I was scrolling through emails the other morning and saw one with “Sailing with Jud” in the subject line. It took me by surprise because the only Jud I know has been successful in avoiding electronic communication and social media. Back in the day the answering machine messages from him usually started with, “Hey, you wanna’ go on an adventure?”
This blog is supposed to be about the people and places encountered in the backwaters while fly fishing. Jud and I have never fished together but our friendship grew through many adventures in places I would consider to be “backwater” so I’m making an exception here.
I met Jud Thurston in early October 1990, when he and I were part of a crew sailing a Tartan 34 from Bermuda to New York City. I was living and working in Burlington, Vermont at the time and he lived just over an hour to the south in Chittenden. Jud and I were paired up and had the overnight watch. In the interest of full disclosure, he did most of the sailing during the first part of the trip because I spent the first 36 hours with my head over the rail. It might have been the Heineken’s at dinner the night before. Or the Dark and Stormies the afternoon before. Regardless, I couldn’t look at a green beer bottle until 2014 without getting a queasy feeling.
Over the course of the trip helping Jud with galley duties, the night watches and sailing the last days through the tail of Hurricane Lili we became fast friends. He was an ice climber and we spent a great deal of time talking about climbing and he agreed to teach me. A few weeks later I went to Mt. Washington with him and a few of his climbing buddies and my education began.
By 1993 I was climbing on a regular basis and had been accepted into the group of people Jud climbed with. He and I made several trips up Mt. Washington over the winters but nearly every year we would all meet as a group at the Harvard Hut (Cabin) for “Opening” and “Closing” weekends. The hut and Huntington Ravine became as familiar to me as my own home and the group of misfits we climbed with became extended family. These weekends became something of legend with sunset après climb parties on the wood pile followed by some pretty extraordinary meals carried up the mountain and laid out on the old plank table like Thanksgiving. And quietly at the center of it all was Jud, the silently agreed upon Mayor of the Harvard Hut and leader on the mountain. One of our group, Tony, used to talk about Jud leading a climb, setting up a top rope and climbing one piece of ice over and over, sitting on the rocks in Tuckerman’s just watching people or putting together one of those banquet meals at the Harvard Hut as “doing The Jud.” It was a nod to the respect that those of us who know him, and those who know of him, had for him on the mountain and as a man.
We climbed a lot of places during those years; Smuggler’s Notch, the Bristol Cliffs, Frankenstein and Lake Willoughby. A few stand out in my mind, like my first time at Willoughby. Our friend Graham was leading the climb that day with me in the second spot. We were climbing one of the practice slabs, I don’t remember which one but it was a nearly vertical two-pitch climb. Looking up at it I wasn’t sure I could do it. I looked at Jud and said, “You’re fu#*ing kidding me.”
He looked back at me and said, “What…yeah…no...you can do it.” He said shit like that all the time.
“You can climb the first ten feet no problem, right? The rest of it is just like that, only higher.”
I made the first pitch but I was scared out of my mind as I tied into the belay point with Graham. I started out the second pitch strong but fear took over as I reached a small overhanging bulge at the crux. I stopped just short of it and as I hung there evaluating my next move I developed “sewing machine leg” in both legs and popped off the face of the ice. I only fell about five or six feet before the rope took my weight but it felt like a mile. Once I realized I wasn’t going to die I got my tools back on the ice and kicked in my front points. Now I was pissed that my friends had dragged me up this piece of ice I had said I couldn’t climb. Anger quelled the fear and I got over the bulge and topped out with Graham. I told him I hated him and sat down to wait for Jud.
It took Jud about five minutes to climb what had seemed to take me an hour. When he topped out I told him I hated him as well.
“What…yeah…well...you’re up here…knew you could do it.”
It was a quiet walk to a spot where we could rappel down. There’s something about rappelling down a cliff that makes everything better. When I kicked off the edge I was still pissed. When I got to the bottom I was ready to climb again...after apologies were made.
The other climb that will always stand out in my memory is my first lead up Pinnacle Gully on Mt. Washington. It was me, Jud and another guy I had never climbed with. I had been up Pinnacle enough times to feel comfortable on it and had no hesitation when Jud told me to lead it. Setting the first piece of protection halfway up the first pitch, hanging there by the front-points of my crampons and one ice tool; just three tiny points of metal stuck in a frozen waterfall to prevent me from falling while I one handed an ice screw into it…that’s a rush bested only by knowing my friend and climbing mentor had the trust in me to lead the climb.
Once I topped out and set up the belay, I took a minute to look down the gully and out over Huntington Ravine before giving the signal to Jud to climb. I was exhausted and cold but had never felt so alive. When Jud got up to me he tackled me with a bear hug. It had been an accomplishment not just for the student, but the teacher as well.
Not all adventures were on the ice. There were whitewater trips to the Upper Hudson and the Kennebec with some of the Harvard Hut gang. The infamous Big Trade where I swapped my motorcycle with Jud for a whitewater kayak and a pickup truck full of paddling and climbing gear. An epic weekend at Sunday River skiing bumps on White Heat in t-shirts one day and ten inches of powder under the lift lines on Oz the next. The gig Jud got for he and I and Graham serving as “Mountain Experts” and safety climbers for a VISA / American Skiing Company commercial shot at Killington.
And there was the Traverse.
I got a call from Jud one summer evening. It was the usual, “What are you doing this weekend, wanna’ go on an adventure? How ‘bout part of the Presidential Traverse on Saturday?”
We met in the dark on Saturday morning at Pinkham Notch, left a vehicle there and drove around to the Appalachia Trailhead on the other side. We hit the trail just as the sun was rising and clicked off Mt. Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clark and Washington; got down to Pinkham, picked up the other vehicle and drove to my family’s camp in Harrison, Maine to get a beer, quick swim and clean clothes and made it to Rick’s Café in Naples in time to get a table on the roof deck for dinner and tequila as the sun set over Long Lake. We covered a lot of terrain that day. On Sunday, just to unwind, we met up with our buddy, Hank, for a leisurely rock climb at Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, NH. Classic doing "The Jud."
None of this has anything to do with the backwater and yet it does. I watched Jud with his kids when they were growing up at their home, on hiking trips, ski trips and climbing with his son, Ben. It left an impression on me and as I’ve raised my daughter I’ve emulated some of the things I learned from him as a father. As he brought his kids up in the mountains, I’ve brought Abby up on the river. Jud’s spent his life working as a carpenter and a mason, he’s one of the most powerful people in mind, body and spirit I’ve ever known. He has incredible strength and endurance, the kind earned from working with your back and hands and honed by taking pride in what you do. Perhaps the greatest thing I learned from him is the ability to find the calm in the space that exists between the edge and the abyss below, not just on the mountain but in life.
On one of my last trips to Mt. Washington, after climbing in Huntington in the morning and then going on one of Jud’s famous afternoon “walkabouts” our group got back to the Harvard Hut in time for cocktails before dinner. As they began happy hour out on the wood pile, I set about organizing and repacking gear while Jud started getting things ready for dinner. When I finished, I walked outside and Tony dug a beer out of the snow, handed it to me and said, “Let me buy you a beer, Little Jud.”
It was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.
I hope we have a few more adventures left in us.
Friend, mentor, last of a breed.
South River, MA
19 April 2017