Of the Mountain Wind

June 1, 2009

The crushing power of a constant companion above treeline

Appalachia, Summer/Fall 2009

Beth! Beth!”Despite the deafening roar of the wind and rain, and a cacophony of sudden bangs and clangs, I hear my name, just barely. Rushing to the back door of the alpine Lakes of the Clouds Hut, I am greeted by a startling sight. In place of the chipped green paint and the CROO ONLY sign, I see nothing but a hole. A hole. The 75-mph wind is rushing into the hut, an invisible battering ram. Leaning forward, I stagger out of the vacant door frame. I don’t hear my name now—just expletives.

Ben is down by the side of the hut, using his weight to pin the escaping door while the wind pushes back. Hinges flutter, feather-like. I totter as if a sailor without my sea legs to help against the gale. Even with two of us, the wind is more than our match. Hearing the commotion, Jake, another crew member, struggles out. Only with three of us are we able to drag the door in fits and starts against the wind and into the open hut.

This tale from a June White Mountain morning is a good one. I tell it often. It is unexpected and astonishing, unusual, atypical. It also reveals the power of the mountain wind, its indifference to human attempts to control it, and our vulnerability before its force. This story, too, is a personal one. Living in such a setting—above treeline in the “world’s worst weather,” among nature’s gnarly bonsai of the alpine zone—my actions are in continual flux between acquiescence and bravado, half-consciously acknowledging my susceptibility before a force that I can, with care, survive, but never conquer.

Living in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the wind constantly humbles me. I live among these mountains for a season or two at a time, stewarding a high mountain hut. There, crews provide hikers meals and a place to stay. I, along with fellow crew members, perform search-and-rescue operations and pack supplies in and out of the backcountry hut site twice a week. We also cook and do maintenance work. With each season spent in these mountains, my knowledge of the area and the climate increases, and the stories and experiences that illustrate the superior power of the mountain weather mold my way of being in this place. In these mountains, the highest wind speed in the world was recorded—231 mph. Higher gusts subsequently broke the instruments. On the highest peak here, Mount Washington, people have died in every month of the year, mostly from hypothermia and exposure in unexpected storms or because they weren’t prepared for the severity of the mountain climate. Neither weather nor human life can be taken lightly here.

In an age of technical gear and power gels, enhancements of all sorts and gadgets galore, human vulnerability is one more thing to be conquered, a handicap of the past. But one can’t dismiss the crushing power of the wind. Wind chills. Wind disorients via stormy blankets of clouds. Wind takes one’s breath away. Wind renders human made structures in need of constant attention. This is my reality.

Bethann Weick works as a White Mountains hut manager and for a farm in Rumney, New Hampshire. She set out this spring to hike the Appalachian Trail.

The full text of this story may be found in the Summer/Fall 2009 Issue of Appalachia

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Bethann Weick

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