Wednesday, July 24, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #6: Cannon Mountain, NH

Hike #6: Cannon Mountain
Elevation: 4,100 feet
Date: May 27, 2013
Location: Franconia, NH
Distance: 4.6 miles
Time: 4:30 (58:41/mile)

Now this is what everyone hopes Memorial Weekend will be like! Monday dawned sunny, with temps headed into the 60s, a departure from the rain, snow, floods, and chill of the last two days. At least we’d have a happy ending to the holiday weekend. We headed across the street for the complimentary and very hearty breakfast courtesy of the Woodstock Inn & Brewery ( and finalized our plans for the day, amidst the smells and tastes of coffee, omelet and sunny side up eggs, hash, pancakes, bacon, toast... and anything else we could get our hands and mouths on.

We didn’t originally plan to hike today. We previously planned to spend Saturday and Sunday hiking, bookending a stay at AMC’s Galehead Hut. Sunday’s stay at the Woodstock Inn & Brewery was for après hike pampering to round out the weekend, before heading back to Massachusetts on Monday. But Armageddon weather and two shorter day hikes left us with neither the mileage nor total time we’d sought. Part of this trip was for its own experience, and part was as training for mid-June’s Presidential Traverse, covering seven peaks over 20 miles in a single day. So we decided to tackle Cannon Mountain, which was nearby and under five miles. Given that we are typically ahead of book pace, we thought we’d come in at around three-and-a-half hours and be back home just in time to pick Tedy up from the kennel.
I'm enjoying the view (and catching my breath). Little did I know, it would only get worse.

We set out from the parking lot of Cannon on the Kinsman Ridge Trail about 10:30. Our muscles were a bit sore and fatigued, but we were forced to contend with a trail that was immediately and often steep. We soon stripped off layers, heating up despite the dropping temperature as we gained elevation. The write-ups referenced this as a pretty intense hike and we began to understand why. When we hit a clearing, the view was great and the terrain turned from hardpack trail to quasi-rock scramble. The snowpack also was deeper than what we’d seen the day before at Mount Willey, on the eastern side of the whites. This meant that, instead of the temps quickly melting the snow, the snow was cooling off the temps while still creating enough runoff to make hiking and foot placement tricky. It seemed to also generate a silence, the chirping of birds and rustling of chipmunks left below the snowline, and the soaring hawks overhead generating only silence.

Our pace slowed as we sought handholds in some places, stepped carefully in others, hoping to remain both safe and dry. But as the trail transitioned back under evergreens we began ceding our comfort to the elements. The trail revealed puddles and slush in some spots that seemed largely impassable. Sara sucked it up and walked on. I was determined to use my alleged mountain goat-like nimbleness to hop, balance, and wend my way through while remaining mostly dry. It worked… at first. Then there was a foot slip on a rock, a mossy spot that sank more than it appeared it would, and a gap that an Olympic long jumper couldn’t cross. Next thing you know, my boots had gone from having a little snow on the reinforced tips to being officially damp, and the sticky palms from sap transferred from a tree trunk served as a temporary tattoo to memorialize my pointless caution. I felt compelled to be a baby about it, but mostly because I was nervous that the greater snow on Cannon and all the time in it would leave me more miserable than I ever expected for a day so gorgeous. It was a lesson for the newbie that there can be a lag between the weather improving and the conditions catching up.

But then I got over my mild case of the grumpies when we started coming out to some phenomenal views. We’d come to the ridge near where the Old Man of the Mountains was located before the disintegration (which is why Cannon’s also known as “Profile Mountain”). Over the aroma and immediately adjacent evergreens, we could see the peaks of the Franconia Ridge, and they were splendid with the snowcaps and exposed rock toward the summits, and greenery of spring nearer the bases, with enough snow covered trees closer by to make for views that would rival anything in leaf-peeping season. One of my daughters had made a picture for me, showing me hiking. I’d brought it with me, hoping to find a similar view and take a picture of me looking at her picture and the view, thinking she’d appreciate that. Finding a suitable lookout, Sara took some photos for me to send to her.

My daughter's drawing was close... she didn't know to draw snow.

With my spirit buoyed, we headed on, now leveling out temporarily as we continued toward the summit Then I quickly had a recurrence of the grumpies, this time longer and worse than before. We hadn’t expected to hike here so we didn’t have this part of the AMC’s White Mountain Guidebook with us. The online information we’d read had referenced a somewhat flat area near the summit prone to puddling. I guess that might be true during a once-in-a-hundred-years drought. But after a soaking rain and a half-foot of snow now melting under sun and 60-plus degree temps, it was essentially a shallow lake, soon to be bestowed a variety of nicknames, only some of which are suitable for print.

I didn’t bother with my “I can do this; I’m a mountain goat” crap. I just tried to find ways to keep my feet as dry as possible. Sara? She plodded on relentlessly, only being particular about her route in the absolute worst areas. Me? I’m bending over backwards as I’m clinging to trees, doing quick toe-taps across rotting trunks floating in the water, and doing the pelican pose from Karate Kid on tiny rocks jutting above the water. All while trying to be sure I don’t do a move to damage the landscape that I’m supposed to be enjoying and respecting. Predictably, it was a losing battle, with every errant step and sinking foot allowing more of my shoes and socks to be claimed by the freezing water. Sara could trace my progress behind her by the steady stream of expletives coming out of my potty mouth. At one point, I let loose a string of curses that even George Carlin would agree should never be uttered on television.   

