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My brother Jon is a professional mountaineer out West, a guide on glaciered peaks where the air is thin enough to kill. But on this late January morning we are two and a half hours north of Boston, headed for the mountain that taught us to climb. The gray farms blur past, wrapped in whispers of snow. Volunteer firehouses, ice-clotted rivers. Ahead, the White Mountains stretch beneath clouds the color of bathwater. Everything still in the long pause of winter.

Jon and I hadn't seen much of each other for a long time. At our last meeting, more than a year before, an argument over old grievances had spun out of control, and we had nearly come to punches. Now we planned to spend a few days hiking across the range and climbing Mount Washington.

"Where you guys from?" asks the driver we've hired to drop us at the trailhead.

I tell him I live in Virginia now. He laughs.

"Sure you know what you're gettin' into?"

A reasonable question. For Jon and me, Washington was always the Everest of the East Coast, its ferocious potential irresistible. My three brothers and I grew up south of Boston, and we learned the basics of mountaineering on Washington. We competed there, against each other and our peers, stacking up ascents in ridiculous conditions, trying to distinguish ourselves in the way of brothers everywhere. I was a teenager, the oldest of us, when I began climbing it alone in winter; Jon, the youngest, pestered to tag along. I was annoyed, even angry. Few relationships match the intense closeness of brotherhood, and I didn't want to cede territory. Back then it had already begun: We were more rivals than friends, our tempers driving us apart. The mountain was one more wedge in the crack.

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