A Personal Account of the Half Ass Bigelow Mountain Expedition
by Vincentoli Blanteev, your cybah-spaced mountain correspondent
1988-1989 Mt. Bigelow, Maine
Bigelow Range Tradition says to leave trash on the mountain, like a 57 Buick rusting out in front of the trailer. After the most difficult climbing that HAE has ever faced, there is a whole lot more trash, broken equipment and damage to the pristine wilderness than ever before, fatal reminders of the destruction that can be wrought when man fights the power of nature in a gripping battle of survival. The author survived to tell the tale, yet the Northern wilderness produces only icy questions: what really happened on Mt Bigelow, the fearsome Maine mountain, and how many more will learn the lessons taught from being pushed beyond the limits of human endurance and imagination?
“…the classic of all classics”…Vincentoli Blanteev
“…un *#$&ing! believable!”….Marcus Needlemeyer
“Woah…utterly riveting…major survival!”…Timur Novasch
“It was an odyssey in the purest sense”…Bruce McAnus
“I saw god”…John Layne, photographer
“…teeth grinding, heart thumping..superbly told”– Newsworthyday
“…an unforgettable story of the good ,the bad, and the white trash… a ripping good read.”– Chicago Tritebune
“…High impact survival has it all…very powerful”– Boston Globb
“…a riveting Web site” — Outhouse Magazine
TEMP: -40 BELOW
WIND: 40 MPH
CONDITIONS: VIRTUAL WHITEOUT
“We all summited, and we’re all fine”, reported Vincentoli, telephoning from Norway… Norway Maine, that is. Vincentoli’s mom was elated. It was the first time her son had actually bothered to call after standing on one of Northern New England’s Summits in January, the first time that HAE had brought along a client to join in the deadly struggle of man pitted against the fearsome power of high altitude winter. Hurriedly she calls McAnus’ mom and also tells his sister that the crew had done the impossible.
At HAE headquarters, they broke out the party materials. Never mind that headquarters was actually Camp V, an ice wind shredded plateau called Bigelow Col, where Frodo the IMAMAN photographer, was still fighting for his life. Novasch, the free spirited team leader thought he better water a plant, so he whipped out his pecker in the subzero arctic winds. FRAGILE ARCTIC TUNDRA-PLEASE STAY OFF the Forest Service sign read, way back down the mountain where gomers typically turn around in the summer. “Fragile Arctic Tundra? We’ll fucking see jus’ how fucking fragile this fucking fragile arctic tundra really fucking is,” he swore under his breath as he soaked some nondescript looking fauna poking out of the ice with a powerful 151 rum and powdered apple cider mix urine jet.
It seems to be a twist of Yankee ingenuity that the highest place in Maine’s vast southern wilderness, so easy to climb in the summer months, is just beyond the grasp of man during the howling winters that lock Northern New England within it’s icy grasp. Had the peak, at over 4100 feet, been thrust up further north, had the fast food joints not been strategically been placed along the Maine turnpike, the mountain would be beyond the abilities of Boston based HAE. As it is, only a few could ever attempt it, fewer had succeeded, and fewer yet live to tell the tale. Here this year is the epic story of the 4 climbers from HAE: Blanteev, Novasch , Marcus and McAnus, as they battle to bring their only client, John Layne, a world renowned photographer, off the mountain that he had never been on in the middle of the winter.
The fact that a 3-seasoner like Layne should even get the chance to undertake such an arduous journey at all was the key issue in numerous over-heated pre-expedition discussions. Novasch argued that Layne, known widely as Frodo, after the mythical Lord of the Rings character, had thru hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and could hold his own. Blanteev blasted away to the contrary position, noting, among other things, that this new guy was from North Carolina where “cold” meant drinking beer while the AC was on. In the end Novasch won and Frodo was picked up at Logan airport the day before the start. That evening they went out equipment buying and by 9 PM Frodo had done the best he could getting out of EMS and REI for less than 1000 bucks. “This is not good, not good,” Vincentoli said, looking at all the shopping bags and new gear with price tags littering the floor at headquarters.
The next afternoon a rented van appears where the Appalachian Trail cuts across Rt. 27 south of Stratton, Maine. Local state troopers, who share an affinity for jelly doughnuts, eyed the van warily many days later as it sat covered with fresh snow. An EMS price tag fluttered in the icy wind, caught on an all too hastily closed door. It was a sign. “Wonder what we got here,” one of the troopers remarked. “Don’t rightly know,” said the other, “but Joe down at Hacketts store said 5 fellas came through a whiles back saying they was a going camping, and he also said that they were a smokin’ some funny smelling cigarettes too. Ayuh…” Just then the radios blared and the troopers left. Two for one at the local doughnut shop had just been reported by a local neighborhood crime fighting unit, and that was not to be missed.
On the mountain the situation was desperate. “I am fucking freezing my fucking ass off…” Frodo pleaded with guide Marcus Needlemeyer, but Needlemeyer couldn’t wait. If Frodo was going to make off the side of Bigelow, it was going to be up to Needlemeyer to see to it. “If you can’t fucking move,” Needlemeyer screamed over the 40 MPH ice wind that was making Novasch’s tarp roar, “then fucking get back in your bag!”
Frodo muffed and moaned but was unresponsive. Needlemeyer was not standing around to watch. He had to move.
Through the swirling snow Needlemeyer could make out the shapes of three other HAE climbers fighting for their own lives. They were there in their wool pants and LL Bean snow parkas, more than 3800 feet up in Bigelow Col. It was now getting on toward lunch hour and the group was way off schedule with severe survival situations occurring. Bruce McAnus, a Seattle based outdoor equipment designer, was barely ambulatory, having taking to sitting numbly on some camp sprawl. Part of the problem here lay in his selection of equipment. The leather boots he insisted on hiking with were now so rock solid frozen that it would of taken a plasma fusion reaction to heat them up. Needlemeyer knew that directly below them was several days of dangerous decent before the expedition vehicle could be reached. But how could that path, a daunting task under even ordinary summer conditions, be navigated under the current dire circumstances?
Marcus Needlemeyer was not the only one who was trying to move. In a foul mood was Vincentoli Blanteev, known as Vincentoli in the mountains. Founding member of HAE and renowned for athletic antics, he had taken to moving his legs in a most animated motion, a desperate attempt to keep the feet from freezing into numb blocks. What little of his screaming that could be heard over the storm indicated that he was obsessed with how they got themselves into this situation in the first place. Bone weary from the past days hiking, without sleep through the previous nights roaring storm, Blanteev had been up for the past 30 hours and was starting to lose his cool as the enormity of the situation was making itself apparent. He tried to take a swig of booze and looked to bitch someone out.
He didn’t have to go far. Also trapped in the multi-digit windchill and blasting ice storm was HAE co-founder, and expedition leader Timur Novasch. A skillful backwoodsman and the most experienced of the four guides, Novasch’s easy going, rationalize his way through anything style was fending off Blanteev’s invective. “What the fuck Vincentoli take it easy I thought he was a good hiker,” Timur yelled back. But Vincentoli continued without so much as skipping a word, “Novasch you total fucking bonehead I told yah I saw tags hanging off equipment and the squeezing of margarine into Ramen noodles going on back down at Camp II and you still brought clients fucking up here!” The argument tailed off as Marcus managed to stumble his way over to Vincentoli and Timur . Huddled against the wind break they discussed their final options.
