Let's ride the gondola, shall we? It takes about fourteen minutes to get from the parking lot of Wildcat to the summit, just over 4,000 feet. You pay the clerk, you walk to the lift, which sorta looks like a space tram, and you tumble into the little red box hanging from a rope. Don't worry, it can't fall. I imagine only if some Paul Bunyan-sized hatchet man decided to climb Wildcat would you have any concerns. Ignore the occasional wobble from wind and remember you're only a few feet off the ground. The gondola climbs over two thousand feet in a short time, so take a deep breath and get ready for ears to pop.
Kick your feet back and check out that up close view of Mount Washington across the street. There's so much going on at Tuckerman's Ravine. I mean, is that a gorge gushing out of the mountain? A pocket of ice still lingering? A shard of cliff, or just the auto road? Oh, is it just a streak on the glass of the gondola? Silly me. From here Washington looks like a backdrop in an alpine musical. To think so many people have died there and all their names are on display just at the top of the canvas you're now critiquing. It's a somber musical. Just a few of my favorite things.
Wildcat is one of the favorite skiing destinations in the region, and in the winter, the ski chairs can reach the summit in seven minutes. The gondola ride goes slower, as it is heavier, and of course, to get your money's worth. Looking over at Tuckerman's, I remember a story an old timer told me from the days of yore, skiing the Ravine, everyone's drinking and having fun at the lodge, someone tied a keg to his goat and lugged it up the mountain. What a scene I've yet to witness – and maybe never will.
It's hard to believe in the heat of summer that snow covers these swaths of fern and treelings, whatever other green things are crawling around down there. I know there's brambles, no easy footing, things that will chew your boots alive. The paths – with feline-inspired names like Wild Kitten, Hairball, and Leo's Leap – are only navigable with a few feet of snow padding them, anyway. For those on foot, stick to the trails, and those primeval woods thereon. The precipitous Wildcat Ridge Trail is as adventurous as the fastest zip down the slopes.
But the gondola makes things easy. Just get out when the dude on the summit opens the door for you. He's a man of few words, there you are, have a nice day, and you stumble onto the summit to mingle with tourists and hikers alike. And you thought the views of Mount Washington were nice on the ride up. Now you're just a big leap of faith away from scaling it. But its quite fine here in the wildflowers. So rest your haunches on a rock and stretch out a bit in the sun.
An even grander view, I think, is just a tilt of the head to the north, where Adams and Madison loom. In many ways, Adams is a tougher climb than Washington. And there are far less people – and certainly no amenities. Just one grumpy old mountain.
Today there's a woman up here, a hiker, and she's standing around waiting. She's got her pack and her hiking gear. She keeps peering down the gondola line. Then a crowd of people spill off the liftoff pad, holding a big sign that reads “48” in bold marker, they're loud and happy, waving and cheering. We are lucky, to stand up here and witness the celebration this hiker is having today. She's just bagged her final 4,000-footer. That's the daydream of every hiker 'round these parts (including yours truly) and be sure to congratulate her as you pass by, on your leisurely stroll back to your gondola chauffeur, who grunts pleasantly to have a nice day. And it's quite nice, as I wave to my car two thousand feet below me.
The lodge down below is from another dimension, a cavernous chalet with lots of corners to explore, generations of ski fashion and interior design, vintage signs, and locker room food court conference hall mumble jumble, and it's just a delight to wander through. Old skis and lanterns hang from the ceilings and walls, signs plastered everywhere from every decade. This place has been rockin' since the 1950's and all the clubs from over the years are represented. My favorite was the Massaschussers. Not being a skiier, I needed to look up the word “schuss” and it means so many awesome things, a shot, a mild craziness, an attractice female, a narcotic injection, but mostly it's just a fast, fun ski trail. Spelled just a little differently, it can also mean good bye, a fun way to say “see ya!”
You're just standing out in the parking lot, wondering what to do next and suddenly you hear people yellin' above you, and you peer up to see zipliners wailing by. Gonna have to try that sometime. This place is crazy! But for now, my friend, tchüss!