A Lifelong Memory
By Nicholas S. Racheotes
The next time I’m tempted to heed the call of the outdoors, remind me to disconnect the phone and log off the Internet. The year was 1969, and for those of you too young to remember or from other parts of this third rock from the sun, it was a backbreaking, harsh winter in New England. Not the least concerned with this reality, some of us neither hardy nor right-minded souls resolved to climb a few of the White Mountains.
How tough could this be? After all, those modest little peaks, sacred to the Native American tribes of New Hampshire, were not even the little sisters of Everest, McKinley, or Kilimanjaro; but they did have snow, as we soon learned. We could borrow cars, beg gear, hit the supermarket for easy-to-carry provisions, and be back in time for graduation—or so we thought.
Before you could say “Kancamagus Highway,” we were tucked into our sleeping bags at the foot of Mount Adams, though as matters turned out, I would have preferred the feet of Abigail or even John Adams. Although it was June, the midnight cold stung like BBs on any exposed body part. Just as I finally drifted into sleep in a cocoon of damp cotton, there was an explosion of curses, the percussion of a car door slamming, and the vise-like grip of a hand on my shoulder shaking me into wakefulness. “Don’t look now,” said a voice in my ear, “but some critters just ran across the camp.” Over the past forty very odd years, we survivors of this encounter have argued as to whether the invaders were mountain lions or merely raccoons out for a pizza run.
Morning came, and we hoisted our burdens for the climb. Being the shrimp of the party, I got to carry the bedrolls. They towered over my head on the frame and gave me the eerie feeling that, at every step, I’d fall on my back—just the sense that a first-time climber wants to cultivate.
Before any of us collapsed from fatigue, we were enjoying the breathtaking views of various trees and the reassuring roof of the car far below, which seemed to hint at our safe return if not to civilization, at least to campus. Only once was I the least bit frightened by the sudden intake of air by the hiker walking behind me. (I had slipped about a foot sideways on the wet path, and his gasp reminded me of the effect that dropping 1,500 feet might have on a twenty-two-year-old body.)
After crawling a few hundred yards over a snowfield—yes, snow in June—we reached the Crag Camp cabin. What a site for sore feet and blistered shoulders it was. The room was beautifully appointed with bunk beds, a bellows harmonium suitable for hymn playing, and us, the mountain club from the University of Massachusetts. We dined sumptuously on burned steaks cooked over gasoline-fired stoves and canned vegetables similarly prepared. Our chef gathered up the charred edges of meat and prophetically declared that they might be useful tomorrow.
Morning came way too early. We breakfasted on some sausage and some hot liquid and headed for Madison Spring Hut. There, we were supposed to meet the other party of nitwits who had collaborated on this scheme. They were nowhere to be found.
We lunched on the charred leftovers from supper, which remain the best steak I’ve ever eaten, and chased them down with water and candy bars. Leaving a note for our missing cohorts, we headed the three or so miles back to the car. I’ve been told that world-class marathoners run five-and-a-half-minute miles over the entire course. To this day, I swear that in our eagerness to head home, we did better. We leaped over fallen trees and dodged stumps as though pursued by mountain lions (or raccoons out for a pizza run).
Smelly, sour, and sore, we were back in the dorm by nightfall, and there we found our erstwhile companions, showered, fed, and wondering why we didn’t have the good sense to give up the climb when we saw all that snow. I would like to have reported that our response was in the words of Edmund Hillary. We didn’t abandon the mountain “because it was there.” I’d like to report that, instead of the unprintable phrases that we did exchange.
It all ended happily. The blisters healed. The swelling in our hands and feet subsided. Everyone attended commencement, and we’re all still very good friends. I have this story to tell over and over. And, in case you haven’t guessed, I haven’t climbed since, in any weather.
Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.