A Clouded Peak


Winding ever on and ever upward, moving through trees and bramble and over all sorts of rocks, passing through one micro-ecosystem after another, listening intently to the body’s intuition for changing conditions — trail runners search for one seemingly elusive goal. It’s there and they know the summit can be reached — but what can be said for the trip?

A new challenge lies in how far hikers are able to push themselves with the environment. Last month, Phillip Kreycik ’06 and his MIT-based team set a new standard for outdoor competition in New Hampshire’s 19-mile Presidential Range relay race — by individually running the course in its entirety and by outrunning the next closest team by thirty minutes. Trail running is not necessarily about time, but it exposes the importance of focused awareness on many levels.

In addition to the incredible physical determination and conditioning necessary, variable environmental challenges are present in a way uncharacteristic of many other sports. Over the course of tens of miles through the wilderness (though the Whites are arguably tame) and several thousand feet of elevation gain, much is uncertain. There is a sense that outdoor gurus are able to fashion anything out of materials at hand — up to and including a stretcher — and an essential preparedness should not be overlooked as a skill critical to survival.

from wikimedia commons
courtesy wikimedia commons

So what things merit a spot in your weight-conscious pack? Photos for their sentimental value? Cotton garments for their American ties? The DVD player with that last season of The Office (I wish Andy would get with Erin already)? Of course, hikers readily identify all of these things as lacking practical utility. But, when speed and comfort become functions of what you carry, suddenly the line between critical survival items and extraneous luxuries is not so clear-cut. “Survival items” also carries a distorting connotation, for what a person can use to survive is not something that can be definitively outlined — unless of course that outline is of a jigsaw piece. The point is not to subject oneself to situations where survival is the goal, but to preempt these possibilities and maintain a certain consciousness that bridges the gaps between textbook medical knowledge, the dynamic environment, and one’s own physical well being. Running trails demands this self-check to be instantaneous, accurate, and ongoing.

The emergence of trail running by no means diminishes the exploratory experience of the woods. Both physical and mental activity are veritably heightened, but the process of discovery that has inspired some of history’s finest commands a presence arguably above all else. With fleeting moments of exposure, each scene passes with a newfound intensity: a fern, a birch, a bird, a bear? — no, a rock, a board, a vista, a shoe sunk in the mud — wait. Still, the ostensible goal of reaching the summit provides a focal point for the lens through which the runner sees these things. In essence, the trees, the rocks, and the bears all push the runner onwards and in retrospect are collectively part of the reason his pursuit was successful. What would be the value of running trails if the surrounding environment did not impact the experience?

Graupel is something that can do just that. Enjoying a brisk November afternoon just east of the Prezies in the White Mountains, fellow hikers bushwhacked closer to the summit. The trees thinned, the trail steepened and the wind began to pick up on the mountain face–the peak was at hand. Feasible, though increasingly illusory, the summit attracted a storm cloud that covered the upper ledges of the trail. Climbing onward into a newly mystified space, the hikers marveled at the wonderful unpredictability of nature. The peak came to meet the hikers with an equal feeling of satisfaction and saturated storm cloud unleashed graupel.

Graupel is the German word for soft hail — a type of precipitation that can be chemically explained with theories by supercooling and crystallization, but essentially was equivalent to a rain storm of dippin’ dots. The graupel softened the already peaceful scene, adding a layer of warmth to the accomplishment of the summit. All unanticipated, the moment on the summit captured pure serenity, if only for a fleeting instant. Turning back down into the wilderness, the trail runners shifted their target to the trailhead, while keeping that momentary glimpse of wonder in the forefront of their minds.

The inexplicable bond with nature drives trail runners onward. If you were to ask someone why she runs through mountains, her first response would be an instinctive smile. Part of the drive comes from the elusive, mystical shroud of mountain summits — but a larger share rests with the prospect of discovering that summit in a new way, perhaps even covered with something as simple as graupel.

Arthur Bartolozzi ’12 (abartol@fas) can be found speeding up and down mountains.