Rocks (1933)

Barbara in the Swiss Alps, 1933
Barbara in the Alps, 1933

In the summer of 1931, Barbara, Nick Rogers, and two friends spent some time camping and exploring the Katahdin area of Maine. Later, Barbara wrote about her relationship with the great mountain entitled Rocks.

Transcribing Rocks was a moving experience for me. I’ve climbed Katahdin three times and remember many of the landmarks Barbara describes: Chimney Pond, The Chimney, The Monument, Pamola Peak, and, of course, Knife-Edge, one of the more exhilarating 1.1 miles of trail I’ve walked. Here’s a taste of what it’s like, with thanks to YouTube user roh92cp:


This was the “Knife-Edge” of Mount Katahdin. It was a ragged edge of rock suspended in a space of clouds.

I was trying to climb backwards down a bristling hump, and the foothold I had got up by seemed to have vanished. I felt for it helplessly with one foot. I couldn’t see below, because the rocks were in the way. There seemed nothing to do. I clung, trembling a little. All around, great swift drops into space that swirled with mist. Everything was wet–grasses and hardy vines were pearled with small drops; so were my hair and eyelashes.

I took a chance, and jumped, backwards, for a narrow ledge below. Then the mountain and I came together in a clash. I bounced over a grassy shelf, and whirled through the air. “Nothing matters now,” I thought. A fleeting, heroic second… I up-ended ridiculously on hands and knees, clinging to a thick tuft of grass. Well! It wasn’t a sheer drop, after all. Vaguely disappointing–life would have to go on, then. My face was cut and my nose bleeding. I got up slowly and laughed, because it had been drilled into me that it was good sportsmanship to laugh when such things happened. The faces of my three comrades were horror-struck and rather absurd.

The mountain changed after that. I was afraid of it. Afraid to step over a fissure from one rock to another, to worm around on narrow ledges, or walk cautiously down smooth steep inclines. All the way down Pamola Peak back to camp, I was frightened. Mist swirled. Rocks, rocks–peaked, rounded, rough, smooth, edgy–gray rocks and mist and a malevolent mountain…

The next day it rained. The gaunt, sheer walls that towered over Chimney Pond and surrounded it on three sides, were covered with a network of silver waterfalls. The pond rose and rose. Everybody’s butter and bacon, placed carefully in the brook to keep cool, were swept away. The shelter roof leaked. I glanced up at those rock walls that went up sheer and were lost in the clouds, and knew that I should always be afraid of them, unless somehow I could contrive to slip away from everyone and go exploring, quietly and alone…

There was a hunk of chocolate in my pocket, and that was all the equipment I needed. We had bailed out the shelter, and hung our sleeping-bags in the sun.

“I think I’ll run down to Basin Pond and pick a pail of blueberries,” I said.

But what I really did was double back through the woods behind the shelter, and join the trail toward Saddle Slide, feeling half-gleeful, half-afraid.

The upper end of that trail, the slide itself, is grueling. It is very steep, and the footing is a specially pernicious kind of loose sandy stuff. It rolls out from under you. You slide back. It buries you to the ankles. The whole mountain is a running river of gravel. You stand in it and wonder when it will stop. You bend your back and struggle on, sometimes on hands and feet. It is heart-breaking, but short. You gain the brim quickly, and step over on to level solid plateau that forms almost a right angle with the slide. There you are, panting, glad to see that the mountain is still there.

I stood in sunlight on the brim, with the wind blowing through my hair. Katahdin was spread out before me and around me. Below was the great North Basin, scooped out of the mountain; Chimney Pond and the camp lay in the bottom of it. Across this gulf loomed the gray shoulder of Pamola, eastern pillar of the semicircular wall. The jagged line of the Knife-Edge, really more of a saw-edge, joined Pamola to the rocky and wild Monument, highest peak of all. On this western side where I was standing, the mountain spread out monstrously–an ocean of gray-green plateaus, undulating, rising to an occasional dome or rocky point, dipping off into gulfs and ravines, or unexplored basins with ponds shining in their depths. Grassy stuff in springy tufts grew on these plateaus; also small shrubs and vines, such as mountain cranberries, so hardy that the berries survive the first snows; black crow-berries; curiously flavored mountain blueberries. Small bright flowers in sheltered places. Acres of knee-high and waist-high scrub fir, almost impossible to make way through. It spreads its branches flat, growing horizontally–in places you can walk on it as on a springy carpet.

