For years, professional climbers Freddie and Janet Wilkinson would come home from some of the world’s tallest mountains to a 12-by-12-foot box they built on a New England hill. Why? Because big lives need few walls.
Sometimes after climbing, Freddie Wilkinson just wanted the one thing that was more demanding than most of the steep and icy routes he’d been on all day: a shower. It’d be 20 degrees outside, cold enough to sting your nose, but he’d strip down to pale pink skin, grab a towel, and pad across the frozen yard.
There, standing on a picnic table in a thick down jacket, was his wife, Janet. She held a flower can of water heated on the couple’s lone woodstove. Steam purled over the lip like potion. The New Hampshire cold pricked Freddie’s skin like needles—Janet couldn’t imagine doing this until spring—but she’d dump the can over him anyway. For a few fleeting moments, the warmth would wash away the pain until the can ran dry and the cold grew furious. This is how you do it when your home has no plumbing.
Freddie and Janet hadn’t really intended on living like this, in a cabin that wasn’t really a cabin at all. They’d let the lease go on their condo in town the summer before and lived in a tent on 13 acres of sugar maples and beech trees just outside Madison, a town homesteaded by veterans of the French and Indian War. Up there, where Mooney Hill meets Pound Road, they built a 12-by-12-foot shed to store their climbing gear and planned on constructing a proper Alaska-style cabin for themselves next. Neither is really a carpenter, though. The work went slow. Winter came fast. When the temperatures began to drop in earnest—and with no cabin built—they insulated the shed, moved in, and called it a “shabin.”
One-hundred-forty-four square feet of space for two adults and a dog named Tagger may not seem like much but somehow it was everything the Wilkinsons needed. They spent most of their time outside anyway, climbing at nearby Cathedral Ledge or exploring peaks on far-flung expeditions as Mountain Hardwear athletes. Janet, when she wasn’t on some high alpine route, served as the executive director of a nonprofit that champions local organic farming. Freddie’s life pretty much centered around climbing though. In 2012, he’d win the Oscars of mountain climbing, the Piolet d’Or, with Mark Richey and Steve Swenson, for their first ascent of India’s 24,665-foot Saser Kangri II, the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world at the time. He’d fill his time between trips writing for men’s magazines and National Geographic and taking tourists climbing around New Hampshire as a guide through a local outfitter he helped run.
The whole shabin was pretty homey as far as shabins go, and a base for perfect winter days. Wood floors clicked under Tagger’s nails, and a loft held a bed piled high with blankets. A Coleman two-burner stove sat on a countertop underneath a homemade spice rack; here Janet would make big pots of leftover-yielding stews. They put a small table in a corner under a picture of Mount Chocorua, which hung on the wall where they could plug in their laptops and talk to the world. The shabin did have power and Internet and great natural light, but when the water jugs ran low, Freddie would make a 20-mile run down to a community well to fill them back up. Some would hold his showers.
They did these trips pretty regularly. It’d take about an hour to get it all sorted out. On their way down to the freezeproof faucet along the Saco River, the couple had the White Mountains to keep them company. Rattlesnake Ridge. Kearsarge North, with the fire lookout perched on top. Mount Washington loomed at the head of the valley, cold and indifferent but enticing, too. These mountains made the hardships of living mostly off the grid in such close quarters seem less hard. When you love climbing and being outside as much as the Wilkinsons do, every day can be an expedition.
How quaint, this climbing couple living in a homemade box on the top of a New England hill, woodstove crackling in the corner. Romantic, yes, but it isn’t for everyone. Then again, neither is having the guts to shape your life exactly how you want it. More freedom here means less security there. Bigger luxuries equals less time to enjoy them. But strip the formula down to the point where every year you must slash your possessions in half to fit the spaces that hold them and a wild new calculus emerges.
For Janet, the road to the shabin began in Ohio, in high school, when her brother took her climbing along the Whipps Ledges of Hinckley Reservation, a park near Cleveland where 250-million-year-old cliffs drop 350 feet down to a lake popular with ice fishermen in winter. “I remember getting to the top and leaning back onto the rope, and I realized this was the real deal,” she says. “I got really scared.”
But instead of pushing her away from the sport, the fear pulled her toward it. She wanted to learn to move through the terrain that her body’s reflexes rejected. The physics, the safety systems, the boldness and demands of the sport fascinated and then possessed her. She began to see holds where there had been only rocks and feel exhilaration where there’d been fear.
For college, Janet headed east to New Hampshire, in Durham, to follow an independent study program, but the cliffs still called her. In the fall of 2002, she loaded up her Subaru and took off on a six-month road trip to see the country’s best climbing. She and a friend tackled the Wolf’s Head, in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, and the crimpy walls of Smith Rock, in Oregon. She headed down to Yosemite and scored a campsite in the cool forests of Tuolumne Meadows. “I had a total lemon of a car, a maxed-out credit card, and no money, but was climbing every day,” she says. “Life couldn’t have been better.” But then it was.
Freddie had grown up the second of five children in Connecticut, where he played soccer, hockey, and baseball but struggled in them all. “When I got cut from the hockey team in fifth grade,” he says, “that was pretty much the end of me and team sports.”
For Christmas in seventh grade, his father, a doctor, hired a mountaineering guide up in New Hampshire to take him and his older brother on a winter ascent of Mount Washington. His family was sort of outdoorsy—fishing here and hiking there—but this was a real adventure. Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, at 6,288 feet, is famous for its brutal, schizophrenic weather, where wind gusts have topped 200 miles per hour—some of the highest winds ever measured on the surface of the earth—and temperatures remain in the negatives. It’d be about eight miles to the summit and back—a full day if things went well.
“I pretty much knew straightaway this sport was for me,” Freddie says. “The challenge of putting one foot in front of the other, the chaos above tree line, the athleticism of it—this was no hockey rink. I loved it.”
By the time Freddie was 19, climbing was all he wanted to do. A guy named Bart Paull taught him the skills he needed to match his enthusiasm, and Freddie ran with the sport. He tackled the Cassin Ridge, up Denali, where he mingled with established climbers like Mark Twight and Mark Jenkins. He moved on to Nepal and climbed Cholatse, Lobuche East, and Kusum Kanguru.
In the fall of 2002, some friends from New Hampshire made a road trip out to Yosemite to test their mettle on the valley’s big walls, and Freddie joined them. Yosemite can be a zoo, with far fewer places to sleep than climbers. They didn’t have a campsite, but someone knew a girl who did.
“I met Janet under the moonlight in Tuolumne Meadows,” Freddie says. Eventually, a core group of climbing friends just sort of ended up back in North Conway. When Freddie learned Janet was one of them, he asked her out for pancakes.
Together they spent five years living in the shabin, until around 2012, when they hired some friends and contractors to build them a proper cabin next door. It’s not huge, about 1,000 square feet, but it has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. When they need water, it comes from a faucet. And while on almost any given day you can walk in and smell something delicious simmering on the stove, the spirit of the shabin lives on.
“Sunrises and sunsets: it’s so easy to miss them when you’re doing the nine-to-five grind,” Freddie says. “I appreciate those moments. They’re as important as all the expeditions I go on.”
Follow the adventures of Janet and Freddie this winter, as well as other athletes in the Mountain Hardwear community, at findingwinter.com.