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In memoriam. Lucy Meowington. April 5, 2015

Posted by Jenny in grief, Life experience, memoir.
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Lucy Meowington.

Lucy Meowington.

I delayed posting about this event of nearly a week ago. I was afraid people would be worried about me.

I am going to keep this short. It was on Tuesday, March 31, that I realized something was terribly wrong with my beloved cat, Lucy. I’d noticed the day before that she seemed lethargic. Then, that morning, when I woke up, I saw that her behavior was not normal at all. We had a certain routine, where I would give her a fresh bowl of food, and she rubbed against my legs. On that morning she didn’t even come downstairs.

I took her to the vet, and eventually they diagnosed her with acute kidney failure. I made the terrible decision to have her euthanized.

Very odd—she was only six years old.

It is a terrible loss.

I am not looking for consolation. To be honest, I would rather not hear from anybody. But I wanted you all to know.

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A “perfect storm” of life events March 31, 2015

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Life experience, Lifestyle, memoir, White Mountains.
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29 comments
View from my deck.

View from my deck.

Within the past 10 days, these things happened:

1. My landlord told me he is going to sell the house. He’d mentioned the possibility a while back, but now I need to be out in June.

2. A short way into a hike to the Lester Prong headwaters to commemorate my mentor, Charlie Klabunde, my knee gave out (again) and I had to turn back.

3. I had a serious disagreement with a director of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and resigned my position as newsletter editor.

4. My sister in Massachusetts, who is battling mental illness, had a crisis and went into a group home for a “respite,” as they call it.

The upshot: I have decided to return to New England, where I can be closer to my sister and try to help her out.

My living room.

My living room.

Last week was pretty terrible, the nights worse than the days: insomniac hours, waking up with a sudden jolt of anxiety. But I have come through the worst of it, and now I have moved into a new phase of this transition. My insomnia now takes the form of sudden bouts of feverish planning at 3:00 in the morning.

Last night, in the middle of the night, I decided I will move to St. Johnsbury, Vermont. But let’s back up for a moment.

1.  The house. This is a beautiful place that overlooks the Tuckasegee River in Sylva, NC. The person who built it, back in the 70s, was a carpenter with a creative spirit. It has all kinds of nice touches, like the real Portuguese tiles in the kitchen and the railings upstairs fashioned from twisting branches. It does have its problems, such as the steep narrow driveway. And after all those years, it needs repairs. But I am fond of it.

It’s not easy to find good house rentals in the Sylva area—this house is kind of a fluke. I’m renting rather than buying because I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I might need to move back to New England on short notice. Sylva’s a small town, and most of the rentals are mobile homes. Well, I could move to Waynesville or Asheville. Nope, don’t want to do that. As far as Asheville’s concerned, “been there, done that.”

House as seen from the driveway.

House as seen from the driveway.

2.  The knee. I’ve had this problem of a dislocation of the joint for quite a while now. It flared up three years ago, got better for a while, and then went down the tubes this year. Looks like surgery is needed. I will need someone to help me in the recovery period. The treatment consists of placing a pin in the joint, and the leg is immobilized for several weeks in a cast. I have an old friend in Vermont who can help me.

3. The SMHC dispute. Ever since I took over the newsletter editor duty (after Charlie became too ill to do it), I’ve also been the resident curmudgeon (Charlie had played that role as well). I’ve advocated for preserving the traditional ways of the club—especially maintaining a program of challenging off-trail hikes. But the trend has been toward making everything easier, more accessible. The issue extends beyond the hikes themselves to things like whether we wait for latecomers at the carpool spot.  My opinion is, we never used to. Why should we now?

I need more space to explain my seemingly unfriendly position. I’ll follow up in my next blog post.

4. I would truly like to give my sister more support.

She lives in Northampton, Mass. Nice town. People in western North Carolina could think of it as “the Asheville of central Massachusetts.” It’s one of those places known for its tolerant attitudes, its restaurants of locally-sourced produce and happy free-range chickens. Inhabited by health-minded, environmentally correct souls. (Note: I more or less agree with most of those ideas, but that won’t stop me from making fun of them.)

But I don’t want to live in Northampton. It’s cluttered, it’s busy. I’ve gotten used to listening to the sound of the river running over the rapids. Noho’s too urban for me. Also probably too expensive for me to buy a house, which I want to do when I’m back in the area.

I thought of the I-91 corridor, which hits the Connecticut River Valley in Hartford, Connecticut, and follows it on up through Springfield Mass., Northampton Mass., Brattleboro Vermont, and up as far as St. Johnsbury Vermont, not all that far from the river’s  headwaters. There the highway diverges and runs toward Sherbrook, Quebec.

First I considered moving to Brattleboro, or possibly west of there in the Mount Snow area, located on an interesting high plateau of central southern Vermont (A.T. hikers know it for Glastonbury and Stratton Bald). But that area can get pretty expensive, too, and nothing about it pulls me there.