Vast, lonely old mountain, it reared up, 5200 feet high, over low smooth hills, shallow valleys, soft furry forests of blue and green–a country riddled silver with twisted lakes and ponds and rivers. I stood on the rim of of it, and looked over it, and it was mine.

Slowly I followed the faint trail toward the North Peak. At Caribou Spring, I kneeled on damp sphagnum moss to drink. And I thought of Dinny, back in the shelter at Chimney Pond. We had drunk together out of this spring, she kneeling on one side of it and I on the other, red head and brown head in the center; John had come frisking up and dropped down between us, impishly grinning. “Room for another caribou?” he asked. Red head, brown head, gold head… But this time I was alone; and half expected, looking up, to see a caribou’s brown ghost staring at me with soft eyes…

Again the space of mountain prairie with its green swoops into ravines. The trails on this northern part of the mountain were faint and hard to follow–no more than lines of small and infrequent cairns strung out over long slopes. Sometimes you could see one squatting on top of a big rock against the skyline, hundreds of feet ahead. If mist should come up thick, you could lose yourself on these great wide plateaus as easily as if you were far at sea. I had a vision of wandering listlessly through miles of quivering grass and flat fir, finding only a wet sky and this gray-green waste, coming now and then to the crumbly edge of a prodigious unknown ravine choked with mist, on the wrong side of the mountain. I would lie on the edge of it and gaze down. Somewhere below, through the swirling masses of cloud, I would hear the voice of a great waterfall…

Above the expansive vagueness of these plateaus, the grim old Monument loomed, built of the jagged gray rocks I was afraid of… Always I had known mountains, not always in friendly mood. I had been lost in a sleet storm after dark with a failing flashlight on the peak of Liberty, wind howling like a mad wolf; I had been bound for a week by snow and fog in the old house on Moosilaukee. A long succession of mountain adventures, one mountain following another down the skyline like great blue billows. I had cast about in vain to find the meaning of their beauty and strange power: the storm of feeling with which they could shake me; the longing for them which sometimes fevered me; the completeness of the satisfaction they gave.

But this one–this isolated, untamed old mountain–why was it so dispiriting? Was it because of the tales I had heard–of guides coming back to camp insane with fear, of people lost, caught on exposed places in savage weather–of people hurt, killed, on sheer headwalls? Or was it because of the wilderness of forest and swamp in which the mountain stands, where wildcats prowl?

I would come to terms with this mountain. Those rocks must be explored–tranquilly, easily. They were grim and formidable, but maybe one could make friends with them.

Past the top of the Saddle Slide trail again, up the well-marked trail to the Monument. I felt secret exultation, because, in spite of awe and fear, here I was, a very, very small thing, quite alone, scrambling toward the peak of this old Jinx of a mountain.

Quiet gray rocks … Why should anyone be afraid of quiet gray rocks?

Three men were coming down the peak, far above. Presently we met. They looked surprised. One of them had a coil of rope over his shoulder. They had crawled up the “Chimney” that morning. We discussed the weather; passed on; were lost from sight among–rocks.

“I went up the Chimney, too,” I said aloud …

* * *

I had been frightened almost cruelly. It was the first time I had been hitched up in a rope party, or done anything that could be called “rock-climbing.” The Chimney is a steep and narrow channel, a cleft that goes straight up, starting a little above Chimney Pond, and ends in a gulch between Pamola Peak and the Knife-Edge. This cleft has been blocked in places by enormous “chokestones,” which have to be got over, or under, or through, or around.

The four of us had roped up, for the “fun” of it and for practice, near the bottom, before there was any danger. We scrambled over big rocks and up ledges, trying to keep out of waterfalls. Sometimes we looked up at the chimerical steepness and narrowness of the passageway filled with mist–a crude rock passageway that had no summit–that merely was lost in clouds. And after some time we could see the dark shape of the first chokestone, looming and menacing, pinioned treacherously between the two walls of the gorge.