In the winter of 1989, Mt. Bigelow may not of been the monumental challenge that was faced back in the 1880’s, when Mr. Bigelow himself acquired the mountain range and proceeded to clear cut the entire place. Having “chopped the bastard off,” Mr. Bigelow congratulated himself for the fine job he had done devastating vast tracts of virgin forest for profit. Decades later the area was transformed into National and State Forest areas. Since the mid-eighties, when Timur Novasch and Marcus Needlemeyer thru hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in a six month odyssey, the physiological barrier had been down, and HAE was now hiking all the best parts of the AT in the middle of the winter. Today if you are fit enough and have the physiological make up to function under extreme physical duress-and enough booze, smoke and modern backpacking equipment, like folding saws, a Northern winter wilderness peak like Bigelow can be bagged, while clear cutting all standing dead wood, a.k.a Mr. Bigelow style, in the name of survival.
Summiting is still a punishing physical endeavor that takes days in an inhospitable climate. The air in makeshift shelters is often stagnant with b.o., fart gas and stove fuel. Intense partying at these extreme conditions brings on increased pulse, blue faces, hallucinatory thinking and crazed ravings like a homeless mental patient roaming the streets. Hacking, coughing, headaches, and depression from lack of party materials are common. Climbers become confused, light-headed, stoned, out of it enough to think that they are okay- a trap that is often sprung when fellow hikers laugh themselves silly and lambaste you for the slightest sorry assed unsurvial like misfortune.
Acclimatization is critical. Year after year camping trips are made, at progressively more difficult locations well above gomer land, and periods of weeks are set aside in suburbia for the crew to recover and let the normal pulse of suburban life flow back into the brain. Often the rest of the year is considered a vacation, a time to prepare equipment for the next sojourn. After intense arguments over details, the team is finally ready, typically by December 28. A hasty rendezvous is made outside of Boston and after the obligatory fast-food and gas-up, and maybe a last minute equipment purchase, a long, slow, and dangerous drive is made north to bring the expedition vehicles within striking distance of the target.
Clients for these trips have often been solicited during various cocktail parties attended by HAE members, but no one was a taker until Frodo said that he would go. The Frodo connection arose from Timur and Marcus’ legendary 1987 Georga-to-Maine AT hike. They met this dude Frodo somewhere on the trail and hiked quite a ways with him. Timur was in touch with Frodo during the summer of ’88, when plans were being laid for the longest, most difficult winter mountaineering trip ever undertaken by HAE, and Frodo must of been smoking some good stuff when he adamantly insisted on going along.
Frodo was actually a photographer, Vincentoli Blanteev concluded, by all the heavy camera stuff he lugged along, and was going to produce a documentary on the wonders of the Great White North. He was also from down south, so Vincentoli was against bringing him along, while Novasch saw Frodo’s photographic expertise as essential to providing HAE with some badly needed publicity. But publicity is only part of a complex equation, and for the struggling HAE group, who were later destined to be become the infamous lean, mean, HAE camping machine of the cybor-spaced ’90s, the real key to success lay in the guides themselves. For here in the Northern Wilderness Mountains, conditions are so severe that a minimum of four guides to one client was mandatory. That’s USDA certified. Four guides to one client minimum. And they really do mean 4 (four) guides for every client, anyway the math is done. “Ya ya that would be way too easy to do some wuss-ass place like Everest where they only need 4 guides for fifteen clients…fuck man …ya…heck…that’s too easy…I bet they only need 2 guides for every 15 clients!, ” Vincentoli reasoned, and it made perfect sense.
“We got four HAE guides, and one camera carrying client…err…no I mean Frodo,” Vincentoli worriedly pointed out to the others,” and I just think that is too risky, you know, going with just the official minimum amount and all,” he continued, and he was not about to let up. Both McAnus first then followed by Novasch tried to get a word in edgewise but Vincentoli was on a roll. “We fucking need..like.. more guides,..like 15 of them, fucking 15 to fucking 1 ratio!” he thundered, plus now he was starting to knock over of some camping stuff in very unsurvival like behavior. The rest of the crew, off bogarting a Marcus spun creation, didn’t seem to mind tearing Vincentoli a new one for his extremely loud and various minor infractions of obscure winter backpacking survival requirements and compliance related issues, plus all his stupid ass rhetorical bullshit.
But his logic in the matter was not without merit. Vincentoli Blanteev’s mom was a hardy New Englander who often saved newspaper articles covering bonehead hikers who die up in NH, and several of her clippings always seem to pile up on Vincentoli’s desk while he was afield. In fact the hiking up in Northern NH and Maine is so dangerous during winter months that the locals will stare at you blankly, if you mention snowshoe backpacking up the side of the White Mountains. “Ya mean ya’ all wanna go hiking with them three other guys in the paper who just died up in Tuckerman’s Ravine?” they will ask you in reply.
From it’s arrival on December 28 in the middle of Nowheresville, Maine, the half assed expedition (HAE) had reflected the free form style of it’s co-founder and leader, Timur A. Novasch. Novasch personified the more free wheeling philosophy of Half Ass Expo’s. This was Novasch’s second decade of winter survival camping, having started in the early ’70s, plus his first leading a commercially unexploited guided trip up there, he had summited once, in 1987, climbing in July without winter weather. At 28, Novasch probably understood Bigelow as well as anybody and was on of these charmed, charismatic risk-takers who dodge trouble by staying completely loose in the face of it. “What is really great about Timur ,” McAnus says, “was he would do something very unsurvival, like dropping his backpack into a raging river, and get away with it by saying something about how he didn’t wanna carry around a heavy pack around anymore anyway. Then he would turn around and say, ‘hey no pictures….get that camera outa’ here….where’s that smoke at?’ It worked. It’s a different style. But Timur Novasch is a master at it.”
Novasch, offhandedly would announce to clients, “It’s minus 20 below.” Other days, “Man you look bad,” recalled client Frodo, referring to Frodo’s rapidly freezing face and, “shit but do I have B.O. too.” He would go back into his survival sleeping system, survive yet one more hour of the impossible conditions, and then wake back up to see that nothing had changed. Frodo was still freezing his ass off. If Novasch seemed to be taking Bigelow for granted, most of the guides and clients seemed to enjoy that approach, and, indeed, had opted to make the trip with him because of it. “We had a bunch of very, very, independent, strong-willed people,” says Needlemeyer, “We didn’t want to take away from the adventure by taking them on a Disneyland ride or something totally wussy like a Sherpa fed Everest hike.”
For Novasch, this trip was more a word-of-mouth building adventure that any type of profit making scheme, and indeed all the guys had to cough up bucks for the rental van. So be it. The more publicity generated on the trail, the better HAE would be known. And what better way to build a reputation then through AT shelter log book entries and a celebrity client. The latter was John Layne, or Frodo as he was known among the Appalachian Trail Club members and thru hikers. Frodo was famous on the AT for hiking and photography, and Novasch reasoned that good photos of winter survival would make HAE known throughout the mountaineering world. Frodo himself was adept at harsh three season conditions on the trail. But the challenge of winter had only been recently been planted in Frodo’s brain by Novasch’s stories, and gradually Frodo felt in his soul that he would not be a complete AT hiker until experiencing the Maine AT in winter.
So this was Frodo’s first shot at the business of winter mountaineering. In the mist of holiday vacation, he arrived at Logan airport two days before launch, with some stuff but mostly cash to buy new equipment. Accompanied by various HAE crew members, Frodo soon had spent big bucks at the Natick Outdoor Store, EMS, and REI in preparation for the trip, including a winter sleeping bag and other stuff. Cash raised for wheels wasn’t enough so McAnus’ credit card took a hammering as a brand new expedition van was rented and HAE’s equipment was upgraded and improved.
