An Excerpt from The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie: A Hiking Journey through New Hampshire’s 52 With a View Mountain List
The Horn has a unique distinction. The mountain’s summit is one very large, very steep rock. In the summer, a hiker can scramble up that rock from several different points. Now, however, as we attain the summit, we hover helplessly around the summit rock. Those icy flanks might as well be Mount Everest.
We explore the base of the summit rock for ten minutes, fully exposed to a bitter valley wind, our sweat freezing to our fleece. We are seven feet from the top, but that’s seven feet up a rock face and our Stabilicers are not up to the task.
If we reach up with our poles we can touch the summit. But it looks like our feet aren’t going to make it. And time begins to run out.
“We’ve been here too long, Janelle,” I say close to her ear, over the howl of cold wind. “It’s too dangerous.”
I could, I suppose, heave her up there. But then how would I get her down?
“We’ll have to come back!” She says this not as a statement or question, but as a dreaded exclamation. Neither of us wants to miss a summit. We won’t have enough time to come back. It’s now or nothing.
“Are you warm, every part of you, are you warm?” I ask.
There is one chance. The western side of the giant boulder is split near the bottom, forming a wedge about two feet wide and ten feet long. I have no clue what’s on the other side of that wedge. Perhaps more impossible-to-negotiate rock. Perhaps a pathway to the top.
“Can you fit through there?” I know she can fit. My question is designed to see if she wants to.
“Yes!” she says again, nodding her head to add emphasis. There’s no hesitation, no claustrophobic fear. She’s excited.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s take one last shot. Follow me. Do as I do. If I say turn back, we just shimmy back the way we came, okay?”
And so, at nearly 4,000 feet, amid the ice and snow, fully engaged and ready for anything, the girl and I squeeze into the void to search for a path to the summit.
I lean into the rock, skittering on my elbows and knees. She does the same but her size makes it much easier for her. At the other side of the split, beyond a small tree, the summit rock appears to slope down enough for us to climb up onto it.
“What do you see?” Janelle asks.
“I think we can do this,” I say. “Let me look before you try it, okay?”
I crawl on my hands and knees to get under and around the tree, the slope to my left dangerously steep. Once at the base of the rock, I brace my foot on that same tree and am indeed able to get up on the rock.
She follows, and I hold her hand as she wheels around the tree and comes up the side of the rock. But we have one last challenge. Incredibly, near the top, that rock is tiered and the actual summit is still four feet up a shelf.
With the wind howling in my ears, and sleet stinging my eyes, I boost myself up to the top, then turn around.
Even in the crazy urgency of the moment, she gives me a look. the look. I have come to understand this particular expression not as annoyance, but something approaching chagrin. It is the look equivalent to rolling her eyes that demands I stop taking pictures or quit making bad jokes or lets me know that I am stark raving mad if I think she’s is going to jump four feet up in swirling snow and ice at nearly 4,000 feet. That’s a look I can only imagine scores of young men will receive in years to come.
“We’re here, you wanted adventure!” I yell over the turmoil. “You wanted to be a mountain climber. Here it is. Right now!”
Our eyes meet through the snow and the corners of her mouth lift slightly.
“Jump! Jump now!”
She crouches below me as low as she can, and grinds her feet into the snow for traction. I get to my knees, find purchase on the cold rock below, bend down toward her and reach out my arms.
She jumps; a moment of slowed time as she comes into my arms and I find two solid handfuls of her coat and her upward momentum throws us back where we land together, safe, on the summit. The roar of the wind and the cold of the snow returns as we untangle and lift our arms to the sky there atop The Horn.
“That,” she says between adrenaline-soaked breaths, “was awesome!”
Photos courtesy of author: Main image atop North Baldface, bottom image of big views from the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain.