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On Becoming a Mountain Steward

[An abridged version of this essay appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 61, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

Laura and Guy Waterman are pictured here on the Franconia Ridge in New England's Presidential Range during the mid-1980s, when they were very involved with trail work under the Appalachian Mountain Club's adopt-a-trail program. We and some of our trail work friends had recently placed those rocks at the head of Walker Ravine in an attempt to reinforce the drainage and stabilize the trail, she told Alpinist. [Photo] Waterman family collection

Laura and Guy Waterman are pictured here on Franconia Ridge in New England’s Presidential Range during the mid-1980s, when they were very involved with trail work under the Appalachian Mountain Club’s adopt-a-trail program. “We and some of our trail work friends had recently placed those rocks at the head of Walker Ravine in an attempt to reinforce the drainage and stabilize the trail,” she told Alpinist. [Photo] Waterman family collection

There is nevertheless a certain respect, a general duty of humanity, that ties us, not only to beasts that have life and sense, but even to trees and plants. –Michel de Montaigne, “Of Cruelty,” Essays (1580)

The best in nature, like the best in art is sacred. Look upon it respectfully, reverentially, or not at all. Even the wild beasts know that much. –Joaquin Miller, “Game Regions of the Upper Sacramento” (1888)

I WAS NOT HELD A WILLING CAPTIVE, or mesmerized, or intoxicated by mountains until I’d reached my late twenties. It was a fresh autumn day in 1969, on a beginners’ climbing weekend, that I was blindsided by the gleaming white and grey quartz conglomerate of Shawangunks rock. I stood at the base of a seemingly infinite line of cliffs that arched and angled away above the trees into the brightening sky. I was here to climb!

A year earlier, I’d joined the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and learned about a landscape in the White Mountains above the treeline, an alpine zone that supported a mountaintop garden of small shrubs and flowering plants, called lawns or meadows. Great open spaces that the wind keeps mowed, perpetually open to the sky, they burst in mid-June into a lavish display of pinks, magentas and whites. The Presidential Range encompasses eight square miles of alpine tundra, the largest swath south of Canada and east of the Rockies. The six northern peaks of the range are all above 5,000 feet, and the path from peak to peak is along a broad, undulating ridge, a rounded crest that the glaciers–only their scour marks left now–ground down from Himalayan height 11,000 years ago. Alpine azaleas, pink blossoms against tiny evergreen leaves, spread out like a mat over the rocks. The mountain avens bloom large and bright as a buttercup. Robbins’ or dwarf cinquefoil is found only on Agiocochook, the Abenaki name for Mt. Washington, and the airy, narrow Franconia Ridge to the west. The entire plant is about the size of a bottle cap, its yellow petals a quarter-inch across. These flowers shelter among rocks that are themselves colorful with lichens in muted grey, pale green and eye-catching orange. Rocky and exposed to the Presidentials’ famous winds, the summits are bare and full of hazards in fog and storm. But they also afford breathtaking views of cloud-swept ridges and cool forests in summer; in winter, the peaks are buried with ice and snow.

During the late 1960s, the AMC’s Huts Committee revealed their plan to build a mountain hut at Sphinx Col, the saddle between the two rolling uplifts of Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Clay. The AMC’s hut system had come fully to life in the 1930s, a time when only a few hikers visited the chain of primitive structures that served meals and provided shelter. This new hut seemed to me a marvelous undertaking. I knew very little about the mountains then, and I only saw this building as a convenience for my own interest in exploring the alpine terrain.

On my Gunks weekends, I quickly became aware that climbers from the AMC’s New York Chapter were vociferously against the new hut. The AMC already had two huts, my new friends pointed out, not more than eight miles apart, at either end of the Presidentials. The proposed third hut would be located smack in the middle of the range.

“Damn AMC!” these climbers growled. “Those plants can’t survive such trampling. Sacrilege!”

Fortunately, the AMC’s management abandoned plans to erect a mountain hut at Sphinx Col. I was learning that some hikers and climbers saw any building as a danger to the alpine terrain, as well as an intrusion on the wildness: a civilizing influence that had no place in the mountains. I was beginning to understand that enclosed structures in the wild can separate us from the place itself, and that the mountains would be better served with simple, open, three-sided shelters or campsites in the charge of caretakers. For the huts that already exist, I realized, their best use is to provide educational opportunities for newcomers to wild land–as I was then.

Meanwhile, through climbing, I was developing an awareness of my body in space: the way my callused fingertips grew sensitive to the myriad changing textures of the rock and how my own harsh breath filled my lungs as I encountered a hard move; then the release of tension and surge of well-being as I climbed higher and became a part of the rush of a raven’s wing, the shadows as a cloud dimmed the light, the first drops of summer rain. This is contact!

On Shawangunks rock, I’d found myself in another wild sanctuary that immersed me deep into the natural world. And as I got to know the community of climbers there, I began to comprehend what it could mean to be a mountain steward, a defender of wildlife, plants and rocks–and, of the wildness, that intangible ingredient that made my experiences seem so precious and rare.

DURING THE LATE 1960s, the backpacking boom was in full swing, and the hiking population had increased to the point that hikers were eroding trails, crowding campsites, polluting streams, and wearing braided paths into alpine tundra. Staffs at trail clubs and public agencies attempted to mitigate the damage with education and trail reconstruction. “Carry In/ Carry Out” and “What If We All Built Fires?” were the slogans of the day. Gradually, the backpacking crowd started to pack out their trash and buy small portable stoves or use only downed and dead wood for campfires. Most hikers learned to stick to one defined path or to rock-hop if they wanted to leave the trail, thus decreasing damage to alpine vegetation.

In the US, Yosemite climbers saw that the repeated action of banging in and removing pitons ate away the edges of the rock, and they practiced how to protect themselves with artificial chockstones or nuts that they could slot into the cracks with their fingers. They called this method “clean climbing.” By the early 1970s, at the Shawangunks, top climber John Stannard drew our attention to how pitons were wearing away the edges of local rock as well. Dick Williams, guidebook writer and founder of the climbing store, Rock and Snow, placed a notebook on his counter in which climbers could log their “all-nuts ascents.” The race was on! Every Gunks climber responded to this challenge, and within a year the ringing sound of a hammer on a metal piton was rarely heard at the cliffs.

These actions of backpackers and climbers around the nation–nothing short of a revolution–were in tune with a heightened environmental awareness generated by the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. Our eyes were opened to our own impacts, and we could not look the other way. Among the particularly glaring signs at the Gunks, multiplying paths now led from the highway through a short strip of woods to the carriage road that circled the privately owned cliffs. The Mohonk Preserve, taking responsibility for its land, invited the AMC’s professional trail crew to give instruction in the art of building a rock staircase. As a result, most of us climbers gave up our precious weekend climbing time. But we drew some satisfaction from moving big rocks with a rock bar: an effort that seemed to take the same physical precision and mental calculation as executing a difficult move. The result was a single path that could withstand heavy use. We’d sweated together building this, and we’d learned something new about giving back.

BY 1973 I’D MARRIED one of those Shawangunks climbers, a man named Guy Waterman, and we gave up the life of New York commuters for one of homesteading in rural Vermont. The motivating idea was to arrange our lives so that we had maximum time for climbing. Because we spent so much time in the woods and hills, however, we were constantly in touch with issues of environmental concern. And by the mid-1970s we’d reinvented our skills as writers and editors honed in New York offices to become advocates in the cause of mountains. In a monthly column for a Boston-based magazine called New England Outdoors, we discussed issues that troubled us. For instance, we’d noticed how the growth in hiking led to a rise in accidents, which in turn led to a demand for even more infrastructure. In the White Mountains, rescues were frequently carried out under the auspices of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the college-age kids who staffed the huts were often first on the scene. During the late 1970s, an accident occurred near the Carter Notch Hut, and the victim had to be littered down the 3.8 miles of rocky mountain trail from the hut at night. After the incident, the AMC’s Huts Committee proposed building a helicopter pad in the notch for the ease of rescues. This plan involved decapitating some boulders and daubing concrete here and there to create a suitably flat surface.

Just north of the Presidential Range, Carter Notch is a boulder field situated between the rounded shoulders of the Wildcats and Carter Dome. Some of the rocks are of house-sized proportions. In 1959, as a camp counselor, I’d led my campers up those 3.8 miles to the hut. We went swimming in the frigid waters of the ponds, and after supper, the hutmen–no women then–escorted us onto those boulders, where we sat in the evening shade of the looming massifs and watched as the remaining daylight crept toward their summits.

The dusk settled deeper into the notch, and the boulders themselves took on the silent presence of eternal sentinels, compelling us, as they lost substance, to gaze out through the V-shaped notch while the lights of the faraway town of Berlin pinpricked the darkened valley. Our conversation turned to the separation between the inhabitants of those stuffy houses and the place where we were, perched atop these boulders that had been shaken from the mountain at the beginning of time. The sky above revealed the stars as the air cooled and the breezes drifted aimless and free. That exhilarating hour among the everlasting boulders of Carter Notch must have been the initial spark that later, at the Gunks, ignited my love of mountains.

Guy, at that time, was on the AMC committee that had come up with this idea of the helicopter pad. It quickly became controversial, with the pro-pad forces led by the helicopter pilot. We had heard from a hut crew member–an inside source–of a certain rare plant that grew only in that boulder field, and we alerted a botanist to the possibility of using this plant to block the pad. “Your snail darter,” sneered the pro-pad forces referring to a then-recent victory achieved by the Sierra Club. Land managers with the White Mountain National Forest stepped forward and pointed out that the AMC did not have the authority to knock over boulders. The club’s plan would have to be approved by the forest supervisor and accompanied by an environmental impact statement. As Guy and I later recalled in Wilderness Ethics, we put our column at the service of the boulders, but we were uncertain how the AMC committee’s vote would go. We thought it might be close. Fortunately, a vote of 11 to 1 permitted this rock pile–which had stirred the sensibilities of one teenage girl so long ago–to continue to exert its mute power over others who might seek its wondrous company.

EVERY GENERATION OF CLIMBERS has to face their own impacts, and the rise of sport climbing soon led to new kinds of conversations. Before the proliferation of bolted routes, the few people who climbed at Rumney, New Hampshire, encountered quiet cliffs in a green untrammeled forest.

On a trip there in the early 1990s, when I first looked up at a line of bolts next to a perfectly good crack, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. When I returned about a decade later, this accessible cliff had become so popular that there was a rabbit warren of paths to the base and trampling of vegetation where the climbers clustered to belay. Trad climbers who’d tried to combat the bolting eventually bowed to the new local ethics or stayed away.

In 2005 the US Forest Service–the primary authority responsible for the land’s health–drew up a plan that included directions for climbing management. They ran into the problem that what worked for all other climbing areas in the White Mountain National Forest didn’t for Rumney: most of the walls there were too devoid of cracks for climbers to rely solely on natural protection, and the Forest Service did not want to close the area to climbing. With the help of the Access Fund, climbers and managers came together in a series of meetings. By 2008 the two groups had worked out a unique management approach. It allowed the climbers to install fixed protection, that is, to continue bolting, and in turn, the climbers agreed to work with the Forest Service trail crews to construct rock steps to the base of the cliffs and harden the staging areas to concentrate their presence, minimizing their impacts on the surrounding vegetation.

These Rumney climbers wanted to keep their access to the cliffs open, and they were willing to help protect the land itself in order to do so. In fact, for reasons of safety as well as environmental and aesthetic impact, they have governed their own actions and striven to keep a reasonable distance between bolted routes. To some of the climbers who come to real rocks by way of indoor walls, the learning curve can be steep; but it also has the power to change lives. Places like Rumney can now serve as entry points to the outdoors–and inspire an ethic of stewardship that can help grow a constituency of future conservationists.

TODAY, we have a new reminder of our responsibility to turn ourselves into watchful guardians: the Cog Railway’s plan to erect a thirty-five-room luxury hotel 700 feet below the summit of Mt. Washington. This ill-considered proposal places the building in the midst of the fragile alpine zone. A number of conservation groups have banded together to fight this plan, among them the Appalachian Mountain Club, New Hampshire Audubon, Nature Conservancy, Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and Keep the Whites Wild, a newly formed group of climbers dedicated to halting this harmful construction. Traditional stories of the local Abenaki warn against commercial development on sacred sites such as this mountain. Paul Pouliot, Sag8mo (Council Chief) of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, states that if the project is approved by the county zoning board, “We will speak out stronger against it.”

Mt. Washington has had buildings of some sort since the first hotel was opened in 1852. There are no overnight accommodations now, though a welter of infrastructure covers the summit, including a weather observatory, a restaurant and a museum, as well as an ample parking lot, accessed by the Auto Road. Another building–especially one set off from the cluster on the top–would fracture still further any sense of wildness and cause irreparable harm to already heavily impacted tundra.

