By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Meeting my match

At the summit of Mt. Monadnock

Two years ago, following a six-day, 50-mile backpacking trip with our Boy Scout troop along the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires, I suggested something different for 2009: the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, a 48-mile trail in western New Hampshire that connects those two mountains.

The AT in New England tends to be choked with thru-hikers in August, some of them on the dubious side. And the Greenway between Monadnock and Sunapee was relatively flat, or so I’d been told. So on the clear, sunny morning of Saturday, Aug. 8, four scouts and four adult leaders headed for Jaffrey, N.H., to begin a five-day trip. And ran into trouble almost immediately.

At 3,165 feet, Monadnock is a modest mountain. Now that a tramway has been built to the summit of Mt. Fuji, Monadnock has actually overtaken it as the most-climbed in the world. Yet Monadnock is always harder than it looks, and I say that as someone who’d hiked it six times before, most recently last fall.

We took a path none of us had hiked — the Birchtoft Trail, up Monadnock’s eastern slope — and then the Red Spot Trail. That turned out to be exceptionally steep, with lots of hand-to-hand climbing up rock faces while wearing full backpacks. The adults were pretty much blasted by the time we reached the summit.

But our day was far from over. At the top we picked up the Dublin Trail (which is co-terminus with the Greenway), which we took to the northern base of the mountain. And from there we hiked to Spiltoir Shelter — one of a series of adirondacks with adjacent tent sites.

Somewhere along the way it began to dawn on me that, at 53, I wasn’t the hiker I’d been even two years ago, though I’d been running and my weight was reasonably good. To go backpacking during a hot week in the summer is to suffer, and I’d known that going in. But, somehow, the suffering-to-enjoyment ratio had shifted into the negative.

As it turned out, the next three days were not flat but, rather, consisted of one sharp, heart-pounding hill after another. We took a few shortcuts, and on one, along a paved road into the tiny village of Washington, I took a hard fall, splitting my knee open and bruising my right hand and wrist badly enough that I thought I might have broken it. That would have made me the second adult to leave the group. Fortunately, by the next morning it felt much better.

It wasn’t until we hit camp the fourth night, at Moose Lookout, that I was confident I would make it to the end. It poured that night. And though my new REI tent performed quite well, the trail on Wednesday was a muddy, sloppy mess. We struggled to the top of Mt. Sunapee (elevation: 2,743 feet) by noon, then took the Summit Trail down to the parking lot. Our week was over. (View in photo at right is from the Sunapee summit.)

The scouts had no problems, and we adults spent the week trying (and failing) to keep up with them. Three had participated in the 50-miler two years ago. The fourth had climbed Monadnock with a Cub Scout group I’d helped lead when he was barely 5 years old.

As for me, my sixth 50-miler was probably my last. I’d gone on three in the 1970s, two as a scout and one as a 21-year-old, helping my old troop. And I’ve gone on three as a scout leader in recent years, starting in 2005, with my son as one of the scouts. It was hard in ’05 and ’07, but it’s harder now.

Sure, I could run more. I could lose another 10 pounds. Realistically, though, that’s not going to happen. Right now, shorter, easier trips in cooler weather sound like the way to go. I’m back in one piece, and there were times last week when I wondered if that would be possible.

Photos of Kennedy and trail sign by John Kuconis.

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  1. Brian Flaherty

    You're so right about Monadnock, it is harder than it looks. I've been there 4 times and only summited once, one time when I was 11 or 12.I had a hard time when I climbed it a few years ago and while I am much heavier than you, my thinner friends had a hard time too. We spent an hour at the top, we had no interest in moving!

  2. lkcape

    You made it Dan. And you enjoyed it.That's all that really counts.

  3. Suldog

    Two things:1 – You don't look 53. You look about 43. To even things out cosmically, I don't look 52. I look like I've been dead for a couple of weeks.2 – I climbed Monadnock when I was in my teens. It wasn't easy then. I can't imagine doing it now, even though I consider myself to be in fair shape for an old fart. Congrats!

  4. Bill Weye

    Monadnock is not hard, unless you're in a wheelchair. Slow, steady, never stop on a up grade. August is prime time for thru hikers and section hikers in the Berkshires. Some section hikers, instead of spending 5 minutes trying to explain what they're doing, will just tell you they are "walking the AT". I never met a "dubious" thru hiker, though I met many dubious day hikers.Just Plain BillGA > ME '90

  5. Dan Kennedy

    "Monadnock is not hard, unless you're in a wheelchair."Stay classy, Bill!As for dubious thru-hikers, try a mentally ill homeless guy bellowing profanity at four 15-year-olds because he couldn't find a spot in the shelter. Happened to our troop in August 2005 at the Governor Clement Shelter in Vermont.Guy was with us for three days. Harmless for the most part, but not nice when he didn't get his way.

  6. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, hope you noticed the name of the outhouse for the Governor Clements shelter on your hike: the Lt. Gov. Jarvis P. Snodgrass memorial gazebo. Whos says Vermonters don't have a sense of humor?Think the problem with Monadnock I found is that there have been so many hikers that the trail is reduced to rocks and roots, none of which are too friendly. Couple that with the family groups on the trail who obviously have no business on steep rock, and it can get tedious.Keep truckin' Dan. Great that you were out there on the trip. My son is 10 and I'm 48, so I'll have to hold myself back when the backpacking trips start popping up in a few years in Scouts.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: Did not notice that. Here is my favorite outhouse along the AT.One thing I didn't mention about the Greenway … the shelters were great, though we didn't use them. But only one of the four campsites had a proper outhouse. Two had open-air crappers (their term), and one had a three-sided outhouse.Pretty rough with self-conscious teenagers. One told us he had intended to hold it all week, though, fortunately, that plan fell through.

  8. LFNeilson

    Haven't done Monadnock in a wheelchair, but I was one of a few amputees to do Zealand Falls and Carter Notch (twice), about a quarter-century ago. I'm sure you're familiar with the routine: On Sunday afternoon, you drag yourself out of the woods, swearing you'll never do that again, only to repeat it a year later. One of our hikers, Sarah Doherty, later became the first amputee to climb Denali.

  9. O-FISH-L

    Dan, if your homeless, mentally ill hiking companion were to be arrested in Cambridge, what would the police list for his home address in the police log? If the police properly left the address line blank, would the Chronicle complain? Just a thought.

  10. Patricia of Trakai

    Very cool! I summitted Monadnock three times during the year when I was 13 (twice with the Girl Scouts, once with my junior high science class) and haven't been back since. Sometimes I wonder whether I could do it again, but I tend to visit New England mostly around Christmas time, which isn't the optimal season to try.

  11. Tunder

    I had no idea that Monadnock was such a challenge. I know the drill with well-worn trails, though. I was hiking part of Franconia Ridge with my 13 year-old son and his friend two weeks ago. Luxuriated at Greenleaf hut so no and shelters and outhouses this time.

  12. Jim

    Dan…I've been up Monadnock about a dozen times — usually with youth groups — though always up the White Dot Trail, which I understand is the easiest (and busiest). I've done the climb less frequently in recent years, as it does get harder each time. I'm seven years younger than you, but by the looks of it, a bit heavier!

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