Then I started homing in on St. Johnsbury. It’s the biggest town in what’s known as Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. That consists of Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans Counties.

Location of St. Johnsbury.

Location of St. Johnsbury.

It has odd parallels with Sylva. Populations in both run only around 7,000, but both are the largest town in their county. And both are located near major mountain ranges. Sylva is close to the Smokies. St. Johnsbury is not all that far from the White Mountains, in particular the Presidential Range that includes Mt. Washington.

You may be thinking, “But Vermont means Green Mountains, not White Mountains.” Bear in mind that St. Johnsbury is in the eastern part of the state, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire. Within Vermont, it is close to the incredible Lake Willoughby, a narrow glacial lake 320′ deep that is framed by the dramatic slopes of Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor. I’ve been there many times.

Yesterday, gripped by the idea of St. Johnsbury, I researched the cost of housing. Looks like the area is in something of a real estate slump. The average price has been dropping, and houses have been on the market for long periods. Good news for buyers! I could purchase a nice little well-kept up Cape on a 0.76 acre lot for $70,000.

St. Johnsbury is too far north to be part of the trendy, touristy parts of Vermont invaded by leaf-peepers wanting to stay in quaint B & Bs, buy maple syrup, and look at covered bridges. Oh, it does get tourists, but nothing like the numbers that seasonally migrate to Manchester or Bennington.

Plus, it has the Athenaeum and the historic St. Johns Academy. The Athenaeum contains major paintings of the Hudson River School, a legacy of the local Fairbanks family. They made their money from inventing and manufacturing the world’s first platform scale in the mid-1800s.

The Athenaeum.

The Athenaeum.

It will be a straight shot down I-91 to visit my sister, a drive of 2.5 hours. North of White River Junction, the drive is on nearly empty highway. I could easily get to Northampton and back in a day, or go down for a weekend. I could stay there for an extended period.

I know some people might think, “Two and a half hours? That’s too far.” I can only say that this is the place that inspires me, and I badly need inspiration. I am giving up the Smokies. I can’t even afford to dwell on the loss these days.

Instead, I will have the Presidential Range and Mt. Washington. And big forests full of moose, and ponds with loons, and glacial ravines.

Tuckerman Ravine as seen from Boott Spur Link.

Tuckerman Ravine as seen from Boott Spur Link.

How to climb Mt. Whitney in a day February 27, 2015

Posted by Jenny in camping, hiking, memoir.
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18 comments
Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney.

Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney, August 1997.

The best-known trail route to the summit of Whitney is via the Mount Whitney trail. Since this involves a total climb of 6,100 vertical feet and 22 miles round trip from Whitney Portal to the 14,496′ summit, most people do it as a two-day trip, camping at Trail Camp just below the infamous “99 switchbacks” section. After all, it’s worth taking some time to reach the highest point in the contiguous states.

But you can do it in a day. Three keys to success: be in decent shape, be acclimatized before you start the climb, and start before dawn.

One consideration is that it’s easier to get a “day-use” permit than an overnight permit. The demand for the overnight ones is so high that you may not have any luck with the Forest Service lottery.

This is an account of a trip taken in 1997. If you are interested only in Whitney, you can skip down through the photos. Six of us did a five-day backpack at high altitude in the area around Mt. Humphreys, west of Bishop. By the time we finished that, we were acclimatized. Four of the group went on to do the one-day Whitney climb. Of the four, two—Steve and Bob—climbed Mt. Muir instead of Whitney, since they had done Whitney before. At 14,018′, Muir is shorter but a more difficult climb than Whitney, as it involves scrambling with a steep dropoff. Its summit is located quite close to Whitney’s, so the four of us were able to stay together for most of the climb.

Our trip started with a flight into Vegas. We arrived late at night, picked up our rental cars, and stayed at a place called Circus, Circus. It had garish red and white stripes in the lobby. We departed early the next morning, saving the slots and the blackjack tables for the end of the trip.

One of the great things about approaching the eastern Sierras from this direction is that you get to drive through Death Valley, thereby experiencing the incredible geographic contrast of the lowest elevation in the US only a short distance from the highest in the 48 states.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

The temperature was a lifetime record high for me. As soon as you stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the sun, you could sense the life-threatening dryness and heat. It felt as though the moisture was being sucked out of your body moment by moment. Then we made the long climb out of the valley, past Telescope Peak and over the crest of the California-Nevada divide. There we dropped into the Owens Valley.

We organized our gear at Bishop, dividing up food, and it was a good thing that we checked packs, because I discovered my backpacking stove had been confiscated by the airline—even though it had no fuel in it. So we had to buy another stove, as well as the fuel that we’d already planned on purchasing in Bishop. By the way, I had a big fight with the airline when the trip was over, because they should have informed us they’d removed the stove. I won the fight—they apologized and reimbursed me for the cost of the stove.

