Once was enough

The Boston Globe has a terrific story today on a small group of backpackers who hike “the grid.” There are 48 mountains in New Hampshire with an elevation of 4,000 feet or more. The idea is to hike each of them during each month of the year — 576 summits, in other words. Why? Who knows?

Given that it took me from 1968 to 2007 to do all 48 peaks just once, the grid is not on my horizon. Earlier this year, though, when I went to a recognition dinner for those who had completed the 48 (cold pizza in a high school cafeteria), I was struck by how mundane my achievement seemed.

There were people who’d hiked all 48 peaks in the winter. People who’d hiked all 4,000-foot peaks in New England, or the 100 highest in New England. I, on the other hand, was in by far the largest and least-distinguished group.

Yet I felt liberated. I’m never able to go hiking as often as I’d like, and for years I had planned my trips around the need to check off a particular peak or peaks. Now I can hike wherever I want to. And I’ve found that I enjoy the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires and Vermont as much as the White Mountains, but for different reasons.

The hiking is less intense (not such a bad thing now that I’m in my 50s). You’re closer to roads and small villages, yet there are fewer hikers. And if it’s summer, you don’t have to worry about freezing to death above treeline, always a concern at the White Mountains’ higher elevations. Sorry, but no grid for me.

The Globe story, written by Tom Haines and photographed by Mark Wilson, appears in “g,” the new, tabloid-size home for features and arts. Strictly from an aesthetic point of view, the story justifies the format change — it takes up the entire centerspread, with a post-to-post graphic across the top featuring all 48 mountains. It never would have looked this good on a standard newspaper page.

More: I was remiss in not noting that the Globe story is accompanied by a slideshow, an interactive graphic and a video. I would have liked to see more video, though.

Two weekends in the Pemi

On Columbus Day weekend in 1998 my friend Brad Johnson and I headed out on what would prove to be one of the more miserable — and productive — backpacking trips of our lives. For three days we hiked in a light but steady rain through the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The temperature hung in the mid-50s throughout the weekend.

On day one, we took the Zealand Trail to the Ethan Pond Trail, followed by a stream crossing so difficult we had to take off our packs and throw them to the other side before we could start hiking along the Thoreau Falls Trail.

For a Flickr slideshow, click here or on photo

We camped near the junction of the Wilderness and Bondcliff trails, telling ourselves that at least our day in the rain had consisted of level hiking. Surely the rain would stop before we started climbing the Bonds the next day.

No such luck. We reached the summits of Bondcliff, Mount Bond and West Bond in clouds and rain, slipping and sliding the whole way. We considered staying at the Guyot Campsite, but, as I recall, it was already full, and we were afraid that if we stopped there we’d have to do more hiking than we should the next day.

So we trudged on, hitting Zealand Mountain and heading for Zealand Falls Hut. We had planned to tent out near the hut. But at that point we were so wet and miserable that I declared my intention to keep right on going to the car if we couldn’t stay at the hut.

Following a steep descent, we arrived at the hut just as darkness was falling, only to be told by one member of the crew — or “croo” — that there were no openings. Another member, though, said that half the people with reservations hadn’t showed up, and let us in. Within moments, we’d changed into semi-dry clothing and were having supper put in front of us. Neither Brad nor I had stayed in an Appalachian Mountain Club hut before, and it was just what we needed following two days in the rain.

The next morning, I wrote an entry in the hut journal, which I actually found and took a photo of this past weekend (above). After breakfast, Brad and I headed out in the rain once again, taking the Lend-a-Hand Trail to the summit of Mount Hale before heading back to our car and home. We’d climbed five of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains that weekend, putting both of us well on the way to completing all 48.

Media Nation Jr. and I set out this past Friday on a considerably less ambitious hike. Tim is a strong hiker — stronger than I am at this point — but we had both been sick all week.

On Friday we took the very easy hike to the hut along Zealand Trail. We stayed at the hut with the intention of taking a longer hike on Saturday, camping out and returning on Sunday. But we were both still woozy and decided against it. So on Saturday morning we headed to the summit of Mount Hale (photo at left).

While we were loitering at the top, a group of five students from Tufts University arrived. We learned that the Tufts Mountain Club had sent students to hike to the top of all 48 4,000-footers during the weekend. The five students we met had chosen one of the easier mountains, though one with a not-particularly-interesting view.

From there Tim and I descended along the Hale Brook Trail, stopping at the Miss Wakefield Diner on our way home.

Gone hiking

Media Nation Jr. and I are backpacking to Zealand Falls Hut later today. Both of us have been sick, so we may take it easy tomorrow — although if we feel up to it we’ll camp out at Guyot on Saturday night. In any case, I won’t be blogging or reading e-mail until we get back.

From the top of Mount Monadnock

I led a church group to the summit of Mount Monadnock yesterday, on what may have been the best hiking day of the 21st century. We took the Dublin Trail from the north. We weren’t exactly alone, but it was a lot less crowded than the more popular trails up the south side of the peak.

This shot is from the summit, looking down on the Dublin Trail’s final, rocky approach.

Hazardous hiking in the White Mountains

Click on photo for slideshow

Mark Pothier’s Boston Globe Magazine story on amateur hikers who get into trouble in the White Mountains inspired me to post photos from my last hike up Mount Washington, in August 2003.

