Ascending Greylock

January 27, 2012

What a difference a month makes! I’ve chosen Valentine’s Day for my monthly climb and the weather offers a sweetheart deal to be sure—42 degrees. The sky is leaden, but the forecast gives me hope. My car is the only one in the lot, as a small flock of robins feasts on fruit from an old apple tree and chickadees are whistling their “fee bee” spring songs. I leave my gloves clipped to my belt and, wearing only a favorite ball cap for head covering, snowshoe up the old roadway toward the Hopper Trail at 8:20 a.m. A couple of turkey feathers lie on the snow and soon a matrix of turkey tracks criss-crosses the old orchard. The hollow tattoo of a hairy woodpecker’s drumming reverberates throughout the otherwise still woodland—another precursor of spring. Just last month, all was silent and seemingly locked in winter’s iron grip.

A line of porcupine prints crossing the path focuses my attention in the direction the prickly rodent was heading. The tracks lead left about 25 feet to a den within the hollow base of a large fallen tree. Porcupine scat mark its doorstep, causing me to peer into the dark recess. A couple of saplings nearby—including the striped maple I first noticed last month—have had their tight bark gnawed off in blotches as high as 18 feet above the ground by this porky.

It takes me 50 minutes to reach the Money Brook Cutoff, where I shed my jacket, in preparation for the steeper climbing ahead. It’s a good thing, because within minutes, sweat droplets are coursing down my temple. Another 45 minutes and I reach Sperry Road. I pick up the pace, hoping to avoid meeting a snowmobile, as the machine’s corrugated trails are ubiquitous here. I’m happy when I get back on the footpath and head up a steady incline. Tree branches are still ice-coated here and as the sun pokes out from behind the clouds, I snap a few photos.

Beyond the Overlook Trail junction, signs of previous snowshoers grow fainter. The wind has swept the snow from around the bases of small spruces, creating a sort of banked luge run. More photos, and more sunshine. The trail then glances off Rockwell Road and traces uphill again toward the AT. So far so good. But soon I lose the trail entirely as red spruces and balsam firs, bent almost prostrate under their burdens of snow, totally obscure the blue blazes. I look at my watch, curious how long it will take me to re-locate the trail—10:45 a.m. I’m chagrined, but also captivated by the scene around me. Firs coated in ice, boughs heavy with brilliant white snow. I wander about snapping photos, once sinking thigh deep into an air pocket. My gaiters keep my feet dry. From a rise I glimpse the summit to my left; at least I’m headed in the right direction.

Here and there the white blanket is pockmarked by the tracks of snowshoe hares, the big, splayed hind feet registering in front of the small front feet. I’m in the haunts of the original snowshoer. Hoping to catch a glimpse of one, I look in protected spots where a hare might be ensconced. With their pure white pelage, I don’t stand much of a chance, though. I remember to test the snow depth with a ski pole. Forty inches! Finally and with some relief, I spot a white blaze marking the route of the Appalachian Trail. I am saved. It leads me directly to Gore Pond at 11:10 and by now the sky is a magnificent cobalt blue. The intense sunlight is a joy, but it’s also melting the ice off the fir boughs and showering the earth with cold, wet crystals.

Crossing the road to pick up the AT on the other side, I suddenly feel as though I’m walking in high heels. The wet snow is adhering to part of my snowshoes, forming fat snowballs underneath my boots. I pull off one snowball with some effort, but soon another larger one forms. This one is the size of a grapefruit! Just last month the temperatures were too cold for this kind of conglomeration.

Another 20 minutes and I’m standing at the base of the War Memorial tower at the peak. A blustery wind is blowing and chunks of ice are flying off the northeast face of the gray granite structure. I’m careful to avoid it and pull a Valentine’s Day card out of my pack that has been surreptitiously placed there by my wife. I hadn’t been aware of its presence until I first opened my pack lower on the mountain, but had decided to open it when I reached my destination. After almost 37 years of marriage, it’s comforting to know that someone still cares that I make it back alive. I down an energy bar and snap a photo of me triumphantly posing, using the timed shutter release. By now a couple of snowmobilers have motored up and one stares in my direction—seemingly incredulous that anyone would actually walk all the way up here.

It’s certainly been worth the effort. Ice and snow encrust the balsam fir trees, creating an almost surreal scene. A pyramidal snowdrift shoulders up against boarded-up Bascom Lodge. I feel as though I’m miles from civilization. Just before high noon I shoulder my pack and start down. Ice is blowing off the TV tower, so I break into a brief run, just managing to avoid it. The descent is always easier, not only because gravity becomes your friend, but also because a feeling of mild euphoria gained from reaching the summit seems to compress time. Back at the pond, a chunk of falling tree limb ice bonks me on the head, not sufficient to raise a welt, but causing to me to quicken my pace through the boreal zone.

By 1 p.m. I’ve turned back onto the Hopper Trail from the campground. Soon, the guttural croaks of one and then a second raven echo through the bowl of the Hopper. I look for the birds but can’t locate them visually. Raven language to me evokes wilderness. Besides the raven’s croaks, the sound of rushing water drifts up from far below. Clouds are returning, but I don’t mind as the middle of the day has been bathed in sunshine. Another hour and I’m back at the trailhead. But before I reach it, the pungent aroma of manure from the Haley Farm hits me. Two men are loading hay bales from the barn’s loft into the back of a truck. I wave to them as they drive off. My car’s thermometer reads 48 degrees. What a difference a month makes!

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René Laubach

AMC Outdoors, the magazine of the Appalachian Mountain Club, inspires readers to get outside and get engaged. Learn more.