By Wayne Masters.
“Dad, look at this one. It’s as tall as I am. Put my hat on it and stand next to it so I can take a picture.”
“Even better,” I said, “I’ll drape your poncho on it, too. We can tell people it was so cold you turned to stone.”
She laughed and got out her camera, as I stood with my arm around the cairn thinking what a joy it was to share something so wondrous to me with my daughter. It was her first time above the tree line, and she, at age eleven, was fascinated with the cairns. Not surprising since this was the child that always had to know the number on every chair we rode to the top of a ski slope. Annie and I were on an adventure – a father and daughter hike across the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Headed for the AMC hut at the Lake-of-the-Clouds; looking forward to a hot meal and a bunk for the night.
The next morning found us climbing up the “rock pile,” a hiker’s term for the summit cone of Mt. Washington; a world of grey rock and splotches of green lichen. Occasionally we’d step on a “rocker,” our jargon for a rock slab that would teeter back and forth with a deep and resonant “thunk.” I always loved that sound – it was as if the mountain were a giant kettle drum. Our final destination for the day was the AMC hut on the side of Mt. Madison.
They claim you can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean from the top of Mt. Washington on a clear day. It was much too hazy for that when we reached the summit; unusually humid, I thought, for late summer. We toured the Weather Observatory, watched the Cog Railway trains arrive and depart with their steam-belching, coal fired locomotives, stocked up on gorp and snacks and headed for our next peak, Mt. Clay.
As we approached its summit, I remembered that I had neglected to check the daily forecast at the observatory. Greying skies to the west and a shift in the wind I suspect had jogged that thought to my consciousness. Soon we were enveloped in a thickening fog. Finding the next cairn was becoming more and more of a challenge. And then, suddenly, a blinding flash of light followed instantaneously by a thunderous “crack’” and the lingering smell of ozone! To be underneath a violent thunderstorm is frightening enough; to find oneself inside one – that brings a palpable sense of panic. I knew we had to get off the top of the ridge-line fast.
“Annie, hang on tight to the back of my pack, and follow me closely!” I shouted, trying not to sound as frightened as I felt.
Slowly we blindly descended off the trail, hopefully down the side of Mt. Clay and not over the edge of the Great Gulf. We paused only long enough to don our ponchos as torrents of rain lashed at us. Now I feared we might escape the lightening only to succumb to exposure as the temperature plummeted. All my years of climbing — how many times had I read that warning sign at the bottom of the trail: “..many have died here of exposure.” If only I had checked the forecast!
I stopped as I heard her quavering voice exclaim, “Dad, look over there.”
To our right, just visible through a break in the rain, was a large overhanging slab of rock forming a cave-like refuge.
“Any shelter in a storm,” I thought.
We scampered over and crawled underneath, just as another bolt sizzled through the air. It was a tight fit for the two of us, but remarkably dry underneath. The storm continued to rage about us, but we felt somewhat protected by that roof of rock and by staying dry; at least we were less likely to suffer from hypothermia. The decision to stay put was an easy one to make.
“Hey kid, good job finding these luxury accommodations. Those were some scary moments, are you okay?”
“Dad, I was so scared I had my eyes closed most of the time. Then I heard a sound like one of those rockers, and when I opened my eyes I was looking right at this spot.”
The storm abated somewhat, but it never cleared and shortly in the distance we could hear the next one advancing. This pattern repeated itself for the rest of the day. I concluded, reluctantly, that we were going to spend the night in our little cave.
One of Annie’s greatest qualities was her ability to adapt. She fished a magic marker out of her pack and decided our humble abode needed some aboriginal cave paintings on the ceiling. This was turning out to be quite the adventure. As night approached we bundled up in our sleeping bags and fed ourselves on gorp and tried not to think of what they were serving for supper at Madison Hut.
Surprisingly sleep came easily. Probably a comedown from the adrenaline rush we had both experienced. After the first few hours, though, I grew restless. Something kept waking me – a sound, a grinding sound – barely perceivable. At dawn a ray of sunlight lit our cavern, and the air was clear and dry. I nudged Annie, who yawned and stretched.
“How’d you sleep?” I asked.
“Okay at first Dad, but something kept waking me up.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t know, it was like a vibration. I thought maybe like a tremor at first. But it was too steady for that.”
As we packed up the sleeping bags, she asked, “Dad, do we have to go home or can we go on to Madison Hut?”
“Do you still want to?”
“Oh, yes! Besides I want to find out what they had for supper last night.”
“Well then grab your pack and let’s head out and pick up the trail.”
It was a beautiful morning! Clear, dry air that allowed you to see all the way across the range to our destination, Mt. Madison. We were in high spirits as we crossed the summit of Mt. Adams and then, suddenly, Annie stopped dead in her tracks.
“Daaadd!” The terror in her voice was unmistakable! I looked all around and saw nothing threatening.
“Annie, what is it?”
“That cairn … it’s, … it’s the same one from yesterday! The one when I took your picture!”
She was so convinced, she was actually trembling. I took her in my arms and tried to convince her that it just looked like the cairn from yesterday. I had to admit to myself, however, that it was an uncanny likeness. Annie dropped her pack and took out her camera.
“I’m going to take its picture, Dad, and when we get the film developed you’ll see it’s the same cairn, I just know it is.”
We gave it a wide berth and then continued on down the trail to Madison Hut. I could tell at supper that Annie was still spooked by the encounter. She was quiet and barely touched her food. I felt discouraged that our adventure was ending on such an upsetting note.
As is common in the huts, after supper we sat around a table and swapped stories with some of the other hikers. One lone hiker was in his eighties and still trekking. He must have seemed grandfatherly to Annie, because he was able to draw her out and encouraged her to tell him about her first experience on the range. She related our adventure in the storm and then to my surprise unburdened her fearful thoughts about what she referred to as “the stalking cairn.”
He smiled and said softly, “Perhaps it was your guardian.”
“What,” she said. “My what? My guardian? I don’t understand.”
“Well, young lady, there has always been a legend about the cairns here on the range. Some people believe they may contain… spirits.”
Her eyes widened, “Spirits!”
“Well no one can say for sure, but the legend claims that the spirit of a departed climber may come back to rest in a cairn so as to keep watch over the hikers that walk these trails; to watch out for their safety … to be their guardian. It may be that your ‘stalking cairn’ was really trying to find you in the storm and show you the way to safety.”
I could sense she was having the same thoughts I had – that grinding sound, those vibrations, the sound of that “rocker” that made her open her eyes and spot our sanctuary. Our adventure was taking on a mysterious aura.
We descended the next day and headed home. Before arriving at our house Annie insisted we stop at the camera store and leave her film for development. She cajoled the clerk into promising it would be ready early the next day.
That morning I picked up the pictures and brought them home unopened. I must admit, I was now as curious as to what they might reveal as Annie was. She opened the envelope nervously and laid out the photos. All presented clear and sharp images except for two – which were completely black!
She sighed, her suspicions now confirmed, turned to me and said, “I want to go back next year, Dad, and bring some flowers for my guardian.”
WAYNE MASTERS is a retired high school teacher with time on his hands who enjoys spinning yarns around a campfire for his grandchildren.