When Old Man Winter Meets Old Man Speck
by Vincentoli Blanteev, your cybah-spaced mountain correspondent
“…un *#$&ing! believable!, absolutely un *#$&ing! believable!”….Marcus
“Woah…utterly the pure of the most pure survival!”…Novasch
“like what happened to you guys?”…McAnus, at Mt. Bigelow ’93
“…an epic of survival!”…Vincentoli, on the side of Mt. Carrigain
TEMP: -40 BELOW …yo… is that Celsius or Fahrenheit?
WIND: 40 MPH ….stiff breeze
SUPPLIES: EXHAUSTED from carrying them
CONDITIONS: VIRTUAL WHITEOUT pasty white
OPTIONS: NONE until the booze runs out
1993-1994 Old Speck Mountain, Maine
Straddling the border of NH and Maine, way up away from all the vacation crowd is the primier access point to the Mahoosuc range, Grafton Notch. The Appalachian Trail parking lot for this jewel of the White Mountains can be found somewhere on Rt. 26, a good drive north of Nowheresville, Maine and way south of Neverheardofit, NH. That’s real snow piling up on the windshield during a slow drive up. After slamming the rental car back down the snow packed lot, McAnus and Vincentoli hop out onto crackling snow. Real snow and lots of it. In the southeastern horizon lies rises the 4088-foot Old Speck Mountain, probably named by some poetic explorer who felt like a speck of dust while climbing it.
The snow is untouched and the nasty bitter cold weather is shaping up to be the best for wintah’ campin’ in years. The guys are totally pumped up about the expected conditions. No doubt about it, one step outside the car…and the trip is on. It’s getting colder too as Old Man Speck is fixing to pull the trigger real bad on these bunch of mountain trash in the woods. After a few lean years, winter has returned to New England with renewed strength.
For now, the grey, 15-degree weather hides signs of any impending storm, but the radio during the drive up was talking up some major storm trash. The duo bushwack not at all about 1/4 mile to find the famous Grafton Notch Shelter. Brought to us courtesy of the Maine AT Club. Nice guys, so we propose a toast or two. Several fine products of the NH State Liquor store were being sampled and critiqued when suddenly some gomer shows up with his kid. He explains how the kid’s mom is white trash, and “oh ya, by the way, so am I”. The kid is following right in dad’s footsteps with that Daisy BB gun he is a trying to nail anything that moves with it, while pretending to dad that he’s keepin’ busy by shootin’ up a beer can. Not that HAE cared, they were falling about the place, chopping and sawing up stuff while generally trashing out. That night sees McAnus and Vincentoli in the shelter with the gomer and gomer jr. McAnus snores up a storm so bad that Vincentoli watched in amazement as two “AT shelter mice” were unable to close in on McAnus’ bag of trail munchies he left on the shelter floor.
Marcus and Timur show up late the next day. “We don’t need no stinking Gomers!” proclaims Timur as he rationalizes to the unconvinced Vincentoli that the only possible course of action is to climb up a steep section of trail at the base of Old Speck. Over Vincentoli’s complaints the team lumbers up that section of trail and stops just above what turns out to be the last flowing water on the mountain. The weather up on this postage-stamp sized plateau was all New England. Windy, unsettled, a blustery 5 degrees with a cold steel grey sky that would test any one’s ability not to panic. Camp was Vincentoli in his tent slightly uphill of Marcus, Timur and McAnus under the green tarp.
Getting up with the bladder, the hike is on and it’s soon obvious that the only one who could possibly claim to have maybe even tried to be prepared was Vincentoli. He was the only one to go back down the trail to the watering hole, and also was successfully testing Power Bars in an actual uphill climbing with too heavy pack. The heavy pack was due to the packing not only the Bigtop tent, but also his survival tent. Novasch was also feeling the effects of overpacking as he was carrying the companion wood burning stove. And as usual, McAnus undoubtably had tons of useless supplies and equipment in his pack.
