peak bagging

Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part Two

A few nights ago, before embarking on a crossIMG_20141116_125857_232 country road trip and going AWOL from the blogosphere for a couple days, I wrote about my unsuccessful attempts to summit Vermont’s high point, Mount Mansfield.  Last Sunday, the Fates smiled upon me, and I reached the summit in one of my favorite day-hiking expeditions of all time.

I don’t know exactly what it was about last week’s hike that left me so high on life.  The day wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for a hike:  The sky was ominously cloudy, and the wind chills in the mountains were in the single digits above zero.  As I was driving to the trailhead in Underhill State Park, the sky was spitting snow, and the road up to the trailhead was covered by a dusting of powder.

A Southerner who’d considered herself a fair weather hiker until this autumn, I seriously considered just heading home without trying to hike. However, when I got enough traction on Mountain Road to drive to the gate, I decided I’d give it a try, resolving to head back down the mountain after a short hike.  Basically, I just wanted to try out the Kathoola microspikes the mountain had inspired me to purchase the day before.

IMG_20141116_110544_700I set off around 9:45 and soon, as I always do, found myself deeply content walking in the woods.  The snow was falling gently around me, and the branches of the evergreens, blanketed by white powder, hung with heaviness.

Yet again, I took the Eagle Cut-off Trail up to Sunset Ridge Trail and signed in, still assuming that I’d only hike for a couple hours.  Yet again, I crossed the footbridges near the trail head.  Yet again, I climbed nearer the ridge line.

This time, however, when I came to the first of several wide swaths of icy terrain, I donned my microspikes.  Sure, the contrast between them and my lightweight Salomon trail shoes was amusing, but it was love at first crunch.  Instantly, ice was transformed from a beautiful but potentially hazardous trail decoration to a surface that was actually fun to walk on.

I marched onward toward the krummoltz and considered, for the first time since getting out of my car, to attempt the summit that day.  Alone on the mountain, listening to the wind whistling through the trees and leaving the first footprints in the snow, I resolved to go as far as I felt comfortable and to turn around if following the trail, staying warm, or remaining upright became beyond reasonably difficult.

Happily, I never reached that threshold.

From the top of the treeline to the top of Mansfield’s Chin is roughly one mile.  In the winter, what in the summer would be a great opportunity to catch a suntan becomes a bit more treacherous.  However, I carefully followed the small mountaintop cairns and occasional blue blazes on rocks that the fierce wind had exposed.  Some of the snowdrifts the winds created were nearly knee-deep; in other places, I walked on bare rock.  Adding layers before I thought they were necessary, I never let myself become chilled, and only my eyes were exposed by the time I got to the summit.  The few blonde hairs that had freed themselves from my hat and balaclava froze stiff from the cold.

Rounding the corner of the spur trail to the peak and climbing the final hundred yards to the summit felt incredible.  Alone in a snow-covered wilderness, higher than any surrounding mountain, I seemed to be on top of the world.  Up that high, I could discern a distant break in the clouds, and the low winter sunlight that shined through tinted the furthest reaches of the clouds pink.  I spun around, taking in the panorama, awestruck.

And, then it was time to descend to the safety of treeline.

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Single-Serving Friends

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Near the top of the North Slide of the Tripyramids

As I mentioned last week, I spent two months (mid-August to mid-October) hiking in Northern New England this year.  Along the way, I’ve met some very interesting people–some wonderful “single-serving friends*.”

I enjoy hiking in the woods alone.  By myself, I notice details that I sometimes miss when lost in conversation with another person.  I’ll pause to look at an interesting tree or to try to identify (or at least photograph) a wildflower I haven’t seen outside of a textbook before.  I’ll spend longer with my camera, working to craft the shot that best captures what I’m seeing and feeling.  I’ll stop when I’m tired or hungry and keep going when I’m not.