Half-dozen of my 67 peaks in 67 months.
Note the sideways snow on the post behind me.
Finally, we were clear of Lake Cannon, and resumed the scramble to the top. It was odd when we emerged from the woods. Right by the true summit was the main ski lift that serviced Cannon Mountain’s skiers. But today, families in tee shirts and shorts were having snowball fights. They were dressed for the weather down below, and laughing at their brief stay in the snow. With bemused expressions, we moved on from the happy hordes to the observation tower where we could officially declare Cannon as bagged.

"He just saved my life... and someday I'll
let him cash those chips in... maybe."

The tower showed again weather worse than what we’d previously encountered in Crawford Notch. Not only was the snow deeper than on Willey or Hale, but the accumulated snow and ice on the metal of the tower had frozen into sideways icicles. The wind howled as we feigned nonchalance during the obligatory photo op. But we cut it short when the wind knocked large ice chunks free of the antenna nearby and they crashed close to us. The good news from the abbreviated stay is that when I heard ice beginning to fall close by, I instantly put myself between the danger and Sara, shielding her at my own expense. I say “good news” because I emerged unscathed and Sara saw my instinctive protection of her. I got mucho brownie points. Someday when I do something stupid and she’s understandably mad, I’m sure I’ll desperately throw out a “but, honey! Remember Cannon? The ice meteors!??!” In the meantime, I put the points in my mental piggybank, hoping they’d be redeemable, and we hustled back down. 

The initial descent wasn’t great. There wasn’t anything particularly bad, but I knew that I had to traverse the newest Great Lake again. And some safe spots were no longer safe, as they were one-time islands, now filled in with water. This time, when we got to the start of that stretch, instead of cursing I just stopped talking.
View of Franconia Ridge from Cannon Mountain, NH

But as a hiking newbie I realized I’m going to need to acclimate to this sort of situation. And even though our pace was going much slower than we’d expected, it wouldn’t be too awfully long before I was in my truck with dry clothes and feet. So I modified a running trick, just taking it one small section of lake at a time. I counted out loud the ones I’d traversed and focused on giving myself credit for the ones that I forded successfully. Surprisingly soon, I found myself on the other side. Yes, my shoes were now wet enough that there was a squishy sound every time I stepped. But I knew the rest of the descent wouldn’t be as miserable as this section, containing Lake Sonofa...

Soon after, we were back to the clearing partway down the Kinsman Ridge trail. The runoff had picked up, but more rock was also exposed and I could start to lose myself in the rock scramble. This is when I’m most immersed, losing track of time and maintaining my energy, and I found myself again in the pattern of moving further ahead, waiting for Sara, then bounding off again. Now mid-afternoon, we passed some people still ascending, and I was surprised they’d started this late in the day. Their challenges would be worse than mine, and I was done whining. I was again happy with our progress, as we moved back under the canopy for the final time. We weren’t quite done, and had long since abandoned the idea of getting back in time to pick up our dog from the kennel. But we could now talk happily about the hike in a nearly-past tense, lumping it in as part of the weekend’s three summits over three days.

What a hike! What a weekend!

I definitely learned a lot from the weekend’s hikes. I was proud that we both avoided tunnel vision on the first day, when we first set out for Galehead amidst a flood. I appreciated us finding a way to still get something out of that day. I realized that my strong suit is tackling ladders, scrambling across rocks, and confidently traversing spots possibly better characterized as rock climbing, with an element of danger. I learned I’m happiest in these sorts of riskier sections where I’m confident in my physical abilities but have a decision about whether to be excited or afraid by the task at hand. I prefer to be in good enough shape that the physical demands don’t worry me. Long grinds, conversely, just aren’t my thing, although Sara enjoys them. But over the weekend, my conditioning proved strong and my knee and ankle both held up, surprising me and giving me hope for endurance during the longer hikes ahead. Maybe this means I won’t be a total anchor dragging Sara down. And like other types of exercises I’ve done, when you hit a new personal best, you know the bar is forever raised, with an improved frame of reference. I had a chance to practice the ol’ self talk every day to either drag myself down or pick myself up. I won’t wipe the newbie label off myself yet. But I do feel more confident heading into June and the two long hikes it has in store.

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

Monday, July 22, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #5: Mt. Willey, NH

Hike #5: Mount Willey
Elevation: 4,285 feet
Date: May 26, 2013
Location: Whitefield, NH
Distance: 6.00 miles
Time: 4:44 (47:20/mile)

I pulled open the drapes of the hotel window on Sunday of Memorial Weekend with a flourish, expecting to see an improvement in the weather. Instead, I found my truck covered in a few inches of snow and flakes still falling. 

Snow? Seriously? Awww, come on!

“You gotta be kidding me!” I declared to the room. This is snow far later than I can remember, even if we are in the mountains. This is ridiculous, and I took precautions with my gear, but not for this sort of weather. The last time I remember May snow in New England, aside of the Canadian border or Mount Washington, was in the ‘70s, with my mother talking about downed limbs and nothing like it in Massachusetts since then.

