Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Exploration for All

     "Stopping at every step, leaning on our axes we tried to recover our breath and to calm our racing hearts, which were thumping as though they would burst...We dragged ourselves up. Could we possibly be there?
     A fierce and savage wind tore at us. We were on top of Annapurna! ... Above us there was nothing!"

June 3, 1950 - Maurice Herzog on the summit of Annapurna

     Somewhat sheepishly, I'll admit to reading these stirring words while sitting in a cushy chair by the woodstove. There's a purring cat cuddled next to me and a sleepily contented dog on the couch. A cup of coffee rounds out the scene. Everything you need to enjoy a harrowing tale of adventure, risk and suffering in complete comfort.
     The quote is from Annapurna by Maurice Herzog. It's the story of the first ascent of an 8000 meter peak in the Himalaya. The 1950 French expedition was successful but at a terrible cost.

     This is industrial strength adventure literature. Now days your run of the mill, well-heeled debutant can hire guides to drag her to the top of Mt. Everest. Afterwards she can gush about her amazing achievement on a TV talk show. But in the middle of the last century none of the fourteen highest mountains on Earth had been climbed. The French arrived in Nepal with a brief window between the end of winter and the coming summer monsoon. They trekked up the valley of the Kali Gandaki to a base that would give them two options: Dhaulagiri (8167 m.) or Annapurna (8091 m.). After making several unsuccessful attempts at Dhaulagiri and with the monsoon coming they turned their efforts towards Annapurna.

Dhaulagiri - web image

Annapurna - web image

     All they had to guide them was a glimpse of a white, shining summit beyond the impregnable wall of the Nilgiri massif. How can you climb something when you don't know how to get to it? The crude maps they had were rudimentary and misleading. Demanding, dangerous reconnaissance lead to dead ends that ate up time, supplies and energy. Eventually they found a route thru jungles, up gorges and across glaciers. 
     Even with the mountain looming before them, there was no obvious way up. They made attempts and were repulsed. As the monsoon raced across India towards the Himalaya they forged a way thru crevassed glaciers and up ice cliffs. Finally, after a miserable night at a high camp, Herzog and Louis Lachenal struggled to the summit on the third of June.

A recent photo of Annapurna's north face from the web. The red line approximates the route pioneered by the French.

     It was to be a short lived moment of euphoria. Their descent was a living hell of frostbite, snow blindness, collapsing crevasses and avalanches. The monsoon hit turing hillsides to mud and gentle streams to raging torrents. Herzog's gangerous fingers and toes were snipped off with scissors as he, too ravaged to walk, was carried on the backs of porters. This is what success looked like in the early days of Himalayan mountaineering.

Maurice Herzog - web image

     Herzog was given a royal reception in Katmandu and all the climbers returned to France as heroes. Herzog went on to live a long, full life, finally passing at age 93 in December of 2012. He concluded his book with what has become an iconic line:

          "There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."

     '...other Annapurnas...' is probably a good thing since the real Annapurna is often called the most dangerous mountain on Earth 
(based on some macabre ratio of successful summits to those who died trying). Few, if any of us are looking for the kind of horrendous experience the French endured. Does exploration and adventure have to be a life and death sufferfest? I don't think so and a new book I just finished confirms that belief. The Animal One Thousand Miles Long chronicles a couple dozen outings in Vermont and the Adirondacks that have blessedly left the author with all his fingers and toes intact. 

        Leith Tonino is a young adventure/travel writer. He grew up near Lake Champlain with what he calls a 'backless' backyard. By that he means that as a kid he could go outside and explore without a lot of boundaries. By the time he was sixteen he and some friends had backpacked the 273 mile length of the Long Trail. That was just the beginning. One chapter of the book  tells of a frigid New Years Day paddle across Lake Champlain with the 'Frostbiters' while other chapters share the simple delights of jack jumping and sledpacking.

Sit back and relax: a jack jumper heads down the hill - web image

     This is exploration for everyone. True, the Mt. Colden Trap Dike isn't for the faint of heart and you'd better eat your Wheaties before attempting the Range Traverse. But Tonino also introduces us to Chris, his former teacher, who is just trying to "do something outdoorsy" in each of Vermont's 251 towns. For me, Chris becomes the heroine of the book. Her mantra is "I'm not lost, I just don't know where I am right now." She speaks of how "Small outings become the norm - pulses and blips of exploration, miniadventures stuffed into the cracks between the weeks. But here's the delightful surprise: the landscape actually expands when you approach it this way."

