The Existential Moment
Jay Atkinson and Joe Klementovich continue their Explorers series in a jam-packed weekend of rock climbing, paddle boarding and mountain biking
I’m 25 feet off the ground, my face pressed against the rock, breathing hard and swearing under my breath. Above me, Whitehorse Ledge is a steep, gray-green, rumpled sheet of granite. It arches overhead, soaring upward, rolling over darker veins of rock, the upper half of the 800-foot cliff dappled in sunlight.
“You got this,” said Thom Pollard, who’s holding the rope, belaying me.
The sun had risen above the cliff, and temperatures were in the low 70s. Eight minutes into the climb my heart was banging away while I maintained a left-footed toehold no larger than a Buffalo nickel, my balky right foot hanging in space.
I could feel my rugby pals, Mike Zizza and Chris Pierce, watching me from the ground. After Joe Klementovich had free-climbed a route called Ancient Artifacts, he ran a sturdy rope through a bolt 70 feet up the cliff, allowing the three novice climbers in our party to be “top-roped.” That way, we could fix the rope to a harness slung around our waists, increasing the margin of safety.
But you still have to climb — the rope is a way down, not up — and you can get bounced around if you lose contact and bang against the rock. After Joe returned to the ground, Mike was the first to try the route. Except for Joe and Thom, the rest of us were new to the sport, but Mike is sturdy and fit, reaching the anchor and rappelling back down after a couple of brief hesitations.
Now, my left hand was stretched to one side, fingers dug into a crack, and my other arm extended upward, groping for a nub of rock. Sweat poured into my eyes as the lactic acid pooled in my legs, weighing me down.
This is what I jokingly — and sometimes not so jokingly — call the “existential moment.” Mike and Piercey and I are outdoors year-round, and we rely on each other’s abilities to get us through. In this situation, I could keep moving upward, or I could descend by the rope, perhaps trying again after Piercey had his turn.
At that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to perform either of those actions.
Our weekend in the White Mountains had been in the planning stages for several weeks. All juggling busy schedules including work, family and a range of sporting pursuits, the five of us had converged at the Wildcat Inn and Tavern in Jackson Village the night before, eager to get outdoors during this first blush of good weather.
Joe is an expert rock and ice climber with a resume that includes an 11-hour ascent of the Regular Route on Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. He’d just returned from a paddleboard trip through the Grand Canyon, while Thom Pollard had cancelled two events related to his podcast, “The Happiness Quotient,” so he could join us. We had a tight schedule, cramming a week’s worth of adventures into 24 hours.
Having played rugby together a long while, Piercey, Mike and I know each other well and spend a lot of time exploring the landscape. Another rugby friend of ours, Stew Dunlop, owns the Wildcat Inn and Tavern as well as North Conway’s Kearsarge Inn. Piercey, Mike and I were rooming at the Kearsarge, and though Stew was out of town, he had arranged for us to dine on the lawn behind the Wildcat.
I’d been looking forward to reconnecting with Thom Pollard. Stew introduced us three years ago, and we’ve been thick as thieves ever since. This was due to our shared belief that life is either full of adventure, or it ain’t really life — along with a profound love of the White Mountains and all the terrain running from there to the Canadian border.
Thom Dharma Pollard, 61, of Bartlett, New Hampshire, has filmed four Everest documentaries over the last 23 years. In 1999, Pollard was acting as cameraman during an expedition to locate British mountaineer George Mallory who disappeared while trying to summit Everest in 1924. Pollard laid his hands on Mallory’s body, and was the only person to look into his face when the corpse was discovered at 27,000 feet. When the right moment arrived, I was hoping Pollard would share one of his untold Everest stories with us.
In 2016, Pollard returned to Everest as a cameraman on the documentary “Sharing Everest,” reaching the summit beneath a full moon. Three years later, he came back to the mountain to hunt for Mallory’s partner, Sandy Irvine, which led to the documentary “Lost on Everest” (National Geographic/Disney). Irvine’s body still remains missing.
Before he became a world-class mountaineer, Pollard earned a swimming scholarship to NCAA Division I Boston University. I teach journalism at BU and marveled at the fact that Pollard, who stands 5 feet 8 inches and weighs 155 pounds, was a varsity swimmer. (Nowadays, many swimmers look like they come from “Land of the Giants.”) During his junior year when Pollard was team captain, his best event was the 400-yard individual medley. He made the consolation finals in the Eastern Seaboard Championships at West Point in 1983.
A compact, wry-tempered and cheerful fellow, Pollard is a world-class raconteur, traveling widely to give talks on his life as an adventurer. Once we cleared the first two activities of the weekend, we’d convene for a “bull session” at the Wildcat in Jackson, where Pollard once worked as a bartender. I figured that after a few beers, he’d tell a couple good stories while my pals and I shared a few tales from our experiences traveling the world to play rugby.
Whitehorse Ledge has an elevation of 1,450 feet, with a daunting cliff that rises up from the valley floor and divides into two sections, the Slabs and the South Buttress. Catching my breath, I told Pollard I was going to rely on his belay, scanning the brow of the overhang far above, then lowering my gaze to locate a handhold that I’d overlooked.
