I peer over an endless drop of jagged rock. My knees are as wobbly as a teenager’s on prom night. The Mt. Osceola Trail, linking Mt. Osceola and East Osceola, descends over this precipice. Only now do I recall the White Mountain Guide describing this feature as “the chimney.” Three-sided, steep, and as tall as a chimney, the description is fitting.
The angular rock glistens from the early morning rain. Since I need both hands to negotiate the climb down, I pitch my hiking stick, like a javelin, to the bottom. Instant regret. Turning back is no longer an option; I have no choice but to retrieve it. I inch my way down, my pack pressed tight against the chimney’s walls. The November cold has seeped into the rock, and I’m losing sensation in my fingertips. To keep the butterflies in my gut from flying out of formation, I take deep breaths. I don’t dare pick up one boot until I’m sure the other won’t slip out from under me. Just as I reach the halfway point, I stop. I am out of places to plant a foot and can go no further. I am as trapped in the chimney as an overstuffed Santa.
My sweat-drenched back is now giving me the chills. The dreary, raw weather has kept the crowds at home. I am alone.
After a few moments, I devise what I think is an intelligent plan to escape the chimney. I shove myself downward. As I skid out of control, my seat feels every rocky protrusion until I land in a heap directly on top of my stick. Like ripping off a stubborn Band-Aid, the terror and pain is enormous but over in an instant.
After regaling in victory over my descent down the chimney, I grab my hiking stick and continue to hike to the summit of East Osceola. It’s anti climatic – the peak, dutifully noted with a rock cairn, has no worthwhile views. It does, however, mark the halfway point of my hike. I turn back, knowing I have four miles in a reciprocal heading before I reach my car.
I return to the base of the chimney. The worst is over. I take comfort in knowing I’ll never have to drop down it again. Climbing up is infinitely easier than going down. Most accidents happen on the descent.
I start up, one rock, one handhold at a time, pushing my hiking stick up a few inches ahead of me, using both hands to gain purchase. One step up, push stick up. Repeat.
I reach for another rock but my fingers hit only wood. My hiking partner teeters, then topples over the ledge. Horrified, I take a swipe as it shoots by me like a dart, but I grab nothing but air. It sails past me like a torpedo until coming to a precarious rest half-way down the chimney.
I’m disappointed, but not undaunted, thankful it hadn’t careened to the bottom. No need to go back down. Sitting on a slice of rock, I extend my legs and pinch the top of the stick between my boots, then draw my feet towards me. With an outstretched arm, I reach for my stick, causing my left boot to shift. Wood strikes rock, and my stick cartwheels downward, end-over-end, in slow motion, until coming to rest at the bottom of the chimney.
Fifteen years earlier, I found this striped maple, young and straight, to use as a hiking stick. I cut it down, removed the bark, waterproofed it with varnish. After applying several coats, I drilled a hole near the top and threaded a rawhide bootlace through it for use as a lanyard.
I hiked Mt. Washington with this stick. The hike was memorable not because of the difficulty, but because of the tirade I endured from my husband Bob when I told him of my dream to hike New Hampshire’s tallest peak.
In my marriage, a unilateral dream meant I was selfish. I chose my desires with as much precision and planning as needed when walking through a minefield. Putting my needs before my husband and daughter had consequences.
Hiking Mt. Washington was something I had wanted to do for years, and I was willing to pay the price. I was hiking with my brother, who had summited several times before. A week before our hike, without asking, my brother invited his former college roommate to join us. Worse, horrors upon horrors, they invited themselves to spend the night at my house so we could get an early start the next morning. To a jealous, insecure husband, this innocent arrangement had the makings of a torrid affair.
I dreaded telling my husband the change of plans. When would be the right time to tell him? Before work? No, too early; he leaves for work at 5:00 am. After work? No, too tired, cranky and stressed. Before sex? Oh my, no. After sex? That could work, but I was tired of feeling like a prostitute. I procrastinated, the pit in my stomach growing with each passing day, until I ran out of days.
The night before their arrival, Bob was backing up the mini-van out of the driveway. I sat in the passenger seat, our nine-year-old daughter in the back. We were on our way to Jordan’s for a late summer ice cream. Here’s my chance. He’s in a good mood. He won’t blow up in front of her.
I took a deep breath and let it out.
The bulging veins in his neck. The white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. The redness in his face.
He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night.
I took the hiking stick with me on that trip. Long before trekking poles were a thing, the varnished striped maple served as my third leg, providing an extra measure of stability on a trail of endless lichen-covered rock. At the summit gift shop, I purchased a small, round metallic Mt. Washington hiking badge to nail to the top of the stick, a remembrance of an unforgettable trip: a dream accomplished, consequences be damned.
Bob never asked how the hike went. He didn’t talk to me for days.
The hiking stick sat dormant in the attic for the next 15 years until I filed for divorce and moved out.
Now on the Mt. Osceola Trail, daylight is waning. I bite my quivering lip to keep from bursting into tears. The thought of descending the chimney again, and having to climb it back up, again, is too much. The November cold is seeping into my bones. This trail is no longer fun.
Statistically, most mountain accidents happen late in the day, on the way down. It’s late and I’m contemplating a trip down the chimney. Again. Leave the stick and retreat back to the safety of my car, or risk injury and retrieve it? After all that I and that stick have been through, there is no choice.
I inch back down.
Before I finish the descent, I spot a young woman, hiking alone, approaching the base of the chimney.
“Am I glad to see you.” A tsunami of relief washes over me. Without hesitation, I ask her to toss my hiking stick up to me. Divorced for less than six months, I am getting better at asking.
She effortlessly throws my stick up to me, and it lands a few feet away. In one swift motion, I pounce on it and heave it up and over the chimney.
Suddenly self-conscious at 56 years-old, hiking alone, I feel like I belong in the woods as much as a turd in a punch bowl. She watches me inch my way back up. For the first time today, I have company, and her presence provides incentive to move faster. I climb out of the chimney and grab my hiking partner then set out for the rocky, wet, and slippery trek back to my car.
That night, I relive my hike by reading the trail description in the White Mountain Guide. I note, with some chagrin, that there is a side trail I could have taken to circumvent the chimney. Next time, I’ll read the guidebook more carefully.