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Tue, 29 Apr 2008

Treeline

This is the story of a single footstep.

I've written previously about moments in our lives that seem to expand in temporal disproportion. I don't know what it is about our brain that causes such a time distortion effect, but to be plausible to me I think any theory of consciousness (physicalist or mystical) must address this singular fact of experience.

I'm not talking about the moderate "time flies when you're having fun" effect. The fact that enjoyable games seem to pass the time better than unpleasant chores can easily be explained with a variety of theories to treat a drifting miscalibration of our subjective temporal sense relative to the marking of precise physical time. Temperature is like this, too. We can "feel" warm or cool at the same mean molecular kinetic energy of our surroundings (physical temperature) depending on myriad factors influencing that judgment: the moistness of our skin, our state of nourishment, fatigue, illness, etc...

Rather, I'm talking about single moments that expand with infinite disproportion. These are the so called "life passes before your eyes" moments. Within nearly dimensionless points of real world time, our brains somehow extrapolate an infinite dimensionality of subjective experience. How can this be? It seems that our subjective sense of the flow of time is only provisionally bound to the process we call reality.

Could dreaming be a related experience? I've had dreams that seemed to span weeks in subjective time, yet scientists say that most dreams occur in just a few minutes. Brain scans have shown reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex during dreaming. The prefrontal cortex is where behavior planning and self-awareness seem to reside. Does reduced activity in this region unlock our subjective sense of time?

Drugs can certainly distort our temporal sense in the extreme. Anyone who has experienced the Alice in Wonderland world-view that LSD brings knows that the link between subjective experience and objective fact is easily shattered by chemical interference. It's a little harder, but even without drugs, people can achieve some of these same altered states of consciousness. It's well documented that subjective time-space distortions can be achieved by means of religious practices: prolonged meditation and isolation, or intense ritual.

All these are interesting phenomena. They are certainly good questions for brain researchers to investigate. However, these distortions all seem to involve direct interference with normal brain function, or with situations when the brain is otherwise intentionally distracted from reality. I don't find it surprising that such situations lead to a mismatch between subjective experience and physical reality. In fact, I'd be more surprised if people somehow did stay in touch while thus impaired.

Instead I'm concerned with what seems to be a very different situation – a situation where there is no impairment, no distraction, but rather an intense focus directly on the moment. Of all the examples above, the closest to this situation are certain religious rituals: for example, the moment of consecration in the Catholic mass. The faithful report that this moment can expand and seem to stretch on for subjective eons in time, far disproportionate to its wall clock duration. They attribute this to the direct influence of God as He infuses their souls with the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the atheist in me can't help but observe that the consecration ritual is simultaneous with a long period of kneeling by the congregation. Support your full weight on your knees and listen to a priest drone on and on in monotone prayer for ten minutes. Under those conditions, even the most mundane contemporaneous events may become disproportionately expanded in subjective duration.

Some may be quick to point out that the events I recount as "expanding into vast temporal disproportion" for me always seem to be accompanied by physical stress. In the case of No Bridge it may be argued that I was probably tired, cold, and hungry as I teetered on the brink. In fact, the events at treeline of Little Haystack that I will relate in this post were late in the day and again it could be argued that I was tired, cold, and hungry. Although I ultimately dismiss them, I'm forced to admit that some of these factors may be worth consideration.

When Doug and I approached the summit of Little Haystack, we were certainly tired. It had been a long day. Shortly after dawn, we had left our car in an icy, blustery, salt-slush-choked parking lot, 3000 vertical feet below, and had spent the better part of the day climbing the Falling Waters trail. About an hour earlier and 500 feet lower, we had made camp, our tent pitched upon a platform of snow, packed down Tempur-Pedic, sleep number 6 firm, the main guys tied to our buried snowshoes.

We were tired from this work, but knew that the main task of the day was already accomplished. We were exactly on our plan to reach treeline the afternoon of the first day. We would camp the night, make the traverse of the ridge from Little Haystack, over Lincoln, on to Lafayette and back down below treeline to camp near the Greenleaf Hut tomorrow. Knowing that a warm supper and a blissful 10+ hours of sleep in our down cocoons soon awaited us, we felt that we had more that enough energy for a few more upward steps to "peek" at the summit.

Food wise, we both still had some charge in our batteries. Supper would be welcome, but we were hardly starving. Before departing that morning, I had devoured a massive stack of pancakes at a diner in Londonderry, NH. Then, about halfway up the climb we had stopped for lunch. I ate a tin of deviled ham with a pita, washed down with hot, spiced cider.

