Friday, January 4, 2013

COLD AS IT GETS by Peter Nolan Smith

Mount Washington is far from the tallest mountain on the face of the Earth, however the observatory atop its tundra summit has seen some of the most extreme weather including the record for the strongest wind measured on the planet. 231 mph (372 km/h) Temperatures atop Agiocochook, or "Home of the Great Spirit" have been recorded as low as -50F. Death at that sub-zero temperature from hypothermia can occur within an hour. In the winter of 1971 my friends and I spent our February school vacation skiing the various slopes around North Conway; Attitash, Intervale, and Black Mountain. The four of us stayed in a cheap hotel and drove to the various mountains in my VW bug. Our skis were stashed between the seats and boots stashed in the front trunk. John, Tommy, Mark and I were usually the first people on the slopes, since the VW's air-cooled engine started without a problem from the sub-arctic night temperatures. The final day of the trip we stuffed ourselves with a hearty breakfast of pancakes and sausage. At 19 we needed food and a lot of it. Exiting from the restaurant, we got in the VW, then ascended Pinkham Notch to Wildcat, which lay on the eastern side of the Mt. Washington Valley. The snow rose above the guard railing and I opened up the heating vents to full. Mark acted as co-pilot and scrapped our breath's frozen condensation from windshield. We arrived at the base of the mountain and bought tickets for the day just as the cloud-wreathed sun peaked over the steep horizon. "Damn, this is cold," Tom said, as we boarded the gondola to the summit. "You think this is cold. Wait till you get to the top." The gondola operator pointed to the thermometer on the wall reading -20. "On top it's -30 and then there's the wind. Have a good day, boys." The gondolas shivered in the wind. Mark and I stared at the empty slopes. "Guess we're the first." He tightened his scarf and zipped up his Sears parka. "Or the only ones." I blew on my gloved hands. The cold seeping into the oblong transporter was chilling my bones through my Gerri parka. It was two years old. "I wonder if this was as cold as Robert Scott felt crossing Antarctica." "Not even close." Mark braced for the approaching summit by lighting a cigarette. "The South Pole get down below -100." "But it's a dry cold." My exhaled words hung in the air as mist. At 4000 feet oxygen was scarce on the top of Wildcat. "Dry or wet. This is cold." We waited for Tommy and John. The sun feebly pierced the clouds. None of its warmth touched our skins. The wind ripped through our parkas and jeans. We were not prepared for this weather and Mark shouted over the biting gale, "The shortest way down is the fastest. Follow me." Mark had skied Wildcat before and he led us along Upper Wildcat to the black diamond Lynx Lair connecting to the other Lynx trails. None of us fell. Our skiing skills were improved by the desire to get out of the cold and none of us fell on the way to the base lodge. We stripped off our skiers and clumped into the cafeteria, ordering two hot chocolates each. "Damn, that was cold." John was lanky thin. He had no excess body fat. His skin was a boreal white. "Anyone ready for another run?" Tommy wore a new Roffe parka and gloves. He played ice hockey outside every day for a prep school in Maine. Mark, John, and I regarded the blaze in the fireplace with affection reserved for our girlfriends. "Chickenshits. We didn't come up here to toast marshmallows." Tommy knew how to shame us and we drained our hot chocolates, then exited into the Siberian cold for another assault on the slopes. A grim overcast settled over Wildcat and our morning was worsened by the damp mist blowing through the pines. At lunch even Tommy had lost his enthusiasm for the day's outing. We sat close to the fire and ate our chili in silence and finally John said, "I say we give it on one try." "What for?" Mark shook his head. "I feel like I'm being tortured by Old Man Winter." "What for?" John stood up and held his hands to the fire. "Because after this weekend I go back to work at the shipyard and Mark will be doing double-shifts at the gas station. Tommy will be playing hockey seven days a week and you'll be going to college in the day and driving taxi at night to pay for it." "Thanks for painting such a pretty picture of the future." Mark joined him at the fireplace to raise his body temp. "It is what it is." I was studying Philosophy 101 that semester. "I'm game if everyone else is." "Irish coffees at the motel on me." Tommy nodded his commitment to our endeavor. He got a little money under the table for each goal scored, which he split with the opposing goalie. "Last one down pays for the first beer." John ran out of the lodge and grabbed his skis from the rack. "You guys, this will be the last run for the day." The operator was posting the 'CLOSED' Sign. "The wind's picked up on top. Management figures the temperature with the wind is down to -50." "I've never been in that kind of cold." I had been brought up in Maine. "Most people haven't, because they can't live in it." The operator sealed us in the gondola. "Hope you don't end up as icicles." Mark and I sat close as eskimos waiting for the season of bad sledding. "You know that we might never be this cold again." "My favorite book as a kid was SOUTH by Ernest Shackleton. He was struck on the ice for a year. Temperatures were lower than this, but now I know what it felt like, even if only for a day." "Let's not talk about it." Mark talked about our trip to Florida. The sun had burned our skin red the first day and how we swam in the sea off Fort Lauderdale with girls in bikinis. "No bikinis here." "Never." Snow bunnies were for Colorado ski resorts not North Conway. My girlfriend in Boston hated the cold. Linda looked good without a top at Nauset beach. She was 26. The top of Wildcat wouldn't see 26F this week. Mark and I got out of the gondola and skied to the right. "It's the last run. We might as well make it a long one." Mark waved us forward. Tommy and John were ahead of us on the slight slant of Upper Wildcat, then they gained speed with the steepening of the trail. I almost fell on a turn, but punched my fist into the packed powder to right myself. My three friends were almost out of sight, as I reached Middle Wildcat, but I ducked through the trees to make up the distance and emerged from the forest to barrel down Copycat to the bottom. The three of them beat me by a few seconds. "Beers on you." Mark flicked off his ski bindings. "I thought it was first to the car." I ran down to the parking lot, trailed by my friends clumsily running like drunken frankensteins in our boots. I touched the back bumper and turned to the panting trio. "Just kidding. Beers are on me. Now pray that the car starts." I sat in the VW and twisted the key in the ignition. The engine coughed to life and we packed our skis into the car, then exchanged our ski boots for Frye boots. I drove over to Route 16 and pointed my car south. Warm was a long way away.

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