Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Hampshire 4,000-footers 2004


GORHAM, N.H. – That Moriah is such a tease. After hiking in the rain much of the day and with feet that look more prune than pedestrian, the last thing I want to see as we crest the eastern shoulder of Mount Moriah is the summit still seemingly another mile or so away along a ridgeline that is darting in and out of some late-day clouds.

Weaving through short, scrubby pines as we continue to climb, I keep turning back to my friend, Lisa, a violin instructor from West Roxbury, to tell her that I think I see the summit. Of course, once again I am deceived, my zeal to complete New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers – and to get out of my soggy boots – getting the better of my judgment. We break free of the trees and I once again have to report another false summit.

By now Lisa is questioning why we decided to tackle the entire Wildcat-Carter-Moriah ridge in one day – a grueling 19-mile slog over the final six peaks I need to complete the N.H. 48 since beginning my quest back in January. Especially considering we started the day before sunrise at the Glen Ellis Falls parking lot in Pinkham Notch and it had begun raining before we even ascended the exhaustingly steep Wildcat Ridge Trail. By the time we get to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Carter Notch Hut five miles in, we’re both soaked from head to toe, though it’s the toes that will prove problematic before the day is out.

On a day such as this, carrying extra socks can outweigh even carrying enough water, though irrationally I wait until we get to 4,610-foot Middle Carter – about the halfway point – to change mine, rather than do the smart thing and put on the dry ones when we get to the hut, by which time it has stopped raining.

When we finally reach the summit of Moriah, my feet are so sore that I completely forget my pre-planned Rocky celebration. Instead, I sit listlessly on the summit as Lisa, who was along for 22 of the peaks, snaps a couple of perfunctory pictures. Neither of us can manage a smile – mainly because we know we still have nearly five miles of punishing downhill to get to the second car, which we left parked at the trailhead in Gorham. And off to our left, the Presidentials are shrouded in clouds and we can see more rain heading our way.

We don’t make it in time. When we get to the car and begin peeling off water-logged socks, neither of us cares that our day is ending the same way it began – in the rain.

More than 8,000 people – and several dogs – are official members of the AMC’s New Hampshire Four-Thousand-Footer Club. They call themselves peak-baggers, and they have a commemorate patch from the AMC to prove it. Others just call them crazy. Obsessed is more like it.

For me, deciding to climb all 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers – and the remaining 19 in Maine and Vermont – during 2004 wasn’t something I set out to do. It began innocuously with a day hike in the Whites in January – climbing Liberty and Flume with a group of friends. A few weeks and several weekend trips later, I suddenly found myself jobless and with some unforeseen time on my hands. My friends expressed sympathy that my employer had issued me my walking papers, but I was quick to reply, “No, they gave me my hiking papers.”

Seriously, though, job or no job, hiking has become a passion, especially in winter, when you can be overcome by the breadth, the beauty and the serenity of the outdoors – especially above tree line. Many hikers won’t set foot in the mountains in winter – especially the Whites – for fear of being overcome by something else – the elements. But it need not be that way.

Most people mistakenly believe the key to successful winter hiking is staying warm. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The secret is staying cold. Well, not too cold, obviously. And you need to carry the right gear with you to “layer up” as soon as you stop. I hiked last winter with one guy who dressed for an Arctic expedition right from the parking lot. By the time we gained the ridgeline, sweat was streaming down his neck in cascades and the moment we stopped, he began to shiver uncontrollably. In contrast, I found it perfectly pleasant standing on the summit in below-zero weather with nothing more than a long-sleeve Bergelene shirt. My shell stayed in my backpack for several minutes before I had to cave to the elements.

Sweat is the enemy in winter hiking. It can kill you. But stay dry, and even the windiest days can be enjoyed above tree line.

Such as the day last January on 4,802-foot Moosilauke when 75 mph winds buffeted us with little pellets of ice that felt as if we were being sand-blasted as we raced across the ridge back to tree line. Or the day in late April when Lisa and I climbed Mount Washington and topped out in the midst of a typically notorious day on the Northeast’s highest peak – ice, snow, gale-force winds and visibility of maybe 50 feet.

Seems like a typical hike with Lisa, too – seldom did we pick a day that afforded any views. Back in February, we climbed Madison, Adams and Jefferson in one day and hit Edmands Col below the summit of Jefferson late in the afternoon as ominous-looking clouds rolled in. In a complete whiteout, we cautiously – and perhaps carelessly – found our way to the summit and then discovered that we couldn’t follow our tracks back down. No, they hadn’t filled in with blowing snow. The whiteout was so total that we couldn’t see our feet! But somehow we were able to retrace our steps and beat a hasty retreat down the Randolph Path – reaching the parking lot right at dark. It was one of many times we pushed the limits, yet still managed to climb into the car by sunset.

During the summer, after taking care of the five 4,000-footers in Vermont, I made a couple of trips back to the Whites for some solo hiking, bagging the final 20 peaks in New Hampshire during two long weekends. By now, I too had become obsessed. I mapped out my routes, starting with the aptly named Mount Isolation on July 24. More peak-baggers finish their quest with 4,003-foot Isolation than any other, thanks to its remote location in the desolate Dry River Wilderness between Pinkham and Crawford notches. People such as Rick and Nancy Healey of Fitchburg, who were on the summit when I arrived, celebrating their final 4,000-footer with a bottle of champagne and friend Scott Foster, who had already bagged the 48 himself.

Two days later, I put in another 19 miles, climbing Garfield, Galehead, South Twin, North Twin, West Bond and Zealand before ending up for the night at the AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut.

Not everyone is on the fast track to bag the 4,000-footers. Arriving late for dinner that night was 72-year-old Ed Jones of Hopkinton, N.H., who had just completed his 48 when he came over 4,260-foot Zealand on his way to the hut. He had started his list more than 20 years before, as a Boy Scout leader. With him to finish the journey were his daughter and two sons – one of whom flew in from California – and one of his grandsons.

I have less of an entourage the following weekend when I finish my New Hampshire 48: It’s just Lisa and I after she drove up from Boston late the night before knowing we were going to spend the day hiking in the rain. I wanted to make the final hike an epic one and it proved to be just that before we finally stood atop Moriah’s elusive 4,049-foot summit – exhausted, emotionless and with wrinkled feet.

As usual, there are no views other than the tops of Madison and Adams, which are cutting a rift in the storm clouds that are approaching from the southwest. Without talking, we wearily trudge on to Gorham and the car, stopping only to pick a few wild blueberries. But we rejoice as we remove our boots and release our prunish feet from their reluctant imprisonment. We may not have beaten the rain, but once again we have beaten darkness.

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