Earlier, at the base of the cliff, it felt like it was raining caterpillars, an Old Testament plague of locusts, leaving deposits of caterpillar feces in every crevice of the rock. I had a hand full of it when I pulled away from the narrow crack.
Pollard called out. “You all right?”
I took a deep breath through my nose, exhaling slowly. “Climbing,” I said.
Off to my right, there was a diagonal ledge with an adjoining crack. Asking Pollard for a little slack on the rope, I pushed off with my left foot and swung over to the right, detouring from Mike’s route. Able to get both hands into the crack, I went right-left-right up the narrow chimney, doing a series of pull-ups with the toes of my climbing shoes wedged against the jagged ledge.
I gained a dozen feet quickly, a surge of confidence rising in my chest. Joe kept saying, “Don’t hug the rock. Have confidence in your feet.”
Now I leaned back on the rope, the toes of both feet gripping the rock. Fifty feet off the ground, I still faced a significant obstacle — the rock bulged outward in a perpendicular dome, not very steep along the sides but rounded and smooth.
Suddenly, I realized that climbing was a complex math problem. Move right or left, up or down, and the numbers all change — the dimensions of the rock morphing into different shapes, changing the geometry on the fly.
I was 20 feet from Joe’s anchor. From the ground, it likely appeared that I’d topped the route, and for a moment I thought about saying I was going to descend. But the social calculus of the day’s challenges was predicated on all five of us getting it done.
I’d been on the rock for 17 minutes, my calves trembling, sweat dripping down my face in large pellets. Splaying my feet like a duck, I made a quick step to the left, choosing a better spot for tackling the round protrusion of granite just above.
Pollard said, “Nice move, dude. You got it.”
Then I took one big step upward and to my right, inched sideways and I was at the anchor.
“Nice, Atkinson!” Piercey said. “That’s how to do it, brother.”
Standing atop the rocky dome, I flexed my right bicep.
“Move your sleeve out of the way,” said Piercey, raising his phone to take a picture.
I laughed. “So you can see my pencil arm.”
Next, Piercey began scrambling up the rock, with Mike on belay. Twenty minutes later when Pollard started up, Piercey belayed him and I sat in the shade, writing in my notebook. Joe was taking photos of Pollard going up the cliff. Then he snapped my picture, took the camera away from his face and raised his eyebrows.
Joe and I have been working together for a long time, and both understand there are always two competing tasks — enjoying a “pure” outdoor experience while also capturing it on film and in print. He was asking for a situation report.
Rubbing my thumb and index finger together, I said, “Money,” grinning.
A short while later, all five us had topped the route, packed our gear and were hiking out. Soon our caravan of vehicles was flying down West Side Road toward Conway, heading for Route 16 and Chocorua Lake in Tamworth.
Every summer when I was a kid, my family spent a few weeks camping in the White Mountains. There’s always been something indefinable about 220-acre Chocorua Lake — a spiritual aura that settles over me the minute I arrive. On my first trek up 3,490-foot Mount Chocorua, I was 10 years old, my younger sisters, Jodie and Jill, were there and Dad carried my younger brother, Jamie, in his back-pack. For lunch, Mom brought along hamburger rolls slathered in peanut butter, and we ate them on the summit. I still consider those hamburger rolls the best meal I’ve ever eaten.
In recent years, I’ve often risen at 4 a.m. to drive 100 miles to the lake, wading into the cold clear water for a long, soul-cleansing swim. When our caravan arrived at the parking lot, a wedding party had gathered there for photos. But the shoreline was quiet and the water was like ruffled quicksilver with narrow clouds running across a mottled blue sky.
Joe launched his paddleboard, and so did Pollard’s girlfriend, Kristen Pilarcik, an athletic blonde woman who’d just arrived at the lake. Piercey, Mike and Pollard slipped along in the pebbly shallows and began stroking for a point on the eastern shore 500 yards away. I looked on as they scribbled thin white trails over the surface of the water.
Adjusting my goggles, I made the sign of the cross and headed straight down the middle of the lake, the rocky dome of Mount Chocorua rising into the azure sky. As I swam, the vast plain of the lake became the whole universe, my friends and I its only inhabitants.
An hour later we returned to shore, fetched some camp chairs and set up by the lake. The wedding party had left, and the parking lot was nearly empty. Piercey had some expensive tequila with him and passed it around. I said no thanks, and Pollard and I started chatting. I had something in my cooler to share with the group and once everyone was settled, I pulled out a bag of spinach pies from Korbani’s Bakery in Methuen, Massachusetts.
Hand-sized and triangular, the pies are a mix of spinach, onions, lemon juice and seasoning, the dough thin and chewy. “Wow,” Kristen said. “These are incredible.”
Dipping them in Korbani’s hummus was far superior to a handful of trail mix, and since we’d been outdoors all day, the pies and tequila disappeared as the liveliness of our conversation increased. There were a dozen great stories — playing rugby on the island of Fiji during a coup, bone-chilling winter treks and crossing an ocean in an old wooden boat.