Halfway up the mountain the team is in trouble. Stopping due to the lack of water, Novasch starts melting snow with his stove. Just then, a big pack of what looked like peak bagging gomers blasts by eyeing us like we were a bunch of mountain trash or something. Hey, after all, how many times do yuppie day hiking wusses like them see 4 shady looking characters sitting around cooking snow? Later on, trouble is even more eminent when the same bunch of day hiking pussies are seen blasting back down the mountain with the fear of impending darkness driving their every step. By now hot water has made recovery possible so the pace is picked up on the recently well packed trail.
The peak is bagged. After a photo shoot, all things are now in place for “a half-assed moment in history.”
The moment arrives on the backside descent. As soon as the trail leads the bone-tired hikers down the back side of the peak, north woods panic syndrome starts to creep into voices. Everyone is way tired and dehydrated from the brutal uphill. The trail is becoming increasingly difficult as it brought the hikers quickly out of the shelter of midget trees and bushes. Rapidly dropping temperatures and sunlight was mixed with a continuously increasing howling wind and blasting ice that shredded bare skin on contact.
Visibility dropped to near zero and you had to yell into an ear in order to be heard. Under these total whiteout conditions the pace slowed to less than a crawl. Vincentoli was trailing, with McAnus in front of him, then Marcus with Timur up front, when Vincentoli watched in horror as all three seemed to disappear over a cliff.
Vincentoli recalls, “It was utter-most-nothingness and fear. I dropped my pack and moved forward in the swirling darkness. I never saw what happened to those guys, but my frozen brain was telling me that we were in deep shit. The trail was iced over, with the wind slicing so hard that the only way to move forward was to post-it off the trail and keep a firm grip on the local fauna. Somehow I made it down a short steep section and found McAnus. The only anchor between him and a one way trip to oblivion was his pack hung up on a bush. Down below over to the left I could see Novasch and Marcus’ flashlights, well for a little whiles anyway.”
Vincentoli was at a point in the trail where it turned left. Marcus and Timur had managed to find the left turn and then slid and bounced down 30 feet of ice coated rock cliff. McAnus missed the left turn, and slipping on near vertical ice he was now hanging out over a major vertical face.
Despite Vincentoli’s urging McAnus was not about to take one more step to the left and forward toward the trail, and he certainly was not in any position to go backwards. So crawling down, Vincentoli dragged and pulled McAnus backwards, an exceedingly difficult task given the size of McAnus and his enormous pack. “What do you have in here, fucking bricks?” Vincentoli screamed at McAnus but received no reply. McAnus was struggling with fatigue, and was doing the best possible to assist Vincentoli in moving his ass off the ice cliff. Slowly Vincentoli helped McAnus back over the critical point of the slope. At one point in this laborious effort, Vincentoli stretched out, painfully, for the only piece of shrubbery available, exposing his bare wrist to the wind. The exposure of bare flesh lasted maybe 60 seconds, but that was enough time for the lashing frozen ice cloud to freeze burn Vincentoli’s wrist down to the bone. McAnus rested a while, and then shakely found his feet. His face was ashen white from the near death experience.
Standing up at the top of the cliff by some trees, McAnus is saying, “no fucking way am I going down there.” Vincentoli is thinking about water, his way hell ass sore wrist, and the rising feeling of panic. With the sun setting and the storm raging it’s survival time, HAE style. As it darkened over, Vincentoli and McAnus moved tiredly back up the slope to the forested peak, where McAnus could go no further. He was totally spent.
For Vincentoli the situation had reached a critical point. With McAnus as exhausted as his water supply, he knew that McAnus would not be able to dig out his stove to melt snow. A quick pow-wow is held. The hastily arrived at plan is for McAnus to crash in his beviy sack, while Vincentoli, who was still strong enough to stand, would descend for water. Vincentoli tries to get McAnus to hike down the mountain with him but the comatose McAnus was not listening. So Vincentoli pulled out McAnus’ camping stuff out of his pack, and helped him in. “Do you know how many fucking articles I’ve read about hikers leaving other fucking stupid ass hikers up in the woods, and then try to go get help?!?” Vincentoli screamed.