We’d committed to doing the Presidential Traverse near the summer solstice, about a twenty-mile hike across the seven Presidential summits linked together in the northern White Mountains. We wanted to get in some extra hikes before then, for training and confidence, so we were determined to make something out of today, since the weather seemed less than stellar, but not the flooding rain and snow of the day before.

Mentally cursing, I once again set about working with Sara to get ready, pack up, and check out of the hotel, which had been a great, low-cost solution to a chaotic Saturday that overhauled our weekend plans. ( We’d decided to spend Sunday tackling Mount Willey, which offered a longer hike than the day before, and a bit out of the way. It also set up a two-peak day hike of Mount Field and Mount Tom for some point down the road. Part of the challenge of tackling 67 peaks in 67 months is hiking them in a way not forcing us to constantly retread the same routes. There may be some repeats, but new hikes are the primary focus.

We cruised along the Ethan Pond Trail in the beginning, enjoying outerwear that had dried from the prior day. I’d also brought a spare pair of boots which were nicely dry. The early trail wasn’t bad, which gave our muscles time to loosen up, and the rain and snow weren’t nearly as heavy as the day before. As we climbed, we also talked a bit about the history of Mount Willey.

It was named for the family of Samuel Willey, Jr., who had settled at the base of the mountain in 1825. They’d only been there for less than a year when there were severe rains. The family worried about a landslide and one night their fears materialized. Although they sought refuge, the family perished. Tragically, their house was below an outcropping that diverted debris away from it and remained unscathed. Today, the site is a tourist attraction, nestled on route 302 between the towering mountains. The stillness in the nearly claustrophobic notch matches the melancholic vibe that accompanies the tragic origins of the site.

The milder start of 11 ladders,
each steeper than the prior one.
As we turned off of the Ethan Pond Trail to begin the second half of the ascent on the Willey Range Trail, it began to get harder. We were going to be climbing 1,600 feet in 1.1 miles, which is a 28% grade. For comparison, the maximum interstate highway grade is 6%. In my hyperbolic mind, this means I’m being asked to work almost five times as hard as a tractor trailer. Our conversation slowed as we focused on the hike. Then we hit a great series of eleven ladders built from trees and secured to the rock. These are always fun for me, like a game, and I immediately started scooting up them, bee-bopping along. As each successive ladder became steeper, I got happier. Some spots required that I step off the end of one ladder, scoot to the side, and then mount the next. I used these as a chance to begin to look back and appreciate the height I’d gained from the first ladder. Sara, on the other hand, had her eyes locked on the stair in front of her, used all limbs to climb, and had a tension in her voice when she, uhhhh, requested that I not get too far ahead. The slush on the steps weren’t helping her confidence, either. So I tried to hover, subtly clear the snow off the steps as I went, and offer intermittent words of encouragement, hoping that would help.

Once above the ladders, the snow was deeper, and the pitch still steep. Some points required handholds and using our whole bodies to climb. The melting snow created runoff that added to the difficulty, especially as we sought to avoid soaked boots and hands. Once the climbing was over and it was just plain steep, I bonked big time at this point. I was completely dragging and cold, yet knew I was close to the summit. Sara was in front, and wearing down, too. But she knew she was keeping us both motivated and she kept grinding along. Combined with the ladders, it was a good example of us both working to support each other.

We passed the false summit and shortly after arrived at the true summit. It was snow covered, and if not for the cairn indicated as the landmark in AMC’s guidebook, I’d never have realized we’d topped out. We stopped, had a sandwich, indulged in the obligatory photo op, and had a painful swig of Sailor Jerry’s rum to warm the innards. Cold and wet, but a bit re-energized, we started back down.

Yep. A handful o' peaks to my credit.

 A brief detour to the lookout from the false summit showed an enormous fog bank. Unlike Mount Hale the day before, it was clear that this was a great view in good weather, but it was pretty useless for us. So with an “okay then, moving along now,” declaration, we soldiered on.

We definitely made better time going down. We did tread cautiously at the trickier spots, afraid of slipping in the snow. We’d never expected to need yak tracks to help our shoes grip in the snow, so we were being more cautious about footholds. I still had fun with it, establishing a pattern of getting a little ahead of Sara then waiting as she caught up before scooting off again like a kid. Surprisingly soon, we found ourselves back at the ladders. I again enjoyed it, wishing there were more of them. I cruised down them facing forward, like staircases. Then I saw Sara descending them like a ladder, always keeping three limbs in contact with them. I also learned that she’d prefer to focus, and finds it distracting if I start re-purposing some song to break the tension for her or to entertain myself. “Ain’t no ladder steep enough” will apparently not be a chart-topping remake of Marvin Gaye’s ‘60’s Motown classic. The good news is that it meant the couple on their way up didn’t hear my pitchy crooning. They had a dog with them, which made for stressful navigation, but he was a trooper and not as worried as they were.

What's that blue stuff?
Haven't seen that in ages!