John was the most capable one of us: later on it appeared that he was the only capable one of us. He knew about rocks; was at home with a rope around his middle. He took the lead, and after a good deal of clumsiness and some anxious moments, we all managed to get over the first of the barriers. Then up the rocks again, in the mist. In this sort of climbing you use not only feet and hands, but knees, elbows, shoulders. The going got harder, and the healthy cold brook which tumbled down the gorge did not help. We were slower and slower. Every step was a problem to be puzzled out. And then the second chokestone intruded itself, a massive black wall almost over our heads–the end of the world–surely there could be nothing above that but mist! We looked back down; the way we had come dipped off and was as completely lost in clouds as the way above. We were on the precarious edge of everything concrete.

John, surprisingly, clung to a faith that there was really something beyond, and he began to figure out ways and means of getting to it. He was in favor of a desperate, improbable passage through the grim body of that chokestone and cut through a fissure at the top. There was a crude landing-place–a sort of shallow cave–part way up the side, and the brook ran through that. We began to straggle up to this gloomy ledge, only one of us moving at a time; but there was no room when we got there–no rest–nothing for it but to struggle on through the rock. It looked very nasty, the next bit of climbing–up and around a wet black corner to an even more uncomfortable little cave, above the first one and completely out of sight. No room there, either; so I, who came last, had to wait at the first landing, while the rest of them took breath and considered matters. I was jammed in against damp rocks, and after a while became aware that I was also crouching in a waterfall–a small one, but very cold.

It was lonely. The others were scrambling about. I had nothing for company except an end of rope. I waited–continued to sit in the waterfall, because there was nowhere else. It wasn’t very comfortable. It was dripping down the back of my neck. Devilishly lonely. I was frightened, too. It was a precarious position, what with the waterfall, and the narrowness and slight downward angle of the ledge. If I so much as moved a toe, showers of loose pebbles and dirt went cavorting off down the mountain-side–bouncing and rattling and echoing disconsolately–farther and farther away until they were swallowed and hushed in the mist-filled gorge. Life was very cold and wet.

I waited. Sometimes they communicated from above. I couldn’t hear very well, because they tended all to talk at once. But it seemed that they were having a dickens of a time. There would be silence, consultation, then desperate scrambles and showers of pebbles. They might have been in another world. I began to wonder if I should ever get off that ledge, or if I should presently fall off into the long steep gorge. I was stiff with cold by now; and that climb up to the next cave wasn’t at all appealing. You had to swing outward, abandoning everything of any solidity, and wriggle up a slippery-looking tube of rock. The longer I waited, the worse it looked. Even at the end of a rope…

Even the rope was gone now. They needed the whole length of it up there. From the scraps of talk that came down to me, I realized that John had got out of the fissure at the top, and was trying to get Dinny out. Nick was crouching in a corner; she would “take off” from his shoulders, and then scramble desperately, while John held the rope from above, to make progress up a sheet of rock that not only was just about vertical, but also wet. And she couldn’t quite make it. She would slide back and try again.

I shivered. Their comments and exclamations were anything but reassuring, and I didn’t at all like the sound of the things that were happening to Dinny. I continued to balance in the waterfall on the edge of nothing, without even a rope for company, and tried to philosophize. The world was coming to an end, but there was chocolate in my jacket. I munched and felt better. Chocolate was good even when the world was coming to an end.

My turn at last. A miracle had happened: Dinny was out. They slid the rope back to me–an anxious job, since it had to come around a corner, and I had to lean outward precariously to reach it–and then all three began calling instructions and encouragements at once. I asked them to say it over again, one at a time.

Nick’s voice came out of the little cave above. “Tie a bowline! Your life depends on it.”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll be glad to get out of this waterfall.” But it was very hard to move. I was stiff, and anyway moving hardly seemed advisable. The mountain continued to slide out from beneath me.

“Are you O.K.?” asked Nick. His voice did not sound right.

