An epic friendship

 

When I was 28, I got hired as a Program Director with Outward Bound: a job that would change my life in many ways, not the least of which was by gifting me a friendship with a woman whose sense of adventure determined the character of my own.

 

Saranne was (and is) 25 years older than I; she was already in her 50s when we began hiking, climbing, and whitewater boating together. But she was my contemporary in psyche and vitality and my superior in fitness and tenacity and  remained so until an age when most women are scaling back their exploits, not ramping them up.

At Outward Bound, Saranne’s approach to risk management was legendary. When students or staff capsized in whitewater and  everyone was scrambling to effect a rescue, Saranne’s voice could be heard above all others: “Save the gear—the people can swim!” Saranne’s idea of a good climb was one you had to back off in   terror a few times  before finally, somehow, scratching and clawing your way to the top to stand triumphant and bleeding on some manky belay ledge.

When leading Saranne would take only a whisper of a rack: a couple of quickdraws and a few nuts, maybe a lone #2 cam just in case she reached a crux she thought she might peel off multiple times. On my leads I clanked with hardware, so heavily laden that on delicate holds I was in danger of being pulled off my perch from the sheer weight of my harness. When Saranne ran short of gear, as she inevitably did,  she’d just climb faster, to minimize the time, if not the danger, that she spent in the runout zone.

 

When climbs proved harder than Saranne or I had anticipated, we called them sandbags, even if they were graded inarguably appropriately. “Remember when we were sandbagged on that chossy line at Seneca?” we’d say dismissively, as if it were the fault of the rock itself that we had scaled it with so much swearing and so little grace. We climbed a lot of sandbags in those days. 

 

On one Yosemite trip, Saranne and I took a day off climbing to hike up Liberty Cap, Half Dome’s understated little sister. We left the main trail at Nevada Falls and traveled cross-country, before scrambling up to Liberty Cap’s barren dome. I’m not sure whose idea it was to take nude photos with the camera’s self-timer function, but pressing clicking the button and then sprinting, naked, choking with laughter, back across the field of granite before the shutter clicked remains one of my most vivid memories.

Once Saranne determined that I was a worthy partner, she invited me to join her on her annual winter traverse of a section of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, from Mount Washington to Mount Madison. The “Prezzy Traverse,” as we called it, was long, demanding, and often scary. Therefore we did it at least once every winter, for nearly a decade.

 

Although the Prezzy Traverse isn’t officially a technical climb, the risks were very real, as we reminded ourselves each time we stopped in Sphynx Col, where climber Hugh Herr famously lost both of his legs to frostbite.  After completing the steep ascent up Mount Washington, we’d huddle behind the huge boulder in the col, share a cup of  mint tea from a thermos lid, and bundle up  before heading up to the ridge that formed the bulk of the traverse.

 

Saranne packed food for our adventures the way she packed a rack: minimally. A crust of good sourdough, a hunk of sharp cheddar, and the remnants of a chocolate bar would fuel her for hours.  She’d rather carry two lbs of metal thermos than 2 cups of trail mix. Besides, peanuts gave her the hiccups.

 

We always carried maps, but after the first few traverses we no longer needed them. Even in a whiteout we seemed to be able to find our way across the windswept ridges and saddles. Saranne was  renowned for her minimalist approach to backcountry travel, but she always insisted that we pack the three 15” maps the route covered. “Otherwise,” she’d say, “if we die in an avalanche the headline will be ‘Outward Bound Instructors Die on Mount Washington, Not Carrying Maps.” When a local retailer started producing bandanas printed with USGS 15” maps on them, we were ecstatic. At last: a solution to blowing our noses and not blowing our reputations should we be caught unaware.

 

The traverse typically took us about ten hours of walking, which we spent sharing stories about our lives, our families, our jobs, our men.  We could do this seemingly endlessly—just walk and talk. We walked and talked our way across the White Mountains, not just on the traverse, but on other long hikes, ski touring expeditions, fall excursions to bag peaks in the North Cascades and the Sierra, on climbing and boating trips to Pennsylvania, the Rio Grande, and West Virginia.

Our hikes often ran longer than we intended. Sometimes our partners worried about us, but in those days before cell phones there was nothing for them to do but wait for us to return safely, which we always did, tired and dirty, with a story to tell.

 

Returning from a hike or climb with Saranne, I’d throw my pack on the floor, take off my boots, and collapse on the couch, sated with the unique exhaustion that comes from a day in the mountains. I’d known this contentment before Saranne, but I’d never had it so validated by someone who completely grasped the appeal of a long day. When Saranne proposes an adventure, for me there is never any answer other than “yes.”

 

“Shall we go have an epic?” Saranne will ask, in her British boarding-school accent. “It’s a fine day for an epic,” I’ll respond. And with Saranne, it always is.

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