Very early one bitterly cold, gray November morning, when sane people were comfortably home in bed, three ambitious weekend warriors hurtled down Rte. 211 toward the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains beyond, in a brand-new pickup truck. We were en route to face a challenge new to each of us: a wintertime camp-out on the summit of Bother Knob, a 4,300-foot peak in the Allegheny Mountains, about 25 miles west of Harrisonburg, Va. on the West Virginia border.
The truck belonged to Kenny, who had been inveigled into driving it to the back of beyond by veteran camper Steve. In spite of the cab's cramped quarters, and lack of sleep, the three of us were cheerfully determined to accomplish our mission.
I was preoccupied with romantic visions of Robert Scott's quest for the South Pole. But disquietingly these visions faded, giving way to a mildly disturbing question:
Why would we willingly submit ourselves to freezing, potentially dangerous weather conditions just to camp out on a mountain? It was a question for which I did not have a satisfactory answer. (Although in my case it may have been over-exposure to National Geographic as a kid.) Still, I reasoned, if you had the inclination to try such a thing, you might as well do it on familiar territory, and Steve and I had been up this mountain before -- albeit under balmier conditions. It seemed a safe enough proposition.
But little could I imagine then the psychological rigors that sheer physical discomfort could induce.See WINTER, E4, Col. 1 WINTER, From E1
Just outside Gainesville, Va., where we picked up I-66 west, it began to drizzle. So what's a little drizzle? We weren't worried; the forecast for the mountains was good, and that was miles off. By the time we reached Haymarket, the drizzle had turned to light rain. So what's a little rain? By Harrisonburg, where we took Rte. 42 south, it was pouring. It was 5:30 a.m.: sunrise, but so dark we thought our watches were wrong. So what's a little rain? We drove grimly on.
As the weather grew steadily worse, I reflected on my last trip to Bother Knob, six months before.
Spring is really the best time to climb and camp on the summit. The top of the mountain is ringed with pines; a meadow of deep grass hosts a truly spectacular view. Of the two largest peaks along that stretch of the West Virginia border -- the other being Reddish Knob -- Bother Knob is by far the prettiest, if entailing the longest climb. From its peak, you look out over the Shenandoah Valley, or across to the other mountains, watching the ravens gambolling or spotting a solitary red-tailed hawk as it spirals up and up. In fact, the only drawback to the mountain top in spring is a large nest of rattlesnakes.
Winter on the mountain would prove another matter altogether.
As we entered the George Washington National Forest, we began to encounter some patches of ice on the road, and I fancied I saw some snow in the headlights, but this notion was roundly criticized by my doughty companions. We talked nervously, Kenny predicting that we would be stranded in a blizzard of catastrophic proportions and wind up dining on each other. By 6 o'clock, thick, freezing fog obscured the road. So what's a little freezing fog?
We peered ahead intently, straining to see what might be swerving into our lane around one of the hairpin bends. I gazed disconsolately out of the window, where, when the fog cleared a bit now and then, one had a thrilling view over the 900-foot drop to our right. It was freezing rain now, and the trees, when we could see them, were entirely glazed with ice. Quite lovely, really.
Up and up we climbed. By 6:30 we had reached about 3,200 feet, and things began to clear somewhat above the clouds. There was no traffic, and the road was in remarkably good repair. We perked up a little.
A couple more loops and we could see the dirt road that led to the peak ahead. We were on the last leg of the trip, and Kenny, risking some acceleration, sped up the steep slope, chuckling. I was watching the pavement in front of us -- it looked peculiar. Then it dawned on me: "Why, we're driving on solid ice," I said, marveling at Kenny's skill. There was a brief, heavy silence in the cab. "Ice?" said Steve.
"ICE!" wailed Kenny, and with that the truck swerved alarmingly, sliding sideways until we were perilously close to a precipice of say, 2,000 feet or so. Kenny spun the wheel expertly in the direction of the skid, to no noticeable effect. Miraculously the truck pitched the other way at the last moment, into a deep ditch at the base of a cliff-face.
I stepped out of the truck -- and instantly crashed with bone-jarring impact to the pavement. Painfully, I pulled myself up, clutching the fender, to the derisive laughter of my "friends." As I couldn't move an inch in any direction, I sarcastically invited Steve to join me. This he did, smugly, and with no apparent difficulty. Evidently he was wearing some sort of fancy hiking boot that enabled him to walk on sheer ice with impunity and, for all I knew, up the sides of buildings.
Steve pondered our predicament for a time and announced that it didn't look good. "Well," I said, feeling suddenly hungry, "let's eat." Steve started up the Coleman stove while I, unable to locate a can opener, sawed the top from a can of baked beans with my pocket knife.
The wound wasn't really all that bad; I should, in Kenny's estimation, be able to play guitar again in a year or so.
