Adventures In High Tech Among Old School Enthusiasts

Whenever I go for a run with Laura Ely, occasionally accompanied by her husband, Rick, as well as by mutual friends Bob Graham and Phil Plouffe, another voice regularly interrupts our rambling conversation.

“Mile 1 … Mile 2 … Mile 3 …”

Laura is among my tech-savvy friends who runs with a mobile device programmed to call out time and distance in soothing, electronic tones.

My late, great friend Johnny Kelly of marathon fame once introduced me to the legendary trainer Jock Semple, famous for driving alongside runners and bellowing out the window in his trademark Scottish brogue, “Come on, you sad sons of bs! Pick up the pace!”

Kell took a quieter approach with the high school runners he coached, and when I tagged along on team workouts I watched him calmly hang back in the pack for the first seven or eight miles and then slowly pull away at the finish, challenging his young charges to hang with a guy who won at Boston and competed twice in the Olympics.

These days I think how wonderful it would be if you could download a Jock or Johnny app on your iPhone that would blend old-school coaching with high-tech motivation.

This may surprise loyal readers who peg me as a low-tech guy, especially since I’ve often weighed in on the folly of relying on global positioning systems, cellphones and other gadgets instead of old-fashioned maps and compasses. But I’m not a Luddite and concede there are times when new technology comes in handy.

In fact, an email sent the other day from my Maine pals Mary Lou Lowrie and Nat Steele – you may recall they joined me and some other friends a couple weeks ago on a climb up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire – illustrates just such an occasion.

The couple sent me separate versions of a recent adventure climbing Mount Abraham, a 4,050-foot peak in western Maine that my son Tom and I had scrambled up a few years ago on our mission to tag the tops of all 67 4,000-footers in New England. As I recalled it wasn’t a particularly challenging summit, but that doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances Mary Lou, Nat and their friend Alison Bramhall, all experienced hikers trained in survival skills, encountered last week.

Nat, customarily laconic, provided a concise description that downplayed the danger, but the voluble Mary Lou offered a colorfully detailed narrative. Some excerpts of an account she initially sent to her coach (Mary Lou is a former world champion triathlete in her age group):

“Forgot to set the way point on Garmin where we parked vehicle (ugh). Hike up was awesome, although trail was not well-marked in places. Lots of downed trees, many of which had blazes that could not be seen even in daylight …

“Talus slopes and summit super cold (in teens and blowing, rime ice, hoar frost). We hunkered into a rock wind shelter at top and had lunch. Started down steadily but managed to lose trail well below tree line when dark was approaching around 4:30p. Uh-oh. Backtracked, but by then it got very dark. We followed a rough trail and ended up on a logging road near a gravel pit. Instinctively, headed downhill on the road. (wrong....we were getting further from river). Was REALLY dark by that time. We conserved headlamp battery, turning off all but one and worked on getting bearings on GPS (slow satellites). We had 2 very difficult river crossings and 4 smaller (but dicey) brook crossings yet to go….

“Alison asked if we had a ‘techy friend’ we could call that could help figure out coordinates of vehicle location.....Mike MacDonald, of course! I had enough Verizon bars and 1/2 battery power left. Called Mike, he answered (Phew). He was able to give us some preliminary direction. This was incredibly slow going in the moonlight, new moon. Lots of stars though! …

“We knew we could build a shelter of leaves to stay the night marginally warm huddled together. Had a small amount of H2O, one packet of PowerBar Perform Energy Blasts, 1/2 apple, two slivers of Asiago cheese, and a couple bites of dark chocolate. At this point we were a bit hungry and thirsty, but knew we could survive hunger. It was the cold (teens), river crossings and deer hunters that we worried about….

“Man, that bushwhack was TOUGH!!!! Many smaller tributaries to navigate across (those were dicey too) and dense forestation of fir trees and blow-downs. Finally, hours later, we made it to the washed out bridge! Decision was to remove socks to keep them dry and slosh our way across knee-deep rushing river in boots (better traction on slippery rocks) …

“Scrambled up the bank and headed for the next crossing.....cold, wet river sloshing in our boots. Made that one too......PHEW!

Mary Lou then described making the final river crossing, spotting their car about 10 p.m. and driving home at midnight – nearly hitting a bull moose on the way.

“Next time, we won't forget to set coordinates of car, or pack matches and flint in case there's the need to wait it out until daybreak. Otherwise, all was good!”

Only a hard-core adventurer could end a harrowing tale that way.

I replied to Mary Lou and Nat’s email to tell them I was glad they were safe, adding how sorry I was to have missed all the fun.


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