There was no reply from McAnus. Vincentoli turned and quickly disappeared down the trail.
At the bottom of the ice cliff , Timur and Marcus were somewhat perplexed at the delay. “It’s like, what the fuck you gomers, we just survived a nasty 30 foot or so long cliff slide, and we’re fully expecting McAnus and Vincentoli to follow.” When neither McAnus or Vincentoli made the anticipated appearance, Timur and Marcus climbed back up as far as possible, yelling and waving flashlights, to no avail. After a smoke and a drink to kill some more time, there was not much else to do except shift into survival camping mode. There was no way they were going back up the cliff they had just radically dropped, at least until daylight the next day. They were in a closet sized col. Rock and trees protecting them from the wind, so the duo ate dinner and bedded down for the night. As usual, the team of Timur and Marcus were taking the turn of events into stride like a well oiled survival machine.
For Vincentoli the brutal descent went on and on. He had been hiking for more than 12 hours, with a fucking way assed heavy backpack, and without water for the better part of it. Hallucinating, and stumbling down in darkness as best he could, he was ranting and raving like a schizophrenic homeless person. The endless descent in pitch black forest left an eternity between Vincentoli’s thoughts and the rest of the crew. Stumbling badly, he would face plant or back slide, moaning and swearing in pain, a hiker down calling out for help. No one heard, no one replied. He was alone.
Slowly Vincentoli would battle his way back up on his feet and continue. His parched throat burning with desire for water and powerful legs, built up from years of bicycle racing, kept him moving down the trail. The descent continued without regard to time, back down toward the flowing stream near the base of the mountain. It was a desperate, knee-grinding back-breaking gamble, yet it finally paid off, bringing Vincentoli the break he so desperately sought. After sliding and rolling down a rock face that he did not have the strength to traverse properly, he once again slowly returned to his feet. There, ahead on the trail, was flowing water.
Dropping his pack and using a Sierra cup, Vincentoli drank deeply. Well maybe for a minute anyways. The water he was drinking was a double edged sword. No longer generating heat by hiking, yet drinking cold water in the sub-zero great white north, Vincentoli’s core temperature was dropping rapidly. Fatigue, cold water and a thick layer of rapidly freezing sweat in the frosty Maine woods quickly brought on the shivers and shakes. Visibly struggling, his pain wracked body screaming in protest over the slightest movement, Vincentoli tiredly set up camp as best he could. Falling into his sleeping bag, he shivered until the down warmed up enough that he slid into a fitful, restless sleep.
Meanwhile McAnus’ situation was desperate at the summit of Old Speck. With Timur and Marcus camping out down in the col, and Vincentoli long gone in a cloud of chuffed snow, McAnus was alone, and tired beyond all imagination. He wakened in the middle of the night, hungry and totally disoriented. For some reason he was in a bivouac survival situation on the top of fucking Old Speck Mountain. It took a while to shake out the cobwebs and remember what had happened. Slowly the events of the previous day came back to him. Snaking an arm out of his sleeping back and bivey sack, he could barely reach the outer pocket of his pack. It yielded only a packet of apple cider mix, used to make hot toddies. He ate it anyway, the sugar giving a much needed boost. Soon he was snoring away again. McAnus could sleep through anything, including no water and no food, but plenty of hypothermia on the top of a snow covered mountain.
Dawn arises with trees booming from the cold and the snow rustling with the power of a Maine arctic winter storm about to be unleashed on the widely scattered team.
In the morning Timur and Marcus arise, battling the approaching storm front. They hike back up as far as possible, which actually turned out not to be much farther than what was managed last night. The ice cliff can not be traversed. Besides the fact that it’s nearly vertical, a full blown storm was in progress, totally obscuring any possible routes around the ice. They stand around and yell for a while, even manage to smoke a haebar, but no Vincentoli and McAnus. Eventually they decide that Vincentoli and McAnus are not about to make an appearance. Shouldering up packs, they head for Speck Pond and the Speck Pond Shelter.