Yes we were tired, and mildly hungry, but I don't think that was a factor. We absolutely weren't cold. The thermometer on my pack read 5 degrees F, but I was toasty warm in my Gore-Tex, fleece, and polypro layers. If anything, I was a little too warm and perspiring lightly. For most of the day I had my jacket and fleece zippers part way open. It's pretty easy to stay warm climbing the better part of a mile vertically.

As a final bit of evidence that leads me to discount the possible time-warping effects of my physical state that day is the fact that I can list countless times when I was immeasurably more tired, colder, and starving in need of food. The only temporal distortion those more extreme yet fundamentally mundane discomforts engendered in me were the usual feelings of impatience with suffering a tedious undertaking on an empty stomach during foul weather. This time, however, I was feeling pretty good.

I mentioned "climbing" the Falling Waters trail. This isn't quite the right word to describe what we were doing. While The Whites are definitely mountains in every sense of the word, and we were doubtlessly climbing up them, the phrase "mountain climbing" evokes the image of Clint Eastwood in the Eiger Sanction scaling rocky crags with ropes, harnesses, carabiners, and pitons. Not us. We are weekend warriors lacking both the technical skill and the honed physical fitness necessary for extreme mountaineering pitches. A better description of our work on the Falling Waters trail was "uphill hiking". Relentlessly uphill, sometimes steeply uphill, and, in the winter, slippery ice and snow covered uphill, but merely uphill none the less. Although we passed a few vertical rock walls and frozen waterfalls, they were just pretty scenery. Our trail was decidedly a footpath. We wore snowshoes some of the way, crampons other times, but these were mere assistants to the underlying simple business. Place one foot in front of the other and you made progress on it; you stop making progress when you become unwilling to take the next step.

I reached that limit at about 10 paces past treeline on Little Haystack. But before I describe that moment, let me explain a little about this particular mountain.

Although nearly 4800 feet tall, Little Haystack is not considered a "four-thousand footer" because it stands less than 200 ft above the saddle on the ridge connecting it with Mount Lincoln. Like its name suggests, Little Haystack has a relatively blunt peak, a fact that makes it relatively easy to get to the top of. In the summer, climbing up Falling Waters to Little Haystack, and continuing on along the Franconia Ridge is one of the most popular New Hampshire hikes. The Franconia ridge is a narrow sliver of rocky trail with glorious views out fifty miles, and steep slopes on both sides. There is really no other way on or off the ridge for some considerable distance in both directions.

Thus, it's a sad irony that the same lack of prominence making Little Haystack a safe and convenient way up and onto the ridge in the summertime makes it a killer to many who've reached the top in the winter. It's an infamous spot. Not a month earlier than our visit, two hikers were rescued from there. The blowing snow and high winds at the summit (93 MPH recorded at nearby Mount Washington) cut off their descent and forced them to spend the night atop Little Haystack. Lacking the proper gear for an overnight stay, they became severely hypothermic. An Army National Guard helicopter made two dangerous nighttime landings in high winds to retrieve the victims and rescuers. One of the men, 55-year-old Lawrence Fredrickson was pronounced DOA at the Littleton Regional Hospital.

It could be puzzling how the snow and wind "trapped" these men. When I first read the reports I wondered this myself. Although they obviously made a mistake not bringing the ten essentials for an overnight stay, by all accounts they were sensible adults – not total fools. Why couldn't they "just walk back down"? Did they panic? Did they ignore conditions? Personal hubris makes us think we are better than the other guy. Surely I would not make that mistake. I'd know when to turn back. I'd just walk back down. How hard could that be?

The answer, I know now, is that it can be pretty damn hard to walk back down from Little Haystack.

First of all, while it is a mathematical fact that the gradient on a surface leads unfailingly and uniquely to a local maxima, the process can not be reversed uniquely. Going up, only one way is up; going down, every way is down. This essential ambiguity associated with all peaks is compounded when the hill in question has a broad, indistinct summit that smoothly morphs into the connecting ridge. As has already been mentioned, Little Haystack is a hill of this sort. The summit area is a wide open area, rocky and generally devoid of significant landmarks. There are rock cairns that mark the three trails that join at the summit, but these are merely larger piles of rock in a world of rock. With high winds, blowing snow, and the sun low in the sky, the cairns are difficult to see even when standing 20 feet away. If the hikers were to begin descending from the summit in a slightly incorrect direction, they could walk right past the first cairn without seeing it. They would suddenly find themselves well off trail, facing an impasse; or just as bad, they could mistake the cairns from one of the ridge trails as seemingly marking an escape route.

