Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Highlights of My Outdoor Adventures

The Best Adventures of 2013

As each year winds down, the media loves doing year end recaps: person of the year, sportsman of the year, best songs, notable celebrity deaths, best movies, top bloopers… In my quest to be a lemming I’d like to follow suit and recap my best moment from each month of the year.


First time making it to Wcahusett's cider lodge!

It started right from the beginning The New Year’s holiday was spent in Burlington, Vermont, which is a beautiful, small city on the edge of Lake Champlain. Sara and I skied until we were the last ones on the slopes and skied out in dim light, we had a great dinner at a wonderful Bistro in Burlington’s outdoor mall, and we watched fireworks going off over Lake Champlain. OK, technically this was the ending of 2012, but I went to sleep after midnight so I’m lumping it all together. If that doesn’t count then it was the first ski of the season with my girls. The goal was for the girls to make it to a cider lodge halfway up the mountain by the end of the season, because of the trail difficulty in getting there. They proudly made it by the end of the first day and loved the fresh cider donuts as a reward!

Closing down the trails at Bolton Valley, VT in fresh powder!
More skiing; we were slope-side at Bolton Valley, Vermont. The girls loved being slope-side (who doesn’t?) and they got a rush out of disappearing into the glades, hitting a wall with their hands as they skied over a manmade berm, and keeping their local Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cold on the balcony. It snowed several inches almost every day, for awesome conditions. At one point, during a final, snowy run of the day, as ski patrol closed off the trails behind us, I held back. I watched Sara and my two daughters dropping into their runs, fat flakes falling around them, and the mountains laid out before us, curving around like an enormous bowl. All were tired and thrilled, with a pool waiting at the finish line. Seeing everyone so caught up in the moment and each other in such a highlight-reel-of-life moment still chokes me up.

2 feet of new snow at Mount Sunapee, NH!

Snowfall amounts and timing haven’t always worked out really well in New England in the last few years. But one weekend there was an epic dumping. Two feet was perhaps the average, with plenty of places walloped with a thirty-plus accumulation. Sara and I ecstatically thought of the ski potential. But the governor issued an extremely rare ultimatum, banning travel on Massachusetts roadways. Well, there goes the ski day! When it was lifted late on Saturday, we made plans to hit Mount Sunapee, the closest good-sized mountain in New Hampshire, on Sunday. Apparently, so did roughly 187,469 other skiers, judging from lift lines. But conditions were incredible, we gravitated to a less crowded side of the mountain, we ate lunch in lift lines, and everyone was in a euphoric mood. As I caught my breath at the bottom of a set of moguls, watching Sara tackling them in her tele skis, I was smiling so broadly that my lips almost connected in the back of my head.

Tedy and I are finished with Mt. Tecumseh, 4,000-ft peak #3!
Hiking season started up, as Sara and I hit Mount Tecumseh in Waterville, New Hampshire. I was a secret mess of emotions, with the recent passing of my grandmother. But as I’d noted at the time, the way I embrace life is a way to pay tribute to the lessons she taught me. (

Snow, floods, and smiles at Mt. Hale, NH

This was far and away the craziest hiking of my life. We’d planned to hike up to AMC’s Galehead Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for an overnight before hiking out for a hotel stay and après hike food. We wound up contending with floods, snow, AMC warnings, a hiking pole collapsing while precariously balanced on a thin pine tree over a roaring river  (, dehydrated food eaten on the couch of the nearest cheap hotel, eleven icy ladders to climb and then descend (, blessedly wonderful pub food and warmth, and beautiful weather for a last day hike on the last Monday of May, which lead to feet soaked with snowmelt. Absolutely, thrillingly bizarre! (
Life hands you lemons,
Make dehydrated Tandoori chicken!

I’m sure not picking the 11-mile Tripyramids hike when we had stashed water that got stolen!  I can only assume that a day hike including 21+ miles, roughly 18,000 feet of elevation gain, and seven Presidential summits over 4,000-feet will be the most epic day hike I ever have.  I lost two toenails over the 17-hour hike, but learned about myself and set new boundaries for what I’m capable of accomplishing. And I earned a nickname, felt immeasurably closer to Sara, and witnessed three beautiful sunsets in the same day, as we wound around the mountains in the fading light. When Sara was asked at work which Presidential mountain she climbed, she received a double-take when she answered “all of them.”  
Sara and several of NH's Presidential peaks laid out
in front of me, as we start the last leg of our 21-mi hike

