Thursday, May 14, 2009

Confessions of a Monadnock Maniac

JAFFREY – The startled expressions are always the first sign.

“Didn’t we just see you coming down the mountain a little while ago?” No, that must’ve been my twin brother, I sometimes will tell them, before admitting that, yes, I had passed them previously only to reach the parking lot and re-summit Mount Monadnock by a different trail, quickly enough to pass the same couple still on their way up the White Dot Trail little more than an hour later.

Such is life for a mountain addict, a Monadnock regular who sometimes climbs the 3,165-foot sentinel in southwestern New Hampshire three or four times in a day. Can you say obsessive compulsive?

It all started about five years ago, just before my 40th birthday. I knew I needed to get into better shape if my 40s were going to be better than my 30s, which I pretty much spent as a workaholic sitting at a desk. That was 35 pounds, one wife and several pairs of boots ago. I’m now just about back to my college running weight and fit enough to be competitive on the New England Grand Tree Series, a trail running circuit for us certifiable mountain goats.

I also started climbing Monadnock to meet one of those crazy climbers, the still-legendary Larry Davis of Jaffrey, who everyone around New England knows as “that guy who climbs Monadnock every day.” Davis’ streak of consecutive days climbing the world’s most-climbed mountain had just ended at 2,850 following a bout with pneumonia, and I wanted to learn first-hand what possessed someone to climb a mountain every day for nearly eight years.

That day I had to wait all of five minutes before Davis showed up on the summit, sporting the same red shorts and bandana that makes up his trademark hiking outfit. We quickly became friends and I soon learned why Davis and so many others – dating all the way back to the Native Americans and later Thoreau and Emerson – consider the mountain sacred. Monadnock, which comes from an old Indian word that means “mountain that stands alone,” has a pull that can’t readily be described. You need to climb it and experience it for yourself.

“If I have to tell you why I climb it, you wouldn’t understand,” was how Fran Rautiola, another Monadnock regular who has supplanted Davis as the “king of the hill,” put it when asked why he climbs Monadnock so often. Rautiola, of New Ipswich, holds the “record” for climbing the mountain the most times in 24 hours – 14 – and also summited Monadnock a whopping 560 times in 2003 – 10 times for each of his 56 years. Now 58, Rautiola still is knocking off summits, usually climbing Monadnock five or six times on a Saturday morning.
There is a sort of fellowship among the Monadnock regulars, a brethren linked only by a common desire to scale a granite monolith as often as possible. Many are from the Fitchburg, Mass., area, about an hour’s drive down routes 140 and 2. Such as Clint, a gray-haired 69-year-old from Fitchburg who usually climbs two or three days a week, even in winter. And Tom, 47, from Hubbardston, Mass., an RN at HealthAlliance in nearby Leominster who is on the trail up to four days a week. And Scott, also of Fitchburg, who more often than not can be found off-trail, bush-whacking his way to the summit, often at twilight or in pitch dark. In the winter, Scott keeps snow out of his boots by duct-taping his pants to his ankles. Whatever works.

The perimeter expands on the weekend when another group of regulars shows up, including Van, a 22-year-old Cambodian refugee from Lowell, Mass., whose mother thinks he needs psychiatric evaluation because he prefers to be on the mountain rather than out at the clubs partying with his “normal” brothers and sisters.

We’re all on a first-name basis and we never see each other anywhere except on the mountain. Often all we’ll exchange is a quick hello and the knowing smile that we’ve all found the fountain of youth, not wanting to infringe upon the other’s privacy, which, for many of us, is what we’re here for: solitude.

Friendships do develop, however, such as the one between Davis and I. We even went off to the Canary Islands together to climb a 12,000-foot volcano. Taking Larry out of Jaffrey was like, well, you saw Crocodile Dundee.

One day, Larry and I were climbing Monadnock on a dreary, cloudy late-December day when suddenly we popped out on the summit and saw nothing in every direction except the tops of the clouds hovering just feet below us, looking so inviting that we thought we could step out onto them and walk to the horizon. We were the only two people in Cheshire County who saw the sun that day.

Full moon hikes are the best, though, especially in the winter, when on a crisp, clear night you not only don’t need a flashlight, but you wish you had sunglasses and sun block! Like last February when I climbed with my friend Lisa from Boston on a night that was stunningly sublime, so clear and bright that we could see the planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport. We met only one other hiker that night, a Nashua man we had seen on a previous full moon hike more than a year before. It was so bright that we recognized him at nearly 50 feet.

While winter hiking is the best for the sheer beauty and absolute solitude (and no bugs!), sometimes it can be treacherous. One February day three winters ago, Davis and I summited and I wisely put my crampons on for the treacherous descent. Larry decided not to, and minutes later he hit a patch of ice, launched face forward and rocketed past me in a flash down a 45-degree pitch. Before I could blink, he shot off the edge of a rock and into the woods, landing hard. He didn’t move for a long time and I didn’t know if he was alive, but then I heard a groan and he dragged himself out of the bushes. Somehow, he got his crampons on and hiked out, but next day went to the hospital with several broken ribs. He hasn’t been the same since and now he hikes the mountain only infrequently.

At Monadnock, when you mention the “old man of the mountain,” your first thought isn’t the former rock profile in Franconia Notch that endures as the Granite State’s symbol. The “old man” at Monadnock is a skinny little French-Canadian from Manchester named Bob Brodeur. Everyone knows Bob, who is often seen sitting on “The Seat,” a natural bench in the rock alongside the White Dot just below the summit. Bob turned 80 in April, yet still summited Monadnock more than 100 times last year, something he has done for who knows how many years. Brodeur first climbed Monadnock in 1937 and has plenty of fascinating stories to tell and plenty of rapt ears to listen.

Two years ago, on Memorial Day, I was talking to Bob at The Seat when suddenly we looked across the Pumpelly Ridge and saw two moose standing out in silhouette against the horizon. Three winters ago, a lone, lost Canadian Jay spent several months making a nuisance of himself on Monadnock. The gray jay, as it’s known, is seldom seen south of the White Mountains, but this one must’ve gotten lost and took up residence near The Seat. He was particularly fond of begging food off Brodeur. Or more like stealing it.

“The darn thing would fly down and land on my lap before I even got my lunch out of my pack,” I remember Bob saying at the time. “Then he’d jump right in my potato chip bag and start stealing them!”

The bird was so friendly that once, while hiking with a newcomer to Monadnock, I saw the bird sitting atop a tree about a hundred feet ahead of us. Holding out my hand, the bird immediately flew down and landed in my palm. My stock rose immensely with that guy.

But not as much as it did two Octobers ago when I was sitting on The Seat having lunch. Two women from Brattleboro, Vt., happened upon me while enjoying a brilliant autumn afternoon and sat down for a visit. I was telling Jane and Joy of a phenomenon that occurs about two weeks before the spring equinox and again two weeks after the fall equinox when the sun is in perfect position to reflect off the gold-plated dome of the Statehouse in Boston directly back at Monadnock.

I had seen it back in March, looking like a golden spike on the horizon. I told them that it might be the right day to see it again and they looked a little skeptical until minutes later when Jane exclaimed, “Look,” and pointed to the east, where, sure enough, a golden spike was glistening its confirmation.

A couple weeks before that, I had been running on Monadnock and came down the seldom-used Smith Summit trail at a good clip when I heard a sharp “crack” off to my right. I stopped dead in my tracks just in time to see the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen step into a clearing no more than 40 feet below me. Fortunately, the wind was blowing up the ridge and it couldn’t catch my scent. The bruin, which must’ve gone 450 pounds, then sat down and started chomping on wild blueberries. I could hear him chewing, and every minute or so he turned his head to scan the ridgeline to search for movement. He was so close I could hear him inhale as he sniffed the air. Satisfied he was alone, he went back to eating before finally getting up and sauntering off several minutes later. My heart just raced in my chest!

A few days later I was back on Monadnock and told one of the rangers I hoped for another “bear” encounter. But what I got that day instead was a “bare” encounter. I summited via a little rock chute and when I poked my head over the edge, I saw a naked man hiking across the mountaintop! All he had on were boots and, ahem, a fanny pack. And I thought I had seen everything. Or wished I hadn’t!

In the past six years, I have more than 700 summits of Monadnock, still a far cry from the likes of Davis and Rautiola, but a proud total nonetheless. Last year, I stood on its summit 210 times.

Next time you go to Monadnock, don’t be surprised if you see this tall, skinny guy rush by you a time or two. And, no, that wasn’t my twin brother.

In 2006, Harrington broke Ratiola’s record of 14 summits in one 24-hour period by climbing Monadnock 16 times in a day. He is currently closing in on his 1,000th “career” summit.


  1. Last fall I brought my Search & Rescue group of kiddies to Monadnock for a Saturday hike; I'd forgotten how great the view is from up there! The trails weren't too crowded though I imagine it's better (sans people) when the weather's not as, shall we say, "welcoming." Well, I saw one of the regulars you mentioned (don't know whom it was—not you, though) and I admired his stamina, etc. because he was on his second or third trip up the white dot as we were coming down. Quite inspiring. I'll visit Monadnock to try a few trips up and down when school breaks for summer. Welcome to the Blogger world. Nice photos...

  2. Garry,
    What trail(s) did you use when you summitted 16 times in a day? I summitted twice last Friday in a little over an hour each time(excluding descent 1:06, 1:07; marlborough, white dot) I'd like to squeeze in 3 a day as part of training for longer hikes in a shorter time. I just need the elevation gain, but don't have more than a few hours a day. Thanks.