After the ladders, we picked up the pace. Once we hit the roughly-halfway point and intersected the Ethan Pond Trail again, we knew it flattened out and were moving easily, without issue. We were feeling pretty good as we neared the bottom. The railroad crossing told us we were close to the end, and we took a detour to briefly explore an old foundation and some debris from what seemed to be some sort of small building related to the railroad or perhaps a Willey outbuilding. Left to the elements, the rusting equipment and crumbling foundation were reminders of a very different period of time, and we lingered in the peaceful quiet before finishing the hike.

Afterwards, we drove around the north side of the White Mountains back through Franconia Notch. We’d reserved a room at the Woodstock Inn & Brewery, near Loon Mountain ( Hot showers warmed us up and took off the grime. The heated bathroom floor pampered our feet after two days of abuse. And, walking across the street, the barstools were the perfect place to indulge in microbrews and pub food, to peruse the day’s pictures, to process the hike and crazy weather, and talk about what would come next.
I think we earned this souvenir!

Given the commitment to do the Presidential Traverse and not getting in the mileage or hours of hiking we’d sought, we pondered a hike on Monday, which we didn’t originally expect to do. We also spied a free weekend on the calendar before the target date. Whether the enthusiasm was aided by the Woodstock Brewery’s great ales or not, we sat on our barstools committing to two more hikes.

The night ended with us tired but happy, staying up surprisingly late. We’d survived the Armageddon weather, and the next day’s forecast was gorgeous. The weekend was about to end on a high note. Or so we thought.

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #4: Mt. Hale, NH

Hike #4: Mount Hale
Elevation: 4,054 feet
Date: May 25, 2013
Location: Bethlehem, NH
Distance: 4.60 miles
Time: 3:34 (46:31/mile)

Man, this was not what I expected! We planned to spend Memorial Weekend hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, staying at AMC’s Galehead Hut for a night and hitting Galehead, Garfield, South Twin and North Twin. But as the weekend approached, the forecast kept worsening. As a newer hiker, I’m not fully geared up. So I bought waterproof pants to go with the waterproof jacket. I also endured the calls and texts from my mom, with foreboding warnings and lots of advice aside of being sure to bring plenty of clean underwear. Since I’m not a middle school boy with poor hygienic habits going to summer camp, I trusted that I could prep appropriately and persevere.

That Friday, we got up to the Above the Notch motor inn. We spent the evening packing and re-packing the backpacks, ruminating about whether to have the instant Caribbean or Indian dinner at the hut, and transferring the wine to a plastic bottle before turning in for a good night’s sleep. 

Gonna be a wet one!

The next morning, we awoke before sunrise to a commotion. After opening a bleary eye, I realized that it wasn’t pre-dawn. It was just unusually dark because of pouring rain, which also explained why it seemed like a drum corps was performing outside my door.  Peeling back the curtains and studying the enormous raindrops falling against my truck’s windshield, my first thought was, “oh, crap”. Well, that might not have been the exact wording, but you get the picture. Hiking in the rain is one thing. Hiking in a total downpour is something else. Maybe I should build an ark. Oh well, not all hikes can be on sunny, low humidity days, right?

We headed out after some last minute clothing substitutions. On the way to the Gale River Trailhead, we passed tent sites with a surprising number of tenants. It was so nasty that I’d predicted some people would be no-shows, despite the holiday weekend. But I still wondered how many would be hardy enough to last until Monday. Once we parked, we hustled to get started, trying to avoid being soaked from the first moment, and I congratulated myself on the waterproof pants.

As soon as we got under the canopy, it became deafening, with fat raindrops smacking off the leaves. Since I also had my hood on, any conversation with Sara was along the lines of:
Sara: “mumble, mumble, blablabla, haba dalooly bragadish.
Me: “WHAAAT?!?!

A mere tenth of a mile into the woods, we arrived at a river crossing, which explained the helicopter-like din we’d heard over the rain. There was no bridge, and no way across unless we either walked through, meaning we’d have soaked shoes for the next two days, or took them off to step across, which seemed a hassle. So we scouted upstream, searching for a dry route. The best option was a four-inch wide tree laying across most of the river. The water was a couple of feet deep but mostly whitewater. I knew Sara was unnerved so I volunteered to go first.  Testing out using my trekking poles for balance, I realized the current was strong enough that I needed to plant them a couple of feet upstream and push down quickly in order to get them planted where I wanted. It took five minutes for a mere twenty-five feet, but as I leaned my forehead against a tree trunk on the other side to prep for the last step, I felt pretty studly with my accomplishment. Once safely on the other side, I did my celebratory JayJay’s Awesome dance.

Sara then started her own crossing. As she focused intently on every step, I prayed she didn’t notice the small tree that hurtling by under this makeshift bridge, realizing it wouldn’t help her anxieties. Suddenly, a woman appeared, with a guy and dog in tow, and Sara gladly stepped back off the log to see what was unfolding.

Turns out the woman is a caretaker at the Galehead Hut, on her way out after being relieved of duty. Over the thunderous rain, she yelled an explanation that it would be a lot worse if we continued: two more river crossings with fast water, the next one up to our chests. If we took an alternate route up the Garfield Ridge Trail, we’d have a prolonged descent in a waterfall, making for treacherous conditions. She warned that if this crossing seemed intimidating at all, it would only get worse; a lot worse. She then moved on, her hip waders keeping her dry and her dog playing in the water.

I looked back at Sara, who bore no resemblance to the confident, experienced hiker she normally is. I remembered the parable from an old West Wing TV episode about the man in a flood who knew that God would protect him. He dismissed the warnings and rescue offers from the police, a National Guard boat, and a helicopter, before drowning. He asked God why he’d been ignored, and God pointed out all the chances he gave the man to save himself. I looked at the Galehead caretaker as my National Guard warning. Unfortunately, this meant crossing back over the log.

I got my trekking poles out again and re-set them for the crossing. This time, I was angled downhill, so I worried about slipping. Inching my way across, I hit the halfway point when my upstream pole slowly sank into the mud, leaving me hunched over. Only, I realized when I pulled it out to re-plant it that I had not tightened it all the way, so it had collapsed on itself and was now just two feet tall. This isn’t making life easier! I finished my crossing with some oddly yoga-like positioning and a visibly trembling left quad before stepping back onto terra firma. I filled Sara in on the caretaker’s warnings and we agreed to take a timeout to re-evaluate.

We hustled back to the truck to take stock of our situation. Both of us are prone to tunnel vision. But, given the conditions (and the book Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales I’d just finished, about patterns of outdoor survival and deaths, and how refusing to change your plans can contribute to dying), we were comfortable adjusting our itinerary. Flood warnings and a forecast of continued downpours sealed the deal. 

We're happy. Really. Really?

We opted for a day hike of Mt. Hale and another night at a hotel. With new resolve, we drove the short distance to Hale, detached the top of the backpacks to use as fanny packs, and set out.

Hale was as short and mild of a climb as we could find, and judging by the fairly full parking lot, we weren’t the only ones taking this approach. But Hale still had a couple of challenges. Shortly after starting, it revealed its own river crossing. An eclectic group of hikers on the other side helped guide us to the easiest route across. They were beginning a hike for the third time, trying to find one that seemed safe in the weather, and were contemplating quitting in the face of rising water levels. Since we never saw them again, we know that they called it quits at some point, even if not right then.

We felt much more confident, as there were no chest-deep whitewater crossings to contend with, so we soldiered on. Besides, if it’s gonna flood, where better to be than a mountain summit?

A little while later, we learned that the first crossing wasn’t the river crossing referenced on the map. It was a small creek crossing rendered intimidating by all the rain. The real river wasn’t feasible to cross via the trail and had a steep, waterfall-like pitch above and below the trail. But we were determined to spend the day climbing something, so we risked life, limb, and a good soaking, and leaped (flailed) across, with me using a tree to brace my landing. 

Mt Hale's underwhelming summit in the snow

Continuing on, we encountered other hikers, including some college guys clearly not dressed for the weather; cotton T-shirts are rarely the recommended clothing for a wet, cold hike. Speaking of which, it started getting worse as snow began mixing in. Snow was never in the forecast, so this surprised us. By the time we summitted Hale, a dusting layered the peak and I guessed locusts or cats and dogs would be next. I looked around in disdain. This is it? This is the summit? Dude… It’s a small clearing with no view, and a pile of rocks and detritus where a lookout tower once stood. We quickly downed sandwiches in the falling snow and began the descent. 

Survived the day's last river crossing.
Top right corner is either Sasquatch or a nervous hiker.
We made pretty good time, although the cold was really getting to our hands. Back at the river crossing, a family with two younger girls successfully navigated their way across. A for effort! Once Sara and I finished our own crossing, two women in their twenties arrived and scouted for their way across. We offered options and assistance, but they continued to agonize. We finally moved on, leaving them to debate in private. They worried that the water would continue rising and make their return impossible. It appeared the weather would claim another couple of victims.

Camping at the hotel

We returned to the truck, cranked the heat, and drove back to the motel which thankfully had a vacancy. After hot showers, we climbed into bed to finish warming up. Dinner was as planned: rehydrated Indian and Caribbean food, and the Ghost Pines red blend we’d planned to celebrate with at Galehead. Seeing the snow beginning to accumulate on my truck’s windshield, we knew we’d made the right call for the day. Of course, when we’d gotten back to the hotel, Sara had retrieved a voicemail from AMC which said, to paraphrase, “if you try hiking up to Galehead, you’ll probably die, so you should not come.” So we already had enough affirmation. AMC also credited us for the reservation, to be used by the end of the year, so I guess we now have no choice but to get an otherwise unplanned hike in at some point this year. Umm… OK! Thanks!

Drifting off to sleep that night, I had to wonder what the next day’s hike would entail. But that’s another story for another day.

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

Thursday, July 11, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #3: Mount Tecumseh, NH

Hike #3: Mount Tecumseh
Elevation: 4,003 feet
Date: May 4, 2013
Location: The Waterville Valley, NH
Distance: 5.0 miles
Time: 4:00 (48:00/mile)

Wow. I know I started this project as another way to engage with life, and to see how the hikes and my life and the lives of those around me unfold, but this is more intense than what I had in mind, and it’s quicker than I expected big life events to intersect the hiking. Normally, I’m trying to squeeze the most out of life’s moments and entertaining myself as I do it. Maybe I’m entertaining others, too, but either way I tend to be in a pretty good mental place. But as I found myself early into my first hike of the year, I was a mess every which way.

Physically, I was completely out of shape. In the late fall I’d injured myself, and plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis put me on the shelf for five months, aside of skiing. So I had no wind, no strength, and no endurance. I’d only just been able to start exercising again, and my foot was definitely not fully healed. Or, “heeled” as Sara would say, giving herself a mental high five for her pun.

Mentally, I was even worse. My grandmother’s funeral was a couple of weeks earlier, and it was dominating my thoughts, layering over everything I thought and felt, whether thinking about the service itself, the trip west that was partly a family reunion, or all of the thoughts, emotions, and memories that were conjured up. Now, I was going to spend the next several hours with plenty of time to think; the perfect recipe for brooding.

Sara and I had gotten up early to do this as a day trip. We had good conversation during the couple hours’ drive up, and the day was beautiful, superficially lightening my mood. When we arrived at the trailhead at the Waterville ski area, the sun was out, temps were perfect, and spotty snow still clung to the open slopes. Tedy, our lovably dumb and diminutive black lab, tagged along with us.

As we geared up, I set up my trekking poles. I don’t normally use them, but then again my knee doesn’t normally like me by the end of a hike, either. I previously bought a good pair of poles, but the quantity was reduced to one the first time I used them. I was in Vermont and they were strapped to my backpack. One fell off somehow, and I wasted a lot of energy backtracking a mile to look for it to no avail. I hadn’t used the remaining one on future hikes, as I didn’t want to hear its thoughts: “dude, I can’t believe you lost my partner on your first freaking hike using us. Smooth move, Ex-Lax!” Now, armed with a fresh pair courtesy of Santa Claus, I was sure they’d either help or at least stick around for more than one hike!

Once all set, we set out. The first hour or so was spent chatting, but Sara, ever the Sherpa, was forced to carry more than her share of the conversation. It was light and it meandered, like our route which wasn’t a beeline up the mountain but instead had more twists than I’d expect on a one-trail, out-and-back hike. But eventually, like a hike, all routes lead to the same peak. Bad clichés aside, I couldn’t help but feel that this hike was going to force me to a point of processing some negative stuff I’d compartmentalized and not yet let go. I knew it was inevitable. But as a man, I’m hard-wired to suppress feelings and am allergic to emoting.
Looking out at the Tripyramids from Mt. Tecumseh, NH.
As Tedy scrambled along rocks, made his own route, and marked much of Mount Tecumseh as his territory, conversation slowed. I turned inward more. A funeral is always a chance for introspection, but it ups the ante when it’s someone so close to you, and the last of my grandparents at that. When someone dies, I guess it’s natural to wish you’d had more time, more conversations, more chance to demonstrate your love, but those opportunities are gone and you can’t get them back. Some is just maybe guilt that’s part of grieving, and some ties to reminding you to make the most of life so that you don’t live with regrets. OK, I can understand that, but it still sucks, because my Nana was terribly important to me and I don’t have the chance to continue trying to find ways to show that to her.

Red Rocks, Rainbows, and (family) Reunions

Every family has its own unique culture and every deep relationship has its own value and lessons. My grandmother nurtured a culture among her four kids and many of her grandkids that was about stories, laughter, and collective support. We held a family reunion in the Rockies last summer to celebrate her 90th birthday, and dusted off the classic tales (an uncle firing a bottle rocket through the open car window of a friend making out with his girlfriend; another uncle with a mask so scary it can induce incontinence; me getting teased for breaking a windshield golfing; my grandfather leaving his family when a wave rolled in and threatened to wash their purse and wallet away). We also engaged in the friendly debates over alleged embellishments (was my uncle’s bottle rocket accurate from 50 yards or 500 yards? How many people actually wet themselves from the mask? My shot was ten yards straight past the green, with a car picking the worst spot to park, it wasn’t taking a hard right turn and going into the nearby freeway. My grandfather was saving the vacation money from a wave, not abandoning loved ones in the face of a tsunami). We also offered our individual stories since we’d last seen each other, and manufactured new ones such as three generations rocking out to the Doobie Brothers at Red Rocks amidst lightening, double rainbows, and a beautiful sunset. Some of us hiked the Flatirons. And an uncle tried to scare my mother as she came out of a bathroom at a store, only to find that the person he startled was a total stranger. We actively searched out opportunities, and, the laughter, ironically, represented my family’s earnestness about finding ways to feel vibrantly connected.

It’s also weird to have your last grandparent pass away. It’s as if it’s a generational musical chairs moment.  One generation is no longer in the game and you shift one chair over, in a way that drives home the passage of time and inevitability of death. For a guy who already probably drives people nuts as he tries to manufacture moments and feel alive, this may not be a healthy reminder.

But this all reinforces a lot of my decisions. I strive to make sure I don’t waste any more time than is required to pay the bills. I want to be on summits with Sara. I want to make up a ghost story with my girls in the glow of a campfire. I want to bond with strangers at an AMC hut, sharing my stash of cinnamon whiskey and learning about their lives. I want to watch Tedy frolicking, eating Tedy Treats (AKA animal poo) that he finds along the trail. Wait… scratch that last one. I want to watch my girls living in the moment as they whoop and chortle skiing in the glades. I want to feel the flow as I pick my mountain biking line to avoid an endo over the handlebars. I want to look back and laugh about the horror one daughter had when she realized that peeing in the backwoods involves no port-o-potty, only to proudly proclaim she just went again a short while later in front of a bunch of strangers as she floated downriver. Or to laugh again, recalling when the Curious George stuffed animal got a little too curious and fell in the toilet, needing to be rescued by me and dried with a hairdryer by my grossed out mother while I dried my kid’s tears. There are plenty of yet-to-exist stories I can rattle off, knowing that skiing with my girls will produce some funny falls, and my desire to be a nuisance when my daughters start dating will lead to some epic moments. So will my emphasis on rock scrambles being fun instead of safe, and on my girls and I still giggling about potty humor (which may lead to a difference of opinion the first time they need to dig a hole with the ol’ fluorescent orange backpack shovel). But the bottom line is that a day in which being alive doesn’t generate anything of note is a waste of one of the precious few days we have on this earth. And living this way carries on a family value, becoming a living tribute to my grandmother, and infusing that attitude in my own kids.

Mt. Tecumseh, NH, with Tedy

I hit the summit of Tecumseh and took in the view. Looking at other peaks – most notably Mt. Osceola, East Osceola, and the Tripyramids – along with endless trees, and miles of nature there for eons, the permanence of it all finished driving home our own fleeting lives. Sara’s observant enough to know that I was in a bad space, but probably didn’t realize the emotional waves that kept washing over me. As we navigated our way back down the trail, Tedy and I began wearing down. The lack of conditioning was taking its toll, and my foot was starting to ache. The poles helped a bit, but blisters were forming on my palms as I swapped one problem out for another.

Partway down, it leveled out a bit. Somewhere around that point, my mind snapped back. All the deep thoughts and emotions were legit, but they really didn’t cover any new ground for me. They just reinforced the whole premise behind my hikes: they aren’t about bragging rights or cardiovascular fitness. They’re about embracing and sharing a life filled with stories, and I should feel proud of that commitment. My improved mental state might’ve been from letting go of things. Or, it might’ve been from breaking through the snowpack repeatedly. For a split second, falling through generated an “oh no! The earth’s not there anymore!” reaction, along with trying to jump out quickly, in case there’s water or monsters underneath. Then I’d laugh at my melodramatic responses, taking myself less seriously. I watched Sara in front of me and smiled, appreciating how she’d supported me in the last few weeks and gently nudged me to again be forward-facing (when not falling down in the snow).

First hike of 2013 in the "done" column!
When we got back to the truck, I found Sara had a secret surprise. She’d subtly stashed a small cooler with two après hike beers in it. As we leaned against the back of the truck, toasting and drink Sam Adams’ new and yummy-delicious Porch Rockers, I felt that I could move past some of those emotions. I could carry my Nana’s lessons, memories, and spirit forward, but strictly as a positive. With one last glance at Tecumseh and a “you’re still with me” silently offered to her, we headed out and talked about what adventures might lay ahead this season.

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

Carrying her legacy and lessons with me. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Offseasons Stink

Too much of a good thing can be bad. So say parents around Halloween or birthdays. So say nutrition experts when you want more of that ice cream or cake (or a physician reacting to someone consuming a half-pound of salted shelled peanuts per day. But that’s another story). So say friends when you’re bummed you can’t do something you want. I’ve said those words, been on the receiving end from a horrified physician, and disagreed when told that the hiking break is no biggie.

My lone way of exercising this winter...
Glades with my girls in Bolton Valley, VT, 2013

After starting my 67-4,000-foot-peaks-in-67-months challenge, I then shelved it for seven months. Actually, I did summit some peaks on chairlifts, but those don’t count. And other than skiing, I didn’t do a blessed thing. It wasn’t that I wanted a breather to recharge myself. I got plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis, and it took five months to (mostly) heal. It’s the longest period of inactivity for me in several years, and it stunk. Skiing was great, but only goes so far – especially when you then tweak your knee skiing into a drift and wiping out to make your kids laugh, only to have it hurt for two of those months. But I did spend time thinking about the peaks I had under my belt as well as what may lay in store.

I hadn’t really hiked much before. I’ve always been an outdoorsy type. But it tended to be other things: car camping, some downhill and cross-country skiing, canoeing, regular sports such as baseball, and anything else that allowed me to be outside. My school jobs were mostly landscaping. And as an adult I started running roads and trails, mountain biking, and participating in some adventure races.

Hiking, though, tended to bore me. As a kid, we often camped at Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and sometimes hiked up to Lonesome Lake. I thought it was aptly named, since I reasoned that I’d be happy to leave it alone and skip the tedious climb.  There were other, sometimes shorter hikes as well, and my enjoyment was inversely proportional to the incline.

But once I got to college I didn’t mind as much. In fact, friends and I stayed at the same campground and did the same hike to Lonesome Lake. Maybe it was from owning the itinerary, or being comfortable pushing myself physically, or beginning to appreciate experiences and the stories that linger afterwards. Speaking of stories, this was one hike I think we’d all still remember. We enjoyed it and had a chaotically entertaining descent from Lonesome Lake: one friend went to the bathroom on a steep decline, nervously holding a small tree to keep from falling. After a switchback or two, I wondered if she’d shoot past me, rolling ass over teakettle, holding a sapling, pants around her ankles. One person began running, and next thing you know there was a race to the bottom, sometimes using tree trunks to help swing you into a turn, or using boulders or trees to stop your momentum. It culminated with one friend running straight to the campground, to the campsite, and into the tent, where he immediately napped for couple of hours. 

Around that same time, I also tackled Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, my inexperience showing plainly. It was about 90 degrees and humid, and we headed out late in the morning, not dressed appropriately and with only a single water bottle each. There were falls and staggers by three of the four of us, and we got spread out a little. I rejoined my sister when she was half-crying as she called for me, convinced I’d plummeted off the mountain to my doom far below. I was on a switchback above her so when I asked her what the heck she was carrying on for, I scared the bejeezus out of her. We came up just short of the summit before turning back, and I wound up with heat stroke which took its toll for a few days. 
My first hike with Sara, 2008

That was mostly it for a while, aside of an incredibly amazing hike in the Andes while in Chile for a wedding, as life took me towards the ocean for a number of years. But Sara’s an avid hiker, so when we started dating she got me walking uphill again. I was in better shape so it wasn’t so bad. And as any male runner knows, if there’s an attractive woman around then you act like you’ve got miles and miles of energy left. That bred better conditioning, too, and it turned out hiking had more to like than just the views. You could talk and daydream more than during mountain biking. It was also a good way to mix up activities, and a way to experience Sara’s world in return for her being willing to risk life and limb mountain biking with me. Next thing you know, I had more time walking in the woods to my credit than I realized. 

First backpacking trip at Mount Mansfield, VT, 2008
Then we went backpacking, which I hadn’t done before. My knee got gimpy, which it started doing around age 30 and which can become almost debilitating if I don’t stop what I’m doing for the day. But I liked the accomplishment of hiking Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, the bigger adventure vibe from an overnight trip, and having everything I need on my back. Although, I didn’t enjoy flipping over when the tree serving as my handhold gave way and the backpack threw off my balance and chance for recovery. Alas, I still remember falling backwards until I was looking straight up, seeing the root ball in my hand, silhouetted against the gray sky while knowing I was a few feet off the ground, and briefly concluding, “aww, crap. This is gonna get interesting.” Despite a sprained elbow that would take a few months to heal, I was lucky and I soldiered on (see prior comment about not looking weak in front of someone I want to impress). I also had my first experience with ladders attached to bedrock, and absolutely loved them. Sara? Notsomuch. Me? Channeling my inner boy. The same one who played Revolutionary War and chucked rocks at friends from behind a stone wall (the only time I got knocked out); the same one who lost three pairs of sneakers in three weeks from wandering around woods and streams barefoot; the same one who wore a glove as a friend and I filled two buckets with prickly, fresh chestnuts and then chucked them at each other.

I also savored the après hike food and drink, mimicking our après ski and après ride ritual. Usually, this is pub food and some locally brewed draft beer. You swap your tales from the trails, you fill your belly, and you dull the aches and pains.

The pace of hiking activities picked up a bit after that, with more hikes in the Green Mountains and at smaller, local areas. I also spent a little time with my girls in the woods, using Letterboxing as a way to coax them outdoors, and discovering they inherited my enjoyment of rock scrambles. Sara’s secret surprise tradition was a great touch, too. Some of the best gifts given and received were blueberry cobbler martinis, Goldschlager, teriyaki jerky, and a disco ball. Alas again, the disco ball may be yet another story for another time. But I will say the campfire reflecting off of it works as well as anything at Studio 54!

Lafayette Ridge Loop, NH, 2009

I think doing the Franconia Ridge loop cemented hiking as one of my activities. Sara had read in the AMC White Mountain Guidebook that any self-respecting hiker in the northeast has to earn their stripes by doing this. Summiting Mount Lafayette, Mount Lincoln, and Little Haystack was my first multi-summit hike. It was one of the hottest days of the year, so I really felt that my pride was legit.

Let’s recap: I haven’t done a ton of hiking, but have done it more often as time’s gone on. So why not take the logical step of having to do exponentially more hikes than I’ve previously done? In fact, why not take on even bigger challenges of doing some of it in tougher fashion, such as a 20-mile traverse all of the Presidential mountains in one day? Why not do some of it in the winter? Why not do the 32-mile Pemigewasset loop, which my hiking-savvy friends did and refer to as the “Pemi Death March”?

As winter wound down, Sara and I began finalizing some hiking goals for the year. Yeah, it’s contingent on my foot being better. But if it’s not better soon then I might get so frustrated I go all Kathy-Bates-on-James-Caan and hobble myself for good! Assuming we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, this should be a great season, and I should finish much more confident about my experience and skills. I should get to double-digits on the peak count. I should have a lot of hours to ponder and talk. And I should accumulate some great stories to remember.

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