After all the Spring hikes, I spent July digging toes into the sand instead of pounding them on miles of rocks; chucking kids into the waves instead of hoisting a backpack onto my shoulders, and admiring a sun coming up over the ocean instead of going down over the mountains. It provided a chance to rejuvenate, to be purposeless, and there’s nothing cuter than kids on a beach.  
Spending July moving at a slower pace

Lunch with a view, from Mt. Avalon, NH

There were so many great moments crammed into this month. We camped with another family on the coast of Maine, kayaking, playing along the shore, creating arts and crafts projects, and swapping stories around the campfire; my girls claimed their first summit; we spent a week in the mountains, hiking several  and mountain biking. I stood by a waterfall (, ate lunch on a rocky outcropping overlooking Crawford Notch ( ), and downhill mountain biked at Bretton Woods. It’s hard to pick a single highlight. But, if forced to choose, I’d say it was the day Sara and I mountain biked at Vermont’s Kingdom Trails, near the Canadian border. They’re the best trails in the eastern U.S., and were once again exhilarating: the day includes eating lunch along a stream before feeling the g-force flying down between trees on a half-pipe, and showering off the dirt and grime before enjoying fantastic food and drink at the always-fun Moat Mountain pub. If that’s not a highlight day then what is?     
Kingdom Trails, VT: best MTB in the Northeast!

Wildcat's ski trails were a fun ending
to our group hike to Carter Notch Hut!
Easy choice for a highlight: backpacking with friends, hitting a few peaks, and staying at an AMC hut for the first time. The leaves were beginning to turn, with classic New England fall weather, and the enthusiasm of everyone staying at this small, off-the-beaten-path hut was intoxicating. We smiled often, whether sitting on our porch with wine and cheese, or celebrating a friend’s and stranger’s birthdays in the main lodge. This experience wasn’t about claiming any peaks, even though we did, but rather about the peaks as an excuse to share a fantastic experience with friends and strangers.
A well-earned break at the summit of Mt. Monadnock, NH!

Despite having to exert themselves for hours and risk smelling a little gamey, my girls not only climbed Mount Monadnock, but they even managed to enjoy it. Oh, they didn’t want to, and were fully prepared to tolerate it only because I’m their dad and can force them to do things. But they still wound up having fun, learning about themselves, and having an accomplishment in which they can take pride (especially after witnessing a dangerous fall). I watched them grow in the course of the day from the experience, it fueled connections and memories, and it set the stage for being able to both push them and bond as a family in 2014. We’ll talk about this hike years from now, and about the future times it now enables. (

Rock climbing at lower elevations!

The biggest hike we took was along a deserted beach in Maine on a cold Thanksgiving vacation, looking for beach glass before warming up in an indoor pool. But when I got a North Face Cat’s Meow sleeping bag for my birthday, it made me think of next year’s adventures and planning on a multi-day hike of over 30-miles in the Pemigewasset wilderness. 

I don’t know how this will end. Maybe there’s New Year’s Eve night skiing, maybe there’s another storm and some snowshoeing in the untrodden snow. But as of the writing of this, I do know a few things that already happened or are in store: my girls already got their new skis for the season, and are proud owners of seriously nice ski jackets. In picking things out for them, there are also the beginnings of some backpacking gear we set back, and I began secretly sizing them up for their first real backpacks. We’re getting close to knowing where we’ll book our February Vacation ski trip. Sara and I know we’re going to hike the whole Pemigewasset wilderness as I use my kick-ass new sleeping bag. We’ll bag some other peaks, too. The girls will hopefully have their first stay in a hut. We’ll probably camp with friends. We may have a week out West, hiking, playing in the water, and sitting around a campfire with family.

2013 included a lot of mountain peaks along with the ocean; time for Sara and me to explore remote parts of New England and for us to teach the girls how nature can be a fun way to learn about the world and ourselves. There was the bustle of a campsite or a hut with enthusiastic friends and strangers, and the remoteness of being the last ones down a ski trail or hiking a mountain in the falling snow. Whatever next year holds, this month has begun setting up the cycle to repeat again: more adventures, more memories, more bonding, more opportunities for us all to grow individually and as a family. It’s a great pattern that doesn’t get old, and I can’t wait to see how 2014 unfolds.

See you on the trail,
Jay, AKA Rock Hoper

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Family Hike #2: Mount Monadnock, NH

Hike #15: Mount Monadnock with kids
Elevation: 3,166
Date: October 26, 2013
Location: Jaffrey, NH
Distance: 4.2 miles
Time: 5:26 (1:18/mile)

My daughters, 8- and 10-year-olds, are not fans of hiking. Skiing, beaches, and occasional letterboxes, sure. Even casual tennis. But they don’t like hard exertion, sweating, or the accompanying stink, and my best cajoling hasn’t made a noticeable dent in their lack of enthusiasm. I’ve since snapped. Not “snapped” as in talking to myself in tongue, or going to work naked, or getting out of my truck to run through traffic jams flapping my arms and screaming “I’ll get there first!” I’ve decided that if they aren’t inherently inclined to hike then I’ll force the issue, do my best to make it enjoyable for them, and hope they come to appreciate it at some point.

