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 apr├Ęs 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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #9: Mount Jackson & Mount Webster, NH

Hike #9: Mount Jackson & Mount Webster
Elevation: 4,052 (Mount Jackson) and 3,911 (Mount Webster)
Date: August 10, 2013
Location: border of Coos and Carroll Counties, NH
Distance: 6.5 miles
Time: 5:11 (47:51/mile)

It was the first day of a vacation in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We hadn’t been hiking in a couple of months, giving ourselves a break after our 17-hour hike of the Presidentials. Our focus had instead turned toward the ocean and Cape Cod, with a couple of vacations spent chucking kids into waves, digging toes into sand, and wandering slowly along the water’s edge scanning for beach glass instead of scrambling across rocks, testing toeholds, and trudging along well-worn paths through forests and streams.

We were staying in a condo overlooking the mountains in Jackson, on route 16. Coincidentally, Sara pointed out the hike we settled on would be of Mount Jackson, for our sixteenth 4,000-foot summit. Stars sufficiently aligned, we geared up and headed out.  
Sara, starting our hike and vacation

The route started across from AMC’s Crawford Notch Visitors Center, a huge but beautiful place that was well-integrated into its surroundings, subtle despite its size. We quickly disappeared into the trees and found the first 1.4-mile leg along the Webster-Jackson Trail to be smooth sailing, albeit pretty muddy. Thick moss on boulders and trees told us that the wetness wasn’t just from the prior day’s soaking rains. Fortunately, Bugle Cliff had better traction, affording us great (and safe) views from an early spot on our climb.

Admiring the view from Bugle Cliff
We stopped again for a break an hour in, and Sara pointed out that we had a loop to return to this point. She wanted to head toward Mount Webster. Although not a 4,000-footer, it was relatively nearby and might afford good views. So we decided to add it to the route, opting to prioritize adventure over the purity and snobbery of just doing 4,000-footers. Tackling it first was Sara's way of forcing us to not bail on the hike prematurely in order to enjoy the apres-hike dommer at Mout Mountain, a great smokehouse and brewery she'd introduced me to a couple of years back. Or perhaps we'd have a freshly-cooked meal on the balcony, watching the sun setting over the mountains.

We were rewarded a short time later as we came upon a waterfall and small lagoon. I hadn’t expected this, and loved watching the water pouring off a rock ledge, churning up noise and spray when it hit the lagoon. Peak-bagging was the ostensible goal. But recently we’d both been immersed in work, spending evenings with dueling laptops, and spending vacation time with bigger groups. We’d felt like two ships passing in the night. So lingering in admiration of the serenity in front of us was part of the point of the vacation: to reconnect, to bond over common experiences, to share in the intimacy of the two of us surrounded by thousands of acres of natural beauty.
Didn't know there was a waterfall
on the way to Mt. Webster's summit!

Two hours and two-and-a-half miles into the hike, we turned onto the Webster Cliff Trail and a brief spur to hit the Webster summit. It afforded great views of Crawford Notch, although I spent half the time looking for my baseball hat, which had been launched from my head by the wind, as if it were ordinance from a catapult. As I tried to step lightly amidst the delicate landscape, Sara chatted up some Appalachian Trail through-hikers. They’d buddied up several states prior, and seemed to range from around college age or recent grad to late-twenties. One in particular, “Mr. Bordeaux”, had come from England and was in the midst of an epic life adventure. It turned out Sara was already following him on Twitter, which would establish a more personal connection as he finished his last two states of his journey. On a gloriously sunny day, as opposed to the prior day’s miserable weather, everyone lingered, enjoying the conversation and sun. But we all had our own journeys to continue so we eventually said our good-byes and headed on.  
Show of hands - who loves rock scrambles?

Sara enthused for a bit on through-hikers and her aspiration to one day become one. I think it contributed to the adrenaline rush that led to her high-stepping and quick strides along the ridgeline of the Webster Cliff Trail. It seemed a hair short of trail running, and was out of character for her. Normally, her pace was slower, more deliberate, and her mindset more cautious. Now, she was shoving aside some of the normal internal dialogue to focus on rapid line selection, sort of like skiing or mountain biking. It required focus on the moment and also led to chewing up the distance, so in no time we found ourselves approaching the final ascent to Mount Jackson’s peak. Even the steep climb to the summit didn’t seem to bother her; after I scampered much of the way up to a lookout, she followed suit seemingly without concern and soon sat alongside me on a rocky outcropping, admiring the view and identifying faraway mountains.
"48 for the Fallen" is a great tribute
to fallen soldiers from New Hampshire

After the final climb, and just under the 4-mile mark, we found the wind to be as bad on Jackson’s summit as on Webster’s. We hunkered down between rocks and shrubs for a quick lunch. While the scenery was great, the wind and accompanying noise wasn’t, so we didn’t linger as long as we might otherwise. But when we moved to the sign marking trails and the summit, we paused. A disabled veteran, Ray Cabral, was making a point of climbing all of the New Hampshire 4,000-footers and placing a flag and laminated picture and story of a New Hampshire soldier who had died in action. Reading the details of Chief Petty Officer Nathan Hardy provided a sobering perspective. He died in Iraq, leaving behind a wife, son, parents, and a brother. I’m off on my adventures, challenging myself, enjoying myself and the impacts these events have on my life and how I approach raising my kids. In support of such things, another dad dies halfway across the world. He leaves a family and wider circle of friends with a whole that can never truly be filled, no matter how proud they are of him, and no matter that he died engaged in something he felt passionately about. The request accompanying the memorial was to post a picture to his Facebook page, “48 for the Fallen”. It was an interesting demonstration of how a place as solitary as a mountain peak in the middle of a national forest can be the hub of an activity, with random hikers offering an act of respect that may bring some small measure of comfort to an undoubtedly still-grieving family whom they’ve never met. 
Goal of a 3:30 finish. Lots of time to spare!

We began our descent from the summit of Mount Jackson with me and my challenges feeling terribly inconsequential. But the steepness and slickness of the rock as we transitioned onto the Webster-Jackson Trail required refocusing my attention to the matter at hand. It was tricky, with some controlled sliding being the best technique. Once off the smooth rocks, the terrain remained steep for a stretch before it began being replaced by more mud. And when we hit the first intersection of the day, our loop was complete, leaving only an easy final leg. As we saw our time unfolding, our goal had been to finish the 6.5 mile hike by 3:30. It required a final sprint to the finish line, but we came in on target, with seconds to spare.  

Dirty and happy, we felt as if we’d already shed some of the stresses of our daily lives. Hiking again provided the opportunity to connect over shared experiences. Tackling Jackson and Webster marked a great first hike since the Presi Traverse. But the real goal wasn’t peak-bagging. It was the chance to refocus on each other. And whatever our evening turned out to include, we’d already shared smiles, stories, and silences, and that sense of togetherness was sure to deepen as our week unfolded. All in all, seemed like a great start to a week in the mountains!  

Enjoying my well-earned apres-hike refreshment
on my first day of vacation!
See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper