Friday, November 06, 2009

A piece of irreverence

Who can say "Fuck you" to the state parliament, and actually get away with it?
Arno can.

Letter to State Assembly

P.S. Can you spot the hidden message in this letter? first letters.every sentence.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Katahdin (Part 2)

As I looked over yonder to the precipice so aptly named, I realised that the fearsome reputation of this ridge is entirely justified. Some parts of the ridge looks knife-thin. It has been described as "a narrow walk in the sky like no other", and I am not sure I could actually appreciate such neat poetry now. The Helon Taylor honeymoon is over. Should I turn back now?

There were a smattering of people on the peak with me. Spent some time taking a few more photos before making the momentous decision--to cross the Knife Edge or not. I am no longer smiling--I am grimacing at what lies ahead of me.

At this point in time, it must be said that the weather was perfectly fine, with a healthy dose of sunshine beating down on me drenching me in sweat. I am worried more about my lack of water supply (and the fear of falling) more than anything else. I could not have imagined any other worse dangers to come.


A father-and-son team came back down from that mound, and told me, "That path is not looking good, and I am not going to take the risk with my boy here." Ominous indeed.

But seriously, how can I turn my back now that I am tantalizingly close to reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin? I could join the father-and-son team right now, but I could not live with the fact that on this day, I turned my back on Katahdin. So i dispelled the notion and forged ahead.

To start on Knife Edge proper, you have to actually descend and then ascend two rockfaces, which form some sort of a valley. This is the valley, with breathtaking views of the entire expanse of forest, rivers and the basins which I trekked though.

The father-and-son team disappear up towards the left side of the valley, back to the relatively safe embrace of the Helon Taylor trail.

This is the right side of the valley, where I saw another team making their way down a path which I was to climb later. This team had done the Knife Edge trail first, and plan on getting down via the Helon Taylor. They had the hard part behind them already.

Knife edge, here goes. The time now is around 1pm, and the sun is still beating mercilessly down.

Doing the Knife Edge proves to be extremely tough for me. I am in fact, not climbing anymore, but reduced to crawling on all fours due to the razor-thin width of the ridge. The fear of falling off the cliff is extreme here. Plus the fact that I have to lug 2 backpacks around--one food supply, one camera bag, which was compromising my state of balance. And I was wishing I had a compact camera with me instead. The D70 is obviously a luxury I can ill-afford ( with my inexperience at mountain climbing).

To prevent the backpack from tumbling over the cliffs, I use my toggle rope to fasten them to me. Handy tools, the toggle ropes.

It is difficult to depict how perilous and treacherous (to borrow the cliches normally reserved for the obligatory mountain passes that fantasy heroes need to cross) the path is. So instead, I took, while sitting on a boulder, the views exposing my left leg,

...and then my right leg. Any false steps, and that's it. The dull ache of the fear has grown into an incessant drum beat--probably from my heart. My heart pounds a little even as i am typing this. I am just glad I am not up there anymore.

Putting things into perspective, then a team of like half a dozen actually skipped past me. Girls, in frilly convent dress and beach sunhat, no less! I drew inspiration from them, and the fact that they are girls, and I forged ahead, boulder by boulder...

...until the trail seemingly comes to an abrupt stop. Of course I could see the blue arrow pointing forward, but I don't see ANY trail. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Luckily a mountain goat came along, and showed me how to do it. "What's the problem?" he asks. He was kind enough to carry my camera bag across this crazy ledge, after which I had no choice but to gingerly tread across with him. I am representing all Asians on this mountain, and I have already lost enough face crawling along on all fours. "There is no question about not crossing this ledge! So quit whining about wanting to go home!", I shouted at my inner voice.

Made it across that fiendishly scary ledge. Alas, the mountain goat was the last mammal I was to see on that day. What transipired to turn this adventure into a nightmare was something else totally unexpected.

Dark clouds had gathered, and a mist had suddenly descended upon me. Visibility was reduced to 10-m at most. And can somebody turn off that woo-woo-woo sound. I can't even hear myself anymore. Its 3pm, and 4 terrifying hours were to pass before I could take another picture.

The heavens soon opened up, and rain fell hard on me. Here I was stranded up on the topmost mountain ridge, in a valiant attempt to crawl my way to Baxter Peak, and the deadly combination of rain, mist and wind are trying to thwart my bid.