Back in 1869, the little cog-railed train, the first in the world, must have captured public appeal as it chugged picturesquely up the skyline, followed by business-like puffs of black smoke. The Cog’s management has responded to environmental cleanup efforts in recent years, principally and importantly by switching from coal power to cleaner-burning biodiesel fuel. Cog personnel engage in cleanup by removing debris from the sides of the tracks. Staff members have been supportive of the outdoor community by giving hikers free parking and access to trailheads near their base station.

So it’s a grave disappointment for the Cog to propose this luxury hotel that is so blatantly at odds with environmental values. The very act of construction would irretrievably damage many alpine plants. It would impact as well, the habitat of such rare birds as the American pipit, and two butterfly species, the White Mountain Arctic and the White Mountain Fritillary, found here and nowhere else. But the Cog Railway owns this land and can, according to the law, do what it wants with the plants and creatures on it. No snail darter will crawl to the rescue here!

Indeed, the proposed site might seem like a truly awe-inspiring place to erect a hotel. The alpine meadows nearby are rarely visited since no path currently goes there, though it is within one hundred yards of the Appalachian Trail, a national route set aside by Congress with its own protective requirements. Out of the orbit of the summit and visited by few hikers, this alpine spot carries a real feeling of wildness. The view through the windows of the proposed hotel would center on the Great Gulf Wilderness–also designated by Congress–renowned for its steep and rugged glacier-carved ravines that fall away into the forests. Tiny Spalding Lake, 2,000 feet below, gleams like the surface of a diamond. The Great Gulf headwall itself, bigger than either Tuckerman or Huntington Ravines and far more difficult to access, is favored by climbers and hikers alike for its remoteness and isolation.

In the tradition of adventure, on January 27, 1905, three men set out to climb the Great Gulf headwall, starting from the town of Gorham, six miles away from the trailhead. Each man, prominent in the AMC, had an instrumental role in building the precipitous trails out of the Great Gulf. It was well after the noon hour before they reached the base of the Great Gulf cirque. Above loomed the 1,800-foot headwall, draped in snow and ice. A storm had kicked up, and they exchanged snowshoes for ice-creepers–an early form of crampons. The labor of chopping steps spun the time away along with chunky bits of ice and crust that hissed down the slope. Long before they reached the rim, they overran the daylight, but, spirits high, they groped through the wind-driven swirl toward the Cog tracks and followed the rails to the summit. Taking refuge in one of the buildings, they consumed a dinner of crumbs from the lunch bag. Stopping only to remove their creepers, they pulled up a rug for a coverlet.

This spirit of climbing exhibited by these three doughty winter warriors is alive in the hills today. Its practitioners continue to reflect that impulse of adventure by climbing steep thin ice and making use of cold high winds to glory in the moment and to train for alpine peaks around the world. There are already enough human traces providing shelter in these mountains for them. A luxury hotel perched on the very edge of the Great Gulf would be visible to anyone climbing up out of the ravine. That structure, by its very presence, would banish much of the remaining sense of wildness, the quest for sanctuary, that here in the Northeast is precious beyond words because of the very small amount of wild land available.

If the Cog’s owners can be guided by a model of restraint, they have only to look to the AMC’s wise decision not to build a hut in Sphinx Col. They have only to look at the example of countless hikers and climbers who give up their treasured time for recreation to care for the trails and cliffs–and who, by their actions, remind us that this landscape needs to be protected, not just for our human enjoyment and for the replenishment of our spirits, but for the living creatures that call this place home.

IN 1980 GUY AND I JOINED the efforts of many other volunteers when we became adopters of the Franconia Ridge trail, through the Appalachian Mountain Club’s program. We made sure that not more than three weeks would go by without visiting the area. Often we followed the circuit of heading up the Old Bridle Path, working as we crossed the ridge, and descending the steep and rocky Falling Waters Trail–a nine-mile loop in a day. Just as often we stayed at Greenleaf Hut, located a mile below the summit of Mt. Lafayette, and then we could spend several days up on the ridge. In the evenings we often had the opportunity, under the AMC’s naturalist program, to talk to the hikers there about the alpine vegetation and the importance of its protection.

Our tasks on the ridge trail consisted of reconstructing cairns and building new ones, freshening paint blazes, cleaning waterbars, and clipping a small amount of brush where the trail dipped down into the scrub. With the Forest Service’s permission, we dragged dead brush up out of the krummholz. But our biggest and most constant job was a housekeeping task: replacing the small rocks that got dislodged from the scree walls and fell into the trail, back on the low walls again. These walls marked the edges of the path. They were meant to separate the hiker from the plants. The object of all this maintenance was to protect the plants. And it didn’t take long before we were, without being aware of it, turned into educators.

