Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Even though November contains both my birthday (the 17th) and one of the year’s best holidays (Thanksgiving) I still think it has to be just about the dreariest month on our calendar. The fun and frolic of Halloween has given way to the somberness of All Souls Day. The October explosion of leafy color has long since passed and all that remains is the gathering of their decaying carcasses. A return to standard time leaves us wandering around in the dark and the cold. But, the snow has not yet come to brighten our spirits and start us thinking about fun winter-time activities. 

In many respects, November has always sort of been a “tween” month - not really here, nor there. And, such was the case this November for me and my running. It’s the first full month after track season ends, but still one month to go before snowshoe season starts. And, sandwiched between a couple of lack-luster cross-country performances (NE Champs & Andover CC) has been a series of low-mileage weeks, forgettable runs and a nifty bout of pneumonia - which has left me sluggish, gasping for breath and looking for a quiet place to hibernate.

The lone bright spot (other than Thanksgiving and my birthday, of course) was a spur-of-the-moment hiking trip up Mount Chocorua this past weekend with Steve Wolfe and a couple of his friends from work. We met at Steve’s house dark & early (5:00 am) and made our way up to the trail head which lay at the end of a dirt road in North Tamworth, New Hampshire. Once we arrived, it was clear to me that this hike would be unlike any other one that I had ever done.


Even though I consider myself to be a fairly accomplished hiker, I’d never gone out in winter conditions. So, when the Brook Trail parking lot was covered with over an inch of crusty snow (with more on the way) I was a bit concerned. Clothing-wise I was all set. I’d brought many layers which could easily be added (or removed) as required. Unfortunately, it was gear-wise where I was coming up a bit short. I had my regular hiking boots which worked great in the spring, summer & fall but were somewhat less than ideal on snow & ice.

Never the less, Steve assured me all would be fine and we started up the trail. Early on things went well. The trail was clearly marked and gradually worked its way along the Brook from which it derived its name. There were a couple of crossings but the footing was relatively easy and we made good time. About three-quarters of the way up, we encountered our first real obstacle. A section of sloping granite covered in snow and ice. We skirted our way around the edge, but once we reached its crest it became clear we’d need better traction from now on.

At this point, everyone in our little hiking party broke out their crampons except for me - because, of course, I didn’t have any. Fortunately, I caught Steve on a good day and he let me use one of his “micro-cleats” while he used the other. Admittedly, hiking with one foot that grips and one that slips is not the ideal way to make one’s way up a snowy mountain, but today it would have to do (for both of us) and with our half-passed equipment we carefully set about getting to the top.

After a while, we both got used to crossing snow fields with our good foot on the down slope and bit by bit we crept above the wind swept tree-line. Now, for the first time all day, I was starting to feel cold which was not surprising since the wind was whipping at this point and the temps were still in the low 20’s. One last push got us to the summit and the sound of my wind pants flapping in the stiff breeze nearly drowned out our cheers as we finally reached our day’s goal.

A quick snack and a couple photos later we were on our way back down via the Liberty Trail. This new trail skirted around the south side of the summit before plunging down below tree-line again. The trip back was fairly uneventful not counting an un-intended “glissade” down an exposed piece of rock. Glissade is a fancy way of saying controlled free-fall. About a mile from the summit we came upon a neat little building called the Jim Liberty Hut. Apparently, years earlier, it had been blown off the mountain in a storm. Later they re-built it and secured the structure to the ground with the use of heavy anchor chains. 

Later, after what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it back down to the parking area. Despite having a bit of trouble breathing on the climbs and an uncharacteristic lack of energy throughout my pneumonia recovery was not much of a factor in what turned out to be a pretty good day. In fact, the hike seemed to lift my spirits a bit as I look forward to next weekend’s Mill Cities Relay, the imminent Snowshoe Season and the 2011 New England Grand Prix beyond that. Not sure what my goals will be for each of these endeavors, but there’s still time for me to figure that out. And, once I get some quality training behind me, I’ll be ready to tackle whatever lies ahead. Bring it on!

And, for your listening pleasure: 
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground by the White Stripes

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