The alarm went off that morning at 4:15 am. The supplies, packs, water, and food were packed the night before, and now the day that we had spent the entire summer conditioning for was here with the sound of National Public Radio waking the three of us. Annabelle was ready, Frieda let out a yawn. With the forced enthusiasm and gusto of a drill sergeant lacking for sleep, I cried out, “C’mon girls from Germany! Never before has so much been expected from so few! Today is the day that we conquer! We’ve trained, We’re conditioned. And now the time has come to climb the mountain! UHH RAH!”
The objective that day, Saturday September 13, 2003, was Mount Washington. Mount Washington is the highest point in New England and the second highest peak on the Eastern half of the United States. Nestled in the majestic Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the peak rises to an elevation of 6,288 feet above sea level.
As we drove, the girls did what they do best: sleep. But, as I drove the three and half hours it would take to arrive at Pinkham Notch, where the hike would begin, many thoughts rushed through my mind that morning as I watched a gorgeous sunrise creep over the east like a warm blanket bringing this new day to dawn. All of the people who had climbed the mountain that I had spoken with warned of the many dangers that could be a very real possibility. Rock slides. Torn pads on the dogs feet. The lack of any clearly marked trails towards the summit. Insufficient physical conditioning, including the website that listed the 131 known deaths on Mount Washington since 1854. The lists went on and the thoughts of failure swirled through my groggy mind as I drove onwards into the Granite State speeding up Interstate 95 and then on to Route 16. NPR’s Weekend morning edition provided a gentle distraction and I made a decision to think positive.
We had spent the summer hiking the Mid-State trails in Central Massachusetts, taking the hardest routes over rocks and rugged terrain with full packs to prepare for this day. Like a final exam at the end of a grueling semester, confidence in our abilities and mental preparedness took the center stage of my thoughts. Passing through the picturesque New Hampshire town of North Conway, I grasped the first glimpse of the awesome mountain rising out of the valley floor. Magnificent and looming, my heart raced and my hands began to sweat on the steering wheel.
Arriving in the parking area at around 9 a.m., I noticed the lot was filing quickly with hundreds and hundreds of cars. Was this Disneyland or a national forest? License plates from as far away as Canada reminded me of what a popular spot this was. As Annabelle and Frieda’s backpacks were strapped on, people around us piling out of their cars began saying things like, “Oh, how cute,” and “Honey, look at those two dogs!” And of course the most popular question, “What kind of dogs…….?” To which I replied “Leonbergers! yeah that’s spelled, L-E-O-N-B-E-R-G-E-R. No, I’m not making that up. Yes, those are backpacks for dogs. There’s water and food in their packs. Yeah, you can pet them. Yes, they shed. No, your kid can’t ride them.”
We bought a map for an outrageous fee at the visitors center as we walked passed the main tourist area. Knowing I had just paid $12 dollars for something that was worth $3 dollars somehow made me feel even more confident that the trip would be a success. Our assent to the summit that day would be none other than Tuckerman’s Ravine. For many folks, Tuckerman Ravine is synonymous with Mount Washington. Summit aside, the ravine is the most popular spot in the Presidential Range. During the summer, the east-facing cirque is the most heavily used route to the summit of Mt. Washington, which is only a mile away to the north-northwest. From early winter through summer, the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine is transformed into an awesome, king-sized ski slope, as prevailing northwest winds dump in hundreds of inches of snow blown off from the ridges and summit above. The ravine itself is about 700 feet deep and is bounded by the Lion Head on the north and craggy Boott Spur on the south. It widens at the base to the Hermit Lake area, where the Appalachian Mountain Club has its ever-popular lean-to shelters and tent platforms for overnight camping. The trail quickly became steep and winding through heavy forests of Pines, Firs, Poplars, Birch and thick undergrowth, all of the while walking on slabs of exposed granite. This was, after all, The Granite State!
There were literally hundreds of hikers on the trail that Saturday morning and the majority either wanted to take a picture of Annabelle and Frieda, pet them, or both. About two and half hours into the steep hike we arrived at the caretaker’s cabin, which is an old wooden building with a deck with picnic tables. We stopped for snacks and water and a short rest before beginning what would become the toughest, most challenging hike of my entire life. The packs came off and after a few Scooby Snacks, Annabelle and Frieda began to wrestle on the deck to the delight of the other hikers. “Better save your energy, girls. You