Pollard gives off a Zen hipster vibe — no matter what happens, he digs it and moves on. Soon I was telling Pollard about “the one who got away,” a familiar story of thwarted romance unless, of course, you’ve never heard it.
Pollard looked out from beneath the brim of his cap, saying, “You’ll never love any human being more than you love yourself.”
Gesturing to Mike, I nodded at Pollard. “This is like swimming with Yoda,” I said.
Shortly thereafter, we took our leave, returning to the Kearsarge Inn so we could get cleaned up. When Mike, Piercey and I arrived at the Wildcat, the bar was filling up with rugby players in town for a memorial golf tournament. The Wildcat Inn and Tavern features a 12-room inn, a rustic bar with a large fireplace and a spacious dining room. Owner Stew Dunlop greeted us, and soon our party was occupying a table in the Wildcat’s well-maintained backyard.
Steeped in rugby’s culture of brotherhood, Stew began rhapsodizing about the electric atmosphere in the tavern and stood to propose a toast. A stout, blue-eyed man with no lack of confidence, his declaration had stretched into its third minute when I leaned over to Pollard while motioning at Stew.
“Thanks for picking up the tab, Stew,” I said in an undertone, while Pollard stifled a laugh. At length, our host wrapped up his soliloquy and we all stood up and raised our glasses.
Suddenly one of our party shouted out, “To Jay Atkinson!” and everyone around the table repeated the phrase in a loud voice. It took me a second to realize whose name they were shouting out.
I clinked my glass of water against their beers. “Happy to provide you with this great opportunity,” I said.
But Piercey, drink in hand, was eyeballing me. In a voice that slid beneath the din, he said, “You’re a tough, moody, stubborn, opinionated, son-of-a…” going on for another minute or so.
I winked at Mike. “He included one positive trait,” I said. “That’s a first.”
But Piercey was still gazing at me. “You’re tough,” he said, nodding.
After a fine meal outdoors, we repaired to the bar. The night before, I’d promised Mike that I’d have a glass of whiskey after we cleared the swim. He was sitting to my right and Pollard was on my left as a six-piece band with a talented female singer belted out a few tunes. The waitress brought the drinks, and I leaned back in my chair sipping the smooth rye whiskey.
Pollard leaned over while the music rattled the plate-glass windows. He had something to say about his experiences on Mount Everest in the spring of 2019. When he was safely to Advanced Base Camp at 21,000 feet, getting ready for his summit attempt, the lower right side of his face went numb. It was likely a sign that he was experiencing a Transient Ischemic Attack, or TIA, a potentially fatal blockage in a blood vessel.
The symptoms went away after a few minutes, but Pollard knew something serious had occurred. Mulling over his desire to summit, he told other members of his team what happened. In keeping with an unwritten rule for this type of expedition, several climbers told Pollard it was “up to him” whether he should continue, or begin his descent toward safety.
But his friend and climbing partner Jamie McGuinness, who has summitted Everest six times, was more direct. “Everest is a shit show,” he said. “Bail out, dude. What do you have left to prove?”
Looking at me, Pollard said, “In 2016, three guys died on Everest the same day. If you die on Everest, they pitch you into a crevasse, or drag you down to base camp — if you’re lucky.” He paused. “You get to know what you’re capable of in extreme situations.”
The next morning, we were packing our gear at the Kearsarge Inn when Stew called to say he was going to drop by. The night before, Stew told us that he hadn’t been on-site Friday because he’d driven to Portland, Maine, to watch his daughter run a half-marathon. First, he said that he’d arrived at a bar called Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub before noon and drank Bloody Marys with some of the Portland rugby guys. An hour later, Stew declared that at the last minute he’d decided to run the half marathon, finishing in 3 hours, 45 minutes.
I told Mike and Piercey that I was going to launch an inquiry into Stew’s conflicting accounts. Promptly he knocked on our door and came inside. Arms folded, I asked him which of these unlikely stories was true.
“Both of them,” Stew said.
I looked at Mike and Piercey. “That’s called the ‘Irish truth,’” I said.
Twenty minutes later, we were headed for a mountain bike ride at the Marshall Conservation Area on West Side Road in Conway. Only three vehicles dotted the lot, and it was a sunny 75 degrees. We pulled the bikes off the racks, donned our helmets and started uphill.
Soon we were swooping over the switchback trails — Shumway, Lager, Cow Link — rising and falling over the undulating terrain, the drop-off ledges and rocks appearing suddenly.
I was squeezing the frame of my bike with my thighs, riding the contour of the trail, the blurry green continuum of the trees careering past, as if they were flying downhill as we rode up and over the bumps and hillocks.
Piercey is a strong rider, and went zooming ahead to scout new routes after identifying them on his phone.
Five miles in, we convened at height of land. Piercey was heading southward on a new trail, figuring he’d reach the parking lot 10 minutes after we did. Mike and I were going to descend Shumway, which I’d enjoyed on a previous trip. Nodding to each other, we set off.
“Good work, boys,” said Piercey, and we all went rocketing downhill.