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.
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.