John, Greg, and me

John, Greg, and me

But, to hike with someone else is to share the highs and lows, literally and metaphorically, with another person. On dangerous trails, it’s comforting to know that another person knows where you are and could get help in the event of an accident.  On mellow trails, conversation makes the walking more pleasant.  And, when the scenery is awe-inspiring, I think it’s special to know someone else understands what you’re feeling.  (Sometimes.  But, sometimes, I just need a good this-is-so-beautiful-that-I’m-just-going-to-cry-for-a-while moment in solitude!)

This post is an ode to the single-serving friends I am pleased to have met this summer.

First, there was the man, whom I’ll call J, who I saw on several high peaks one week.  While many New England hikers climb the 4000-footers, relatively few hike them in rapid succession.  Those of us who do tend to see a lot of one another.  After several days of running into each other and then an entire morning alone, I found it pretty amusing to summit Mount Cabot and find J at the top.

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Greg ascending the base of the North Slide

 

Then, there was the 60-year-old couple from Liverpool, England, who hiked with me for a half-hour as we approached the Lakes of the Clouds Hut via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.  They were apologizing for how unprepared they were–“We’re just wearing our trainers”–but they were keeping a really good pace.  We enjoyed talking about the recent Scottish independence vote, hiking/backpacking in the US/UK, and Wales as a potential grad school destination for my sister.  When the conversation turned to the Appalachian Trail, the husband of the couple declared, “Oh, so you’re a f***ing lunatic as well!”  He said it in this great Northern English accent, and it felt more endearing than insulting.

Over the course of the summer, I hiked with several families, each of whom provided smiles and some of whom offered trail magic.  More than once, I was invited home with other hikers!

Greg and Jim descending the South Slide

Greg and Jim descending the South Slide. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the steepness of the slide!

My favorite single-serving friends of the summer were Jim and Greg, both of whom, like me, had set out one Saturday to hike the Tripyramids solo.  On the long approach to the North Slide, we caught up with one another and fell into periods of easy conversation and companionable silence.  I thought I’d only be walking with Jim, who was working on “red-lining” (i.e., hiking all 1,440 miles of trails in the White Mountain National Forest), and Greg, who was a 20-something peak-bagger like me, until we left Livermore Road and started actually hiking.  It turns out that we all thought it would be nice to have company while hiking the rock slides that pass as trails up and down the Tripyramids, and we ended up spending the entire hike together.

Thank you all for the company this summer!  Happy trails!

*That’s apparently a reference to “Fight Club,” a movie I’ve never seen.  You’ve got to marvel at how pop culture works.

So Close, and Yet So Far

Thru-hikers are lazy, or so we like to say. Non-hikers often suspect that people who are willing to spend six months of their lives walking from Georgia to Maine will readily walk a few miles into towns along the way, but that is just not the case. We regularly hitchhike a mile or two into town, avoid the shelters that are more than 0.2 miles off the trail, and don’t bother taking the blue-blazed side trails that lead to interesting places. Thru-hikers are often wary of miles that “don’t count” toward the 2100+ miles toward Katahdin.

Familiar with this tendency of ours, I’d made a pact early on in my hiking that I would take blue-blazed routes that were 0.2 miles or less. And, for most of the trail, I adhered to this rule; however, when the footway grew more difficult in the White Mountains, where most of the highlights of the trip were on the AT rather than on side trails, I refrained from taking any blue blazes and just enjoyed the white-blazed journey.

The summit of Mount Moriah is 0.1 mi off the AT.

As a result, though I’d begun working toward hiking all of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers* in 2010 and though the trail passes near the summits of a great many of them, during my 2012 thru-hike, I only hiked the 4000-footers that the trail goes directly over.

Fast-forward two years.

It’s 2014, my AmeriCorps term of service has ended, my Lyme Disease is in remission, and I have two months until my next (short-term) job begins. I decide that there’s no better way to spend two months than hiking and backpacking, so I put my belongings in storage, create my own “Walden on Wheels,” and drive around to trailheads all over northern New England. Of course, during this adventure, I decide to finish hiking New Hampshire’s 4000-footers and realize my folly of two years prior.

Hiking multiple neighboring peaks in one day is easy. Or, at least, as easy as hiking high peaks can be. Neighboring peaks are adjacent prominences on one ridgeline; once a hiker climbs up to a peak, any neighboring summits can generally be reached by ridgewalking, which involves little elevation gain or loss.

While the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains does ascend many ridges, it often skirts neighboring peaks rather than going directly over their summits. For example, while it climbs the Presidential Range, the trail skirts Eisenhower, Monroe, Jefferson, and Adams, running over only Pierce, Washington, and Madison.

In some cases, the AT stays a half-mile or so away from a summit; in other cases, as with Mount Moriah, the AT comes within 0.1 mile of the peak. Because I didn’t take that 0.1-mile side trip during my thru-hike, I hiked 10 miles up and down Mount Moriah this summer.

Not that I’m about to complain about the past couple months. It was one of the greatest summers of my life and probably the most fun. And, that hike up Moriah? It ranks among my very favorite.

View of Presidentials from Moriah

The view of the Presidentials from the summit of Moriah.

*The 4000-footers are the mountains whose summits rise over 4000 feet in elevation. In New Hampshire, there are 48 of them, and many New England hikers engage in “peak-bagging”—that is, hiking all 48. To learn more, click here.

An Origin Story

Two years ago today, I stood atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and ended the journey I’d begun six months earlier in Georgia, a journey that was part of a lifetime of wandering and the kick-off to an era of my life that has been focused on adventuring.

While I don’t intend to retell the highlights of my adventures in chronological order, I think it best to follow Maria von Trapp’s advice here and “start at the very beginning.”  It seems fitting to begin my storytelling efforts with an origin story.

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Me measuring a birch

In the summer of 2010, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in one of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) at Hubbard Brook Research Forest in New Hampshire.  Along with 12 other aspiring young scientists, I lived in an old farmhouse in the middle of the woods.  All week long, we spent every day hiking up and down mountains for our various research projects.  And, given that we lived in the forest, when the weekends rolled around, there wasn’t much else to do besides hike.

And hike we did.

Before my time at Hubbard Brook, the only hiking experiences I’d had were those I’d enjoyed as a Girl Scout in coastal Florida.  In my mind, a hike was simply a walk in the woods; I had no awareness that people even hiked mountains besides Everest and the other giants.  And, the bushwacking up muddy slopes that I was doing for my research was not earning this New England version of hiking a warm place in my heart.

Nonetheless, when some of my favorite members of the REU crew decided to hike Welch-Dickey, I decided to come along.  My friends at Hubbard Brook described the hike as “easy, with amazing views,” and I decided to believe them.  I had an amazing time on those little sister mountains and added “hiking” to my favorite activities on Facebook that night.

In the weeks that followed, my friends and I went on increasingly difficult hikes, and I loved each more than the one before.  The hike that changed my life was a peak-bagging hike of Tom, Field, Willey, and Avalon, which are found in the Crawford Notch region of the White Mountains.

The hike was exhausting.  We spent all day climbing up and over Tom and then Field and then Willey and then Field (again) and then Avalon.  The hike was longer and had more elevation gain than anything I’d hiked to that point, and toward the end of the day, I was riding a serious hiker’s high.

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On the summit of Willey

As I stood atop Willey, I noticed that the trail we were on extended beyond the summit.  This amazed me.  I asked where the trail led, and I was (erroneously) told that the trail I saw was the Appalachian Trail and that it continued on to Maine from its start in Georgia.  During much of the remainder of the hike, I was lost in a reverie about how wonderful it would feel to do what I had just spent a day doing every day for six months.  I thought about how much I’d love to spend a whole summer with the Appalachians as my backyard, with the eastern woodlands as my playground.  I imagined climbing peaks to stand above treeline and looking around me to identify those I’d come from and to size up those I’d go over next.  On Mount Willey, I decided that I would hike the Appalachian Trail one day.

 

The view from Avalon

The view from Avalon