Clutching doorknobs in the fog

Order. Familiarity. Clarity. Stability. These are things I like. I’m not a fan of chaos, mystery and shaky ground. Perhaps it’s just an advancing age thing, but I like to know where I am, what’s in front of me, and what’s coming next. At three in the morning, the doorknob to the bathroom is always in the same place and I always find it in the dark without fumbling around. I appreciate that.

Last Saturday, I climbed Mount Washington, something I’ve done perhaps 200 times in winter, usually while working as a professional mountain guide. While the notorious weather often makes the mountain a wild and unpredictable place, that’s typically a matter of meteorology rather than topography. From a feet-on-the-ground and hands-on-the-rock standpoint, for me, climbing Mount Washington has become more like walking up a long (and often very steep) hallway in the dark, reaching for countless doorknobs, and always finding them.

Saturday was a particularly nasty day up on The Rockpile. The temperature hovered just on the happy side of zero, above the timberline the winds wailed from the west at a steady 40 to 50 mph (with gusts to near 80), and the visibility was rarely more than 50 feet in blowing horizontal snow. Annoying and uncomfortable, but not unusual.

My charges, two nice men from New Jersey who had never been on the mountain before, were excited, if a little apprehensive. As we trudged ever upward, I tried to put them at ease by discussing the area’s natural history and weather patterns, and by letting them know what to expect around each bend and boulder.

I said things like, “There’s a hole in the trail a hundred feet ahead, so don’t fall into it,” or “Those tree roots on the left are solid, so you can grab them,” or (while we hunkered behind a rock), “In the next quarter of a mile it is going to blow really hard, but it will settle down when we get in the lee of the summit cone.”

A thousand feet below our goal, with our feet braced widely and while leaning onto our ice axes, I squinted through my goggles into the howling gale, and saw absolutely nothing. If you are going to panic on the mountain, this would be a good place, but I didn’t; I knew where I was, and sure enough, 35 steps later, out of the blowing gloom, appeared Split Rock, the only real landmark in the mile between the rim of Tuckerman Ravine and the peak.

And an hour later, we found the summit, right on top where it belonged. (We knew we’d reached it because there was nowhere else to go, and there’s a sign.)

On our way down, during the last hour to the warm car, on those plodding, sheltered, and completely non-mysterious miles that characterize the lower trail, my mind wandered back up the mountain, through each twist and turn, over the ridges and crests, pausing to touch each familiar tree and lichen-covered boulder with my imagination’s hand. It’s truly something, I realized, for a person to know that at a specific rocky place on an enormous mountain, 20 feet above a sharp right turn in the trail, on the left side of a steep granite step (where for a moment things seem particularly tenuous), if you reach up with your left hand and pull on the middle of three small tree roots, you’ll get past the tricky spot and be just fine.

Order, familiarity, clarity, and stability — it all made me feel a little smug, actually.

When I got home, beat-up and exhausted, I dropped my pack and associated mountaineering paraphernalia on the living room floor. My wife was sitting on the couch talking on the phone, and she caught my eye, made a sweeping I’ve-got-a-basketball-under-my-shirt motion over her stomach with her free hand, and whispered, “Check Jen Lewis’s Facebook page.”

Jen is my darling daughter-in-law and I understood the belly reference instantly. So there I stood, in the middle of the most familiar, most stable, most orderly place in my life, suddenly contemplating the swirling chaos of potential grandfatherness. The wind gathered up and barreled in from the kitchen, dense fog rolled down the stairs, and the visibility dropped so I couldn’t even see the fireplace. I suddenly felt unsteady and reached out for a doorknob, but found only air. I had no idea where I was or what was coming next.

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