Next morning, suited up, booted up, buckled up, revved up, we stepped outside. The world was silent and gray. We almost fainted. Where’s the trail? Megs asked in a small voice. I don’t know. It’s supposed to be here. I can barely see a rock.
Get out your compass. Megs was switching to problem-solving mode. The compass? It’s buried in my pack somewhere. Anyway, I never did that stuff for real, I just played around with it during some outdoor skills class a long time ago.
Let’s stop in the bathroom. Maybe we’ll figure something out. Good strategy. Good place to think. Anything to postpone this blind blundering up a mountain.
By luck, our fear and trembling had driven us to the perfect place. There, in that bathroom, we would receive the tonic we needed from crew members who divined our distress.
Truly, the trail was easy. Truly, we would have no trouble with it. All we had to do was follow the cairns. We will lead you to the path and you will be fine. We were off, almost lighthearted.
The cairns were beacons in this featureless wilderness. We climbed through the clouds, seeing nothing ahead except cairns hazy in the mist, each cairn a goal we locked on to. Having managed to find some sort of rhythm, we began to relax and even enjoy ourselves. The crew members were right. This was easy hiking. Knees and ankle barely noticed the climb.
Apparently we were enjoying ourselves too much. We lost the next cairn. But it had been right there. We’d seen it. Now it was gone. Impossible. We’d both locked on to it. Hadn’t we? Panic rising. Patience. Sweep the mountain. Squint through the clouds. Find the cairn. Patience. Sweep the mountain. Squint through the clouds. Find the cairn. Yes! Over there. How had we veered so far off the trail in so few steps?
From then on we did less chatting and more spotting. As before, when we did our crawling or sliding routines, we would pause and look around to be sure none of those robust youth in tee shirts and shorts, jaunty day packs and ski poles, were closing in, jumping over rocks like kangaroos.
About half a mile from the top the trail got steeper. The wind picked up. We came to a cross at an intersection and assumed it was a directional aid. A passing hiker thought it was in memory of someone who died on the mountain. We preferred our interpretation.
Occasionally a gust of wind challenged our balance. Those lead-weight packs didn’t help. The temperature dropped and we were sorry we hadn’t worn the gloves we’d packed.
We saw steel girders anchored to the rock. What’s all this? We looked up and saw a headless tower. Were we here? Did we actually climb Mt. Washington? We might have high-fived, except our hands were too numb.
Funny, beneath our exhilaration, we felt a little sadness at leaving the mountain. In three days it had latched on to us, and it would never really let us go. Now we had to figure a way to get back to real life.