More money and contracts were promised over film and story rights, and hundreds of amateur radio operators on the east coast would follow the ascent and chat with crew member Vincentoli Blanteev via his 20 meter QRP amateur radio. Besides all the expensive radio equipment, lots of brand name coffee and doughnuts would be consumed by ham radio operators as WB1ALZ battled pileups. HAE member Bruce McAnus, a mechanical engineer who made a living designing outdoor equipment for a leading gear manufacturer, often tested equipment prototypes during HAE winter survival trips, and several products were out or soon to be released at major retail outlets and wilderness outfitters throughout the US. So by the years end, if the Bigelow expedition wasn’t an amusement park ride, it was really good for business. “Hey this is what I do best, spend money,” Blanteev said one day while buying all sorts of camping equipment at EMS and the Natick Outdoor Store, most of which he would later decide not to bring along.
HAE winter survival expeditions always occur on the first in the year and the last of the year, taking advantage of a two week window of opportunity that all New Englanders know falls between the start of winter holiday season and the eventual realization in early January that it’s time to get back to work. Early phases of the expedition planning are the easiest as the crew members screw around with equipment and drink beer. Invariably a huge argument breaks out at pre-trip planning sessions, and the ascent is usually determined by the one who happens to have the biggest mouth at the moment. Sometimes the itinerary seems sealed months in advance before all the crew members have agreed to it, a condition summed up one year by McAnus, “Novasch has already decided where we are going, and Blanteev is pissed off about that.” The next morning the crew heads out, or half the crew, as McAnus and Vincentoli, who lately have flown in from the west coast, often go up a day or two in advance to acclimate to the Northern New England winter, and wait for Timur and Marcus to get out of work. The most popular approach is placing Camp 1 within a mile or so of the auto drop, an operation that typically passes without incident.
From there it’s onto a Camp 2 placed within striking distance of the summit in contention. Then after a pause of a day or two to acclimatize and wait for a break in the weather the push is made for the summit. Either the peak is bagged carrying little more than a days worth of supplies, or a much more difficult ascent with backpacks over the summit and down the backside is attempted. Often members of the crew are up and down the mountain with equipment, water or firewood.” Vincentoli often cuts up two or three times the amount of firewood as me, in half the time,” says McAnus, the newest member of the HAE team.
By the afternoon of December 29, HAE had reached Camp 2, a delightfully forested plateau complete with beaver pond, Maine Appalachian Trail style lean-to shelter, and latrine that was locked up for the winter. Breaking and entering is skill held in wide esteem by HAE members, particularly by Novasch and Vincentoli. So it’s not long before the crew gets the first chance in days to relieve themselves in the luxury of a genuine AT latrine. McAnus is last to go and when he returns, “he didn’t have the look of someone pleased with his work,” according to camp fecesologist Novasch. As McAnus’ tale unfolds during evening happy hour the guys are soon stumbling about the place laughing too hard. For some reason, possibly due to the difficult hike and the subsequent even more difficult hard partying, McAnus must have had delusions of residing at a first class hotel, because he actually sat down on the latrine seat. “Probably to read the fucking Sunday paper,” Vincentoli laughed out so hard that he spilled most of the hot toddy that he had just so painstakingly made. It all went well for the first minute or two, but the situation soon turned sour as McAnus’ butt eventually warmed up the seat and a growing mushy feeling told him that he was not just sitting on any old toilet seat. “I want to know which one of you fucking idiots shit right on top of the fucking toilet seat!,” McAnus demanded, but no answers could be found among a crew now completely besides themselves with hysteria. Eventually things calmed down a bit. “I always lift the seat and hover over the pit,” Novasch managed to blurt out about that age old backwoods custom before he broke off into yet another round of uncontrollable laughter. Vincentoli, Marcus, and Frodo, all multi-decade veterans of the trail, nodded in affirmation.
As dusk descended wind and snow pasting the upper mountain but stuck away at this camp the crew was oblivious and was caught up in the minute to minute intricacies of winter survival. As camp started after the happy hour Vincentoli decided that slash and burn camping was still a necessity so off he went and finally spotted a some standing dead wood quite a ways from the lean-to. This was a standard wood importation technique since any dry wood for miles around any AT shelter has long since been burned, and it relies on the element of timing as the wood must be found before darkness to avoid stumbling around and poking one’s eye out on tree branches like a drunken bonehead. With the fire roaring and camp made the crew ate hamburger helper and Lipton noodle stuff. Frodo had the squeeze margarine, literally still in the supermarket plastic bag, to spruce up some Ramen noodles. As temperatures dropped toward zero camp settled out and crashed.
Thousands of feet above the Horns camp lay the two summits of Bigelow, known to be part of a patchwork of Northern New England death zones because it is above 4000 feet that is so unforgiving in winter. Under these conditions a human, at least a sane one anyway, will feel instant panic and dread. It slowly creeps in as the trek above the timber line becomes more treacherous with weather that can deteriorate rapidly. Exhaustion after 10 to 15 hours of survival hiking starts to take away from your bodies ability to keep your clothing, soaked from perspiration and melted snow, from freezing solid. Ice starts forming across the back and neck areas of your snow parka. At winter survival camp, hiking boots don’t respond like they should, they are getting colder, more solid, as if the very molecules within them were to stop moving.
“It’s sorta’ like the Nerst Theorem, that is, the third law of thermodynamics,” Vincentoli said to McAnus back in ’84 when McAnus caught a huge face full of acrid campfire smoke while turning his boots in front of it. “As the temperatures drop to absolute way fucking below zero them stupid ass leather boots freeze up so bad that no entropy is being created within the system,” he finished and was about to continue laughing at McAnus’ happy half ass for getting all smoke burned while drying boots, but the wind shifted quick and a even nastier blast of acrid campfire smoke now pummeled Vincentoli. At a campfire they can both duck out of the way, racked by coughing, uncontrollable spasms and white mountain trash swearing, but out on the trail hypothermia sets in. Uncontrollable shivering first, but then as heat is drawn out of your core the panic subsides, never to be heard again.
The biggest worries are accidents from HICE (High Impact Camping Edema), anything that inhibits mobility, like frozen body parts or broken ankles, and running out of party supplies. Untreated, these three conditions can cause permanent damage or kill in a hurry. With frozen feet and a thick layer of sweat rapidly freezing the rest of you, one fights a slow, deadly battle, cruelly slow, as if the entire northern wood is slowly squeezing the life right out of you. “I really don’t care what some rich assed dick says about climbing Everest,” says Marcus in hidden reference to the recent deluge of books on climbing Everest. “You take all them way fat asses, without all them big mouthed guides, and you slap them up here without Sherpas, without their stupid ass support structure, but with a backpack they packed themselves, and them soft bellied wusses will be dying up here faster than a gomer who drives up in a fucking minivan.”
Running out of party supplies is a more insidious problem that randomly plagues the group to various degrees, from consuming the last pre-rolled smoke simultaneous with the booze being lost somewhere if McAnus’ pack, all while a raging blizzard is slamming down on the hikers, to a flat out skimpy white trash night that can hardly be differentiated from any other day on the trail. The importance of white trash night can not be understated, as it signified that indeed great deeds had been done, including climbing the designated mountain, plus great tales had been told, and thus in the telling of these tales the proper amount of shit had been requisitioned, appropriated and then summarily delivered to the designated recipients in uproarious fashion. As all this typically occurred on the last night of camp, the loud rancorous calls to “Bring out all ya party materials” meant that nobody’s stash was safe. In fact, it was the entire crew’s moral duty to consume everthing as they partied more.