McAnus meanwhile had managed to get his camping stuff back into his pack, but couldn’t go much further with it. Hungry, dehydrated and hypothermic, he started down the mountain with his pack, but soon dropped it and continued on without it.
Vincentoli woke up late, and leaving his pack behind, started back up the mountain. Without the heavy backpack he snowshoed up with astonishing speed, not only to save McAnus’ happy ass, but also hopefully to learn of the whereabouts of Timur and Marcus. McAnus is found walking near the top of the mountain in a hypnotic daze. Vincentoli gives him some food and water, and then has a good laugh when he hears McAnus’ tale of eating powdered drink mixes. Continuing back up the summit and over to the top of the ice cliff, there are no signs of Timur and Marcus. Vincentoli digs up some equipment that he ditched before descending last night, including the heavy Bigtop tent, and after lashing it to McAnus’ pack, he shoulders it up and the duo descend. McAnus is cold, tired and hiking real slow, it’s dark by the time they arrive at the parking lot. Stuffing McAnus into the rental car and turning the heater on full blast, Vincentoli talked of a third accent in as many days while McAnus nodded off and answered only in snores.
After thumping McAnus upside the head to wake him, starlight camp is set up at the AT shelter. Only then does Vincentoli learn the full details of McAnus’ ordeal as he was reduced to Tenderfoot level survival skills. Like eating a bag of apple cider mix because that was the only thing he had in the outer pocket of his pack. “What a total gomer!” Vincentoli exclaimed. Even near death survival situations does not spare one from a bustin’ and shit. And Vincentoli laid it on thick here, especially since his by now well wrung out mountaineering system, a mixture of old and new equipment, had all the right stuff in the right pockets at the right time.
Not that McAnus couldn’t hold up his end of the argument. Claiming that Vincentoli’s equipment wouldn’t handle the extreme mountian-top conditions, McAnus was intent on testing his equipment under total blasting whiteout conditions in an attempt to hold the team together. “Timur and Marcus were doing the night on the mountian, and I was too, so… Vincentoli like what’s with wussing out in the valley?” McAnus asked when he finally realized what Vincentoli was laughin’ his ass off about.
They planned to ascend the mountain in the morning to look for Timur and Marcus. But that was not to be. In McAnus’s word, “The next day all hell broke lose. I awoke to see the very woods that we were camping in roar down upon us like we were bugs under foot. It was if Old Speck Mountain had summoned Old Man Winter to teach the gomers from flatland a lesson.”
Vincentoli concurred. “First it started snowing real good, then it got colder and the wind kicked up. We were in the middle of a full scale winter storm. It was blasting real bad, survival became paramount… so… err…we started drinking. HAE was pinned down and not going anywhere”
Timur and Marcus meanwhile, had just woke up at the Speck Pond Shelter when the storm hit. “It was unbelievable up there, fucking unbelievable!” Marcus said. “we tried putting a tarp across the front of the shelter but it didn’t do much good. Then we tried lighting the Bigtop wood burning stove and that didn’t do much good either.” The only flowing water to be found was all the way across the pond at the drainage stream. Soon the bitter cold forced them out of the shelter and over to the woods near the stream. They camped there the second night of the storm.
By the third day it was obvious that they were going to have to make a run for it. Heading back up the trail was not an option, not only was the ice cliff near the summit impassable, but they had dropped down two other nasty frozen waterfalls on the way to Speck Pond. Following the Appalachian Trail further south made no sense either. The AT went into Mahoosuc Notch, a wilderness area that is difficult to traverse in the best of summer conditions, never mind during a raging January blizzard. And even if they made it through that, several tough climbs, including Mt. Success, attempted by the team back in 1989-1990, would still be between them and a trail out to Rt. 2 near Gorham.
So they head north, orthogonal to the Mahoosuc mountain chain, and descended rapidly along un-named trails. The walk down off the backside of Old Speck Mountain into gently rolling, heavily forested terrain. Here is the great Northern Boreal forest, stretched out in a vast unchartered wilderness checkered with swamps, lazy flowing steams and an endless patchwork of lakes, many still called by their original Indian names.