Even if they had the presence of mind to use a compass to guide their descent based on a map, an accidental compass heading error of, say, 30 degrees could drift them 20 feet by a nearly invisible cairn after traveling a mere 40 feet in the chosen direction. That 30 degree compass error may seem like a lot, but considering the needle wobbling disturbances of high winds, and the blurring from fogged goggles, and you hardly have ideal conditions for making accurate surveys. What's more, declination in New Hampshire is 12 degrees. Not adjusting for this throws you off 12 degrees. Incorrectly adjusting for magnetic versus true north can be a 24 degree mistake from the get go. Worst yet, once you have ventured away from the summit (which isn't very distinct to begin with) you have no accurate baseline to begin your navigation. All things considered, I think the prospects of trail finding in whiteout conditions are very dicey on top of this particular mountain.

Nor would GPS be much of a help. Even if they had a GPS, and even if the batteries and display were working in the sub-zero temperatures, and even if they could operate the thing with heavy mittens, and even if the satellites were able to get signal in through the clouds and mist and snow, and even if they could actually see the display through fogged goggles, the hikers still would be left with the inherent 50 foot uncertainty of GPS position – again, not enough precision to reliably find the trail back down.

Of course, my hiking partner Doug and I were well aware of the fate of Lawrence Fredrickson when we began our hike up Little Haystack about a month later – on the first day of spring, 2008. We also knew that the weather forecast was not favorable for our success. But with our hubris pumped up and with the philosophy that more activities are canceled for fear of bad weather than would ever be impeded by actual bad weather, we decided to begin our hike despite the dire weather predictions, which called for conditions not unlike that which killed Fredrickson.

I had never been above treeline in the winter. Doug, who had been on many winter peaks in his life, including Little Haystack itself, kept telling me that, no matter what, I needed to lose my treeline virginity this hike. I wanted to know what the big deal was. He just made a knowing, sober nod and said: you'll see.

Ever since the first adult told me "you'll understand when you're older" I've been repeatedly underwhelmed by these supposedly sublime moments that can't be put in words in advance of their actual experience. Sexual intercourse, for example, was supposedly in this category. Not that I don't like sex, or think that it can't be sublime. With the right person, and the right wine, it can be pretty damn good. But my first experience with the clumsy mechanics of beginner coitus was hardly "sublime", especially when measured relative to the immensely satisfying joy that my well practiced teen-age masturbation skills could attain by that date.

So, with respect to this treeline thing, I couldn't quite comprehend what the big deal was. I was most puzzled as we got closer to the summit. Doug pointed out how the trees were getting runt-like, and although it was curiously calm where we hiked, I could hear the wind whistling over the treetops. We had passed the "Alpine Zone" 4000 foot trail marker a while back, and the vegetation was definitely "stressed" in this fragile ecosystem. Yet I remained unimpressed. It would be a little windy. There'd be some snow. So what. And this was only 4800 feet. I'd been at 12,000 feet in New Mexico – admittedly in the summer – but how could this compare to that awesome location, two miles up into the sky?

What's more, I'd gone to college in upstate New York. In more than one occasion I found myself walking back from the library (or was it a local bar) at 3 AM in a full blizzard wearing little more than bluejeans and a thin, wool pea-coat. How bad could it be on some New Hampshire hill with the pastoral name "Little Haystack"? A little cold and breezy? It was Spring, for christ sake.

As Doug and I neared treeline, he warned me to put on my heavy balaclava, goggles, and zip up tight now while I could. I went along, even though I felt I was way too hot for this. Our packs were back at camp, and the slope was easy, but we didn't have our snowshoes with us and there had been some post-holing on some sections where powdery drifts covered the otherwise well packed trail. When I pulled my balaclava over my face, my heavy breathing from the trudging effort hissed in my ears. I adjusted the mask carefully to prevent puffs of the vapor leaking up my nose to cloud my goggles. When we were completely sealed with no exposed skin, we continued.

Treeline was further away than expected. The trail dipped back down and then began a series of switchbacks. I huffed and puffed and sweated, plunging my feet again and again, ever forward in the deep snow. Up and up. On and on. It seemed like forever – the tedium of it caused my perception of time to expand in the mundane way. But this tedious "forever" was the mundane scaling of time previously dismissed. Such a commonplace "forever" is from a lower order of infinity.

We rounded one last switchback, turning past a what was probably a 10 foot spruce poking its apex not 3 feet above the surface of the snow, and we were there.

In the woods below, we could hear the wind above, but we hardly felt a thing. I suspect our protection from its blast was more due to the aerodynamics of the mountain than any blockage afforded by the trees. I'm told that the location of treeline occurs at an exact level because above that level, trees cannot live. Nothing can live. A few feet lower, life can exist. Above the line, no.

I took one step above treeline and I staggered from the shock. The wind was so suddenly and instantly powerful that I flinched back as if slapped. Doug came up beside me and yelled in an elated voice: "See what I mean!?" I could barely hear him over the roar.

