Saturday, December 28, 2013

Four Hikes with my Dad



Fred Josef Meyer, January 1, 1931-December 27, 2013
It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.
Chinese Proverb

People sometimes ask me how I got started in mountaineering.  The answer is that I first developed my love for mountain exploration on hikes with my Dad.  But I did not just hike with my Dad when I was young; he has been a hiking companion for me throughout my life.  I would like to share four special hikes that I took with him over the years.

The Jungfraujoch in Switzerland's Berner Oberland
My Dad hiked often in the mountains of Switzerland – his birthplace – and wanted to share his love of skiing and the outdoors with me and my two brothers.  In what might now be called my “tween” years, he took us on a camping and skiing trip to Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.  It was my first visit to a place that is now as familiar as an old friend.  We carried overstuffed backpacks heavily laden with the latest gear and dehydrated food; honestly I do not know how my younger brothers made it all the way up to Hermit Lake, where we endured a cold night in thin summer sleeping bags.  The next day we skied Tuckerman’s Bowl, earning our turns by climbing up a boot ladder of steps kicked into the steep face.  The same technique served me well years later on the summit pyramid of Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi and the headwall of McKinley’s West Buttress.


On the Niederhorn in Switzerland's Berner Oberland
In the summer of 1982 I had just finished my freshman year at Dartmouth and was preparing for a semester abroad in Germany.  My Dad was working in Bern, Switzerland, and I stayed with him and my stepmother while working at a resort in the mountain village of Sigriswil.  He was 51 at the time – close to my current age – and grappling with many of the issues of personal identity, family and career often encountered in those mid-life years.  I was 19, and grappling with much different issues of my own.  One sunny afternoon we hiked to the summit of the nearby Sigriswiler Rothorn, where we enjoyed a fine view of the long narrow Justistal valley lying far below.  It was a priceless opportunity for us to leave our daily troubles behind and simply walk and spend time together in a gorgeous setting.

The Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico
On flights home from Europe Dad sometimes admired the view of Katahdin, and he knew that I had been there often and loved what Maine’s Penobscots named “the Greatest Mountain.”  In the summer of 2002, as I was training for my expedition to McKinley, he and two friends joined me for a hike to the highest point in Maine.  Our chosen route – the Hunt Trail – is steep and rocky in places and features iron rungs set into boulders in some of the roughest sections.  I had the honor of helping him up one of those difficult spots with a long forceful push on his derriere!  I was also glad to render first aid when he cut his leg on a rock.  Despite these challenges, we reached the summit in an effort that he proudly remembered later.  After our day toiling together, he told me that he knew I was ready for the mountain that Alaska’s Athabaskans named “the Great One.”

Sandia Peak in New Mexico
My last long hike with Dad was in September, 2012, while Allison and I were visiting him and my stepmother in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  For some time he had wanted to hike in the nearby Valle Grande – a dramatic volcanic caldera many miles in diameter – and our visit was the perfect opportunity.  I was under great pressure at work, and relished the chance to escape a stream of urgent messages on my Blackberry.  He was participating in a clinical trial of a new chemotherapy drug, and we carried the day’s doses in a cooler as we drove through the Jemez Pueblo to the hike.  Our 7 mile route circumnavigated the Cerros del Abrigo, an eruptive dome jutting from the center of the giant valley.  All around us, for hours, elk hidden in the woods near and far bugled their eerie call and spoke to us in a timeless language of the mountains.    

Of all the places that he knew, this valley alone could reflect the great spatial majesty of the sky. It scooped out of the dark peaks like the well of a great, gathering storm, deep umber and blue and smoke-colored. The view across the diameter was magnificent; it was an unbelievably great expanse. As many times as he had been there in the past, each new sight of it always brought him up short, and he had to catch his breath. Just there, it seemed, a strange and brilliant light lay upon the world, and all the objects in the landscape were washed clean and set away in the distance.
N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn

The Valle Grande in New Mexico

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