“Hey…give a hoot…don’t pollute,” said Vincentoli after doing his share to consume various party materials that HAE guides suspected were classified by governmental agencies as Designated Super Fund Toxic Waste Materials (DSFTWM). These materials were absolutely not to come in contact with any National Fucking Pristine Wilderness Areas (NFPW) under exploration by HAE. “Look we don’t care if the other 6 billion or so idiots on this planet are fucking the world up with their urine and overpopulation as long as these guys don’t get a chance to trash the most delicate wilderness areas with their high impact, terra-forming camping!” said an exasperated park ranger, after being hassled by Blanteev over the price of parking in some stupid ass lot off the Kangie. These parking areas are well known “gateway” spots where suburbanites with rug rats pretend that they like New Hampshire in the winter. This constant flatland traffic may on the surface seem to be first a threat to the sanctuary of the wilderness, but in reality you ain’t seen rush hour till you have seen these yuppie assed gomers falling over each other trying to get back to the parking lot by sundown.
By the next day, a storm had settled in and a nondescript grey sky hung over. HAE’s team awoke anxiously in their survival systems, and Novasch ripped farts to cut the tension, he recalls. “They would have to bail out for a minute or two and then try to recover.” Bruce McAnus felt woozy and slow-witted, still wearing his leather boots, a very unsurvival like thing to be doing in a fully, well…maybe only somewhat, functioning shelter. For those who could force it down it was hot toddies and fine herbage imported by Novasch. “Man this fucking partying up on the side ole’ Mr. Bigee ain’t no good for them buttist happy assed spare-its,” his trashed assed face roared as he stumbled over a bunch of stuff that went flying, including smoke McAnus was trying to roll, into the surrounding northeastern blizzard. “Hey watch what the fuck ya doing you pasty white assed fuckin’ mountain trash!” Vincentoli countered as he was overly concerned that preparations for tomorrows assault on the mountain were now in jeopardy due to the general half-assed unruliness of the crew party totally disrupting normal procedures.
By 11:30 am in the morning, the team had assembled in a haze of hangovers and sore muscles. As usual Vincentoli was first to have his pack ready, followed in quick succession by Novasch and Marcus. Frodo the client beat out McAnus, the guide-to-be, and the four were soon standing around nervously yakking and smoking while McAnus fucked with his stuff. Each hiker carried all of his own stuff, and Vincentoli’s pack was extra heavy with the hand built 20 mtr. QRP amateur radio powered by a stupid assed heavy 1.5 amp hour battery that simulated a rock that Novasch sneaked into his pack. Plus a solar panel right out of Edmund Scientific Catalog that Vincentoli brought along under the misconception that he would actually get a chance to charge that stupid assed heavy battery. Frodo was no better off, carrying a huge-assed camera that made Ansel Adams look like he used a disposable from K-Mart. And of course McAnus was famous for carrying all sorts of stupid-assed stuff up a frozen mountian, like potatoes wrapped in tinfoil. Each hiker hooked up a bottle outside the pack, and carried other supplies on outside pockets, with the intention of hitting the secret stashes deep within the packs on the way back down at night. That was at least the plan, and the hope was that after leaving Camp II and possibly having to set up Camp III, enough was available to just pass over the summit and make it back down the other side into a pure wilderness land.
Bad weather slowed the pace as darkness closed in. Above, Novasch noticed a powerful spot light bob around excitedly. Now carried by Marcus, the spot was a huge Petzel head lamp that Vincentoli had disassembled, then rebuilt with a special 12V bulb and powered by a fat 1.5 amp-hour battery. Bright enough to signal extra terrestrials, the light was often hidden by one the crew. At an opportune moment, it was flashed on in a photon blast that would give the unfortunate recipient a face full of spotted hallucinations and a stumble around camp trying to shake ’em out. All while the peanut gallery roared in approval. This year the photon wars were clearly being won by science. The gang followed Marcus and the massive beam lighting the trail. The team was excited; here was an awseome late night summit attempt under mind bending circumstances.
A second attempt was made the following day. Last night they had tried the summit and got to within a thousand feet of the top before bad weather forced them back. On December 29, Vincentoli radioed to some retired ham radio operator floating around in his boat in sunny Florida: “I’ve arrived here at Base Camp, stoned and drunk, Maybe we can finally get this done with.” And indeed that was the plan, as the two summit attempts in as many days were thwarted by the weather. The team made preparations for a third attempt, the very last chance to summit.
Led by guides Marcus Needlemeyer, 34, a legendary New England woodsman and Vincentoli Blanteev, 28, a renowned Italian climber, the five man party moved out once again, with McAnus, as usual, bringing up the rear. The first formal stopping point out of camp was a postage stamp sized flat with trees blocking the wind. Of unknown history, Vincentoli dubbed it, “the spot were we couldn’t see shit.”
But just a short hike up the trail was indeed a regal view. The north and south peaks of Bigelow first came into full view, and the Sunday River Ski Area with all them lame sunday skiers, could also be perceived in the far southern range. In the distant sky to the west, in a wash of light pink and orange, the dumbra- the color made by paper mill smoke stack effluence as the sun shines upon it. Plowing thru the snow here was increasingly difficult, as if huge blobs of cotton candy were oozing around your knees.
Along the northeast ridge McAnus was hiking like he was a victim of the ole’ rock in the pack trick, while Timur and Marcus knew better than to get in the way of Blanteev. He high power chuffed heavy snow ever upwards. No sooner did the starting effort settle down a little than the first in a series of half assed time-wasters occurred. The plan, according to several HAE members, had been for Frodo to move out ahead, breaking trail and taking photos; critical for any guided climb, and especially critical to stumbling along behind him like white trash outside the trailer for the first time that year. Which up here in the great white north is always right after a new years eve party. Novasch indicated early on that he didn’t want to have to find the trail himself, like he always normally did. According to one member of the team, the client now simply refused to chuff trail as had been previously discussed; instead he dropped his pack and fumbled for a smoke. Another team member, less certain, got the impression that no plan of any sort had been coordinated ahead of time. “I thought Frodo was there to take pictures, not try and keep up with you guys,” said McAnus’s mom when she heard the tale. “I don’t know why you guys ain’t dead yet, you all just standing around. McAnus could you please find a phone and call me.”
Finally, after “they were hiking up in fucking Maine in the way-assed middle o’ winter,” festivities wore down, Needlemeyer undertook the job himself, by maneuvering his Tubbs wood snowshoes around Vincentoli and establishing a trail toward the top of Bigelow’s North summit, about 1700 vertical feet away. In no particular order the crew shouldered up and shuffled on. McAnus, behind the pack somewhere, was supposed to be riding sag wagon. He would decide which climbers would go on and which, too far behind, would start whining. “I just figured he was back there doing his thing,” Needlemeyer says, “I never thought ’bout it again.” It was a role that McAnus failed to discern, for the client or himself, as he even passed by Frodo in a cloud of shoe chuffed snow. Some sort of backwoods buzz likely had struck him, compromising his decision making. Compounded by four, the result was the entire group was strung out along the trail, without effective leadership or direction.
Various members of the group reached the timberline, about 500 vertical feet below the top, around lunch time, and before long a gaggle of hikers formed. Most by now were on booze bottle No. 3, which meant that they would have less than they planned for the descent and subsequent white trash night. The weather had taken quite a turn for the worse, with temperatures plummeting well below zero and a howling Canadian ice wind lashing down on the group. Here, Novasch was to figure out which way the trail went across the challenging shear rock face; the toughest part of the climb, up to the Bigelow Step, a nasty 20 foot cliff that marks the start of the final summit stretch. Once again, for reasons still unclear, that did not happen. Novasch’s fellow hiker, Marcus, who been to the summit during the ’87 Georgia-to-Maine thru hike, ducked down in the shelter of a large boulder, and they started to eat lunch. Marcus apparently had not acclimatized well, perhaps for a reason: The stuff that Vincentoli said was his whiskey for hiking was in actuality later discovered to be the 151 Rum, to be used only in hot toddies or in a pinch, as spare fuel for the stove. On days when he might have been acclimatizing with his own sipping bourbon, Marcus had instead been borrowing Vincentoli’s stuff, and was now paying the price.
