Thursday, January 24, 2008

Missing grace

Since she was very young our daughter has been my favorite partner in the hills. The only thing that could make me more excited about the 2008 Challenge would be her joining me on the walk. Alas, it’s not on this year.

We took H on her first overnight when she was four. The AMC has a belt of huts across the belly of the White Mountain National Forest, eight of them, a day’s walk apart, from just west of Franconia Notch to just east of Pinkham Notch. The huts are enclosed and staffed, and are, in both senses of the word, rough equivalents of the refuges, huttes, and refugios of the Alps. We chose Zealand Falls Hut, fourth along the line, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post as our Nalgene-destruction site. It’s easy to get to from the nearest trailhead, a nearly flat three-mile walk along what once was the bed of a logging railroad, before a stiff climb over the last tenth of a mile reminds you you’re still in New Hampshire. The hut sits next to a lovely waterfall, and looks down Zealand Notch toward a jagged line of peaks to the south. We had a wonderful time, and it remained her favorite goal on birthday trips with young friends or cousins.


Five years later (and about five years after the photo above was taken), H and I headed for Zealand in winter, when the hut is on caretaker status (little heat, cook your own food). The ski tour is one of the classics of the New England winter. We planned an overnight in-and-out. The approach road, which gains more elevation than the trail itself, is closed in winter, so the distance doubles, but it’s not technically demanding. We hopped out of the car, sniffed the breeze, looked at each other, said, “not bad” and hit the trail. We didn’t know at the time, though I certainly should have, but it was -6° F (-27° C).

The plan was to stop at the halfway point, where the summer approach road ends and the trail begins, to boil some water for drinks and lunch and give H some practice using the Whisperlite. But by the time we got there, she was worn down, very cold, and still faced over an hour’s ski to the hut. She suffered a teary and miserable half-hour while I sat her down out of the wind, bundled her up, fixed her some soup, and made some adjustments in her clothing. This was partly an equipment problem. Good cold-weather stuff for kids was hard to find in those days, and the overboots we’d fashioned for her didn’t really fill the bill. But it was mostly a stupid father problem. Remarkably, when I knelt to console her—to apologize, really—she sniffed, “It’s okay. I’ll be all right.” And she was. She gradually rallied once we got on the trail proper (much nicer skiing), we had a wonderful evening at the hut, which included a quick trip outside to ooh and ahh over the aurora borealis, and we enjoyed a fantastic gliding ski out the next day in warm, bright sunlight. Like almost all dads, I’ve always been proud of my daughter, but her response under the conditions, at her age, remains one of the most steadfast and generous acts I’ve experienced, in the mountains or anywhere else.

So I’ll miss her on the Challenge not just for her company or her competence and reliability in the hills, but for her resolve, her good humor, and especially for the comfort she invariably brings (and the absolution she grants) to those who need it. Maybe we should have named her Grace.

2 comments:

WD said...

Mark,
IIRC there is a lower age limit for the TGOC which is 18.
It's one of my dreams to do the TGOC with my son as well (who is 14). Whether I will convince him to join me when he is old enough is another thing ;)

Mark said...

Hi Darren. H is now a grown up, married, medical student (which is why she's a little too busy to wander across Scotland in May). I hope your son grants your wish in a few years. What could be better?