Picture this: a hiker sees two people bent double, tossing grapefruit-sized stones back onto a scree wall. He stops on a clump of mountain sandwort on the other side of the wall. “What are you doing?” he asks.

“If this your first time above treeline,” we offer, “you might be wondering how these plants adapt to living in this very harsh environment.”

The hiker looks down, sees he’s crunching the plants under his boots, and steps to our side of the wall.

“Yes, the plants can take the savage weather we get up here,” we say, “but they don’t like to be stepped on.” There is a brief flurry of mutual laughter. “That Labrador tea, for instance,” we reach over to a shrub with white flowers near the wall. “This leaf, you see how its edges are slightly curled?” We turn it over. “Look at these orange-brown hairs on the underneath side. They allow this plant to capture and hold moisture. That’s essential in a windy place.”

“But isn’t it wet enough up here?” the hiker asks.

“It rains a lot,” we say, “but it’s also extremely windy, and that desiccates the plants.” The hiker grins. We’re all wearing the necessary clothing. But since we’ve been working in the wind for hours, our rain jacket hoods are cinched around our eyebrows and our hands are well gloved. “Another useful survival strategy,” we go on, “is to grow together, in mats or clumps. See how these plants are gaining shelter this way?”

“It’s beautiful up here,” the hiker says. He looks around as though seeing for the first time the wonderful visual impression of these plants in bloom, the crimsons and pinks and whites, the varying forms of the flower structures, the leaves in shades of dark green, some shiny, almost waxy in appearance. “It’s like a garden,” he adds.

“These plants are very old,” we say. “Their life stories go back to the time we humans were first walking upright, but in a much warmer climate.” The hiker laughs as it’s anything but warm on this July day on the Franconia Ridge.

“So you’re protecting the plants,” he says. We enthusiastically nod. A raven swoops in and lands on a rocky crest above us. We all look up as the bird takes off in a great flap and a loud croak. “These plants are awesome,” the hiker says. “I didn’t know.” He turns to continue on the path, staying on inside of the scree wall border.

We resume our work, backs bent, tossing fist-sized rocks back on the low wall.

This scene is repeated in various scenarios all summer long in the alpine areas of the Northeast, from Maine’s Katahdin to Acadia National Park on the Atlantic coast, across New Hampshire’s White Mountains, on the alpine high points of Vermont’s Green Mountains, across Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks where the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Julia Goren runs an exemplary Summit Steward program that watches over 170 acres or .27 miles of alpine terrain that covers 21 summits. Most of the mountain clubs and public agencies have summit steward programs that hire college-age men and women who are trained to spread the educational message of just how precious these plants are and how vital it is to take care of them. Their intent is to spread the stewardship message.

I THINK BACK TO MY OWN PATH, my own journey of education to become the kind of person I want to be in the wild. As humans we seem to have difficulty taking the mountains on their terms, and I realize new threats to wildness will always crop up. We ourselves will slip back, grow complacent and lax about our own best behavior as campers, as hikers, as climbers. The path to safeguard wildness from ourselves is a constantly evolving process. With the passage of time, the issues may change, but more often it seems the same ones return. The work is never done.

Yet we are all on the path to becoming mountain stewards once we’ve been intoxicated by the beauty, by the health-giving qualities, by the restoration of our spirits that can happen when we go to the mountains. We are arriving closer to enlightenment when we’ve reached the point at which we want to give back for the privilege of being in all that alpine glory.

The ecstatic experience of being on a mountaintop, in a storm above treeline, in the presence of the song of the white-throated sparrow–or in any of a thousand ways that we can feel carried out of ourselves in the mountains–can be just a momentary escape. Or it can affect an alchemy that transforms our whole existence. Once again, in such instances, we morph to become a part of the places we love. Again, we promise ourselves to be vigilant to the imperative to maintain wildness.

Climbing since 1969, Laura Waterman and her husband Guy homesteaded in Vermont for three decades, maintaining a modest cash flow as writers about environmental concerns (Wilderness Ethics) and mountain history (Yankee Rock & Ice). Laura was the first woman to ascend the Black Dike on Cannon Cliff, back in 1975, when the route was higher, steeper, harder, and scarier. The American Alpine Club awarded the Watermans the David Brower Conservation Award in 2012.

[An abridged version of this essay appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 61, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]