Published March 03. 2012 4:00AM
While backpacking alone in the Swiss Alps years ago I spent a night at Hörnli Hut, a tiny cabin perched at 10,600 feet at the foot of the fabled Matterhorn.
Lacking technical climbing experience I had no intention of joining an expedition to ascend with ropes the remaining 4,090 feet to the near-vertical summit, but I did plan to rise early to watch climbers set out on the final leg up the mountain.
A guide rousted us about 2 a.m., shouting and repeatedly banging a pot with a spoon, and while team members strapped on crampons and grabbed ice axes I donned my parka and ventured into the frosty air.
Thick clouds blanketed the valley below, with only the mountain’s silhouetted spire poking through.
A crescent moon bathed just enough light to imbue the tops of the clouds with a shimmering glow, and I stood like a sentinel for more than an hour, enveloped in Stygian blackness and shrouded in silence.
Shivering, I prepared to return to my bunk, but a distant pinpoint of light locked me in place.
Other illuminated dots appeared, moving in procession.
These were the headlamps of climbers inching their way up the mountain.
I watched the undulating line slowly ascend, grateful I had waited another moment to witness the magical spectacle.
Whenever I’m tempted to pass up or curtail an experience, I think of that potential missed opportunity. Who knows how many other phenomena I’ve missed by cutting a moment short?
On another occasion, while climbing in dense fog up the Lion Head promontory en route to the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington I took heart in a brightening sky. It wasn’t that the fog was lifting but that I was rising.
Upon reaching the mile-high pinnacle of Lion Head I poked through the fog as if through a layer of cotton.
Far-off peaks jutted in a cerulean sky, and a gusty breeze swept fog wisps like plumes of smoke. Sunlight filtering through those wisps formed a rainbow over Huntington Ravine, and a giant shadow materialized in the middle of an arched prism.
As I clambered upward I saw the shadow shift, and realized it was mine.
The sun had dipped precisely between the distant ravine and me. I was alone and could only say, “Wow!”
On still another mountaineering outing a setting sun created a perihelion, a meteorological phenomenon also called a sun dog that glowed for only an instant as I descended a frozen Mount Adams. If my head had been turned, or if I hadn’t taken off my goggles to wipe away frost, I would have missed it.
Timing is everything.
On that note, I shift to a less-elevated but no less-elevating experience that took place just last Saturday during my annual maple syrup bacchanal. All right, it didn’t exactly constitute inebriated revelry, but was nonetheless intoxicating.
As I had recounted the week before, I had tapped my maple trees, lit a wood fire in a makeshift stone pit and boiled the sap to produce syrup.
Because of the mild winter I had collected only about 15 gallons of sap that would yield less than a quart of syrup. No matter – I spent eight hours tending the flames and chatting with friends who had stopped by.
As darkness approached I sampled the syrup and decided it needed only a few more minutes.
Sandy Van Zandt of Noank, whom I’ve known for years, is perhaps one of the world’s greatest raconteurs, and he and his wife, Sidney, were recounting one of their sailing adventures – they’ve circumnavigated the globe in a boat that Sandy designed and built.
Another friend, Bob Graham, and I listened raptly.
Suddenly, an acrid aroma penetrated the air.
“The syrup!” I cried.
I raced over to the pot and snatched it from the grill. Sidney grabbed an empty container and shouted, “Pour it in here!”
My heart sank as I watched a viscous sludge ooze from the pot.
“It’s ruined!” I wailed.
But then I dipped a spoon into the thick, dark liquid, and brought it to my lips.
Sacre bleu! C’est magnifique!
Instead of thin syrup I had inadvertently created a hearty, crème brulee confection enhanced with the most delicate caramelized tinge of burnt sugar.
An instant later the concoction would have incinerated to inedible ash.
“The best ever,” I declared, spooning my creation over servings of vanilla bean ice cream.
The others were too busy slurping it down to reply.