An old age question asked during my annual physical for about a decade, “Have you fallen during the past year?” It always seems like an astounding inquiry. I occasionally fall carrying my kayak or canoe up and down steep embankments. A couple of times a year, I fall off a bike. While there is rarely proof, I fall skiing. But most of all, I frequently fall climbing up and down mountains in the winter.
Think I get the reasoning behind the question. Healthcare professionals want to know if I’m experiencing unexplained falls. I hope that’s the reason. Otherwise, I’m a medical disaster waiting to happen as I fall a lot. Built low to the ground, the good news is I don’t have far to fall. That said, after my recent hike on Goose Eye Mountain, I may have some serious explaining to do on my next doctor’s visit.
Located in far western Maine, Goose Eye is an exceptionally unique and remote mountain. Unknown to most except serious mountain hikers and long distance trekkers, it’s an alpine peak in the most rugged sector of the Appalachian Trail, the Mahoosucs. From the prominent summit, one experiences unparalleled 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. At an elevation of 3,870 feet, it is one of the 100 highest peaks in New England, hence a must climb for every determined New England peak bagger.
In a quest to ascend the 100 highest peaks in winter, friends Gary Cole, Brent Elwell and I surprisingly experienced one of our most difficult climbs on Goose Eye twenty years ago. Ranked near the bottom of the list on the elevation chart, we had expected a relatively easy outing. After summiting two four thousand footers in New Hampshire the previous day, we confidently decided on a leisurely late start. When challenging the mountains, cocky is invariably a bad idea.
Starting on Wright Trail on the east side of the peak in deep snow, the first mile had been packed by a group of Outward Bound winter campers on snowshoes. Passing their campsite, snowshoeing became substantially more entertaining. With a snow depth in excess of a foot, we slowly ascended taking turns as lead trail breaker. For the uninitiated, first place in trail breaking is a bear. Second is only slightly better. Farther back in the pack gets progressively easier. The larger the group the better, small parties are usually at a disadvantage.
As we climbed, the trail got steeper and the snow deeper. At some point, each one of us resolved to turn back when in the lead, only to be rejuvenated once in third position. Arriving on Mahoosuc Ridge, Brent plunged down to his shoulders in a deep spruce trap. Difficult to describe a spruce trap but my definition is a snow covered air pocket amidst mountain scrub. When you fall in, you immediately understand the predicament. Grabbing the top of Brent’s pack to pull him out, he waved me off as I was literally choking him to death. After an exhaustive effort, we freed him from entrapment and contemplated our situation.
Weary, beyond turn-around time and the sun setting, the summit was still a few hundred feet above. Since we were carrying headlamps and the trail would be packed for our descent, we labored on. Our decision was rewarded as harsh winds had hardened the snow at higher elevations and we were soon on the spectacular barren crest. Our earlier trail breaking efforts and gravity facilitated a much easier return in the dark.
Suzanne and Gary Cole organized a group of five retired chowderheads with the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society for our recent Goose Eye expedition. Deciding on a westerly approach from Success Pond Road, we drove eight miles from Berlin, New Hampshire on the slippery, snow covered dirt road to Goose Eye Trailhead.
Although a team of climbers had broken trail a few days prior, recent snow showers and soft powder mandated snowshoes. Beginning on an old logging road, the distinctive Goose Eye summit was clearly visible high above. Soon, we entered a densely wooded area and began gaining elevation. That’s when the falling commenced. The lead trail breaker nosedived into deep snow. I tumbled down assisting and a third member sprawled out helping me. Overcoming the chaos, we persisted above tree line.
Fortunately, there were no falls on the dangerous icy summit cone. The views at the top were nothing short of breathtaking. However, my descent was littered with several plummets into the snow. Perhaps it was the powdery consistency or precipitous decline; or maybe something more nefarious. In denial, I’ll wait until my next physical in November for the verdict.