Monday, October 24, 2016

Giant Mountain 10/22/16

I met Michael our first weekend of college. Pretty much every freshman wearing a Phish or Grateful Dead shirt buddied up that week haha. We've been great friends ever since and have shared many adventures, traveling across the country to see the Disco Biscuits and  getting together for our yearly Cabinfest event. He was one of the best men at my wedding. He caught the hiking bug so we climbed Mount Marcy together a few years ago and made plans to climb Algonquin.

Well the best laid plans of mice and men eh? The forecast went from overcast to 2 feet of snow to heavy winds and wind chill-inducing gusts. I laid out some alternatives to Algonquin considering what a dangerous peak that would be in those conditions. We decided on Giant as a safer bet but we'd bail if the forecast was too brutal. On the night before everything toned down a bit so we decided to go for it. It would be a bit below 40 with consistent light rain and heavy wind gusts. Not exactly ideal but with all the gear and safety contingencies in place, I felt confident we could give it a go.

We hit the ridge trail at 7:15 under a light drizzle. This trail doesn't mess around. It gets right to climbing. There was much groaning from the old men and Koda wondering why we were so slow. The wet leaves made for slow and slightly precarious climbing. The first overlook gave us a dramatic but limited view up John's Brook Valley, over Chapel Pond and the imposing face of Round Mountain. The veins of yellow leaves shot through the forest evergreen made for a stunning sight.

We were grateful for the short lived flat terrain from the overlook to Giant's Washbowl. I was shocked to see the water levels very low and the outlet completely dry. When I hiked Giant several winters ago, the water on the outlet was quite high and the bridge icy, making for a nerve-wracking crossing. I assume this was because of this summer's drought. Back to climbing, we got to making our way up the set of switchbacks which follow the washbowl.

As we emerged onto the first set of rocky bumps that make up the Giant Ridge trail, I began to have some doubts as to whether we should continue the climb. The first section of the hike is pretty grueling and we were already all the way wet from the steady rain. Once out on the exposed rock, the rain got harder and whipped us in the face. Koda seemed to be the only one in his element. Though groaning often in his typical fashion I could tell Michael was committed to the hike so we continued on. Though we were starting a long series of scrambles over rocky crags and back into the forest for bits and pieces, it was easier than the initial unrelenting climb.

Small talk, jokes, snacks and the occasional slacking of rain made this section a bit easier on the spirits. We made good time though our gloves had become saturated and our feet were just starting to get wet. At this point Koda found a 3 ft stick which he decided to carry for about a 1.5 miles. We each caught a whack our 5 to the back of the knees. Back into the forest, my spirits certainly rose. It seemed like we were going to have a real shot at summiting though conditions were less than ideal. The beauty and protection of the forest was heartening.

The long ridge of Giant was as imposing as it was beautiful. As we got higher, we were much more exposed to the wind. and the alpine vegetation was covered in ice from the below freezing windchill gusts. Doubt once again began creeping in. Could we do it? Should we even be up here? Though Michael doesn't have as much experience with hikes like this he had a great attitude and a healthy determination that kept chasing my doubts away. The final rocky scrambles to reach the top of Giant were miraculously free of ice. This was my last concern.

The summit of Giant was....freaking gnarly. Deeply cutting gusts of wind came horizontally off the face of the mountain, swirling the clouds into our faces. All the summit trees were heavily frosted with ice. Michael got down on his face and kissed the survey disc and we celebrated a hard fought climb. I've done a lot of high peaks hikes but few summit experiences compare to the relief and elation of making it to the top of Giant on such a trying day.

We relaxed on the summit for about 45 minutes, enjoying our lunches and taking in the view. Just kidding. We ran the eff off that howling beast. Once we found a protected spot we made some gear adjustments and caught our breath. One of my favorite parts of Giant (or any high peak for that matter) is the hanging moss on the stunted pine trees in the alpine zone. Hanging out there for a few minutes I felt more at home than I have in a long time. I'm so happy with my life and all the time I get to spend watching Hunter grow up but it was great for my soul to check in with the high peaks.

We picked our way down the scrambles and start fantasizing about being out of the wet gear, comfortable and warm. I started speculating out loud about if we were the only idiots out there climbing Giant that day. As the words were coming out of my mouth, we started hearing voices coming up the trail. From that point on we saw about 30 people including what looked like a high school group and a family with two kids under the age of ten. I tried hard not to be too much of a Ranger Rick but I did check in with folks to make sure they had the appropriate gear to not be in danger in trying conditions.

We made great time on the hike back down the ridge in typical 'smelling the barn' fashion. The weather seemed to break a bit which was quite a relief. Hiking all day in the rain can definitely mess with your head.  We enjoyed some cool views down to the washbowl from the edge of the ridge.

As our legs started to feel the combined climb and descent we slowed a bit on the final hike out. Talk of hot food and drink was interspersed with making plans for future hikes. I'm impressed with my homeboy for not only rocking a serious hike in miserable weather but for being inspired to do more on a day that would make plenty of folks never want to hike again. Back on the final viewing ledge we both took in a truly breathtaking place, which I feel so lucky to get to visit and share with folks I care so deeply about. Michael has been one of my best friends for nearly half my life and I'm so grateful to get to share this with him.