Now there is a right way to prepare for winter climbing, and then, of course, there is a wrong way. One of the most important things is to check your equipment before setting out. But sometimes little things get overlooked. Coming out of my reverie suddenly, I was alarmed to see flames dancing around the bottom of the pressurized stove canister.
"Grab some real estate!" screamed Kenny. We dove beneath the truck as, with a deafening report, the stove exploded,. "Oh, well," said Steve, "I've got another one in my pack." This was reassuring: We now knew that, if need be, we could defend ourselves against rattlesnakes or ravens.
We drove up to the dirt road, which was actually frozen mud about a foot deep, liberally seeded with angular boulders and coated with a thin film of water. So what's a little mud? With Steve and me in the back for traction, and with only minor damage to the oil pan and alignment, we successfully jolted and lurched up the last half mile and prepared for the final ascent on foot: a small matter of another thousand feet -- straight up.
Uncovering our gear in the back of the truck, we discovered that all of it -- including sleeping bags -- was thoroughly soaked, the bed having collected water as efficiently as a swimming pool. Kenny inspected his new truck carefully. When he emerged from under it he was sobbing. Then, with a Hemingwayan effort, he fought back his bitter tears, spat an epithet (which promptly froze and shattered on impact with the ground) and began sorting his equipment.
It was obvious that it would require two trips to portage all the equipment to the top, so we hurried to get started. There can be no better exercise than stumbling up a perpendicular slope over a talus of fallen rock and mud -- covered with a carpet of icy leaves and blocked with fallen trees -- wearing an 80-pound pack and carrying a bag of canned food and a case of beer. A fascinating combination of 60-mile-an-hour winds and dense, freezing fog reduced visibility to 10 yards.
Steve started up first, bounding like a chamois, and was soon so far ahead I couldn't even hear him. Halfway up I looked back; far below I heard a dim crashing and cursing over the howling gale. Straining my eyes, I could just make out Kenny's sturdy form crawling on hands and knees under a large root. I resumed my own struggle endlessly upward: Somehow the climb seemed longer than it had last spring. I was freezing cold, my lungs burned and my legs felt like jelly. I knew the cold was beginning to affect my mind when my mustache, weighted down with accumulated ice, fell out by the roots. Without stopping to wonder at this, I simply stowed it in my pocket, figuring to thaw it out later.
Finally I reached the top and sank to my knees, gasping in the thin air. Across the field I saw that Steve had already pitched his tent, changed into some impossibly dry clothes and was sitting contentedly sipping a cup of hot coffee. I staggered over and began unrolling our tent beside his. The sleet and rain poured down relentlessly.
Presently Kenny arrived, his face deep mulberry red and his beard, black when we'd started, now bright white. Together we assembled our tent and were proud to find that we'd cut our practice time down to about an hour. We had some difficulty with the rain cover -- it didn't appear to have been designed with our tent in mind -- but finally had an interesting, if shaky, construction into which we clawed our way eagerly, having decided that the rest of the gear could wait until we got some sleep. Outside, Steve was chopping wood for a fire.
I was just nodding off when a gust of wind ripped the rain cover from the tent with a loud BOOM! As Kenny was out cold, I pulled on my freezing clothes and, noticing that we were shipping water at one end of the tent, stepped out into the raw wind.
I peeked inside Steve's tent: Surely my mind was becoming unhinged. He was sleeping soundly, a warm fire glowing in the back of the tent beyond the rocking chair, an open bottle of scotch on the liquor cabinet and a woman I didn't recognize knitting quietly on the large, stuffed couch. "Please close the door," she said.
I withdrew, and turned my attention to our miserable pile of nylon. Having retrieved the rain cover from the top of a tall tree, I tied it down as securely as I could with my blue fingers and climbed back inside.
I awoke, I thought, a short time later from dreams of sharks and sailing ships to find myself floating on a foot or two of icy water. Beside me Kenny was treading water desperately, mouthing something silently. As my sleeping bag, by the look of it, would not support two people, I punctured the tent with my pocket knife. Kenny and I floated out on the raging cataract, purple and shivering from advanced hypothermia.
With little debate we decided it would be prudent to give up and leave.
Having forced Steve at stove-point to abandon his cozy interior, we packed up and headed back down the vicious peak. When, after considerable misadventure, we reached the truck again, Steve turned and looked longingly back up at the fog-shrouded summit.
We drove back to Washington in the silence of utter defeat -- except for Steve, whose general ebullience was insufferable. In just under six hours we were back home again, relaxing in warm, dry clothes and sipping hot toddies. As I sank into welcome sleep, I heard Steve saying to Kenny, " . . . and the desert's hot, but so beautiful. We could pitch camp on this high mesa called Gila Monster Hill . . . "