Timur and Marcus hike continuously from sun up to sun down for days. “Man it was fucking cold,” Timur says of their journey. “We would hike all day in the flats, looking for anything that could lead us somewhere. Nothing. It was so cold that we would eat dinner and before the last bite was down we would dive into our bivey sacks. I stuffed everything I had between my bivey and my sleeping bag, snow parka, pants, down jacket, used underwear, you name it, we were using it to keep warm.”
Marcus paints a similar picture, “It was fucking storming bad, like hell ass colder than all fucking cold, and we were totally fucking lost. We just kept hiking every day, must have done 20 miles one of the days. Had to stop several times and light a fire to warm up. More than once me and Timur wondered if we would ever find our way out.”
For Vincentoli and McAnus the days went on endlessly as time became lost in a constant struggle of man against the elements. Bitter cold arctic air soon drove Vincentoli and McAnus to abandon the Grafton Notch lean-to, forcing a desperate trek across equal-potential lines to a camp notched out of the surrounding uniform slope. Here McAnus and Vincentoli survive three more brutal days and two nights waiting. “That was some real tough survival,” Vincentoli relates. “We were burning birch wood, which don’t have much heat in it, and not doing any hiking while waiting around for Timur and Marcus. Frozen and way assed bored, man it was mother fucking cold. Our campsite was totally unprotected from the wind, we only selected it because it looked like there was good wood to burn.”
Eventually Vincentoli and McAnus run out of food, booze and flashlight batteries, so they have little choice except abandon to the car. After six days of difficult winter survival the two sub-teams of HAE still had not made a rendezvous. Vincentoli leaves a note on Marcuss truck that says; “We are going into town to get supplies, then will stay at Motel-6, and we will be back tomorrow to look for you guys.”
Driving back into town Vincentoli and McAnus talk rescue. Vincentoli insists that those 2 HAE guys must be found by the other 2 HAE guys, he is intent on restocking supplies and going back up after them. McAnus has a different idea. Undoubtedly days of standing around in sub-zero weather affected his cerebral processes, because he thought that the best thing to do was get the authorities involved. “You gotta be fucking kidding!” Vincentoli told McAnus. “You send the doughnut squad after Timur and Marcus and not only will you ruin their trip if they are found, but they are not gonna wanna pay for no fucking helicopter ride out so they will probably end up getting arrested or something.” McAnus still insists, and drives the rental car directly to the rangers headquarters in Bethel. To Vincentoli’s astonishment, McAnus actually walks into the office and tries to report the missing hikers. The terse reply: “blah blah, blah, blah…good day.” That’s Maine local talk, translated it means; ” You stupid assed flatlanders this is the forest service not the state police and it’s five of five, I’m outa here, so have yourself a good day”
Looks like Vincentoli’s idea is next. They head over to the local shopping market and stock up on supplies needed to climb Old Speck again. After spending the night in a local motel, preparing equipment and food, Vincentoli and McAnus find themselves once again at the base of Old Speck at 8:00 am. The storm had finally let up leaving a clear, crackling -10° F weather in its wake.
It’s time to go find Timur and Marcus. According to Vincentoli’s theory, those two guys are holed up at the Speck Pond Shelter, just an Olympic sized downhill slide into the Mahoosuc Range from the top of Old Speck Mountain. Get there in the daytime Vincentoli reasoned, and there was no reason why he could not skirt that ice cliff with a proper trail and then drop down into the shelter, to help those guys back out. The uphill grind started, and it went on and on. They finally gain the summit after a grueling six hour uphill battle waged between snowshoes and several feet of new snow brought in by the storm.
