing/life partner Dan Abraham was putting on his crampons and preparing for the final summit bid. We moved with the swiftness and economy of seasoned mountaineers, because we had full knowledge of the dangers ahead.
Above us, on those wind-swept ridges hostile to human life, was the so-called "death zone." Above the altitude of 4,000 feet, the air grows thin, and only the acclimated mountaineer can live, much less climb, in this hostile zone. Even where we were on the mountain, only 1000 feet from the top, the atmosphere had grown dangerously thin: each step caused me to gulp for breath, and when I gracefully fell into treewells, I often had to be pulled out by my climbing/life partner, sometimes sobbing. However, we knew that it would only grow worse: At the top of Mount Adams, the air had only 49/50ths of the oxygen normally found at sea level. We knew that only mountain smarts, hard training, and luck could compensate for this missing 1/50th.
Fortunately, lack of preparation was not one of our problems. Dan and I had been planning this expedition-a first ascent and ski/snowboard descent of the feared Mt. Adams-for more than three days. Originally conceived of on a slow evening last January, we had waited and trained, trained and waited, for the conditions to be perfect for our summit bid two days later. Now, it seemed so close to our grasp as we looked up at the top of the mountain. We knew the dangers of the altitude, and we had made a pact between us that we would not attempt to summit alone. However, as I looked up at that tantalizingly near cairn of rocks, up there on top of the world, I knew that I would leave Dan for dead in a moment for personal glory.
Hopefully, however, it wouldn't come to that. Dan and I were both in peak physical condition. I really thought all that day that we spent on the stairstepper was beginning to pay off. As we shouldered our packs-loaded with downhill skis and boots, mountaineering equipment, and a BOC flag to place on top of the summit-I felt easy and relaxed, strong and ready to try the impossible. I was glad that I had quit smoking that morning.
Mt. Adams has long been regarded as one of the most challenging mountains in the east. Part of the Presidentials (little known trivia-a man named "Adams" was the President a long time ago), it towers to an awe-inspiring 5774 feet. Mt. Adams has long repelled climbing expeditions-a Swedish team that attempted ascent in 1994 was forced back down from high camp at 5,500 feet when a huge storm blew in. Then, in 1997, a team of Bulgarian midgets, led by famed climber Reinhold Messner, made it to the top, before being forced back with the loss of one little person. Now Dan and I felt that an American, BOC expedition was close to making the summit, and consequently setting the mountaineering world on fire.
Our gear finally on, Dan and I kept moving. The trees disappeared, and, as we moved onto the ridge that would carry us the last 1000 vertical feet to the top, I found myself wishing that I had brought the sherpas, oxygen, and cigarettes. However, we pushed on, each step more difficult than the last. I don't know how long we climbed-eventually we just found that place where the agony evenly balanced our determination. I know that it was a long time, perhaps 15 minutes or more. But, before we knew it, we were standing on top of the world. My climbing/life partner and I embraced, and took a moment to appreciate the peaks around us. The rest of the Presidentials (also named for Presidents) towered around us, and we could see all the way down into North Conway, NH. We thought of the people down there, walking the streets, going on with life, all the while Dan and I were high in the death zone.
Our moment was interrupted, however, when an elderly woman came climbing up the ridge, with a baby in a baby carrier on her back. Dan and I were amazed at how fast someone had put up a second route, but we were the first, and no one could take that away from us. The baby seemed unaffected by the altitude-perhaps some side-effect of being really little-and the woman, evidently the infant's grandmother, must have been in tip-top shape to solo the mountain carrying the child. The woman had the nerve to congratulate us on making it to the top, so we told her that she would always be an afterthought to history-people care about the first ascent, not the first solo ascent with baby.
Then I put on my skis, Dan put on his snowboard, and we hucked right off the top of the mountain and into history. This little account of our journey into the death zone is meant to get you guys fired up for the winter. The season is almost here-Sunday River is open, Sugarloaf opens soon, and the time for winter fun is approaching. Stay tuned for winter activities!
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