After hiking with my 8- and 10-year-old girls in August, when they reluctantly claimed Mount Wachusett as their first summit, I was determined to get one more hike with them before winter set in. After a couple of attempts fell through for various reasons, I approached the last weekend in October as our final shot and I was determined to take advantage of it.
The unsuccessful couple of attempts in prior weeks had prepped them that I wouldn’t give up, but they were still nervous in the run-up to the weekend, with cold weather forecasted. Having read many articles on hiking with kids, I tried to prep them as best as I could. I explained that they were mostly in charge of the hike, whether pace, route, pictures, or breaks. We got suitably fashionable thermal underwear, and I explained to them about layering. I also worked with them to take ownership over managing their hydration and nutrition, with one taking a smaller Camelbak and the other using a fanny pack. That Saturday, as we set out at noon from a crowded parking lot, they were actually in good spirits and enjoying being geared up. 
All geared up and ready to go!

Photo Op!
The 4.2-mile hike was scheduled for four hours, leaving us a good buffer before it got dark, and we needed almost every last minute. The early pace was glacial, as the girls happily experimented with the right layering combination, found photo ops, and asked questions. At the first trail intersection, they paused for a snack, and I calculated that the two-tenths of a mile took forty-five minutes, putting us on pace for about a fifteen hour hike. But then we turned onto the heavily travelled – and easier climb up – the White Dot trail. And then their dislikes and anxieties largely melted away. Yes, there was the occasional over-reaction of a stubbed toe or scratch, and they did get worn out, at times hitting a physical or mental wall. And we made subtle food suggestions to keep their energy up. But, to me, and compared to much of what I’ve seen of them in the past, these were small hiccups I could easily dismiss when compared against what else I saw unfold over the afternoon.

It was a fantastic day. With two grown-ups and two kids, the four of us drifted together and apart, in varying combinations, as we worked our way up the mountain. We talked casually, offered hiking tips, listened as the girls opened up more over the day, laughed, and enjoyed occasional silence. We sometimes hopped, tip-toed, used handholds, and risked falls in puddles. The girls, with packs of their own and responsibility to manage themselves, rummaged for snacks and drank whenever they wanted instead of only when we suggested.  

The girls earned the view and lunch!

Enjoying the rock scrambles!

They took pride in being in charge of themselves, and we pointed out the pride they should also feel when looking across the mountains of southern New Hampshire and to Mount Wachusett, our frequent skiing destination. Even at the halfway point, snacking and enjoying the views, they’d matched their biggest climb to date, with more to go.

A tough last leg to a well-earned
break at the summit!

They learned that the pride is legit, because hiking, like skiing, carries risks. They saw a Boy Scout fall badly on a steep, exposed, wind-blown section, where craggy rocks jutted out at extreme angles creating a narrow chute.  Almost the whole troop was behind him but only a single troop leader accompanied the kids as I jumped over to offer help. For a moment I thought he’d concussed himself or split his scalp open. Sara and my youngest daughter thought he surely broke a nose, split his lip, or lost some teeth. He had face planted; Sarah saw the whole thing.. He had swollen and bruised spots, but our trip did not morph into a rescue mission. The girls, watching the scene, were a bit shaken. And in the resulting bottleneck of people, they were getting squeezed towards the edge of the area, standing awkwardly on the edge of smooth rock. She’d lucked out that the Boy Scout hadn’t taken her out, but now she was small and in an increasingly vulnerable spot. Sara and I asserted ourselves with mindshare that allowed us to quickly coordinate getting the girls to a safe spot out of the fray. In that moment and processing it after, they understood what we mean when we tell them we work hard to protect them and make sure they’re safe, and they have a responsibility to be careful as well, but sometimes accidents can happen. But in their musing that maybe hiking’s too dangerous, it allowed for discussion of the balance between being safe in a boring life or taking calculated risks and truly living.  
Monadnock's summit, AKA the halfway point.
Plenty of hiking still to go!
They also found perseverance and new perspective. As we fell far off the pace, and became some of the last people heading down the mountain, with well over a mile to go, we had to choose between picking up the pace or finishing in the dark. Sydney showed she could consistently maintain a surprisingly good pace, and happily bonded with me as we rock hopped up ahead before waiting for Sara and Sarah to catch up. Sarah learned fatigue is sometimes as mental as it is physical, picking up the pace when she preferred to be done for the day. One of them might have even gotten comfortable peeing in the woods. I won’t name which one for now, until I need a trump card to threaten.

And they found the joy of secret surprises. One example was the foot-long rice krispy treat I pulled out for the last leg. A 0.2-mile first leg required 45 minutes. After the treat, that same leg took 15 minutes even though we’d been hiking for over five hours. Instead of going home and making dinner, they learned the pure joy of chowing down on après hike pub food, getting a kick out of sitting higher off the ground at pub tables.

Finish strong, girls! Finish strong!
The pride and bonding were evident. The well-earned fatigue, on some level, felt good, too. When I had previously shown them pictures of the hike Sara and I took to the Carter Notch hut AMC runs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, they were clearly interested in the premise. But they (especially Sydney) were put off by the mandatory hike to get there. Given Mount Monadnock’s elevation is similar to that of the hut, the hiking distances are about the same, and the Carter Notch route is less steep, they began understanding our point that this new adventure may be within their grasp. And there’s an aspect to gearing up that they enjoy; given my excitement over my Sara giving me a new North Face sleeping bag for my birthday, how do I argue with that?

So, I have no doubt there will be complaints, whines, and grumblings. But I think this was an experience that will be a springboard into others next year, making it everything I hoped it would be. And as I stood behind Sydney, Sarah, and Sara, watching them snack and admire the view of the distant mountains; or as I watched Sarah leaning backwards into Sara, establishing a casual connection; or watching Sydney cut me off to nimbly tip-toe across a rock, risking wet feet if she fell into a puddle on either side in order to be the one to show the way, I felt that, as a person and a father, today was a remarkable day.

For my last hike of the year, it’s hard to argue with a day like this.

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Sunday, December 15, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #11: Carter Dome and the Wildcats, New Hampshire

Hike #10: Carter Dome, Wildcat, Wildcat D Peak
Elevation: 4,832 (Carter Dome), 4,422 (Wildcat), 4,050 (Wildcat D Peak)
Date: September 14-15, 2013
Location: Coos County, NH
Distance: 13.7 miles over two days
Time: 12:11 (53:21/mile)

It’s not often that I go off into the middle of nowhere to walk for hours and find that the most memorable aspect of the experience is the vibe, but that’s exactly what this hike was all about.

Sara and I headed into New Hampshire’s Carter Notch, a tucked away part of the woods, nestled against the Maine border. It’s not as popular as its brethren, Franconia, Pinkham, or Crawford, which are more accessible. It’s also been a somewhat-overlooked notch for well over a century. But it’s home to some peaks, a leg of the Appalachian Trail, and some great Appalachian Mountain Club trails.
Working our way up to Carter Notch

Enjoying the view of Wildcat

For this hike, Sara and I were joined by Pete and Melissa, a couple of friends she’s hiked and skied with over a number of years. It was a somewhat spontaneous trip and is only one of a few hikes I’ve done with a group, and it started things off with a different energy. Sara had the chance to reconnect and catch up, using the easy 19-Mile Brook Trail as an opportunity for conversation. For me, it allowed me to get to know them better, to listen to stories, and to generate my own experience with them. 

But after three miles and three hours, we’d arrived at the Carter Notch hut. It’s one of the smaller huts that AMC operates, with room for forty people. Unlike some others, this has bunkhouses and a main building. Carter Notch has maintained a hut for well over a hundred years, making it the oldest in the system. Early ones appear to go back to 1853, but the current one was built after fire destroyed its predecessor in 1914, and has been modified since. Renovations have also continued to go on to the property. As such, we found ourselves in one of the two bunkhouses in great condition that had four rooms. Our room had two bunk beds, which meant we had the room to ourselves. There’s something about any version of “roughing it” or being without things you normally take for granted, that makes anything unexpectedly good extra exciting. So, having a room in which we know all the residents was grounds for celebration.  
Looking down on the Carter Notch huts
while ascending to the Carter Dome peak
It was brief, though, as we hadn’t stood atop a mountain yet. So we quickly dropped the thirty-pound bags for small ones that could hold the essentials. The Carter Notch hut is tucked in a saddle between the peaks of Wildcat and Carter Dome, both over 4,000 feet of elevation and looming on either side of us. So at about 3,300 feet of elevation, the hut left us with some serious climbing to do. We headed out and worked hard over the next hour to reach Carter Dome’s summit, which lacked any view. But a couple of points along the way allowed us to look down on the hut, the small pond adjacent to it, and Wildcat beyond it. Fog was rolling in, adding to the feeling of intimacy.

Enjoying Carter Notch Hut's hospitality

After returning to the hut, about 5:00, we had an hour to change into warm and comfortable clothes, to have wine, cheese, and crackers on the deck of the bunkhouse, and to enjoy the early evening view. When we transitioned into the main building for dinner, a family-style meal was served. The fresh-baked bread was still warm, the soup steaming hot, the salad crisp and fresh, and the meat and mashed potatoes delicious. Even though the gravy had an odd consistency (henceforth known as “semi-coagulated meat juice”), we still poured it on and wiped it up. The place was mostly full, and cheery voices echoed off the stone walls, creating a loud but festive atmosphere. The AMC staff added to it with polite hospitality and friendly stories and introductions. Whether they were new to the role, had been with the AMC for years, or were a third-generation staff member, they were all there finding various ways to promote our enjoyment and respect for a beautiful place.
Birthday celebrations!
When they brought out brownies, it was grounds for another round of grown-ups as excited as kids, some of whom had also trekked through miles of woods to be there. Eric and Marnie, a couple from Newton, Massachusetts, sat next to us with their two boys, who looked to be in elementary or middle school. Eric just had a birthday and when his wife presented him with a small birthday cake she’d snuck in, she pulled another out for our friend Melissa, whose birthday was the day before. As they admired the ingenuity of our mini-cardboard boxes of wine (for lighter weight to carry), we returned their graciousness by adding a little Captain Morgan’s to their coffees which made Marnie’s eyes light up and Eric’s smile as wide as his mouth would allow. Seemingly at every table, whether it was the AMC Naturalist teaching about weather systems, or us discussing how Marnie’s family, too, had an AMC caretaker in the lineage, there were laughs and smiles all around.

When everyone returned to their rooms around 8:00 p.m., the sun had long since set. A partial moon was visible, with frequent wisps of fog racing past it and the steep mountain walls hulking in the shadows below. We spent the rest of the evening chatting and reading highlights of a trail book from the lodge. I was tired, but wired from the festiveness. 9:30 is lights-out time, which was the only sad part of my day. Given that I fell asleep within minutes, I guess it was for the best. Although the hut is said to be haunted by Red Mac, an early caretaker who was a key player in stringing together the AMC huts, much the way they’re used and located today, he didn’t bother me. Should his spirit remain, it would seem to be because of his love for the area and the mission of the hut, so I guess if I saw him it would’ve been as he pulled another wool blanket over me instead of trying to scare the bejeezus out of me.

Reflection of Wildcat
The next morning dawned chilly and clear, and I watched the colors of the sky changing. By the time the sun climbed high enough above Carter Dome to be visible it was too high to be spectacular. But I’d had my quiet moments to watch the sunrise hues and my breath as I sat on the deck in the crisp air for a bit. When we piled into the lodge for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast, we found everyone’s moods unchanged. The decibel level, the smiles, the excitement at the food were all still very much in evidence. The enthusiastic debate regarding whether or not the delicious seasoning for the hash browns was the leftover semi-coagulated meat juice and the etiquette tips they delivered via a modified version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail provided the rest of the partially-planned morning theater.

Looking at Carter Dome from Wildcat D's summit
We were back on the Wildcat Ridge trail at 8:00, having written final notes in their logbook. We hadn’t covered a tenth of a mile in our planned 5.26-mile hike out before we passed that same small pond we’d passed and spied the day before. But the glorious Fall day seemed to make Wildcat’s trees more colorful, and they reflected beautifully off the pond’s still surface. Wildcat’s up-and-down trail quickly forced us to lose the view of the water, but replaced it with a number of views of a number of mountains, including several Carter peaks, Mount Hight, and the Presidentials. We drifted through varied terrain: birch forests, moss-covered rocky sections, stands of scraggly pines only seen at higher elevations, washouts and tiny waterfalls, rocky areas needing hands as much as feet, and water-prone sections with planks to keep feet dry and the environment protected. The rolling trail meant none of us ever got too tired or sore from climbing or descending, and when we stopped for lunch we found ourselves at the Wildcat ski area on an observation deck, having cheese and crackers and homemade banana break as we admired Mount Washington and recounted more hiking stories.

