New Hampshire, September 2000

I drive up to North Conway on September 7. The weather is fine and the trip uneventful.

On Saturday, September 8 – I decide on a training hike to get my mountain legs. Before I go, I visit the head of Q division who says he has something new for me. When I walk into the room, he greets me cordially.

" Ah yes, do sit down – I have something here for you that I think will do the trick."

He pushes something across his desk that looks like a slate-blue hockey puck. I sit down and inspect the hockey puck curiously without touching it. "Now, what trick is it that needs doing and how will this help?"

"Well," he begins, with a hint of a smile, "we have noted from your reports that you have had some problems on earlier missions with our standard-issue heel-and-toe protection. And since we don’t want you to be known in the business as a tenderfoot," – here he begins to wheeze with merriment – "we have got you something that may meet your more demanding requirements."

"Well, sore feet are nothing I can’t handle," I start to respond, but he cuts me off. "This is a matter that can affect your effectiveness in the field and so we must insist on your using the most up-to-date materials available."

"Well, I certainly want to be effective in the field, but … " I look more carefully at the hockey puck and notice that in fact it is a large roll of duct tape.

"Yes, that’s right – duct tape. Fixes everything. Comes in large strips, easily cut up to fit the affected area. If the feet are properly cleaned first, the adhesive is guaranteed to stick and stay stuck over any terrain you are likely to encounter. The back is slick as teflon and no amount of friction with your boot will be transferred to your skin beneath."

I am secretly elated at the thought of hiking without blisters at long last. I am ready to try ground spleen of newt so I am definitely willing to try duct tape. I stand up and pick up the hockey puck and leave while they are still sniggering about me being a tenderfoot.

By the time I am ready to set off on my training hike, my heels are encased in great swatches of duct tape. I smile to myself. Nothing is going to get to my heels on this trip. I drive to Jackson and then up towards Carter Notch hut. At the end of the road, I set off up Wildcat River trail. It is pretty enough but not spectacular. Furthermore, after a while, I realize that duct tape has one serious flaw – it does not stretch. As I begin to go uphill, my skin tries to stretch but the duct tape does not want it to. I get a blister and make a note to myself that I should apply it as a series of thin, overlapping horizontal bands that are partly folded back on themselves.

I cross over onto Bog river trail and loop around to my starting point, arriving about three hours after I left. The weather was magnificent and the trail pleasant but no views and I wouldn’t give it a lot of stars.

On Sunday, I decide it is time for something a little more adventurous. I pack a sandwich and head over towards Crawford Notch. At Notchland, I pull off into the Davis path parking lot to start the hike up Mount Crawford. My feet feel secure in their wrappings of duct tape and it’s another lovely day. Another couple is heading out at the same time and we exchange cordialities. The guy looks a bit out of shape, with a big gut, so I am confident that I will move faster than they. Indeed, I am soon far out in front. After a while, the path gets very steep – it is very hard indeed to imagine how this could be have originally been used as a bridle trail. I slow down and to my surprise am overtaken by the couple. He is stopping every five minutes to puff and blow, but is still making some pretty good speed. Turns out that they are not married – at least to each other. Aha! So that explains it! Her name is Stairs and she is headed up to Stairs Mountain for old time’s sake – my destination, too. He comments that their guidebook refers to the path becoming "dauntingly steep" at this point and we both admit to a certain amount of daunt. Off they go and I slog slowly on up the mountain behind them. Bobby and I did this trail last year in reverse and I remember seeing some excellent views off Mount Crawford. Around lunchtime, I head up a side trail to the Crawford summit and am rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree panorama, including all the summit buildings on Mount Washington clearly displayed. I then head back down to the Davis path, pass Resolution shelter and finally reach the cutoff for Stairs Mountain, where I rejoin my buddies finishing their lunch.

On the top of Stairs Mountain Fellow hikers on Stairs

When I get back down to the parking lot, it is about six hours after my departure time and I am ready for some relaxation – preferably with a beer and watching the US Open men’s final, which is just starting as I walk in the door at Forest Glen. Ah, the rewards of a virtuous life!

Monday calls for a little rest. I walk into the village and stroll around the shops in the morning intending to do a small hike in the afternoon. As I walk into a shop selling Christmas ornaments, I see someone buying a bunch of Santas and suddenly realize that I know her. She is, in fact, the real estate agent who sold us the house in Larchmont nine years ago! Coincidence? I think not. I accost her and she admits to being Carol Ann Best. (What kind of name is Best? Clearly something dreamed up by one of those motivation outfits like How To Stomp Your Way To The Top.) She explains that her husband has retired and was given two days’ tennis lessons at Cranmore tennis club as a retirement gift, leaving her to buy Santas in North Conway. She skillfully overpowers my defenses and I soon find myself proposing a hike up the trail to Glen Boulder, which provides a quick route to some excellent views above the tree line. We go our separate ways, then meet back at Forest Glen after lunch and drive up to Glen Ellis Falls, just before Pinkham Notch. The trail soon gets very steep but Carol Ann is up to it and we emerge above the tree line after about two hours of slog. Unfortunately, the cloud cover is low and we can’t see too far up Mount Washington, but Wildcat Ridge on the other side of the notch looks great. We are up and down in three hours, soaked with perspiration because of the effort and the high humidity. Carol Ann then takes me over to Cranmore to drink a beer with her and her husband, although my shirt is still soaking wet and all I am able to think about is how nice it would be to take a shower.

At Glen Boulder on Mt. Washington Carol Ann at Glen Boulder

Tuesday is my first climb. I was unable to climb with Kurt until later in the week, but I was able to book his colleague Ian Turnbull. Ian is an Englishman who has lived in New Hampshire for the last 25 years and has magnificent facial hair. I had hoped to do Whitney-Gilman on Cannon, but the route has been disturbed by rockfall and is not safe. The weather is unsettled and Ian recommends Lakeview on Cannon, which is a 5.5. Since I haven’t really done any climbing this year, that doesn’t seem such a bad idea. I have my hiking boots and it takes about an hour to scramble up to the bottom of the cliff. My shirt is soaked once more, so I take it off and put on my wind shell instead. As we climb, however, it gets quite windy and cold and at some point I have to put my wet shirt on again as well. Visibility is poor because we are basically climbing in the cloud. We have trouble communicating because of the sound of the wind. It begins to rain, although it can’t really make us any wetter than we already are. The climbing is not really hard and we make good time.

At one point, however, Ian jerks his thumb up into the cloud and says "You know what’s up there for us to finish off? Wiessner!" I make some non-committal response, but my blood turns to ice. Why did it have to be Wiessner? I looked down at the scars on my knuckles, remembering the last time I tangled with Wiessner, two years ago. True, in a technical sense I emerged victorious from that encounter, but I had nightmares for weeks afterwards. Now I was going to have to do it all over again, and in the rain, too!

We get to the end of Lakeview and contemplate the next step – Wiessner! First, tip-toe over the slimy lichens on a high-angle slab. Then painfully wriggle up a vertical flake until you can reach a handhold and pull yourself on top of the flake. Then heave yourself up between two vertical walls to the top. Sounds like a breeze, right? Well, believe me, it’s not! I flounder like a spastic seal trying to get up on the flake and finally ask Ian to put me back on the slimy lichens so I can regain my strength. On the second try, I succeed, but slip and dangle while trying to fight my way up the vertical walls. "Try stemming!" Ian keeps imploring me, but somehow it doesn’t work for me, so I end up climbing out onto the face to get to the top, onto the eyebrow of the Old Man of the Mountain.

Wet and tired, I give a small chirp of victory and then we hightail it down the footpath back to the bottom of the cliff. Perhaps the weather is appropriate for two Englishmen to climb in and I should offer him a celebratory cup of English tea? But then again, perhaps I should hop in the hot tub for an hour or two while drinking a six-pack of local beer? I decide on the second course of action and drive straight back to Forest Glen. By 7:00 p.m., I am in bed.

Wednesday is definitely for rest and recuperation. The weather has turned fine again, so I buy a few provisions for our weekend hike in the morning and then head over to Echo Lake to read a book. All is well again.

Resting at Forest Glen

Thursday is my climb with Kurt. I propose we do Pinnacle Buttress, in Huntington’s Ravine on Mount Washington. We had tried to do this climb last year, but were stymied because the Mount Washington auto road was closed for repairs. As a result, we were not able to use the preferred approach, which is to take the road half way up to the summit, walk down to the bottom of Huntington’s Ravine and then climb back up. So we drive up to the auto road and – guess what? – it is closed for repairs again! This time, however, we take a bolder approach – we decide to hike up from the hut at Pinkham Notch into Huntington’s Ravine, climb up Pinnacle Buttress to the top of the Ravine and then all the way back down to the hut. Kurt buys a flashlight just in case, I buy a disposable camera and we both rent trekking poles which Kurt is very high on. We take off about 9:30. The weather is great and the trail isn’t too steep and the poles really do seem to help, so we are feeling good.

