June 23, 2018
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October blizzard with a peak-bagging friend

Robin Clifford Wood | BDN
Robin Clifford Wood | BDN
Jean Camuso, five peaks shy of completing all 67 of New England's 4,000-footers, stands at the almost-summit of Saddleback Mountain in a surprise October blizzard last week.
By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

Since the computer world has co-opted the term “friend,” I’d like to set the record straight on friendship. A real-world friend calls you to join her for a cup of tea. She herds your escaped goats back home with a carrot. She shares her favorite bit of calming maternal advice: “Just breathe.” She throws her body over your frenzied dog while you try to pull porcupine quills out of his nose. When a friend like that invites you up a mountain in October, you go.

When I moved here 10 years ago, it seemed that everywhere I went people knew Jean Camuso. She contributed so much all over town — working for schools, serving on boards, volunteering and acting as a stand-in grandma for a pair of teacher parents. And yet, she always seemed to find time for two things: people and mountain climbing.

Jean grew up in North Providence, R.I. She likely learned a lot about friendship, family and sharing cups of tea in that warmly effusive Italian community, but mountain climbing did not come into play. That came later, after she and Eric moved to Maine and started a family. Eric was an avid hiker, and he and Jean regularly took their two boys hiking while they were growing up.

When Eric gave Jean a book for her 50th birthday, “The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains,” she was inspired by a challenge. She would climb all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot-plus peaks before she turned 60.

That was around the time I arrived in Maine. My friendship with Jean, which grew around many cups of tea and our children, also matured by way of shared mountain climbs. Jean was a semiretired long-distance runner, so she was not a stranger to striving toward a goal. In between major hikes, she ran, rode her bicycle or climbed smaller mountains to stay in shape. That was how I came to be introduced to a couple of Acadia National Park’s mountains, with Jean as my guide. Before she completed the New Hampshire 48 (well before age 60), I was even able to join her in bagging a 4,000-footer.

There are other hiking lists — peak-bagging all 48 in winter, or bagging “the grid,” which means climbing all 48 peaks in all 12 months of the year. Jean, however, had no plan for more challenges — at first. Then a couple of years ago, she invited me and another friend to climb North Brother Mountain in Baxter State Park.

“That’s when I started thinking about the next list,” Jean said.

She set to work completing “the New England 67,” which includes 5 Vermont and 14 Maine 4,000-foot peaks. As of last week, she had five to go — three in Maine and two in Vermont.

So I got a call. When might I be able to tackle Saddleback and The Horn?

It was a promising weather day on Oct. 11. The sun rose brilliantly, highlighting the foliage along the route to Rangeley. But on the access road to Saddleback ski area the sun disappeared. The car thermometer read 34 degrees. A drizzly squall gradually became a snowstorm.

We were ready to scrap the hike, but bits of blue sky were breaking through. A weather report promised improvement, so we started up through whirling clouds and a half-inch of snow.

Jean says that hiking is like a meditation — you are drawn out of yourself. In this case, it seemed we were drawn out of this world into an epic scene that demands a dramatic retelling:

“There we were — the wind a roaring beast struggling to sweep us from the mountain’s flanks.”

When we reached a stone cairn on the exposed mountaintop and dug out a camera, our hands were stiff with cold and the wind was whipping in irregular blasts. We had to protect our faces from icy needles of sleet. How did we step out that sunny fall morning into this menacing arctic wasteland? There was no question of lingering or going on to The Horn. We fled the beast.

That evening, Jean discovered that we never quite reached the summit of Saddleback. She still has five peaks to go.

Was it a failure? Any regrets? Not a bit. Let’s just say that wrestling with a quill-snouted dog has taken a distant second in my list of memorable adventures with a real world friend.

“I’m not sure where the next list will take me,” Jean said.

After entering into the maw of an unexpected October blizzard on the almost-summit of Saddleback Mountain, I am hoping that Jean’s next list might include a nice cup of tea.

Reader alert

Last week’s column about Hal Borns and the Ice Age Trail map prompted several inquiries. To purchase a map, call the University of Maine bookstore at 581-1700 or order online at bookstore.umaine.edu.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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