Admiring the Presidential Range from Wildcat

Because of limitations on bodies and time, we changed our route and hiked down ski trails. But they afforded amazing and varied views as we wound our way down the mountain. Although Pete and I had a final couple of miles to hike along the road, putting us closer to eight miles in total while Sara and Melissa sat in the shade awaiting our chivalrous return, it provided a final chance to process the hike.
Hiking Wildcat's ski trails
The energy, camaraderie, and enthusiasm that infused everyone I ran across, and the intimacy of the hut’s location, are my signature memories of this hike and my first time staying at a hut. My girls are enthusiastic about certain activities but prolonged physical exertion isn’t one of those things. I’ve sought ways to engage them, and am left believing that if they can make it to this hut; if they, “Big Sara” and I have a bunkroom to ourselves; if we spend an afternoon in the lodge having hot chocolate, brownies, and playing games; if the naturalist enthralls Sarah as he did some others; if the weather is half as good and Sydney can practice her drawing and photography; if the girls can read the note left for them in the logbook; if these things happen then I can watch my girls as vibrantly enjoying life as I did this weekend.

See you on the trails,
Jay, AKA RockHopper

Monday, November 18, 2013

Family Hike #1: Mount Wachusett, Massachusetts

Hike #13: Mount Wachusett with kids
Elevation: 2,006
Date: August 18, 2013
Location: Princeton, MA
Distance: 3.1 miles
Time: 3:00 (58:06 /mile)

I love the outdoors. Always have, always will. I spend time in the woods in a variety of ways, all fun in their own right. But my daughters, 8 and 10, participate more reluctantly. Skiing’s an easy draw, and I’ve had marginal luck with letterboxing. But they’ve generally sought to avoid the woods.  I think kids can learn a lot about themselves and their world through outdoor activities, so on a late-summer day, they were about to bag their first peak.

We chose Mount Wachusett because it isn’t far from our house, is only a couple thousand feet of elevation (with only one thousand feet of climbing), and we ski there in the winter. On the drive, I probed the girls to better understand their mindset, and how I could find ways for the outdoors to appeal to them.

Sarah, my younger daughter, attended a summer camp the year before. On a hike, several kids were  stung by bees, so that was about the extent of the less-than-stellar association she had with hiking. Sydney, my older daughter, had more to say, enjoying rock climbing, but not wanting to sweat, smell bad, or get tired. She did acknowledge that being physically worn out from an activity might mean she’s having fun, though. They also both disliked bugs and mud, although Sydney would enjoy mud if getting a spa treatment, something she’s never had before. I smiled at that one and tried a different line of questioning.

When I asked them about accomplishments achieved through physical effort, they acknowledged that trying really hard and attaining a goal can make them feel proud. Skiing their first black diamond trail last winter was one example both cited, and Sarah also pointed to her climb up the 24-foot-high rock wall when we vacationed at New Hampshire’s Attitash ski resort the prior summer.

If it’s just about pure enjoyment outdoors, Sydney preferred skiing and Sarah tennis, but both for the same reasons: there’s an engaging pace to it, with some variety that also helps maintain their attention and interest.

Both appreciated nature, and what it provides for people. It’s a source of oxygen, food, and beauty. And, very importantly, without it we’d have no raw materials to make paper for mailing letters. So it should be protected. Besides, without it, we’d not only have an ugly world, but one with a lot of dirt and mud, requiring a lot of showers to stay clean, which isn’t fun. They’d begun learning about nature in school, but not to any significant degree. And they saw Sara and I enjoying it solely as a source of fun, which isn’t correct. It allows us to push ourselves, to grow, to connect with ourselves, each other, and the world around us. It re-grounds us even as we achieve new accomplishments and memories.

Mapping the route

Armed with a better understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and knowledge, we arrived at the largely-empty parking lot, showed them the potential route on a map, and set out.

We let the girls dictate the pace and when to break. Given their distaste for sweating, and hiking on an August day, it took exactly twelve minutes before we stopped to rest. But, amidst breaks and snacks of fruit chews and granola bars, the girls learned about how different trees and plants have different seeds and strategies to reproduce.

Admiring the aptly named Balance Rock
 We also came across Balance Rock, a feature that led to a conversation about erosion and glaciers. 
So that's erosion in action, huh?

Earning the pride from a free climb!

As the trail transitioned between rockier sections and hardpack, level and steeper parts, woods and open ski slopes, conversation continued to flow between science topics and stories about hikes and remembering times we skied on these slopes. Sarah even found a tricky section of rock that allowed her to free climb. I’d initially resisted letting her tackle it, but reversed course to let her see what she could achieve. She earned her pride, as it was steep and there was a point where neither grown-up would be able to help her if she slipped.

The girls bag their first peak!

Despite the intermittent, ongoing complaining about exertion and fatigue, they bagged their first peak an hour and a half into the hike. Both girls felt a modest sense of accomplishment, far happier to just be done climbing. We rested on the summit, taking in views, munching on sandwiches and fruit. They opted for a different route back down, looking for some variety.