“Oh, sure,” I said, “only this here mountain’s coming to pieces under me. I can’t remember how to tie a bowline.”

“Rabbit comes out of his hole, runs around a tree–back in hole,” he reminded me.

I sat in the waterfall and thought it out quietly. “All right,” I said at last. “Keep that rope good and tight, Nick, but for God’s sake don’t pull me. I want to come up under my own power, you understand.”

He said: “Be careful. I can’t stand much strain–things are pretty rickety up here.”

“Nicky,” said I, “isn’t there anything firm and strong and solid left in life?”

“Let’s hope the rope is,” he said.

I clenched my teeth, and got off that horrible little ledge. Braced on the rope, I got a kind of foothold–lost it–got something with my hands–rested a minute. “All right up there?” I queried.

“Yup. You’ve got a knee-hold a wee bit higher up.”

So I had. Knees and elbows. I suspended myself between the walls of the little dark passageway. The next crack was right above. Nick sat huddled in it, braced on nothing much. I rested again, heaved, and was up. And then I saw that I wasn’t a bit better off than before, except that here there was no waterfall.

There’s nothing amusing to tell about that next bit of climbing. Obviously, I got out at last through the fissure–mostly by dint of John’s hauling me out by brute force. He hauled and I scrabbled like mad; but there were moments when I simply dangled in space by the arm-pits. The thing I was supposed to be climbing rose practically parallel to my helpless body, and offered not so much as a small fret or notch to grab it by. When finally I was out of there, standing on top of that beast of a chokestone, I discovered that I was rather banged up. Both knees and elbows were raw, and I was conscious of minor scrapes and bruises by the dozen. I shivered a little, and listened with a half-smile to Nick tying himself into the rope,  humming to reassure himself. His voice was quavering badly.

After that progress was more possible, although there were bad times as we squeezed along too narrow ledges, or shinned over slippery ridges, always with the mist blowing down cold from the Knife-Edge into our faces. Finally we passed underneath the last chokestone, which, suspended high between the walls of the gully, formed a sinister bridge. It was our gateway of triumph. The grade was a little less steep now–“rolling over”–the sky was close, full of its scudding mist…

We had climbed over that first bristling hump of the Knife-Edge, to see what it was like. It was very fierce and narrow. The sky was a blank of mist. The depths were a blank of mist. We walked on a narrow ragged edge of rock suspended in a space of clouds.

Back again over the first hump, into the gully below Pamola. And then–the lost foothold, the second or two of clinging, the little scrambling jump–and the falling, striking a ledge, and falling, falling ….

* * *

I awoke with a start out of this racking daydream. I was picking my way in leisurely fashion over jumbled rocks. By now I had nearly reached the top of the Monument, and suddenly I knew that all the fear and trouble were ended. I was alone with the mountain, and the rocks were essentially friendly rocks. Mist was drifting in–not solidly, but in preliminary wisps and fragments.

I stood surrounded by wind on the Monument itself, and looked out over a Maine dappled with clouds. Lakes were a quick gleam of silver in distant sunlight between wraiths of mist. Patches of sunlight strayed about the mountain–alighted on Pamola, went out, touched the little camp in the gulf, reappeared fleetingly over northern plateaus. In places the jagged line of the Knife-Edge, very sharp and black, pierced the gray sinuous fragments of mist, looming above a restless obscure space. The drops into that abyss, with the spruces and firs in its depths–fuzzy little toy trees–were almost sheer, from Hamlin Ridge in the north clear around the huge circle to Pamola. Between the long slant of the Ridge, and the grim tower of the peak, was the only gateway to Chimney Pond–the only break in that stern wall. All this I saw brokenly between quiet clouds.

To walk from here down on to the Knife-Edge was like venturing out along the top edge of a gigantic jagged wall. The saying that in some places the Knife-Edge is so narrow that you can straddle it as if it were some mythical horse, is no exaggeration. On one side, the gulf of the North Basin, you can distinctly see pebble-like things that are big boulders at the bottom of Chimney Pond. On the other side, the vastness of Maine.