My son, Tim, his friend Troy, Troy’s mother and I hiked to Mizpah Spring Hut on a muggy Friday afternoon, along the Crawford Path to Lakes of the Clouds Hut on a clear, cool Saturday. The next day it was up and over Mount Washington in a cold wind. We descended via the Jewell Trail.

For me it was a nostalgia trip, because it was largely the same route I followed on my first hike up Washington, with my Boy Scout troop in September 1968 at the age of 12. Back then, you were still allowed to camp above treeline, and we pitched tents by the shore of Lakes of the Clouds under full cloud cover. (I’ve still got photos from our return trip the following year. I should scan them in and post them someday.)

The next day we hiked to the summit in a howling wind, surrounded by clouds and rime ice-covered rocks. My guess is that, today, our leaders would have been denounced as lunatics for taking a bunch of out-of-shape kids to the summit under such conditions. But we all came through it fine. We did have winter coats, gloves and hats, so it’s not like we weren’t prepared.

I was glad to see Pothier make mention of Nicholas Howe’s excellent book, “Not Without Peril,” which documents 150 years of fatal accidents in the White Mountains. In my much younger days I also liked to read the accident reports in the Appalachian Mountain Club‘s journal, Appalachia. Invariably, the victims would head up into the mountains wearing shorts, T-shirts and little else, only to be overwhelmed by winter-like conditions regardless of the time of year. Cell phones and GPSs may have increased the stupidity quotient, as Pothier writes, but it’s nothing new.

Unfortunately, I never managed to hit the trail this summer. Tim and I talked about doing a five-day 50-miler in Vermont, but the summer got away from us, and then I sprained my ankle while running in a downpour a couple of weeks ago. Maybe we can get away for a couple of days during Columbus Day weekend.

Sox, Media Nation climb

I was sitting in my car last night, trying to get a signal from a campsite near Mount Monadnock, when J.D. Drew finally worked off the first $1 million of his $70 million contract. Absolutely incredible. At that point, I took a radio into my tent and listened to the wavering ESPN play-by-play on an AM station in New York.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew it was the fifth inning, and the Sox were ahead, 10-1. I turned it off and went to sleep. I still don’t know who the heroes were, other than Drew and Curt Schilling. As soon as I post this item, I’m going to find out.

Today I helped lead a group of eight Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts to the top of Monadnock (elevation: 3,165 feet). It was a perfect day, made all the more so because we knew the Sox would be playing a Game Seven tonight.

On top of the world

Right around lunchtime on Saturday, Sept. 28, 1968, I struggled to the top of Mt. Pierce, also known as Mt. Clinton. I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout, out of shape, out of breath, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

At 4,310 feet in elevation, Pierce was the first 4,000-foot mountain I had ever hiked; for that matter, it was the first mountain of any size whose summit I had reached. By the end of the day, I would also hike to the top of Mt. Pleasant (now Mt. Eisenhower). We camped at Lakes of the Clouds, an activity that, because of the fragile alpine vegetation, would become a federal crime within a few years. The next morning, beset by clouds, wind and rime ice, we struggled to the top of Mt. Washington (6,288 feet), the highest peak in New England and home to what is often described as the worst weather in the world.

Once I got over my never-again reaction, I was hooked. I learned that there are 48 peaks in New Hampshire of 4,000 feet or more, and that a few serious hikers set out to reach them all. I plugged away, hitting a lot in the ’70s and a few in the ’80s and ’90s. Starting in 2000, when my son, Tim, was old enough to come with me, I resolved to finish the list before I was too old and decrepit to do it anymore.

This past Saturday, just shy of my 51st birthday, I made it. It took me nearly 39 years, which might be some sort of a record — albeit a very different record from the one set by an ultramarathoner named Tim Seaver a few year ago. Seaver did all 48 mountains in less than four days.

My son and I drove to Lincoln, N.H., on Friday, and set up camp at Big Rock. It rained all night, which made me wonder about the forecast of blue skies for Saturday. As it turned out, the weather was almost perfect — cool and not too sunny, if a bit on the humid side. We started out along the Hancock Notch Trail, from the Kancamagus Highway, at 9:30 a.m. The footing was flat and easy, and by a little after 11 we had reached the split on the Hancock Loop Trail, which would take us to the north and south peaks of Mt. Hancock — summits number 47 and 48.

Which one to take first? The hike up the north peak was a bit longer (0.7 mile as opposed to 0.5), and also steeper, with rougher footing. Tim and I decided to go up the north side so that we wouldn’t have to hike down it and risk our necks. It turned out to be a good decision — there was a lot of loose rock, and there’s no way we would have wanted to try to descend along that route.

The hike to the top was pretty much straight up, and we had to pause frequently to catch our breath. We reached the summit around noon. There was a great view from the nearby outlook, and I wish we’d stayed longer. But I wanted to make it to my final summit as soon as possible.

We hit the summit of the south peak right around 1 p.m. I’d done it. It was also Tim’s 17th 4,000-footer, so he’s well on his way. A guy from Worcester named Steve, who was hiking with his girlfriend and another couple, took our picture. Steve, who’s also 51, has 47 summits under his belt, and is planning to make it to number 48 — Mt. Isolation — next weekend.

We made it back to the car before 4 p.m. and headed off to the Yankee Smokehouse. And thus ended a journey that took in parts of five decades. I’m sending in my application to the Four Thousand Footer Club today.