The 251 towns of Vermont - Chris is out there somewhere

     Tonino plays with the idea of an expanding landscape. He believes in the "inexhaustibility" of a place. In an interview with John Elder they speak of a concept that's at the core of this blog: that, much like people, places have depth that is only revealed over time, in a committed relationship. Elder, a retired Middlebury professor and author of the highly recommended Reading the Mountains of Home, brings added insight to Tonino's personal observations. He thinks in terms of the 'thickness' of a landscape, implying multiple layers to be discovered in any given place.

     Here's how it works for me in my Washington County rambles. Let's say I'm on a bike ride up in Whitehall, in need of a breather after that last long hill climb. Stopping, looking across the fields, I first wonder about the geologic forces that created the scene before me - the slatey Taconic hills to the east, the cooked gneisses of the Adirondacks. Then, it's what role did the glacier play in planing and filling the bedrock surface? What cycles of climate and weathering have shaped soil development and drainage patterns? How did plants and animals colonize this place and come together in distinct natural communities? And what of the people who have lived here? Are there traces of early Native Americans? Can the history of settlement by Europeans be seen in fields, roads and buildings? What is the economy and culture of this spot today and how is it evolving?

Lots to wonder about on a slow bike ride

     Look at a place in this way and you'll understand why Tonino sees tiny Vermont as inexhaustible, of how John Elder can find bottomless depth to the landscape close to his Bristol home.
     The Animal One Thousand Miles Long is a fun, thoughtful and inspirational book. Adventure isn't the exclusive realm of young men bubbling over with testosterone. Sure, the Maurice Herzogs and Alex Honnolds of the world do amazing things. But extreme risk-taking by lesser mortals is what keeps search and rescue, emergency rooms and grave diggers busy. You don't need to sacrifice life and limb to experience the feeling of 'aliveness' that comes from exploration. All it takes is curiosity, imagination and a little umph to get moving. Revelations await. It is indeed, a big , beautiful world and maybe the best place to start exploring it is right from your 'backless' backyard. 

Tonino rafting his Lake Champlain 'backyard' - web image


     Here are a couple of adventure books that you might enjoy. Both are written by women.

     ~ Tracks   
           Ever think about doing a solo camel trek across the Australian Outback? Me neither, but Robyn Davidson did and wrote a great book about her adventure.

     ~ Annapurna: A Woman's Place 

          In 1978, 28 years after Herzog and Lachnal's success, only six other climbers had made it to the top of Annapurna, while nine had died in the attempt. Against those grim odds a group of gutsy American women approached the same treacherous North face that had so bedeviled the French. Arlene Blum, the expedition's leader, tells the gripping tale of a landmark climb.

Sales of these sassy T-shirts financed the expedition - you can still get then online

     * I'ld be remiss if I didn't mention my late mother-in-law. Diane Struble found her adventure in the clear, cold waters of Lake George. I've posted about her in the past and have other stories I'll try to get online. Google can find lots more.


     Fantasies of climbing Annapurna are fading from my rearview mirror. And I'm not quite ready for the 'adventure' of a nursing home. In between these extremes lies the realm of 'mature' exploration. Here's a little of my Washington County 'To do' list:

 ~ Bike all the roads. That's 1600+ miles. I've heard rumors that one of those miles is level. I just haven't found it yet.

 ~ Build a collection of every type of rock found in the county. Please, no jokes about looking inside my head for starters.

 ~ Visit all the public libraries. My rainy day project.

Fort Ann's Old Stone House Library

 ~ Check out the variety of publicly accessible lands. There's the Adirondack Forest Preserve, State Wildlife Management Areas, State Forests, several land trust preserves, rail and canal trails, two county parks and some private properties that welcome hikers.

 ~ Run all the dirt roads. They are little strips of heaven in an overpaved world.

 ~ Tip a pint at each of our craft breweries. This follows the prior activity quite nicely.

Web image

     Time to wrap things up. I don't want to exhaust you trying to prove the 'inexhaustibility' of Washington County. Besides, you've got your own list to work on, your own discoveries to make.