Women with Altitude

North Country Books, 2005 Softcover, 308 pages, $19.95
North Country Books, 2005
Softcover, 308 pages, $19.95

Everyone in the North Country knows an aspiring 46er or soon learns to recognize one: firm calves, purposeful expression and a lofty to-do list. Forty-Sixers earn the title, of course, by climbing all of the Adirondack High Peaks, most of which top 4,000 feet. The Adirondack Forty- Sixers organization, established in the 1930s, records more than 5,500 members. Less numerous are the winter 46ers, those who scale the peaks while everyone else is curled up in front of the fireplace; rarer still are the female winter 46ers.

As of March 2001 (when the logbooks atop the trailless peaks were removed per state regulations), only 36 women had completed the challenge. The personal stories and trail journals of 33 of these women have been compiled by Carol Stone White, who completed her winter 46 in 1997 at the age of 56.

Much of the material in Women with Altitude is pulled from correspondence between the climbers and Grace Hudowalski, who was historian of the Forty-Sixers for half a century. The picture of Grace shows a slender-waisted woman wearing a plaid shirt over a prim blouse; there’s mountain wind in her neat curls, and her eyes gaze out at a distant peak. Grace, who died in 2004 at 98, was the first woman to complete the 46 in 1937, and she was a guiding spirit for many of the women in this book. She received their blustery reports and sent back encouragement and advice.

One might open this book expecting to meet a collection of muscle-bound superbeings who eat nails for breakfast. But while some of the women are highly accomplished in other athletic pursuits, most are striking for the fact that, other than climbing New York’s highest mountains in the dead of winter, they seem like very ordinary women. There are teachers, stay-at-home moms and factory workers among them. Barb Harris is a Mary Kay sales director who climbed her first High Peak to prove she wasn’t too old to do so. Susan Omohundro grew up in a “totally sedentary family” from the flatlands of Michigan and describes herself, before hiking, as “a mildly anorexic, cigarette-smoking, couch-potato bookworm.”

Carol Stone White
Carol Stone White

There are several grandmothers among the group; Elsie Chrenko, the first woman to complete the winter 46, was 65 when she finished her third winter round. Many of them describe climbing as a way to sooth some personal wound —divorce, eating disorders, infertility, cancer. Some find more than toned muscles on the trail—10 of the 33 women in the book record meeting their spouse on a climb or in their outing club.

If the women don’t come off as extraordinary, their accomplishments do. Barb Harris managed to check off all 46 High Peaks on day trips, including the 40-mile round trip to Allen. “The last two miles were a death march. …We got out at 9:30 p.m. I had been up for twenty-four hours and hiked for seventeen of those hours. BUT I GOT ALLEN!”

Many, though, discover the pleasure of sleeping out in the winter wilderness. “The most beautiful place we have tented,” writes Chai-Kyou Mallinson, “was on the top of Allen, which is not permissible outside the winter months. The snow was so deep and dry that it felt like a feather bed under our sleeping bags.”

Diane Duggento Sawyer, a math teacher from New Hampshire, lingers over the details that give her comfort in camp. She emphasizes the importance of bathing every night in warm water and likes “to cook in the vestibule [of the tent] and always have hot drinks. We put two canteens of hot water in bed with us. We’re always toasty—even once at 50 below. We bury water [in the snow] near the tent so that it won’t freeze. We have favorite things to eat that help keep the spirits and energy up.” It’s hard to imagine Pop Tarts, hot Jell-O and warm Tang lifting the spirits, but dessert (brownies and hot chocolate with a shot of brandy) and the general pace of the couple’s trips sound rather luxurious: “After supper at 4:30, I snuggled down in my bag with my two canteens filled with hot water and read for a couple of hours before dropping off to sleep.”

Of course, comfort is relative, and Sawyer still managed to freeze her own eyeballs in the course of her winter adventures. “I can’t imagine how!” she quips breezily. “Try forty to fifty below in Maine or howling wind and blowing snow, ice collecting on your face as you hike for ten hours.” The resulting condition, ocular rosacea, now limits her exposure to wind, cold and sun.

Susan Omohundro
Susan Omohundro

Winter itself becomes a character in several of these reports. Freezing conditions, deep snow or gale-force winds can turn a hike from challenging to life threatening. On a late afternoon in February of 1999, Marian Zimmerman and her hiking companion were climbing Saddleback when, close to the summit, they found the trail filmed with ice. They spent a nail-biting hour working their way around the summit, looking for a better path. They were within 20 feet of the top, but found the last stretch impassible. Reluctantly, they turned around to head back down the mountain. Just then, Zimmerman slipped and plunged 60 feet down a rocky outcrop. She remembers little of what happened next.

“What I knew,” she writes in an understated way echoed throughout her account, “was that I was not going to be walking out.” Her friend descended for help, leaving her in the care of two hikers who were camping in the col between Basin and Saddleback, a quarter-mile from where she fell.

Zimmerman remembers that her caretakers, Maciek Domanski and Arkadiusz Paskowski, “stayed up the entire night heating tea to keep me hydrated and warm … they talked constantly to keep awake. In my fog I thought that my French had really gotten away from me, for I didn’t understand anything they were saying! I realized later they were speaking Polish!” The next morning, Zimmerman was airlifted to an emergency room; her extensive injuries required several surgeries and months of convalescence. Still, she was back in the High Peaks by the next season and summited her nemesis, Saddleback, before the year was out. Two months later she checked off South Dix and Hough on a “reunion hike” with the two men who rescued her.

Jeanne Sternbergh
Jeanne Sternbergh

Aside from a few hairy highlights like Zimmerman’s, the trail journals tend to run together into a slurry of spruce holes and rime ice; not all the writing sparkles as brightly as the snow does, and sometimes it bogs down heavily. The book would have been stronger—and slimmer—with more vigorous editing of these 33 rather similar accounts. But at its heart is an important question: Why do we climb mountains—and in winter, no less? We live in a culture that feels strongly entitled to comfort. Why should we leave our cozy homes before dawn to risk exhaustion, chilblains, frozen eyeballs or worse?

Buried in these women’s reports are some of their surprising answers: To feel closer to God. To experience communion with another human being. To outrun the shadows of loneliness and grief. To discover they are stronger and tougher than they ever imagined. It seems that none of them started to climb in pursuit of these interior transformations, but for many, the epiphanies were the rewards that kept them going. In their stories we recognize something rich about struggling toward, suffering for and accomplishing a difficult goal, something that is bigger than putting one foot in front of the other, but perhaps just as simple.