From Bishop, with the Sierras looming overhead—a solid granite wall—we headed up the road for the trailhead that led over Piute Pass into the Humphreys Basin.

We reach Piute Pass.

We reach Piute Pass.

Big, heavy packs.

Big, heavy packs.

We spent the first night at Desolation Lake. I believe this is looking back at the lake and its neighbors. Notice how incredibly blue the water is in all of these lakes.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

The next day we climbed an unnamed peak, Point 12,801.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

In case you are wondering, we left the big packs at the campsite, to which we returned that night.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn't really stand on it.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn’t really stand on it.

Happy mountaineers.

Happy mountaineers.

The next day we continued northward and then east, toward the Four Gables area. Unfortunately, my memory is fuzzy about the details of where we camped the following nights. There was a fishable lake (golden trout, I think) at the next campsite.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

We both caught something, and we had fish for dinner. I recall that our next campsite was plagued with mosquitoes—the only place we had trouble with bugs. Behind the Mosquito Campsite was a tall rubble-pile that we climbed just to get in a little more acclimatization.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

The night after that we camped beside a lake. A breeze blew across the water, and we had no bugs. Bob had a running joke of trying for a “highest-altitude swim” record. This lake was above 12,000′, the highest place he’d ever taken a dip. The water was a bit cold, as you can tell from his expression in the picture below. Every night, it dropped below freezing—low-to-mid 20s—and then warmed up quickly as soon as the sun started shining. One big advantage to the Sierras: it never rains there in the summer. You don’t have the afternoon thunderstorms like you do in the Rockies.

Bob sets new personal record for "Highest altitude swim."

Bob sets new personal record for “Highest altitude swim.” I didn’t even think of going in the water myself. Brrr!

By this point on the trip we were getting sick of our camp food. There was a lot of bartering going on: “Anyone want to trade chocolate pudding for gorp?”

The last day of our trip, we descended a valley with rock formations that reminded me of Dr. Seuss drawings. I wish I could tell you the name of the valley. I studied maps—it might be somewhere in the Horton Lakes area—but couldn’t find anything that quite met the description.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

We had a gigantic meal in Bishop and drove down to Lone Pine to stay in a motel. I recall that we learned that night that Princess Di had just been killed.

The alarm went off at 4:00, and we drove up to Whitney Portal, beginning the hike in the dark with headlamps.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

 

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

We climbed through a forest of beautiful large trees before emerging into an area of lakes and meadows. In this section you enter the official Whitney Zone, and you may be checked to see that you have a permit.

 

Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake.

We were all intent on eating and drinking enough to keep up our energy as we went along. Unfortunately, the large volumes of water we drank had an inconvenient but predictable outcome: we had to keep stopping to pee. Perhaps we were overdoing the water intake. As we got further above treeline, it became harder and harder to find an unobtrusive place to step off the trail. This was particularly a problem in the “99 switchbacks” section that takes you 1,700 vertical feet from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. Not a place with a lot of privacy!

"99 switchbacks" section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

“99 switchbacks” section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

I had thought all the switchbacks would be demoralizing, but I found the opposite to be the case. The switchbacks were often quite short, giving you a sense of progress as you rounded each corner and headed up the next stretch, and the trail was never very steep. Finally we topped out at Trail Crest (13,600′). This was higher than any point we’d reached on the backpack. We all felt about the same—we were working hard, but none of us felt sick or weak. The views from Trail Crest were tremendous.

View west from Trail Crest.

View west from Trail Crest.

I see that I didn’t take very many pictures in the next stretch—perhaps this was due to my being more affected by altitude than I realized. We dropped down slightly to reach the John Muir trail junction, then continued sidehilling along the steep west side of the ridge. It was along this section that Bob and Steve left us to make the climb up Mt. Muir.

Toward the summit, I felt a bit dizzy, but I still had a fair amount of energy. Helen and I pushed on, climbing to the nearly flat tableland of the summit, past the Summit House and to the plaque pictured in the top photo. Someone passing by did a nice job of framing the picture by putting the plaque at the bottom.

We looked over to Mt. Muir to see if we could spot two tiny figures climbing it. Sure enough, we saw them on the small, precipitous summit.

After resting, we headed back to meet the Muir conquerors and, just by chance, arrived at the meeting spot at almost the same time as the others. We were all proud of what we’d accomplished.

Steve took the photo below of Bob climbing the last pitch up to the summit. You can see why it is rated as Class 3 in the Yosemite System.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Now all we had to do was retrace our steps—all the way back. We certainly got into “Death March” mode by the time we returned to Whitney Portal, but only in the sense of plodding along without much conversation. None of us were really hurting, and we didn’t feel stiff or sore the next day. It had been a worthwhile adventure.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.