I munched my chocolate, there on the Monument, and felt and smelt of the wind, not very strong. And so I slipped along quietly on the Knife-Edge trail. I knew now that these rocks were not going to hurt me. The clouds were companionable, too. They wandered in, white and pearly gray, from the southeast, slipped through the jags of the Knife-Edge, and drifted off, unscratched, untorn, into the great basin. They came quietly, swiftly, not very dense, with breaks between them. They made the world infinitely more beautiful by keeping it half-secret. Looking southward, there would be a glimpse of tender purple hills, or the soft blues and greens of far-reaching forest, of a wonderful velvety texture, like a rich Persian rug on the floor of the earth. Then white curtains. Once a small, swift break showed me, between ephemeral pale streamers, a wide lake, burnished gold in a flood of sunlight. It was more a dream than reality–coveted glimpses in a rare and magical crystal.

Sometimes a gray cataract of cloud would stream across the jag I was on; then the wings of blue sky, and all light and shadow and color would be lost; it would be cold for a moment, and wet, and gray, and this cloud seemed to fill the whole world. Again, a cloud would sail through just ahead of me, leaving me on a pedestal in a clear pool of sky, with wetness and grayness and coldness streaming transitorily past, almost within reach.

I wasn’t afraid. Only, when I came to the top of the Chimney, where the Knife-Edge dips into that sharp hollow under Pamola, where I had fallen, I worried a little. I thought, what a devil of a nuisance it would be if I should pull that stunt again and really get smashed up, now that there was no one to rescue me! I came to the brink of the thing–the bristling hump–and looked over; and there was no doubt that it was bad–just as bad as before. I looked some more; and all of a sudden discovered another way to get down–an easy way around a corner and down a grassy crevice. I laughed aloud happily.

Pamola was smothered in mist. However, I picked the right trail from several unmarked ones that diverge at the summit; and none of the great tumbled chaotic boulders, the narrow ledges, the difficult corners, the dark holes, seemed inimical. Quite a long way down I came into scrubby woods, where birches were growing at slants and angles and curves; some started horizontally, then suddenly changed their minds and grew upright. They were good things to hold on to. Farther down came ledges with rich deep moss covering them and spilling over the edges. Its greenness was striking after the gray pinnacles of a higher, more fantastic world.

This mountain and I had known a special and wondrous kindred solitude; and it was a culmination, a gigantic summing-up, of all adventure. There was no more haunting terror of gray rocks… Exultant, I went to find the rest of the crowd. I was awhirl with things I wanted to say. I wanted to describe the peaks and clouds, gold lakes shining through the fingers of white…

Laughter–high-pitched voices–the crackle of a supper fire–the warm sleepy smell of cocoa brewing…

“Hi there, old bean! Get many?”

“Many? What?”

“Blueberries, of course!”

“Oh, that… No, I–sort of forgot…”


They looked at me silently; then laughed, as though going to Basin Pond for blueberries, and then forgetting to pick any, was just what they expected from anyone so scatterbrained.

And I didn’t care at all.

4 Replies to “Rocks (1933)”

  1. Exquisite in every way. “Coveted glimpses into a rare and magical crystal” indeed.

    As an writer who specializes in hiking and rock climbing this piece rings true and offers proof that BNF was a unique talents in the world literature.

    Is this from Travels Without a Donkey? If so I can not wait to read the rest of this manuscript.

    And at long last I know the names of Nick and Barbara two friends and fellow adventurers Dinny and John.
    Thank you once again Stefan.

    Bruce Edward Watts

    1. Hi Bruce,

      No, “Rocks” is distinct from “Travels Without a Donkey.” The latter starts at Katahdin but Barbara and Nick head south near the beginning. I’ll post it soon. Right now I’m transcribing “Mothballs in the Moon”—another mountain adventure.

    2. Hi Bruce,

      No, “Rocks” is distinct from “Travels Without a Donkey.” The latter starts at Katahdin but Barbara and Nick head south near the beginning. I’ll post it soon. Right now I’m transcribing “Mothballs in the Moon”—another mountain adventure.


  2. Great story! I remember initially being very afraid of the Knife’s Edge, but found it a lot less scary than I had imagined it. Shall we hike it again this year? 😉

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