The climb is truly spectacular. It is not as exposed as Cannon, but you get a real feeling of Alpine mountaineering. It is a 5.7, although Kurt is trying out a new route into the Allis chimney which gives us both some cause for alarm. I take a few great pics of Kurt and the views and then Kurt takes a bunch of me, toiling up the cliff. The only downside is that we feel some time pressure – we would have left earlier if we had known we were going to do the hike as well as the climb.

Finally, we reach the top of the buttress, which brings us up near the Alpine garden on the shoulder of Mount Washington. Just before I untie, Kurt decides that there is one more good pic to take, so he reaches for the camera which skitters out of his hand, rolls down a slab and disappears over the cliff. Much later, we hear it landing far below. I ask if anyone is likely to see it and turn it in but Kurt says that only ice climbers are likely to pass that way, so it is probably going to be quite a while before I get my pictures back. Oh, never mind!

The Alpine garden is wonderful, with long golden grasses. We hike over to Lion’s Head and down to Hermit Lake. Finally, we head back down the Tuckerman Ravine trail, arriving back at 7:30 in more or less the dark but in high spirits after one of the truly great days in my mountaineering life.

Because of the weather forecast, I decide to call off the weekend backpacking trip – there is some nasty weather due in tonight and rain for the next two days. Sure enough, Friday morning is gray and raining hard, so I pack up and head home.

The forecast for the next weekend looks better and so Bobby drives up to Larchmont Wednesday night and we continue on up Thursday morning in my car. (Rick has declined to come because of the ever-present possibility that his business merger will be finished in the next couple of days.) We grab a few last-minute provisions and head up to the Rocky Branch trail about a mile south of Pinkham Notch by about 2 o'clock on Thursday afternoon, reaching the Rocky Branch Shelter at about 5. For dinner, we cook up some steak we carried in – there is enough left over to provide another good meal so long as the refrigeration holds out.

Friday starts out looking a bit threatening but soon clears up to be a spectacular day. We hike up to the Montalban Ridge and look for the Isolation Shelter which is shown on my map but which is nowhere to be found. Later in the day, we pass a hiker who remembers trying to find the shelter 25 years ago and then discovering that it had been torn down. I check my map and note that it is dated 1969.

We proceed up to the top of Mount Isolation, where the views are excellent - the summit of Washington clearer than I have ever seen it. We carry on down the ridge, passing up Mount Davis because the hour is getting late and we are not sure where we are going to camp. Finally, we stop at a rather makeshift campsite just off the trail, although we discover the following day that there is an official campsite just an hour further south that we could have made easily. We dine on more steak, hoping that the bacteria have been scared off by the rain.

Saturday, contrary to forecasts, starts grey and threatening and it begins to drizzle. The rain persists for the rest of the day and night. Visibility is limited and we bag no great views. At some point, we both begin to suffer some intestinal distress and realize that the bacteria were tougher than we thought. Oh well, as Bobby points out, nothing like eating tainted meat to clean out the system! We stay that night in the Resolution shelter, which we share with three brothers in their late teens/early twenties who busy themselves with great energy to build a fire, rain notwithstanding. The rain stops early Sunday morning and the weather stays blustery with low cloud that gradually clear up. We start getting snatches of views into Crawford Notch and the trail becomes more interesting, with dramatic ledgy spots.

Finally, we walk out by Mount Crawford on the Davis trail to route 302. I am all for calling a cab but Bobby insists that we can hitch-hike. I make snide comments about the kind of person who would want to pick us up after three days of hiking, but then, after about two minutes, a brand new Saab pulls over, driven by a lovely young thing in her early twenties. She turns out to be an outdoorswoman of long standing and is not in the least put off by our rather pungent odor. She regales us with stories of her winter camping and Alpine skiing adventures in the Mount Washington area and then goes out of her way to drop us at our car. She doesn’t spoil the effect by telling us that we remind her of her grandfather, and so we chalk it up to our remarkable animal magnetism. Feeling young and vigorous, we get into the car and go on back to Larchmont.

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