At this point Vincentoli decides that the delightful sub-zero weather is holding well enough to risk hiking down to Speck Pond Shelter. Leaving McAnus behind, Vincentoli solo’s around the ice cliff and is then surprised by several other nasty ice drops that require extreme efforts to get around. At each ice cliff Vincentoli’s panic level is going up. The obstacles have taken an extraordinary amount of strength to circumnavigate, in broad daylight, but Vincentoli, who has been racing bicycles for years, is a powerful athlete with nearly unlimited endurance. He is warm, well rested and well fed from yesterdays trip into town, and is hiking without a backpack. That’s not true for Timur and Marcus. Those guys must be cold, tired and hungry, he reasoned, remembering how cold, tired and hungry he was when he and McAnus finally ran out of food and had to drive into town. So Vincentoli was in a preoccupied panic thinking about how difficult it was going to be to get Timur and Marcus, not to mention their packs, back up the ice, when the last section of hemlock lined trail brought the Speck Pond Shelter into view.
Vincentoli recalls, “Nothing…absolutely fucking nothing. I mean like way fucking nothing. No fucking footprints, no equipment, no note, no fucking nothing. Just clean untouched snow and the feeling that if Timur and Marcus had camped there, it had been long, long ago. And if I was going to get my ass out of there alive, I was to be getting my ass out of there like right now.”
Using the last light of dusk to fight and claw his way back up, the rendezvous at the top is short. McAnus is just as perplexed as Vincentoli. “You mean those guys ain’t there!?!” McAnus asked the blank faced Vincentoli. “How the fuck could those guys not be there? Where the fuck did they go then, did they leave a note?” McAnus asked Vincentoli. “I don’t know man, I just don’t know,” was Vincentoli’s unenlightened answer. The six hour uphill snowshoe in two feet of new snow, followed by the difficult two hour solo climb to Speck Pond Shelter and back without finding his buddies has left him looking haggard and worried, and in no mood to talk. The trail back down takes a brutal 4 hours, racking up the total time of hiking to well over 12 hours.
Meanwhile Timur and Marcus, following a generally in a northeast direction, had unknowingly walked into the Mollidgewoch River system, which flows parallel to Rt. 26 on it’s way toward the headwaters of the Androscoggin River. Eventually they cross the State line. “Man we walked clear into fucking New Hampshire!” Timur exclaims. Days of hiking finally start to pay off when fresh snowmobile tracks are found. Just in time too, the duo, running low on food, were mentally and physically exhausted from endless hiking, from no-where to no-where in sub-zero weather. After getting some bogus directions from a skimobiler less than a mile from the road, they finally figure it out, and step out onto Rt. 26, in New Hampshire, opposite Umbagog Lake.
Timur and Marcus had walked out of the woods in New Hampshire, several hours after Vincentoli and McAnus had walked into the woods in Maine. While Vincentoli and McAnus were hiking up Old Speck to find virgin snow at Speck Pond Shelter, Timur and Marcus hitchhiked back to the parking lot, stopping off at a country store just inside Maine along the way.
Wearily dragging into the parking lot at 10 PM, Vincentoli and McAnus find a note is sitting on the rental car:
VINCENTOLI AND FIFE
MOTEL SIX…MOTEL SIX!?!
WHERE WERE YOU GUYS?
WAITED FOREVER HERE FOR YOU
ANOTHER BIG STORM HEADED THIS WAY
HAD TO LEAVE ABOUT 4 PM
TIM AND MARK
Timur and Marcus had arrived around 2 PM, but soon decided to split because they had the radio on and heard about another major storm rolling in.
Vincentoli and McAnus were not so lucky. The failed rescue attempt netted Vincentoli a record breaking 3 successive summits, but it also put the drive back out in the middle of the night, during a second powerful storm front. After driving for hours in a raging blizzard, two very tired hikers decide to bail and crash at a highway motel. They return home 8 days after the start.
Thus ended the odyssey on Old Speck Mountain. Here was an epic that pushed HAE team members to the limits of human endurance. Many lessons were learned or re-learned. Paramount is this simple fact: Maine in January can be survived, but never conquered. Since Bigelow in ’89 the weather pattern had been toward milder weather, and the team had grown more confident, figuring that they could rule the Great White North any time they loaded up their backpacks. But this year the Great White North rebelled and roared down on them with relentless fury. When Old Man Winter meets Old Man Speck, all other men are humble, and hope only to survive to see tomorrow.
Read more Half Ass Expeditions: Into Big Maine