MOUNT WASHINGTON — Dick Dreselly got out of his car at the trailhead, looked up at the cloud-covered summit, and then called his wife, Marge, in Topsham, Maine, to assure her that everything would be all right because he had brought a reporter and photographer “to carry the body down.”
He changed into an old pair of shorts, tightened the Velcro on the sneakers he’d bought for $5 at Goodwill, strapped on his trusty red pack, and set out on a three-day journey up the Crawford Path to the top of Mount Washington, an 8.5-mile slog over boulders and more boulders. It’s 4,750 feet of vertical gain, much of it above treeline, exposed to the legendary horrific winds that have led many to call it the most dangerous small mountain in the world.
It is a journey he has made many times before, including just last year with his grandson, but this one was special because in January, Dreselly celebrated a big milestone: He turned 90.
According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, there are no official records for the oldest person to climb Mount Washington, the tallest mountain in the northeastern United States. But Dreselly was not hiking to set any sort of mark. He was going to the summit, as he told the many hikers who asked, because he feels lucky that he still can.
His answer does not have the glib bravado of “because it’s there” — as the explorer George Mallory famously told a reporter who asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest — but for Dreselly, being lucky is his thing. He’s survived prostate cancer and heart surgery and MIT and most of the 20th century. He’s sailed solo across the Atlantic, arriving in Florida nearly out of supplies, with his ribs showing through his skin. During the Vietnam War, when he worked for a contractor, he was saved by a stranger on a country road who stopped him from riding his motorcycle straight into a Viet Cong ambush.
Now, he says, his luck is very simple: He’s alive, and he can still get up into the White Mountains that have been his great love since he was a teenager in Maine.
And so on Labor Day, Dreselly set off from the valley floor in Crawford Notch with a plan to spend three days getting to the summit, with two overnight pit stops at the high-mountain huts operated by the Appalachian Mount Club.
It was hot and sticky as he began, and the going was slow. His 90-year-old legs struggled to find footing on the endless boulders, and several times he had to grab nearby trees to keep from tumbling. But he found his rhythm, fell into the pace of the climb, which for him means talking while he’s walking. Long-form tales are Dreselly’s chief form of communication. He simply cannot help himself, and you can see him constantly trying to stop himself. “But anyway,” he’ll say as feels himself getting too far down one of the long stories drawn from his long life, then change the subject to something else, probably another long story.
As he got about halfway up the 2-mile climb to the Mizpah Spring Hut at the base of Mount Pierce, the first alpine breezes beginning to cool the sweat on his arms, he had a moment where he paused and told himself: I can do this.
He arrived at the hut with plenty of time before dinner, so he crawled into a bottom bunk and took a nap before reemerging for an epic night of storytelling. Dreselly, who was a civil engineer and systems programmer for the Maine Department of Transportation, has loved the communal vibe of the AMC huts since he made his first visit to the high-mountain cabins in the 1940s. He loves the old logbooks, the family-style dinners, the hikers sitting around telling tales of the mountains, the history of adventure and death that swirls outside. He carried in his wallet a receipt from a hut overnight in 1965, showing he had paid $5 for lodging and $1 for a trail lunch.
As the night wore on and more and more people asked him why he was making the climb, Dreselly’s answer grew more nuanced than “because I’m lucky.” He added in the other side, the reality that someday his luck would run out. By breakfast, his answer had become “because I may not have this chance again.”
Tuesday’s hike began with a steep stretch of boulders just outside the hut, but Dreselly was feeling giddy, talking the whole way as the trees began to shorten and disappear and he arrived once more in the alpine zone, which was fogged-in and crisp, with nothing to see except a wall of white. The forecast was for clouds and rain all day, but by midday everything melted away, revealing the Presidential Range all around. It was also the first real view of Mount Washington, which still looked far away.
“It’s a small world, except on foot,” he said as he trudged along. “Poco a poco.”
Little by little, those steps added up, and Dreselly reached the Lakes of the Clouds hut, not far below the summit of Mount Washington, feeling good. He dunked his head into one of the icy lakes, spent the night telling more stories of adventures in the mountains — he and his wife have hiked all over the world, including the entire Appalachian Trail, which they finished in 1999 — and then got to bed early to rest up for the toughest part of the climb.
The trail from Lakes of the Clouds to the summit of Mount Washington is just over a mile, but it is brutal. It looks and feels like you’re on another planet, and Dreselly was really fighting his way, pausing to chat with any hiker who passed him, a nice way to sneak in a rest. Occasionally, he’d look up at the antennas at the summit and accuse them of getting farther away with each step.
On Wednesday, a little before noon, after 90 years of living and three days of tough hiking, Dick Dreselly finally reached the bizarre world that is the summit cone of Mount Washington, home to the “world’s worst weather” and a snack bar. Dreselly made his way through the throngs of tourists who had come up the auto road or ridden the Cog Railway, headed for the summit sign, which is on a small pile of rocks, and got in line behind a group in flip-flops waiting to take a photo.
Some hikers he’d met at the hut cheered for him as he finally stepped to the top of New England and touched the sign. He then made a declaration: “This is the last time I climb Mount Washington,” he said. “At least until the next time.”
And with that, it was time to head down, but he scoffed at the idea of taking the Cog Railway.
“That would be cheating,” he said as he began leading the trip down the mountain, poco a poco, feeling very lucky.
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.