I took another tentative step. The deep, soft snow that had covered the trail not 5 feet behind me quickly tapered down to a hard, frozen scree. I looked over my shoulder at that last, lonely spruce marking the end of the woodland trail and saw that is was not a mortal tree like all the trees I had know up to than point in my life. When mammals are damned, they are sent to the underworld. When conifers are damned, they are sent to the edge of treeline. This was a zombie tree – an undead tree – a demon tree that had traded its wooden soul to the black forest devil in some unspeakable druid ritual and in its eternal damnation had been sentenced to suffer rooting in this hellacious garden.

One side of the tree was coated in a half inch of solid ice. Short icicles jutted out horizontally from this crust. The branches were short and misshapen, somewhat reminding me of a Bonsai tree. There were very few remaining needles. What green color the lost soul of this tree might have contributed to the bleak scene was coated in frost, rendering it a shade of green-gray – the color of green-water on the deck of a ship beset by storm.

I tore my eyes away from the tree and took another plodding step into snow that wasn't more than a few inches deep. Up ahead, maybe 30 yards away up what appeared to be a 45 degree slope, I could see a stone cairn vaguely in the distance. The snow was not very severe, but there was a fog that cut visibility much beyond that cairn. I took a few more determined steps, eyes never leaving the cairn even for an instant. Now I was several feet beyond the tree and was taking the full force of the wind. I had my feet widely planted on the ice and snow covered rock.

I heard Doug yelling in my ear: "Look back down! Remember where we are!"

I looked back and my stomach heaved. I could barely see the zombie tree. Beyond that, down and down was nothing – no forest, just a gray fog. I quickly turned up toward the cairn again. All my attention, all my focus was on getting to that pile of stones. I glanced at the compass, tethered to my jacket zip. Almost due east. Not 25 yards. Take another step. Take another step.

In about three more steps the snow had thinned away to nothing, leaving just an icy rock scree. I put my foot down. Tested the footing. And slipped.

I didn't fall, my back foot and trekking poles held firm, but I was shaken. There was no footing. I tried to reverse my step and couldn't find footing behind me. Doug, probably seeing the look of terror in my eyes shouted: "It's time to go back!"

No sooner had he yelled that retreat order when a gust of wind hit us that was more powerful than anything we had thus far felt. The gust blew Doug completely off his feet. He slid down the mountain, falling not very far, and came to rest near that tortured spruce. He gave me the thumbs up.

This was the moment when time stopped. Somehow, the gust hadn't toppled me, but I was completely paralyzed. I didn't trust any footing around me. I couldn't go up. I couldn't go down. But I had to do something. I stood there arguing with myself for what seemed like months. Time was not a factor. I needed to decide something very fundamental about my fate. I had no data. There was no way for my earthling brain to reason in this alien place. My friend had just been blown off his feet. I was standing on an icy rock slope in an existential nightmare of anguish. Let's go. We can't. Why not?

Nothing to be done.

Well, something had better be done. Time begins again. Oh, to hell with it! That looks like a spot where my boot might stick. It is. Another step down. Another. Now I'm back to Gogo's tree. Now I'm back below treeline. Doug and I rip off our balaclava's and whoop out rebel yells to scare the devil.

An hour later we are snug in camp. I'm finishing up the last of my re-hydrated "Lasagna with Meat Sauce", which, despite 985 grams of sodium, tastes glorious. Doug and I discuss options. He's thrilled to have tasted the wind. I'm shaken, and admit my fear. We both agree that travel above treeline is impossible if the wind is strong enough to physically lift us off the ground. We'll sleep and see how it is in the morning.

I sleep fairly well. Our camp is well sheltered, but all night long the wind continues to increase. At one point, some collection of tree branches, perhaps coated with a rosin of ice, rub together and bow out a beautiful major third harmony.

We wake to find the tent buried in a half foot of blown snow. The temperature has fallen further. It is well below zero and the wind is making a terrifying racket in the treetops. We decide that the mountain is angry. We have a quick breakfast, pack up, and head down. By noon we are drinking beer in Truants.

I tell Doug how I felt when took the step that failed – how time stopped. He revealed that he had considered bringing crampons along with us in our foray above treeline, but that he thought better of it. He was afraid that our progress would have been too much aided by those spikes and that apparent success would have fatally inflated our overconfidence. It was better that we got the shit scared out of us and ran down the hill like scared rabbits.

Later that day we hear that the summit winds in The Whites peaked at 148 MPH, a full 50 MPH faster than the winds on the day that Fredrickson died.

Posted Apr 29, 2008 at 01:02 UTC, 4038 words,  [/danPermalink

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