Along with Vincentoli, Marcus, Novasch and Bruce McAnus guide, Frodo decided to accept responsibility for finding the trail. “I took it upon myself to finally say, ‘Well fuck, I’m freezing my ass off. What’s the problem? Who knows which way the trail goes?’ ” Frodo reported later. The group finished munching whatever they had at the time and started for the summit.
The trail was anything but visible, however. As soon as they left the shelter of the timber line they faced a dangerous ice and snow coated rock ridge with cornices. Visibility dropped to zero as the storm continued unabated. Vincentoli recalls, “That was when a feeling of panic started to grip my soul.” The climbers slowed and grappled for solid footing. Snowshoes were needed for sporadic deep blown drifts, but then the hikers would come out on ice, followed by bare rock, back to deep snow, ice, then rock, and so on. Switching from ‘shoes to ice crampons was a brutally slow affair with bare hands exposed to the life threatening elements, and leaving ice crampons on for even a short stretch of rock would quickly dull them into useless hunks of scrap metal. But even more deadly was the opposite, taking a step onto shear ice without properly functioning crampons was very dangerous proposition indeed. By now, some were becoming a little hypnotic; soon, smart people would start acting stupid and would be unable to smarten up, and dumb people were still acting dumb, as if nothing was happening. Climbers 20 feet apart existed in different worlds. As massive as Bigelow is, this close to the top the individual climbers universe is small, claustrophobic, up close and personal, with all thoughts centered on summiting and getting out alive.
“I remember standing there…feeling utter panic, my stash is going to run out,” says a guide. “But at the same time we were there, and there weren’t sufficient impediments to stop us or turn us back. Nor was there a deadline to either summit or turn back. There were no cutoff times. We never actually discussed cutoff times.”
“You don’t want to get wasted for even an hour up that high,” says Needlemeyer, “But there was no talk of turning around. And we never saw McAnus all day.”
Blanteev, a veteran of numerous winter ascents and attempts, pushed on toward the summit, followed by Novasch, Needlemeyer, and Frodo. Frodo attempts to take a photo of any kind was thwarted by the conditions. McAnus finally clambered up much later, so by then more precious time had been lost. By now the ominous frozen ice clouds that whipped the summit were pulling body heat right out of the hikers at an alarming rate. Up there at 4150 feet, at the top of Maine, the men maneuvered around desperately looking for the trail out. Had conditions been different, they could of seen from Canada to NH, with full view of numerous White Mountain peaks, and across the Massachusetts plains, but now it was a struggle to seen even the ground they were standing on.
The weather seemed to be holding, but none of the group leaders was there to judge; only Blanteev remembers the full extent of anxiety about the possibility that the weather could deteriorate even further. This was true HICE summit fever time. Faced with no obvious threats to the hikers itinerary, like a “Park Closed at Sunset-Go Home” sign, it would be hard for the guides to turn back anybody who was so close- and who had paid so much money for equipment at REI. If a 4 p.m. cutoff for happy hour had applied, as it sometimes did on commercial HAE expeditions, probably the whole crew would have turned around long ago and avoided the desperate attempt. As it was, Novasch, Needlemeyer, Frodo (a Novasch client), Blanteev and then later McAnus had now all summited within ten to 20 minutes minutes of each other.
Where was McAnus? Needlemeyer, on the summit for an indeterminable amount of time, began to pace. Because the ascent above the timberline had slowed to a survival crawl, the consumption situation was getting tight. No one had been able to catch a buzz or have even have a swig, and the rising panic in the crews voices echoed the tension.
“Lets get the mother fuck outa here!,” Blanteev screamed as soon as McAnus showed up. “I was on three, like my last bottle,” Frodo recalls, “And too frozen to drink it, which was the way everyone was.” Most didn’t realize it, other than maybe Vincentoli, but they were now close to the zero-tolerance point, any further delays or mistakes could prove fatal. Twist an ankle here, get blown off the trail there, and it’s later…dude.
Heading down the northern ridge, opposite of their approach and deeper into the Maine wilderness, without so much as minute for McAnus to catch his breath at the summit, the group was soon strung out again, with various members passing others as individuals resolve and strength ebbed and flowed. Needlemeyer passed McAnus, he was moving slowly and looked tired, but not frightfully so. With him was Frodo. Waves and a few words were exchanged. “I just assumed he (McAnus) would be along, and even before I got down to Bigelow Col I expected him to be right behind me, with all of us going down as a group,” says Needlemeyer. “It just never happened that way.”
Blanteev also encountered McAnus on the way down and saw no reason for concern, but never had in these situations. “McAnus has great natural ability. He is very strong and has righteously stubborn powerhouse determination like the Scotsman that he is.” Blanteev says, “one has to know McAnus. Everything was always slow with him, but he never failed to come through.” Vincintoli and McAnus agreed that the Italian would descend quickly and be ready to bring booze back up to the other climbers who might be running out, effectively leaving Neirmeyer and Novasch to guide Frodo down the mountain on his own.
The ragged group slowly trickled toward Bigelow Col, internally coated with sweat and externally coated with ice and snow. Tired to the bone, the wet inside, ice outside combination is a recipe for trouble. A stiff wind swept the shallow notch hidden between the North and South Peaks, and frozen clouds covered the vast faces of Bigelow. More clouds accumulated below, in the Carrabassett Valley cut by Rt. 27. Members of the State Police, over coffee and doughnuts in the trooper barracks were reading about how a major storm and cold snap was moving in from Canada. Whether that information was ever relayed by radio to any of the HAE team is uncertain. Vincentoli’s radio required a significant amount of time and effort for antenna setup, and in any case, he was the only one who understood Morse code. From up on top, it was tough to tell if the storm was picking up or dissipating.
Of the group, only Marcus and Novasch had been this high on the mountain before; everyone was weary and increasingly hypnotic. McAnus, who didn’t want to be left behind, called for shot of JD. They were all carrying, in various containers, a prepared kit of booze and good smoke, material that acts like adrenaline and ‘ludes at the same time, to counteract the effects of backwoods panic, or BWP. “If things get bad up there,” Novasch had said, “just fire up a spiff. It’s like a breath of fresh air.” A haebar was fired up and when Vincentoli passed it to Frodo, he perked right up. Needlemeyer then ordered McAnus, who booze bottle was nearly full when it was finally found buried deep in his pack, to switch with Blanteev, who had only a quarter of one left. The laborious trek continued, directly in the teeth of the storm – and into half-assed chaos.
It was now well past dusk, around 6:30 PM, the disappearing sun reducing earlier grey colors to pitch black. The wind picked up even more, and dry snow was blowing all around. Several inches had fallen down in the valley, but it was impossible to tell if it was snowing or blowing, high up in the Col. To avoid the horrifying prospect of getting lost in the dark, and getting eyes poked out by hidden tree branches, the group would have to set up a camp here as quickly as possible. A stormy night on Bigelow is survivable, but it’s a desperate gamble.
“Coming down into the Col, I was totally beat. I looked back up the Northeast ridge and could barely discern the silhouettes of Frodo and McAnus as they shuffled down the section I had just painstakingly traversed,” says Vincentoli. “I could see that these guys were also dog tired. They would take a step or two, maybe slip on some ice and wrench a back muscle staying up, then rest, then take a few more steps… It’s not necessarily only gomers who become exhausted and die up in the northern wood.” Now HAE guides and their client were worn down, and facing a nasty bivouac less than 200 vertcial feet down from the summit.
Bigelow Col did have a lean-to, a three sided structure arranged in classic Appalachian Trail fashion, built by the Maine AT Club out of six inch diameter logs. Sturdy constructed and always inhabited by “shelter mice” these structures were most useful during summer rain storms. But they are little more than a wind tunnel under winter conditions. The open face is impossible to close off with anything a backpacker carries, and as usual, any burnable wood within a half mile of a shelter had long since been used up by summer hikers. “You are much better off in some dense wooded area where you can shut down all air flow with a nylon tarp and snow piled up around the perimeter,” say Vincentoli, who prefers to avoid AT shelters. None the less the decision, made under desperate circumstances, was to have a go at the lean-to, and Blanteev was too tired to protest effectively.
Instead he went after what wood he could find. In the late eighties Blanteev still relied on wood fires for cooking, and McAnus required the heat to get his leather boots moving in the morning. With saw and machete, he went on a wilderness stripping rampage that netted quite a pile of wood. Borrowing Novasch’s Wishitwouldlite stove and placing it under the wood pile, Vincentoli waited 20 minutes for the gas flames to start a blaze, to no avail. Finally Novasch pulled the stove to cook his dinner. “I can’t fucking believe it!” screamed Vincintoli, “I put a gas stove under this wood and it still won’t light!” In fact up at this altitude, things are continually wet so any dead wood that looks dry is really little more than some cellulose wrapped around a core of ice.
The situation had degraded to the point that Blanteev was in a delirious rampage, stumbling around drinking like a drunk, coughing up huge green hawkers from smoking haebars in subzero conditions: symptoms indicating an advanced case of High Impact Camping Edema, or HICE. A mysterious, potentially lethal illness, typically brought on by climbing too high, or too slow, following which a half-assed bivouac is then undertaken in the dark at a location where the wood will not burn and you are too cold and miserable to enjoy happy hour properly. The only real cure for HICE is rapid descent into dry hardwood forest, if the victim remains at high altitude very long, total boredom and stress is the most likely outcome. Worse yet, if the victim happens to be a gomer, death is inevitable.
Neirmeyer looked at his watch: 9 p.m. The stronger climbers built a half-assed camp by putting up Timur ‘s tarp across the left half of the lean-to, so that it did little more than howl like a 747 in the raging wind. Frodo was acting strange at camp, sort of hypoxic and wierd. He seemed sort of desperate, his face was frosted and beard frozen. “And clearly he just wanted to get into his sleeping bag to survive,” Blanteev reported later. “He was in trouble. He just sat on his butt shivering and tried to cook a hot meal, but his squeeze margarine was frozen solid.” Eventually Novasch and Marcus got some hot fluids into Frodo and after eating whatever else the others could give him he pulled out his bag and foam pad and crawled in, shivering and babbling incessantly in a crazed manner.
So the storm, now lacerating snow in horizontal planks, wore on thru the night. Across the lean-to it was Frodo at the far left side, then Blanteev, McAnus, Needlemeyer, with Novasch on the far right. The only one who had protection from the wind was Blanteev, he managed to rig up his survival tent inside the lean-to.
In the middle of the night Frodo had to get up to take a piss, his agony as the elements mercilessly bore down on him woke the others but they dared not move, and could little more than shout some words of encouragement over the wind snapped tarp. Frodo was thermally shocked so badly by this 30 second venture outside his bag that shivering no longer kept off the cold. “I was completely frozen solid. The cold was just finishing me off,” says Frodo, who could hear others shouting at him but couldn’t see anyone in the pitch black. “I crawled back in my bag and tried as hard as I could to die. I’d done some great Appalachian Trail hiking. No regrets. I knew that even if I survived the night I would not have the strength to handle the brutal two day hike out. My body was shaking uncontrollably while my limbs felt frozen solid. I constantly fought and adjusted my sleeping bag, trying to get more warmth out if it.” Frodo hacked and coughed incessantly.
Unless done properly, moving around in your sleeping system is a losing proposition, HAE guides will tell you. Lying perfectly still, not even batting an eyelash is critical in sub-zero temperatures. “Let’s say you want to err…scratch your scrotum,” Blanteev lectures. “Well as you scratch down, cold air rushes in to fill the void where your fingers just were. Then as you scratch up, your fingers push warm air out of the bag.” Over the years HAE climbers have developed techniques to deal with airflow problems, including double and even triple baffle systems that slow down and warm up air as it enters the bag, and the proper deployment of Gortex to eliminate excess moisture within the bag without losing heat. “It’s kind of like skin diving,” Vincentoli continues, “You take in a big gulp of ice cold air and then seal off the vent while you move around inside like crazy, doing what ever you have to do, say, changing socks. As you are about to turn blue you stop moving around and open the vent to breath. Then as you settle in, a down vest or whatever is used to baffle the vent, because it is impossible to stay warm breathing -40 below air.” It takes a lot of practice to get it right, and dealing with water, food, flashlights and other gear means the camper must move with patience and skill to avoid “blowing out” a sleeping bag system.
Before retiring for the night, Novasch scratched out a last entry in the trail register book, found at every AT shelter:
storm still going, no let up, supplies low.
we lost Jones in a crevasse
don’t know how much longer we can hold out
the dogs are fighting again
couldn’t start the Cuisine Art….
-HAE Jan 2, 1989″
As the night progressed, bone snapping cold air was in constant motion around the campers. Blanteev stayed awake all night in an attempt to keep warm. Novasch and Needlemeyer slept somewhat better. Somehow McAnus managed to doze and snore for quite a while. Frodo slipped off into advanced stages of hypothermia.
Dawn slowly arose, stone cold and steel grey. The tarp, quieted by an early morning lull, was starting to make more noise again. With bones stiff from cold and lack of movement, there was no mad rush to go. When several of the guides managed to get out of their bags, their knees buckled and they tumbled back in like broken dolls. But opening a sleeping bag in this cold blows it right out, since the quiescent state of the camper in early morning is not sufficient to warm a bag back up. Eventually three started moving outside their bags, with Frodo and McAnus unmoving.
The slim hope that early morning mobilization sparked faded when, after an hour both McAnus and Frodo were still in their bags. “Aw come on you guys it ain’t that cold out,” Novasch said checking his thermometer. “Let’s see…humm… it’s only -20 below out ya know.” After a pause, “WHAT…IT”S FUCKING MINUS 20 BELOW OUT!!,” he now shrieked in surprise and started doing a high speed tap dance that looked like Curly getting ready to smack Moe. Blanteev instantly felt colder. “Why ya have to say that you bonehead,” he groused at Novasch, and Marcus wasn’t looking pleased about the announcement either. It was now 10 a.m., and the wind was back as fierce as ever. Blown snow and ice shards filled the lean-to.
The full extent of their desperation was slowly being comprehended by Vincintoli and Needlemeyer. Frodo was looking deathly bad, a shocked look frozen on his face, and McAnus was totally incapacitated. Vincintoli’s boots were so cold that he knew he would have difficulty making it down the jagged decent solo, never mind with two people in tow. Blanteev stiffly bent down and picked up a near empty bottle of booze. Opening it by cracking the top hard on a nearby rock, he bottomed up and waited for the sweet liquid. Nothing. Now tipping it way back and looking in with one eye, he watched in amazement as the whiskey barely inched toward the opening, like a lava flow slowly advancing over some island’s village on the Nature Channel. Vincintoli hadn’t seen booze that thick since ’82, when he and Novasch survived a night of minus 60 below weather on the side of Mt. Monadnock in NH. Perplexed, he went over and checked the thermometer, an inexpensive key-ring type from REI. After studying it for a moment, he decided that the discrepancy was attributable to the thermometer. Minus 20 below was the lowest graticule on that cheap piece of shit.
The three huddled and talked options. None seemed to exist. This is going to get real ugly, Vincentoli thought to himself. They could go for help but it was two days of tough hiking to get out, by the time they got back the only thing needed would be body bags, and ice picks to chip out the cadavers. Vincentoli thought that they could dump all equipment but saws and axes, short rope, drag or bounce Frodo and McAnus down, then burn wood while someone went back up for backpacks. No way though, the descent featured lots of radically steep sections, and the only rope available was some clothesline of Vincentoli’s. They stood around and smoked while the situation continued to deteriorate.
Somehow in the middle of all this Timur and Marcus started talking about a cabin, pointing down the trail toward the South Peak. “I thought these guys were nuts, totally half-assed and hallucinating they way they were talking,” Blanteev recalls.
Needlemeyer made a fateful decision. He would strike out in the chosen direction, hopefully to locate the shack both he and Novasch vaguely recollected from their ’87 Georgia-to-Maine AT hike. It was out there somewhere, waiting. “I suppose it has a fucking nice wood stove too,” Vincentoli said sarcastically. “I’m telling ya,” was Novasch’s only reply.
Needlemeyer set off, with Vincentoli in tow, walking the AT toward the Southern Peak. “It was implied that these guys would go and get help, though nothing was ever said about succeeding,” McAnus says. “Nothing needed to be said.” It was survival time, HAE style.
McAnus tried to crawl after Needlemeyer’s party, faltered at the edge of the lean-to, dragged himself back and started to hallucinate. A brew pub stood on the ice a few feet away, he was sure of it, and a bikini clad babe was serving him a pint and chips while the ball game was on. “Don’t give up,” Blanteev yelled back as he was leaving. “You got to get back and redesign that fucking stupid-assed thermometer!”
Needlemeyer estimates that they covered the quarter mile in about 15 minutes, but he can only guess, because he was so hung over by then. Was that the cabin? Or was it just another hallucination. No it was an AT latrine, sealed shut with deep snow piled all around. Moving around slowly down past a Douglas Fir stand, an opening in the dense softwoods appeared. They moved closer. Barely standing now in the blasting wind and cold, they peered ahead. A cabin! Neirmeyer could hardly talk. He rasped to Vincentoli who was looking the other way to avoid the wind. Before long they scouted the place and turned back, frozen to the core from the short trek. Back at the lean-to Blanteev and Needlemeyer fell into the shelter and tried to drink some coca made with snow melt, but ended up spilling most of it, so frozen and shaky were their hands.
“You found it!” Novasch exclaimed. Indeed they had, it was a small shack used by the Forest Service in summer, in conjunction with a fire tower up located on South Peak. But Marcus reported that the windows were securely boarded up. The only other feature was a solid wood door with two big flat metal bars locked across it. What about the hinges Timur asked. “Two of them,” Vincentoli replied. “Big assed ones with eight wood screws each. No way you’re gonna’ break that,” he finished dejectedly. Novasch stopped jumping up and down to keep warm and looked at them funny. He went over to his backpack and slowly pulled something out. Whatever it was it had a clean metal finish, and Timur talked to it under his breath as he removed it from it’s protective cloth.
There, glowing softly in all it’s majestic power and mythical might, forged by the ageless strength of industrial power US Pat Pend in Portland far away, was Novasch’s Leatherman Pocket Tool. Vincentoli’s jaw dropped. Marcus stared, feeling it’s power draw him in. He wanted to try it, he wanted it in his hand. “Yesss my precious they are our friends yesss,” Timur hissed as his eyes widened and glowed with light reflected off the polished, deeply engraved surface. Clouds raced overhead, yet howling winds stopped, and all of the mountain shuttered to think that such presence could appear deep in the interior lands of the great ancestors. Canada Jay, king of the Northern Birds, dropped the trail mix McAnus had left out and flew away in fear. Frodo turned uneasily in a hypnotic sleep, now disturbed by dark visions of death as ice cold blood cursed his veins.
“Gimme that fucking thing will ya,” Vincentoli said, realizing that it was going to be up to Marcus and him to get the job done. They now had a chance. A Leatherman is a powerful tool that has never failed HAE in breaking and entering, and Marcus and Vincentoli were determined to make good with it. At the cabin however, it soon became apparent that it was going to be a slow, agonizing process. Gloves were useless. A screw could be backed out maybe one turn, two at the most, before stopping to warm up frost bit bare hands. Taking turns, they worked non-stop for several hours in the bitter cold. “That was the toughest break-in I’ve ever done,” Marcus says, “usually you just pop a lock or bust some glass, but not up there.” Several screw heads were stripped, but steel Leatherman pliers jaws snapped them out until finally the last one was gone. On the count of three they both heaved hard, sliding the door upward maybe 16 inches before it jammed between the door frame and the two flat iron bars. It was just enough to crawl thru, and they were inside in a jiffy, casing the place like a couple of ex-cons. “We did it, we fucking did it!” Vincentoli yelled. “And it has a stove too,” Marcus said.
News travels fast up in the northern wood, so it wasn’t long before Frodo, still wrapped in his sleeping bag was helped over by Timur and Vincentoli, and plunked right down next to the stove. Timur found a stash of wood under a table, and soon the stove had the place warmed up above zero, maybe to the mid 20’s. Smoke glowed and booze flowed, the celebration party was on, except for Frodo. Totally shocked from his ordeal, and remembering last nights sojourn to relieve himself, he wouldn’t touch any liquid after 3 p.m. By now the storm had swept through, leaving a brilliantly clear, cold and windy New England afternoon. Outside the cabin, Sunday River Ski Area could now been seen way across the other side of the Carrabassett valley. Except for a couple trips back to pick up equipment, the team stayed holed up inside, with backpacks blocking the door gap.
The party didn’t last. First of all the wood started to run out. Timur and Vincentoli raided a dilapidated old storage shed out behind the cabin, taking anything they could pry or cut lose, including some fallen down pieces of the shed itself. Secondly, everyone was totally bone tired from the survival effort, and knew that the descent was not going to be easy. And third, Frodo, although out of danger, was not improving much beyond that. “I know the feeling,” Blanteev said remembering his earlier years, “when you get hypotherrmic and frost bit up that bad it takes months to recover your thermal balance, even the slightest breeze will make you shutter and shake.” Frodo sat by the stove and did his best to look perky and chipper, eating dinner, laughing with the gang, and drinking, at least until late afternoon, some hot coca. But the scared and haunted, glassy eyed look of a man who had been pulled from a frozen death came back across his face when nobody was looking. It told the true story. Frodo would never be the same again.
Morning, January 3, 1989. The team arises and the last of the wood is burned. The key-ring thermometer still reads -20. “Look McAnus,” Vincentoli says, knowing that as a principal engineer for large, Seattle based, equipment supplier, McAnus was responsible for designing outdoor equipment used by millions throughout the world. “Can’t you design one of these things so it will read down to -60?” McAnus reminded Vincentoli that if he wasn’t such a cheap bastard, he would have purchased a real thermometer, and instead hassled Vincentoli to pass him the smoke. Camp is packed up. Twenty bucks and an apologetic sounding note is left in the cabin log, a flimsy attempt to compensate for the destruction and trash left behind. The hike is on.
The descent started out well enough, at least for the first couple of dozen steps. Then the steep pitch slowed the hikers to a crawl. Knarly ice covered rock cliffs, frozen waterfalls, blowdown, and the occasional deep snow drift made hiking a tortuously hard, anxiety ridden process. “It was crazy,” Marcus said, ” Guys were in trouble all over the place. They would just sit on their snowshoes and slide down ice, which is nuts….you snag a crampon point, compound fracture.” Novasch was first down the trail and after a particularly nasty 30 foot section he turned to watch Vincentoli negotiate the trail, while furiously digging out his camera. Vincentoli caught a snowshoe and went flying down to faceplant directly in front of the camera wielding Novasch. “Man that was great Vincentoli…I got it on film!” Novasch roared and was so taken back with laughter that he slid down into a Douglas Fir tree, which promptly dumped snow all over him. Blanteev was visably shaken up by the incident, but not enough to prevent him from digging out his camera in hopes of catching one of the other guys flying snowshoe act. But two guys nonchalantly standing around, totally covered with snow and holding cameras, was a sure tip off, and the rest of the pack skirted the section without mishap.
Arriving at about 2000 feet by late afternoon, the group is physically and mentally fatigued from the days hiking, and the past weeks ordeal. Here the mountain finally lets up a little, they are in a wonderful open mixed hardwood and birch forest with flowing water. Camp is made next to a stream. It’s a classic Half Ass camp, with Blanteev, in a typical pre-happy hour panic, screaming at McAnus as they put up shelter. “Man you are fucking crazy,” McAnus said in response to Vincentoli’s tirade. Vincentoli wanted the tent guyed down quickly, and McAnus was moving too slow. “McAnus was off stool thumping or somethin’ and it was getting dark,” Vincentoli recalled, “I knew we had to get the tent up right away, before dark, so that firewood could be collected. Otherwise Frodo would freeze his ass off.” All HAE members feared cutting down firewood in the dark, a dangerous endeavor that could result in a log smash or eye poke-out by unseen tree branches, while freezing your butt off away from the campfire. As the sun sets the crew, lead by Vincentoli, wholesale clear cuts a huge tract of forest. The subsequent fire is plenty big enough to keep Frodo from freezing, and also be tracked by satellite.
It’s last night on the mountain, affectionately called “white trash night” by the guys, but there ain’t much to party with. Most of the stuff was hammered back up in the cabin. Fed and hydrated, the crew crashes out.
Vincentoli Blanteev stays up late, tending to the fire that is keeping Frodo alive. It’s now late in the moon filled night, and with the adventure winding down, he is finally at peace with himself. A tree booms in the distance. Standing, slowly, he breaths in sub-zero air. He opens his jacket and wool shirt, letting wilderness blend with his core. The cold is not felt. The roaring wind is not heard. Blanteev feels the essence of the great northern wood flow within him, his awe and respect for it’s power, his confidence to tame it for his purposes flows in his veins. He is the lone figure. A survivor, a gladiator standing in the arena, awaiting the next challenge. He will be back. He will defy it’s power again. Nostrils flare. His eyes wide, reflecting the light of burning embers, look upward toward the summit. Raising his arm and shaking his pointed fist he yells; “You’re mine…..you hear that?….YOU ARE FUCKING MINE!!” He lets out a long howl toward the shimmering moon. For a fleeting moment, he is one with the wild.
In the morning they will pack up, and after a long, hard hike arrive at the parking lot.
Windburned, hoarse, and 10 pounds lighter, Marcus Needlemeier, is just out of the HAE expedition vehicle at a Burger King on the Maine Turnpike, enjoying a Whopper with Cheese. The previous few hours had been spent digging the van out of the AT parking lot and loading up gear, and haggling with Maine officials over Timur Novasch’s garbage removal citation. At a State Highway rest area, Novasch had deposited a huge bag of household garbage in a can that was labeled “No Household Garbage.” The bureaucrats didn’t see any reason not to fine the person driving, even though he was not a member of Novasch’s immediate family.
A weathered pile a gear sits unpacked in the van. The phones inside the rest area are overloading as the expedition members call home to mom, family and friends throughout Massachusetts. Glad to have her son back alive, Mrs. McAnus says she doesn’t mind the collect call late at night. Needlemeyer makes calls and spends hours getting his story out, defending decisions questioned by backpackers around the county, fending off arguments made in hindsight. It’s not haebars on the mountian that’s making him hoarse now.
“We made some mistakes, some little mistakes, along the way, but did we blunder and half-ass things? No I don’t think so,” Bruce McAnus says. The record speaks for itself, if not for Novasch’s management skills, then of Needlemeyer’s skills as a guide and Blanteev’s hardiness. Five summited, and all of them made it back home. Timur ‘s idea to bring Frodo along was really independent of our actions,” Needlemeyer says. “His actions may have affected us, but our actions did not affect him.”
John Laine did not fare as well, of course, despite the meticulous approach of HAE. No one knows why he elected to join HAE, instead of not risking life and limb by staying home. The trash and destruction wrought by them under the duress of the moment stays on the mountain. Vincentoli lost a pair of gloves and some rope, McAnus lost stove equipment, and Frodo’s favorite water bottle melted by the last night’s fire.
And now the future of HAE expeditions is under intense discussion. The primary point of contention has been whether or not guided clients even belong on high-altitude HAE trips, whether their presence endangers the entire crew. When, on April 1, told reporters, after an HAE pizza and beer dinner function, that Frodo would not have nade it if I hadn’t used the other HAE guides to insure the client’s survival, angered members were quick to respond.
“Weak people are weeded out by the mountain early,” insisted McAnus, “while the rest are early out of weed. If you expect somebody to take care of you, the mountains knows that and you will get into trouble straight away- and not get very far before you die. Climbing Northern New England mountains in the middle of the winter is self-regulating.”
Friends of Novasch also got their two cents in. “People die up in the White Mountains all the time,” says Novasch’s girlfriend. She made it clear that she does not think that guiding is the issue. “The good hikers, they are all fucking nuts. Just because people are being guided doesn’t mean that they ain’t fucking nuts too. That’s why those guys go do that half-assed stuff.”
John Laine continues: “Bruce McAnus, he wasn’t baby-sitting me on the summit. And Needlemeyer and Vincentoli sacrificed to save my frozen ass. The rest of the guys took care of themselves. Everybody had their own odyssey going.”
Took care of themselves. Their own odyssey.
In retrospect, it makes sense to question whether clients should ever be on their own in such potentially dangerous situations, whether a HAE guide should ever let a client go on a storm ridden, winter mountaineering trip that could potentially cost him his life. Arguably, a guide-to-client ratio of 4-to-1 wasn’t, and ain’t enough on Northern New England winter peaks such as Bigelow. When trouble hit, McAnus was a non-factor, and Novasch wasn’t paying attention, leaving only Needlemeyer and Blanteev to go for help. “Future expedition guidelines may specify at least 6 HAE guides for every client,” Blanteev muses.
Historically, the prime directive of HAE has been to “Walk away from it all.” But up in the death zone, the very concept of walking away from it all changes so radically that nobody really wants to try it. Though a client on a HAE expedition might not have realized it, everyone that high must be prepared to save an extra haebar for themselves. “Be prepared,” is the Boy Scout slogan, and even during the thrill of summiting there can be no illusions about that. No guide, at any price, can revive mind and body frozen by the great northern wilderness.
On a practical level, there are undoubtedly tactics that future HAE expeditions may consider. They may have more concrete plans for smoking dope. They may arrange for more booze to be carried up. And their determination to avoid bad gas at podunk service stations and fast food joints may be heightened to the point that they arrive at the launch point on time.
“I don’t think you need to be the world’s best climber to survive the White Mountains in the winter,” says an HAE member. “You just have to be one hell of a good sub-zero weather backpacker.” Many experienced mountaineers, though, argue that hard-and-fast rules- including ones like 5 p.m. happy hour- cannot be imposed on the White Mountains, that the history of HAE trips is built around improvisation and flexibility.
But now matter how it is approached, the Bigelow trip has shown that HAE is not the routine adventure being advertised by the State of Maine tourist commission. “Part of summiting in the winter is taking chances,” points out Blanteev. “You have to throw the Blisters Dice a little bit. If you have bad luck, karmic burn, or mistakes are made, you will be returning in a body bag. I probably shouldn’t point this out, but that’s the wonderful thing about it all.”
“Because the great white north will always have the last word…eh?”