Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Agiocochook and friends

One of the benefits of idleness enforced by illness is reading. Part of my holiday haul this year is Nicholas Howe's Not Without Peril. The subtitle explains it all: 150 years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire.

The deadliness of the Presidentials isn't exaggerated. One of its chief dangers is that people from other places take the range so lightly. I remember, as a child, hearing one of the state's most experienced mountaineers explain what happens to Justice William O. Douglas, who was no slouch at climbing. The mountaineer held up a kitchen funnel, pointed to the large part, and said, "this is all the weather systems of North America." He pointed to the point where the funnel body meets the nozzle. "This is New England." Then he pointed to the narrow end of the spout and said, "This is the Presidential Range." The Justice paid attention to the local knowledge, and finished his trip alive.

Having all those meteorological ingredients at hand, Mount Washington is able to add another trick: it makes its own weather, which is on record as the worst in the world. The combination of unspeakably violent weather, and supremely self-confident, unprepared climbers, explains why the range has killed over 120 people in the 150 or so years of its recreational climbing history. The native peoples called it Agiocochook, and dreaded it. Puritan Darby Field climbed it (in 1642) to demonstrate the white man's power. One wonders what would have happened if he had been the first white man the mountain snuffed out.

I love the White Mountains, but I don't take much to the Chamber of Commerce view of the place. Of the parts I've most frequented, Waterville Valley has always seemed the most open and accessible. You have to climb, and climb high, to step out of a persistent sense of claustrophobia. In some parts, especially Crawford Notch, which defines the southern boundary of the Presidentials, there is a palpable sense of danger. When I first discovered Poe's Ulalume ("It was hard by the dark tarn of Auber... in the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir") I thought of Crawford Notch immediately.

I don't expect I'll be going up immediately, but a prepared climb of the Presidential Range needs a spot on the to-do list.


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