Reaching for the Winter Light

January 1, 2010

Previously unpublished journals and letters of off-trail winter adventures

Introduced by Laura Waterman

Guy Waterman liked to say he spent about one-third of the winter nights camped out in his tent. He was underestimating. We had moved from the city to the country to be closer to the mountains, and to turn climbing and hiking into a seamless fit in our lives. Guy’s peak years for winter adventures in the White Mountains were from 1974 to 1988. He didn’t stop climbing after that, but his objectives changed. On March 8, 1987, he completed his goal of climbing all the New Hampshire 4,000-footers in winter from all four compass points. The challenge had sustained him for most of the 1980s, and with its accomplishment, he had difficulty finding a project that would consume his focus, energy, and drive. For three winters, from 1991 to 1994, he shared caretaking duties at Gray Knob, the Randolph Mountain Club’s cabin on the side of Mount Adams. When that ended, Guy ceased keeping up his hiking notebook, even though he was still climbing. The notebook was a large three-ring binder where he had filed a write-up of every hike he’d ever taken in the White Mountains, beginning in November 1963, with a traverse of the Franconia Ridge.

Guy left off documenting his hikes not because the White Mountains, especially the White Mountains in winter, had come to mean less to him. It had more to do with his state of mind. He felt less the winter hiker. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to document the failures, like his plan on January 4, 1995, to climb to the Franconia Ridge by way of the Gargoyle Slabs, a route he loved. It was brought to a halt at the base of the Slabs by a broken crampon and a sore foot. Both crampons and boots were nearly new. Equipment failures and the inability to achieve the goals he demanded of himself were serving to wear him down by the late 1990s. In a very real sense, he had nothing more to record.

We clocked the winter season as beginning on December 21, but cut it off before March 21, because we tapped our sugar maples in early March. The winter never felt long enough, and how could it, since we’d confined it to ten short weeks? We fit into those ten weeks both ice climbing and mountaineering, day trips and overnights lasting three to five nights. We made many trips of just the two of us, and many trips with friends. But Guy always carved out for himself one or two or three solo trips a winter, lasting up to a week.

The journal accounts reproduced here show Guy on these trips. Two he wrote in an outline form and two as letters to me. Picture him in his tent in a wild off-the-trail spot surrounded by evergreens drenched in snow. He is crouched on his sleeping bag, wearing a rather shapeless navy colored balaclava and a pair of fingerless mitts I had knitted for him. He has trouble keeping the fraying ends of the mitts out of the way of his pencil. He’s close to the candle flame writing in a three-by-five-inch spiral notebook he’s packed for this purpose, or on an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper. His writing is neat, more legible than one might think considering his fingers are freezing in temperatures hovering either side of zero.

Guy had a great appetite for being out there by himself. These solo trips were testing grounds for him, when he set the bar notches higher than on the trips with me or with others. To begin with, he was alone. He put himself in spots that were hard to get to and hard to get out of. He was hiking mostly off-trail, relying on his skills with map and compass and his own experience to keep him safe. Of course he was at risk — we both knew that — and he knew that I knew that was a strong part of why he was out there. I would never have asked him not to go because I saw how much he needed alone time in wild spots. I saw how he could be easier in his mind when he came home. After the deaths of his oldest two sons, he needed these solitary periods in the deep winter woods even more. I believe he felt a connection to them as he battled up a steep slope dense with spruce and fir and gnarled birch that he couldn’t feel in any other place. He connected with them as he tussled with the wind above treeline, and it was in these wild places he connected with himself.

Guy and Laura Waterman were homesteaders in Vermont for three decades until Guy’s death on Mount Lafayette in 2000. They wrote many articles and books including Forest and Crag (AMC Books). Laura’s memoir, Losing the Garden, was published in 2005 by Shoemaker & Hoard. The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Appalachia.

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