It initially included a lot of rock steps. As the girls complained about rubbery legs, we pointed out the kids half their age heading uphill, with smiles. Worse, one kid was so little he was still learning to walk! When it flattened out, we found ourselves at the visitor’s center. It allowed the girls to go to the bathroom in an actual bathroom, which I think was a relief to them.  Afterwards, the route flattened out a lot, and Sydney began talking about seeing flowers and wondering how to use them creatively in an art project, or how to save ones over multiple hikes as souvenirs.

Wildflowers and a possible art project?

Their first peak hike is officially in the bag!
When we came out onto the beginner’s ski slope near the lodge, Sarah suddenly had enough energy to go bounding off, and the three-hour hike concluded with ice cream cones at a nearby store. We talked about the hike in between licks, and the girls felt proud of their accomplishment and were interested in another one, which was a great sign. However, the girls preferred one not as hard as this. That led to explaining about having a new “frame of reference”, and how they could find parallels in their progress at skiing. Mount Monadnock will be the next one we tackle, which, like almost any mountain in New Hampshire, is unfortunately higher. But the views should be breathtaking, it’s not much higher, and they may soon enjoy getting some real hiking gear that goes along with real hikes. The girls definitely did not conclude the day with a newfound affinity for hiking. But they didn’t see it as awful, either. Hopefully, I can continue searching for enough ways to make it appealing enough that it offsets the exertion, sweat, and dirt that accompanies it. 
Well-earned apres-hike refreshments!
See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Sunday, October 27, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #10: Mount Field, Mount Tom, New Hampshire

Hike #10: Mount Tom, Mount Field & Mount Avalon
Elevation: 4,051 (Tom); 4,340 (Field)
Date: August 13, 2013
Location: Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
Distance: 7.2 miles
Time: 4:56 (41:07/mile)

I think there’s always a point during a long vacation when you pass the halfway mark and realize you’re counting the days remaining instead of the days gone by; when you start thinking about the work coming up instead of the work you left behind; and when you start thinking about the best way to spend the remaining time.

This was the context when Sara and I awoke on a cool day that reminded us that it wasn’t just our vacation winding down, but summer as well. While it would have been nice to stay under the covers, we wanted to make the most of the time we had left. So by 10:00 a.m. we’d already gotten ready, driven through Crawford Notch, and had time for Sara to ask an Appalachian Mountain Club employee to help her figure out where the trailhead was while I dilly-dallied in the truck in order to not lose Man Points by asking directions. As we set out, we quickly came to the booth that many trailheads have, although this had only warnings about leaving no trace and hikers’ responsibilities, but it lacked a map. Although we had one with us, it seemed markedly incomplete.
Pop quiz: what's missing from this picture?

We were hiking Mount Field and Mount Tom, which would complete hikes in this section of mountains. We also weren’t sure if it would be the end of this year’s hikes. The first leg, on the Avalon Trail, was easy, allowing for conversation, quick pace, and a chance to warm up a bit despite the occasional spitting rain and cool humidity. When we hit a trail intersection and switched to the A-Z Trail, it climbed steeply and the chit-chat ended, the sweating started, and the humidity sucked the life out of my legs.  

I tried to lose myself in thought, but the main topic in my head wasn’t a pleasant one. An older woman hiking a long section of the Appalachian Trail became lost in Maine. Although she was very experienced, no one could find any trace of her despite being able to significantly narrow down the zone where rescuers were searching. At the previous intersection, Sara and I encountered a through-hiker heading from Maine to Georgia instead of the normal route from south to north. He was familiar with the area rescuers were focusing on and we speculated about what might have happened: here’s someone nearing the end of a great experience, who is well-seasoned in hiking, and is suddenly gone, leaving loved ones behind. Presumably, there was some point when she was hopelessly lost, with a series of increasingly panicked decisions and actions. After she was out of food and too weak to continue, she must have found herself at a point where she knew she was dying and left with the saddest of thoughts. Her tragedy unfolded in solitude, and constituted a morbid topic to focus on as I trudged ever higher, distracted from my discomfort by thoughts of someone’s much worse fate. A couple of months later, as of the writing of this, there’s still no sign of her.

Eerie stillness near the summit of Mt. Tom, NH

I shook loose from my thoughts as the terrain began changing. As we neared the crest of the trail we began easing up on our effort. I re-engaged with Sara at that point, and the trail leveled out near a spur to the summit, making for a good spot to break. We snacked and talked amidst an eerie scene. The forest was still, and filled mostly with dead pines, moss, and bare branches pointing skyward. The fog left us feeling further isolated and emphasized the silence. A family we’d repeatedly leapfrogged came upon us again and continued on the spur to the peak of Mount Tom.

