Treks Above The Timberline

A MAGAZINE fetches me the bewildering news that an elderly gentleman frequently climbs Mount Washington in New Hampshire, a jaunt skyward of 6,288 feet which he negotiates briskly in 90 minutes. The story does not tell me why in the world he does this or what disposition keeps him doing it.

You may not know I am a retired mountain climber, and consequently am not impressed by this gentleman's curious pastime. I retired back in 1935 after climbing Mount Abraham, here in Maine, twice in the same day, a dumb stunt never even considered by anybody else and not understandable when I explain it. Mount Abraham is only 4,049 feet high, whereas Mount Washington peaks at 6,288 - but the difference amounts to the same thing once you get the swing. If you just keep going, you'll get there.

At the time my new bride and I were not climbers, but we had a couple of nutty friends (Nell and Emmy) who suggested we attempt Mount Katahdin, just short of a stupid mile. I called to their attention that it was the Boy Scout season and Katahdin was occupied, but that Mount Abram (which is the way folks in Kingfield and Phillips pronounce Abraham) was available, and I had made an appointment. With groceries and black-fly precautions we trudged off.

We made a successful assault.

The trail started at the highway and went seven miles, fording streams, to a base camp of the Maine Forestry Service, where the resident fire warden slept and ate when he was not up in the 40-foot lookout tower above. The climb from the base camp to the peak was straight up, past the timberline and over broken and bleak granite shards.

When we doughty four reached the base camp we found it open but empty (in the Maine woods it is not prudent to lock a camp door, as a bear will rip it off the hinges if he wants to get in). The fire warden, Sam Moores, was up at the tower. (This was before the word "ranger" came to be polite forestry stuff.) It was still several hours until sundown.

"I," said I, "will ascend and suggest he come down to make our prandial biscuits!"

I thus climbed Mount Abraham by myself, and just as I came to the foot of the tower, Warden Moores was coming down the ladder. His companion and assistant was Echo, a handsome Alsatian shepherd with knowledge enough to be the president of Harvard, but also with intelligence enough not to seek such a trivial position.

Echo had alerted Warden Moores that I was approaching, and then sat by the ladder until he came down. He patted and said, "Welcome to Mount Abram!"

"Thank you," I made reply, gasping for oxygen, and he and Echo shook hands with me. "We are four," I said, "and we make the guest demand. We have beefsteaks, and would appreciate your assistance with a pan of biscuits."

"Beefsteak" is not an idle word in a wilderness where venison palls after a week or so, and as the elderly Warden Moores lit down the trail to camp, Echo and I had trouble keeping him in sight. Virgil was wrong - the ascent is easy; it's the going down that's the opus, the labor. When Echo and I got to camp, Warden Moores was already chummy with my fellow mountaineers and was patting the biscuit dough on the breadboard. Echo went fast asleep on the porch.

After we dined, Warden Moores set out for town to deliver his weekly report to his supervisor and left Echo with us. He patted her and told her to mind the camp, and said he'd be back tomorrow.

Then the five of us climbed to the top of Mount Abraham - Echo and I for the second time that day.

We went up in the tower, looked at the triangulation maps for locating blazes, and listened to the noise on the woods telephone line. Yonder was Sugarloaf Mountain, and Saddleback, and the whole sweep of the Maine wilderness spread below us in awesome majesty.

'Twas Nell who said, "Isn't that magnificent down there!"

"It is," said I. "And I'm going back down so I can enjoy it." I thus retired from mountain climbing and the highest I've been since was up a stepladder to paint a ceiling.

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