Then it happened. A flash lighted up the entire expanse of the mountain range, as far and and wide as the eye could see. This was no longer just a silly rainstorm. It was a thunderstorm, of the biblical proportion. Sometimes the things you learnt in school could save your life. I learnt that the higher up and the more exposed you are up on a mountain ridge, the more likely you are to be struck by lightning. The first thing i did was to scramble off the ridge. Fear of falling? That was so yesterday. I was precipitating from the fear of being struck by lightning even as I was being drenched by the pouring rain.

As luck would have it, the part of the ridge where I was caught gave me more room to maneuver around, and I could at least pick the widest ledge on which to set up my tent-- which consists basically of just the ground sheet covering me. The ledge even had a sort of a V-shape hull to it, where I can lie my entire body down, shielding me somewhat from the fierce winds. But I was beginning to shiver already.

So I had to make sure that the openings of the ground sheet was sealed securely--either with my limbs or by stuffing it frantically through the rocks. It was a rather fragile, but not exactly futile attempt. Sometimes the winds would flay one side open, and I had to scramble to close that gap. I felt like the Dutch boy who had to plug the gaping holes with his fingers when the dyke broke. When I finally settled down, I could barely hear myself panting from the exertions. The winds were still howling outside.

I was still shivering, but no longer uncontrollably. Any unnecessary movements would have me shivering all over again. So with my 4 limbs sealing off the ground sheet against the rocks around me, I was contorted into a rather uncomfortable position lying in the V-shape ledge. Economy of movement is of utmost importance here. Be still, be still, I keep telling myself.

Then it happened again. This time I felt somebody light up a blinding flash inside my groundsheet. I was counting aloud now, "one thousand, two thousand, three thousand....", till I came to 12, before the thunder finally roared. Mathematical calculations were racing across my mind. If sound were to travel at the speed of 330m/s and light at 300000000 m/s....ah...fuck it, let's assume speed of light to be infinite far away is the actual lightning storm from me?" About 4km. I was hugely relieved as of now.

The next flash came soon after. I counted again, and each time I counted, I realised the storm was getting nearer and nearer. Like a soldier hunkering inside a trench, with enemy shells exploding all over me, I was wondering when would the next flash be intended for me. The crack of the thunder became even more intense. My ears were prickling, working on overdrive, straining to hear where the sound came from. I need not have bothered. The crack was evidently right in front of me, but the sound reveberated throughout the peaks. So a roar actually diffused into a chain of echos that reverberated all around me and disappeared towards my back. The storm was coming from the front. It was a surround sound system any Omnimax theatre would have been proud of.

I could feel the clouds marching ominously towards me. Fear turned to anger, and I tore open my ground sheet, looked skywards, and came face to face with the storm clouds. Dark and imposing, they were Sauron's troops hunting for hobbits along the mountain ridges, and I was shielded from their methodical gaze by my magic blanket. Lightning struck, and the thunder rang so loud inside my ears. I had run out of space-time to count the "thousands". I thought this was it. Ok, how does it feel to be dead? Maybe it wont be so bad. I would be immediately delivered from my agony now, and I could just fly away from here, fly to wherever I want to go. Thoughts of my family back in Singapore, and how I would now be just another statistic on Mount Katahdin made me feel like a damn fool. Wait. I was still breathing, nothing was burning. They must have struck another peak. I was cowering underneath my groundsheet, and had no idea where it struck. It could easily have been for me. I was now playing a game of Russian roulette with the thunderstorm. About a dozen, maybe 2 dozen peaks. I am astride between 2 of them. Who'll insure me now? Perhaps the risk-loving executives at AIG.

At this point, I was already soaked to the bone, and the cruel irony was I was getting extremely thirsty. I thought I may have to camp up here for the rest of the night, and knew I could go without food for a few days, but not without water. The ground sheet began to sink with the weight of rain water collecting on its top. I was not going to let them go to waste, and began to drink the water off the sheet. I clumsily spilled some onto the ground, but what the heck. I stooped down to clear the water that collected on the rocks. I'll worry about the ringworms later.

I had my watch with me. Tick tock tick tock, it had been like 2 hours, but the rain was relentless. Thunder cracked again. This time the sound reveberated from back to front now. I heaved a sigh of relief. The storm had passed behind me. Possibly the worst is over? I shouted with glee, the worst is over! The worst is over! And uttered some expletives, something to the tune of "fuck you storm". Maybe it was my imagination, but the mountains returned the echoes of my curses.

7pm. The rain had eased into a drizzle. The mist had parted to reveal what was a ethereal sight in front of me. I could almost see the whole of the basin that drains the mountain rivers to the ocean. For a moment I allowed myself to weep. I thought I had never seen something so achingly beautiful before. I could die contented right here.


Taking advantage of the lull, I tot I should snap some photos for keepsake should i make it back alive and well. In spite of the cold, I proceeded to take the only exposed part of my "tent", which was the dreaded fall-off from the V-shaped ledge.

I began to decamp (aka stuffed the groundsheet into the bag) and continue my trek on Knife Edge. But I began to shiver badly again, with the high winds threatening to blow me off the ridge. Fear of hypothermia set in. In fact, hypothermia claims more victims on mountain-top accidents. This could not do--I had to wait out the winds. I set up camp again, trying to shield myself from the wind. I lay on another crevice for a while. It felt warm and cosy. I was drifting to sleep. But there was something wrong with this crevice, comfortable though it felt to me. It felt too much like a grave--my grave. Now came another momentous decision. Should I or should I not camp here? What if I were to be found dead here? Reduced to curling up like a fetus hugging a bag of rotten stinking carrots for food. Or I could end up as the next ice-age man a million years from now. Not appealing at all. Morever, I had the stinking suspicion that my shivering and shaking were just a dirty excuse by the lazy self not to push hard for the summit. So I tell myself, if I were to die, I had better die trying to get to the summit, rather than lying inside what amounts to a very probable early grave for me. My new rallying cry: If you must die, die with dignity!

So I packed up (this time I left the pack of carrots behind, whose stench were to stain my raincoat and bag for an entire week) and forged ahead. This time, I no longer crawled. I skipped, I rushed, I jumped, I hopped--all in the furious attempt to get to the summit. It seemed neverending, all these rocks and boulders that I had to traversed. But looking back, I'm sure it was psychological. The uncertainties of your destination always make your journey seem that much longer. Actually in a short while, a little under 1 hour, I finally reached the summit. So I had proven right that the shivering were just an excuse not to do climb the last stretch of the trail. I actually had enough body heat in me to come all the way up here. It was 8pm by then.

Katahdin. The real summit. The end of the Appalachian trail. The holy grail.

As promised, the way down from the summit proved to be much gentler. It consist of a vast area of almost flat and desolate terrain they call the tableland. It was one of the very few tundra landscapes existing in USA, so there were lots of efforts put into trying to conserve the Artic flora up here. I was spellbound by the utter beauty of it all. The delicate and tender light of the moon had once again lighted up a very beautiful path for me to follow. For a while, I just stood there, contemplating in reverential silence at the solitude of the land.


Anyway, my hopes of getting back safely to base camp were dashed. The tableland falls off rather abruptly towards the edge. There was no way i could attempt to climb down at night in wet and slippery conditions ( I had slipped a few times while walking on flat land). So, I decided to spend a night up here on top of Mount Katahdin. Later around 2am, an ever fiercer storm hit Katahdin, but I was too jaded and tired to care anymore. Worried though I was, I thought I had played up my chances of being hit by lightning too much. Airplane flights do hit periods of turbulence, but the probability of a plane crash is still rather too remote. In fact, I was unable to proceed all the way till around 7am the next day, when the storm gave way to an incessant drizzle, and lastly to the morning mist. But since I am penning this entry right now, it's just another case of all's well that ends well.

But I'm not proud to say that a search party was underway in the morning looking for me. They had this system of requiring all hikers to sign out prior to embarking on the mountain trail, and signing in again upon return. The rangers would cross-check with each other across all the different check-points to confirm all hikers were safely back by evening. So when I failed to sign back in that evening, they already knew there was someone trapped up there in the mountains.


Next morning. Tom the ranger who "rescued" me. We were mighty relieved to see each other, perhaps me more than him. He has a youthfulness which belies his 40 years of age. Amazing. The mythical elixir of youth must be flowing through these mountains. Ever gregarious, he shared with me his adventures up in the mountains, down in the rapids, and his first love--fly fishing, and how he was so relieved not to have to call up the Coast Guards for yet another missing hiker (about a dozen a year, it seems.) I was apologising profusely for having wasted their precious time and resouces due to recklessness on my part. But he would have none of it and stated firmly, "This is our job. This is what we rangers do." Anyway it just goes to show the critical importance of staying on the trails. As long as you stay on the trails, the rangers will be bound to find you.

A write-up about Katahdin via Knife Edge in one of the guides I was to find only later. Would I then have attempted the Knife Edge after reading this? I have no idea, but my friend thinks that words like "most dangerous" and "extreme exposure" and "many fatalities" would, instead of discouraging me, only spur me on. Maybe he's right. And I have a strange feeling that my story with the mountains is not over yet. The heartbreaking beauty of the mountains may once again lure me up there. Some day.