The father attended summer camp in the area as a kid, and was enjoying the chance to share the area with his family, who was from Pennsylvania. It was the last day of their vacation, and the teen-aged son was bonding with his dad. The teen-aged daughter was another story, not feeling the warm-and-fuzzies, and barely containing her dislike of hiking. Mom appreciated the sentiment, but her knee was giving her trouble, which would be the means to a compromise. It would prohibit their continuing on to Mount Field and shave an hour or so off of their hike. 

Mount Tom's summit view

We gave them space before continuing on to the summit ourselves. When we did, we resumed a conversation going on intermittently for months about possibly making some life changes. Enough time gets sunk into our work, workdays, and house, yet that’s not where we’d prefer to spend it. This hardly makes us unique, but we’d been discussing how to set up a situation to more easily spend time where we feel most fulfilled.

Maybe we don’t need to own a home that requires time and money that precludes doing other things. Maybe we substitute it for an apartment and use the money on a vacation home. Most people think of owning a primary home as their base, and they radiate outward to new places on vacations. Maybe we’d do the opposite, with an apartment as a way station. Maybe a smaller home on Cape Cod would be a place we could feel more alive, with easy access to be there more often. And maybe the mountains become a place for longer backpacking trips instead of renting condos and doing day hikes. Maybe this sort of lifestyle also is a way to expose my daughters to the idea that you can chart your own unique course in life, and there are options on what that looks like. Maybe, in doing so, they become exposed to different lifestyles and jobs, and those experiences impact them. Maybe one spends a summer as an AMC employee, welcoming people to a hut and helping others have their own experiences. Or maybe she spends a summer in college working on Cape Cod, with timeless, classic summer memories she remembers fondly for years. Or maybe the art community there captivates one, and she’s comfortable with a small apartment and cobbling together a couple of jobs to sell her jewelry or paintings, loving the niche she carves out for herself.

Better view and weather atop Mount Field, NH

These were the bigger picture things we pondered as we hiked on from Mount Tom’s summit to Mount Field’s. We also talked of the nuts-and-bolts details of such a situation. Something can be appealing in concept, but if the details are obnoxious then it doesn’t really work. I don’t want to constantly be wondering whether I’ll have the clothes or groceries that I need, nor do I want to live out of a suitcase for the next ten years. So we talked about a lot of this, and before we knew it we were standing on the summit of Mount Field, completing the eighteenth 4,000-foot summit. The view wasn’t great, so we had some food and continued on.

Takin' a break on Mount Avalon
Shortly after, as we descended, we saw a spur to the summit of Mount Avalon. At 3,350 feet of elevation, Avalon isn’t a big mountain in comparison to the two we’d already climbed that day. But when we climbed the final rocks, we found the most breathtaking views of any of the day’s summits. The rocks created natural couches for us, so we lingered. We munched on more food, admired the views, and relaxed. The sun, which fought through the clouds about an hour earlier, warmed our skin. While we could have remained for another hour, a part of us became restless and we moved on.

As we finished our loop and came back to the Avalon Trail and the last 1.3 miles to the trailhead, I figured we could easily finish by 3:30, with a total time of 5.5 hours. But Sara was determined to hit a 3:00 p.m. ending time. She began running and I followed suit. The terrain was muddy and we ran, hopped, scurried across wet tree trunks, and slid our way along at a good clip. At one point, we came to a river. Three women were relaxing and cooling their bare feet in it when we burst out of the woods on one side, nimbly navigated our way across, and disappeared into the trees on the other side. I heard them as we receded into the trees, and they thought we’d been running at that pace for the entire hike. They were amazed and I had no urge to go back and clarify. Sara’s prediction proved correct, and at 2:56 we emerged from the woods at the trailhead, done with our hike and ready for some relaxation. 
Sprinting to the finish line!

That evening, after showering off the grime, we chowed pub food at the Red Parka, a place catering to locals and the après ski crowd. It had a casual and fun vibe, and we talked a little more about our hike, our possible upcoming lifestyle changes, bigger hikes next year, and the tasty microbrews in front of us. Alistair Humphreys is a guy who was recognized as National Geographic’s adventurer of the year. It wasn’t for something crazy such as a solo traverse of Antarctica by bike or crossing the Pacific in a raft pulled by dolphins or running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Rather, it was for his premise of “micro-adventures”. This is basically about Average Joes trying to make the most of the time they have and the places they have access to. In essence, it was an award for promoting the very kinds of things we’re trying to do. Over the next several months, we’ll see how our own version of that winds up looking.

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper