Wednesday, October 14, 2015

67 in 67: North Twin Mountain, Grafton County, NH (summit #31)

Hike: North Twin Mountain
Elevation: 4,760
Date: September 20, 2015
Location: Grafton County, NH
Distance: 8.6 miles
Time: 6:52 (47:54/mile)

Ugh. Blah. Congrats on being wrong, National Weather Service. It wasn’t a sunny start to part two of this unexpected hiking road trip. It was rainy and foggy, with a wet chill in the air. Our hotel window had a view of North Twin, today’s goal. Only, instead of sun and clouds, it was wet and we couldn’t even see the summit. If either of us pushed to cancel the hike, the other probably would’ve agreed to skip it, sleep in, and head home. But instead, we gamely got ready to tackle the mountain.

Sara's expression tells you all you need to know about the weather. Ugh.
We started hiking as the rain picked up, having to use the waterproof jackets. The hoods helped keep us dry but prevented conversation as we trudged along. The out-and-back route involved about two miles of flat terrain with three river crossings, a mile-and-a-half of uphill, a half-mile of steep uphill, and a half-mile of flatter trail to the wooded summit, with a great view shortly before the summit’s cairn.

After the prior day’s ten mile hike up Mount Carrigain left me with a second balky knee, we moved at a slower pace, with the wetness contributing to our slower pace. The stream crossings were running a little higher than normal from the overnight rain, and we needed some care in crossing them. But the flat leg of the hike still allowed for fairly good time. As predicted, the climb started right after the last crossing and we began sweating as we worked our way up the lengthy staircase.
Sara found her route across one of North Twin's three river crossings. Yay!
Luckily, we never noticed the really steep section’s beginning. So, before we knew it, we were close to the levelling off point. Time had passed more quickly than it seemed, and we found ourselves well over three hours into the hike standing on a rocky outcropping with an incredible view. Well, on a sunny day it would be incredible. Like the prior day’s hike. But on this day we were in the middle of a cloud, staring at an impenetrable wall of gray. It was like painting a windowless room all gray and then trying to find something to admire. So we trudged on to the summit, declared summit number 31 of our 67 4,000-foot New England mountains “bagged”, and returned to the alleged view to have lunch.
What a beautiful view... the sunny day before.
Alas, some wet wind had kicked in and we found ourselves cold and uncomfortable. We decided to get back below treeline to cut the wind and moisture before breaking for food. I only had one knee brace on as I only had one bad knee until the day before, so I switched it to the other knee as I began my descent.

The wet cold had penetrated us both, but Sara was having a tougher time with it. She had packed in some added layers and stopped to swap out wet clothes for dry. I gave her my gloves to warm her hands because I’m a fantastic hiking partner and an even better guy (if I do say so myself), and in no time she was toasty and comfortable.

We finally found a nice boulder to sit on and eat lunch. But the weather left us wanting to soldier on. My knees had this pre-ache feeling, as if they were just waiting to flare up again. Sara trudged on ahead of me, finding it painful to watch me. I used my hiking poles, limped, alternated which leg I’d use to take initial steps down, took weird lines to keep my legs as comfortably straight as possible, and even walked sideways for a quarter-mile to compensate for the movements that hurt the most. My wipeout protected my knees but left me with a wet derriere. With the weather and distance between us, we walked in much more silence than the day before.
Sara navigated all three river crossings really well. Me? Not quite so lucky (or skilled)!
We moved steadily along, and I found myself excited when we finally arrived at the first return crossing of the river. It meant we’d flattened out and my knees would be fine. We focused and found good routes across the river.

Arriving at the second crossing, I remembered a blogger I read the night before, who fell in on this crossing, with onlookers witnessing his fiasco. I used extra care as I worked my way along, but nevertheless slipped myself, and immersed my left leg. I hate-hate-hate wet shoes, with squishiness on every stride. I found myself stuck, on all fours, except for the wet one thrashing in the air as if I were a bucking bronco. But luckily my waterproof boot and the gator to keep my lower legs dry actually kept my foot almost completely dry. Sara laughed but luckily just missed capturing the fall on camera. She used to be more nervous on downhills and water crossings, but has grown a confidence that matches her skills, as evidenced by her effortless crossing and dry clothes.

We finished off the hike at a fast clip and without further incident. After high-fives, changing into dry clothes, cranking the pickup’s heater, and grabbing drinks at a convenience store, we headed home. Not every hike can be beautiful or phenomenal. But hikers hike, and we’ve now hiked 31 summits. We might have one hiking weekend left in the season, and are finding glad we made the most of our spontaneous trip into the Whites!

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

Sunday, October 4, 2015

67 in 67: Mount Carrigain, Grafton County, NH (summit #30)

Hike: Mount Carrigain
Elevation: 4,682
Date: September 19, 2015
Location: Grafton County, NH
Distance: 10.0 miles
Time: 7:16 (43:36/mile)

Due to some unexpected events, Sara and I found ourselves with a completely free weekend with a beautiful forecast. So, clearly there was only one solution: road trip!

Good view of North Twin from the motel!
In our quest to summit all 67 4,000-foot mountains in New England over 67 months, we’ve accumulated a few loose ends. We wanted to cross a couple of single-summit hikes off the list. North Twin was orphaned from its South Twin summit during our Labor Day Weekend hike with the girls across Galehead, South Twin, and Zealand.  Mount Carrigain just sort of hangs out there, all by its lonesome. So this formed our itinerary for the weekend. We’d start with Carrigain, the longer, tougher hike, and follow it up with North Twin before heading home.

Sara helpfully pointed out the extremely large map. It was too big to fit in
my pocket, so we stuck with the small, folded paper version we'd brought.
There aren’t a lot of hotels in the North Twin area, even less that have a refrigerator or microwave. By process of elimination, we found a place, the Profile Deluxe Motel; despite being a 60-year-old motel, it’s clearly been upgraded while retaining a nostalgic vibe, and it turned out to be inexpensive but with some great touches. We set ourselves up Friday night, and Saturday morning we found ourselves at a crowded trailhead at 9:00 a.m.

The first couple miles of the ten-mile, out-and-back hike were easy, and we chatted across a mix of topics as we made good time. Then Carrigain began rising significantly from its immediate surroundings. It became an ongoing climb until we were half a mile from the five-mile halfway point. At that point, the trail opened up and we began to get great views. Two weeks earlier, we’ hiked the north side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness with the girls, and had views that were amazing, at times with Carrigain at the southern end. Most of the amazing views we normally have still include condos or towns dotting the landscape. But in the Pemi, the landscape is pure wilderness; nothing but nature. Now, we began seeing across it to our prior hike.

The views from Carrigain's Signal Ridge begin to show a slew of summits in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
When we finally hit the summit and found a fire tower, we were able to sit on the platform and see for miles as we snacked. We spread out our map and Sara began pointing out the summits we’d already crossed off the list, as well as some in our future.
Looking back from the summit at the trail across Signal Ridge that would return us to the parking lot. 
The hikes we’ve done and those remaining were part of a meandering conversation that, for the first time, touched on what we might do after our “New England 67” personal challenge. We explored the idea of a hiking bucket list; no lengthy challenge but maybe a series of particularly interesting hikes, such as a Pemi death march across a slew of summits; a winter overnight hike; a week-long hike including stays at all of the AMC’s high mountain huts; a group hike with a couple of friends’ families… the topic made for an interesting distraction from the grind, and to think about how hiking might look after May of 2018. And then…

My knee flared up on the descent. Not my occasionally gimpy left knee. No, that would be predictable and mitigated by the knee brace I’d bought. Nope. Life throws you curves, and sometimes you get plunked by those pitches. At first I thought I was imagining things. But as it kept worsening, I soon realized my right knee was doing the same thing my left normally does. Seriously, this is ridiculous. I’m already trying to protect two bad feet, a bad knee, using hiking poles. Does it count if I just parachute to the summit, plant a “Jay was here!” flag, take a picture, and get airlifted out? I used to hate the uphill grind. Now it’s the only reliable part. It’s as if I’m part of some cosmic experiment, and I can only imagine what’s next: “let’s see what happens this time if we… dislocate his kneecap!” “How about now he rips his groin muscle off the bone?” By the end of the descent I could barely walk. Then I had a 1.7 (allegedly) flat hike back to the parking lot on the final trail.

Early signs of Autumn. Boo...
When we hit that trail intersection, we saw a guy sitting there. It turns out we saw him at the summit with friends, and he’d sped past them on the way down. He was waiting for them, as they were about fifteen minutes behind us. Sanjay had recently come to the U.S., was working on his doctorate from Dartmouth, and this was his first summit. One of the friends Sanjay was accompanying was finishing his forty-seventh New Hampshire summit, leaving just Mount Washington the following weekend before finishing all that were in New Hampshire. It was refreshing to see someone so excited by life, finding new ways to explore the world around him and making the most of his experience. He was so enthusiastic and optimistic that we couldn’t help but wish him all the best.

Fabyan's Restaurant at Bretton Woods was the
perfect apres-hike spot to enjoy a last touch
of summer and some laughs with Sara!
After lingering in a pleasant conversation, we headed on. Every little descent led to bone-on-bone shooting pains up my leg. Sara let me set the pace, but as we neared the end of the trail we heard some hikers approaching us. She noted them and we got a bit competitive, making a dash for the finish line. We had a great but stupid pace for the final stretch, bursting back into the parking lot and high-fiving each other before I limped to the truck.

We felt we’d earned a reward, and knew we’d pass Fabyan’s restaurant on the way back, across from the Bretton Woods ski resort. It appeared to be a good place, named after one of the prominent historical figures in the area and converted from a former train depot but retain that old-time feel. Although we hadn’t brought a change of clothes, Sara had some layers she hadn’t used that she could change into. I had to resort to hanging my sweaty, wet hiking shirt off the back of the truck to at least be air dried by the time we hit the restaurant. We sat outside, enjoying some great food and view, soaking in one of the last summer-like days of the season.
Another summit,
another problem.
That evening, as we laid in the hotel room, my legs a sore mess, we were still happy. We’d hit our thirtieth summit and had some great conversation along the way. My knee pain had subsided once we hit flatter terrain and then finished hiking, leaving me comfortable trying for a hike the next day. We knew the season was nearing an end, but had picked up some hiking momentum and now felt a renewed connection to the mountains. All in all, it’s hard to call this a bad day!

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

Thursday, September 24, 2015

67 in 67, Best hike ever? Galehead, South Twin, and Zealand Mountains, New Hampshire (summits #27-29)

Hike #27: Galehead Hut to Zealand Hut
Elevation: 4,024 (Mount Galehead); 4,902 (South Twin Mountain); 4,260 (Zealand Mountain)      
Date: September 5-7, 2015
Location: Grafton County, NH
Distance: 15.7 miles
Time: 13:02 (49:48/mile)
Day 1: 5.6 miles in 4:04; Day 2: 7.2 miles in 7:24; Day 3: 2.9 miles in 1:34)

As a dad, I want the best for my girls, see them as wonderful, and worry about them. As a divorced dad, I worry about maximizing my time with them, and about giving them enough guidance and support for them to have the skills and tools to achieve the lives they want and deserve.

Prior to our Labor Day Weekend hut-to-hut hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I knew they weren’t excited. They were surprised when I acknowledged it and said I didn’t care. But I explained that the biggest goal is to put them in a challenging, stressful situation and to make them work at managing through it. They can decide the whole trip is miserable, cry, and trudge slowly along. But it will only make it more miserable with more hours hiking then it has to be. The alternative is differentiating between the parts that suck and the parts that can be joyous. They understood the point but questioned why they couldn’t just have one awful day instead of three. Now that they’re getting older, I can be more candid with them. The good news, I replied, is that it’s only three days long. I’ve had a couple of different things going on that has made the last month blow, with the potential of another ten months of stress. It didn’t excite them to become a grown-up, but was honest.

Hiking's version of the pre-game experience.
We drove up that Friday, contending with traffic and spread across two cars because of needing to car cache since the hike wasn’t a loop. It gave a chance for Sara and I to each have some solo time with each girl and see how their school year was starting off. They were a bit wound up, chattering and enjoying settling into the hotel that night, near the start of our hike.

The next morning led me to need to reiterate my points to my oldest daughter, who was miserable at the thought of the hike. We spoke earnestly, and I didn’t chastise her for her tears. But the message was still clear: feel how you feel, but if the event is still going to occur, you have a choice on the storyline. It’s fair to acknowledge the tough parts but important to practice letting go of that negativity when better moments present themselves.

Trailside yoga!
The first leg of the hike started gradually, which presented a chance to settle in. We moved at a steady pace, until late in the hike when there was a steeper climb, essentially climbing a staircase for about forty minutes. But then it levelled out for the final stretch to AMC’s Galehead Hut. We’d started after a group of varsity boys from a nearby private school. We’d caught them, leapfrogging but now moved past them and hustled to finish first. The girls had noted the techniques they’d use this hike to help manage their mindset, and this was yet another way to distract themselves. It also was a source of pride and high-fives as we checked into the hut. The girls were happy to get settled in bunk beds in one of the bunk rooms, as Sara and I bagged the Galehead summit a half-mile away. We returned to find the girls content and a bit tired, but happy to hang in the dining area at one of the long tables, playing cards, reading maps, snacking, and chatting. After a delicious dinner, we took in the beautiful view into the Pemigewasset wilderness from outside the hut. 

Admiring the view from Galehead's summit, on the north side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Group hugs at sunset outside of the Galehead Hut!
A colorful sunset and gentle breeze was nice before the falling temperature drove us back inside. Secret surprises such as the choose-your-own-adventure book that Sara packed in helped keep the girls interested and engaged, before they excitedly snuggled into their sleeping bags. The girls had managed themselves well, containing their dislike mostly to the staircase section of the hike and chafed shoulders from their packs.

The real challenge was the second day of the hike: over seven miles across their first two four-thousand-foot summits and a couple thousand feet of elevation gain; all during a hot, sunny day. But both girls showed me something they don’t often demonstrate: true strength. This was a rugged hike regardless of age, with a serious climb in the first mile. 

South Twin's 4,902-foot summit offered amazing views!

The girls bagged their first summit!
Over the day, my oldest routinely pushed the pace. She was strong, she effortlessly navigated rockier sections, and seemed downright fast for the first few hours before slowing down to being merely quick later on. But she chatted amicably, occasionally slowed or waited for the rest of the group, and happily paired off with whomever would join her at the front of the line. At the end of the hike, seven hours in, she was passing other groups of experienced hikers. My younger daughter was slower, but tried to keep up as best as she could, and maintained a good attitude even though she was so worn out that she couldn’t even walk straight by the end of the hike.  It’s one of the best displays of perseverance and toughness I’ve ever seen from them. Afterwards, they found some rewards at the Zealand Hut.
Yep. We've gotta hike a bunch of that.

Waterfall at the end of the hike? Score! We're having fun now!
Right by the hut was a waterfall that leveled out before another big drop-off. With the sun still shining down, we soaked sore feet and legs in the chilly water, washed grime off of ourselves, dried off on warm rocks, chatted, laughed, explored, and admired the view. 

After dinner, wearing glowstick necklaces, we all climbed into the side-by-side third story bunk beds that Sara and I were in, with half-walls sealing these two beds off from the rest of the room. The girls laughed and lost themselves in the simple joy of mad libs, and later enjoyed the three story bunk beds as they nestled into beds again, glow sticks casting faint light as they quickly fell asleep.

Triple bunk beds at AMC's Zealand Hut meant three times the fun at the end of the day.

The final day was easy. Three miles used to seem far too long to them but now it represented a short walk. Packs didn’t seem as heavy. And with most of this leg being flat trails, they found it easy, with a chance to chat and see some of the mountains they’d hiked.
The girls are walking out over much easier (but still picturesque) terrain.
Stopping for lunch partway home, they noted that they could feel pride in their accomplishment. They could see how the miserable parts could be compartmentalized and not affect the whole trip. They could appreciate how they persevered. They also lost themselves in the experience, never complaining about needing iPhones or lamenting not being with their friends. The lessons we attempted to teach did register. But, for me, there were memorable moments, too: the group excitement of finally solving the choose-your-own-adventure mystery of the Lost Jewels of Nabooti; Sarah’s stuffed animal taking credit for bagging Zealand’s summit; the girls chilling out on their first 4,000-foot summit, answering questions from Appalachian Trail through-hikers about state capitols; Sydney’s commanding pace for hours; Sarah’s eternal good spirits; Sydney’s laughter at the waterfall; the excitement of triple bunk beds. It’s a rush of memories competing in my head that leave me with an emotional crash going back to work, but one that wonderfully combined tough parenting and a great experience.

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper
Sara's secret surprise for one daughter
summed up a major lesson from the hike!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

67 in 67: The Osceolas, Lincoln, New Hampshire (summits #25-26)

Hike #26: The Osceolas
Elevation: 4,315 (Mount Osceola); 4,156 (East Osceola)
Date: August 10, 2015
Location: Lincoln, NH
Distance: 8.4 miles
Time: 6:53 (49:10/mile)

You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!

Two days earlier, Sara and I hiked a hard ten miles across the two Kinsman summits in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  By the end, I could barely walk; my feet held up well, for the first time in well over a year. But my left knee flared up badly. One day earlier, the skies opened up and dumped over an inch of rain. Since we were staying at a hotel, we poked around town and rested our tired, hurting bodies.

As our last hiking day dawned, I knew in the first few steps out of bed that my knee still wasn’t right. Anxious and pissed, I was unsure if I’d have a chance to return this hiking season. I was twelve summits behind schedule in my goal of hiking all 67 4,000-foot New England summits over 67 months, and my body failed me enough in the last year.

I didn’t talk much as we quickly packed up. We prepared as if we would go hiking, but I wasn’t sure if I’d even set foot on a mountain. After eating a quiet breakfast and checking out, I limped to the truck and we climbed in. Sara turned to me and I explained that I truly didn’t know what I was capable of accomplishing, but needed to try. Sara was great about going with the flow and not remotely acknowledging me being the anchor on her own hiking goals.

Sara, navigating the rocky sections better than me
(and looking more fashionable in her sweaty band!)
We arrived at the trailhead, strapped on our packs, set up our hiking poles, and set off, along with a couple of groups repairing sections of trails. One set up to work a section shortly in from the parking lot and another practically sprinted by us to work farther up the trail.

I shouldn’t hike. But I was going to give it what I could. I quickly adopted a strategy to use my right foot to initiate any step up or down or for longer strides. I’d also use hiking poles to distribute weight and to support my left foot when my right couldn’t step first.

You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!

Unlike the Kinsman hike, we chatted very little, checking in on each other periodically. Our pace wasn’t strong, but at least it was steady. After an hour, I began to believe I could reach the summit. If successful, I could hike out regardless of the pain, and claim success at knocking another mountain off the list. But adding the second Osceola summit increases the distance by about 30%, which seemed to be pushing my luck.

A big rule for survivalists is to be willing to adapt to changing circumstances. Obstinately pushing on to tackle two summits in this condition is stupid. Actually, one summit is stupid. Two becomes moronic and potentially dangerous.  So I began thinking about how only hitting one summit becomes a silver lining. Deliberately losing myself in thought, I soldiered on.

You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!
Mt. Osceola's summit offers plenty of room to rest and enjoy incredible views.
"The Chimney", between the two peaks of Osceola,
is more free climb than hiking, and a ton of fun!
After clearly gaining height and levelling out, I knew we were approaching the summit. We came onto a rocky clearing with gorgeous views and a chance for Sara to see which summits she could identify. We snacked as I pondered my next move. There was a chilly breeze and a threat of afternoon thunderstorms, reinforced by a storm cloud suddenly coming into view nearby. While it began seeming likely it would just miss us, it was still time to move. Stubbornly and stupidly, I pushed on and Sara didn’t challenge me.

We descended toward a col between the two summits, which is hardest on my knee. We then hit “The Chimney”, which is a chute of rock forcing a free climb down. We passed poles to each other, and tried to not be unnerved. After high-fives upon successfully reaching the bottom, we continued on. Sara and I agreed that if I had a flare-up in the near future, I could hike out the shorter trail straight ahead while she would retrace her steps, get the truck, and drive around the mountains to pick me up. Despite the ridiculous decision-making involved and the slower pace, we eventually found ourselves on the second summit. We now had two summits under our belts and were halfway done. But the hike back to the original summit began to create some twinges, and I resumed my focus.
Yeah, we bagged that peak!
You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!

Admiring the view from the top of the world.
Sweating from exertion, we emerged again onto the open summit, took in the view and some food, but tried not to rest for too long. Sara’s water had leaked so she now was in short supply. I began rationing mine, too, in case she needed it, although she never uttered a complaint. The hike back to the trailhead broke into stages for me, and I used landmarks to remind myself that I was closing in on the finish line. But the pain continued to grow, the pace continued to slow, and my focused efforts at hiking on one foot began to get sloppy.
You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!

Time to put these summits in the "done" column,
even if Sara still looks fresh!
As we leveled out near the end of the hike, I knew I’d shortly start to rest and recover. I’d sandwiched four summits and almost 19 miles of hiking around a day of downpours, rest, and reconnecting with Sara. I also knew I’d been a fool to have taken these chances, and Sara hadn’t policed me. As a team, we probably egged each other on more than supported each other, Sara deferring to my judgment and happy to hike both mountains; me stubborn, loathe to disappoint her, and a typical guy who’d rather suck it up and risk bigger problems than use his words. There’s a lesson here about improving our group decision-making, but at least we survived. I do also feel some pride over the perseverance this took, and adapting my approach to be successful. While I can often ruminate when in a bad place, this time I managed myself well, even if it were an odd technique: any time I felt negative thoughts creeping in, I repeated my saying, from start to finish. And no matter how childish the saying, or how fleeting the negative thought, or how many hundreds of times I recited the lines, I kept going.

You put your right foot up, you put your right foot down. You pick your right foot up and you hike it all about. You do the hikey-pikey then you hike yourself back down. That’s what it’s all about!

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

67 in 67, Hike #14: North and South Kinsman, Lincoln, New Hampshire (summits #23-24)

Hike #25: North and South Kinsman
Elevation: 4,293 (North Kinsman); 4,358 (South Kinsman);         
Date: August 10, 2015
Location: Lincoln, NH
Distance: 10.0 miles
Time: 8:34 (51:24/mile)

We had a long-planned vacation week in mid-August, but no plans until the last minute. As part of filling out the week’s itinerary, we booked one of the final available rooms at the Woodstock Inn Station & Brewery, in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. We stayed here a couple years earlier, after an unexpected Memorial Weekend snowstorm and flooding left us cold and tired from hikes we tackled when our original plans were cancelled. We also experienced a recent teaser when we stopped here in late June for delicious pulled pork nachos after hiking nearby Mount Moosilauke. This place is great for accommodations, food, and award-winning craft beers, and is near several hikes on the list of New England 4,000-footers. So, somewhat spontaneously, we booked and headed up on a Sunday evening.

The night before our first hike, we settled in with camaraderie and good cheer at the bar. I resisted the desire to stuff my face with great food, reasoning that I could do so the next day and chalk it up as “refueling” after a tough hike. But the next morning, with the full breakfast included, it was easy to chow down before heading off.
Last time I was here was half a lifetime ago, with friends and
family. Now I'm back with someone who's both.
The hike up the Kinsmans started out easy, walking through a campground. I camped there many times as a kid, stayed a couple times in college with friends, and found it weird to walk through twenty years later. Memories resurfaced, and allowed a little sharing with Sara about scattered bits of my childhood, and a couple of memorable trips late in high school and college. Even the most recent trip was over half of a lifetime ago, but still feels as if it were only a year ago. But those thoughts were pushed aside because the first mile toward Lonesome Lake was the hardest in terms of incline and cardio effort, leaving me sweating like a stuck pig by the time we glimpsed the lake through the trees. We bypassed the AMC hut beyond the lake, not needing to resupply water this early in the hike.  
The stillness of Lonesome Lake served as a mirror to a picturesque sky.
On the other side, the trail devolved into a rougher, rockier, less worn trail, with some steps bolted into the rocks, until we emerged on the summit of North Kinsman. It’s wooded, so we weren’t sure we were even there at first. But with a short spur out to a rocky ledge, we found some incredible views. It was a great stop for some food and rest, and hard to leave. The walk up involved ongoing conversation, meandering between topics, but the view was breathtaking and we were silent for much of the break.
Stunning views on a secluded granite ledge provided a perfect spot for a lunch date.
Heading onward to South Kinsman, we resumed conversation until we reached the summit. We’ve both been so busy with work, so the opportunity to drift among topics also offered the chance to reconnect and share the less important stories and thoughts that didn’t get airtime before but allowed us to bond more fully. A cairn marked the high point, and was formed in the shape of a throne, allowing you to sit and take in a 360-degree view of the mountains over the intermittent scrub pines dotting the mountaintop. We would have lingered longer, had the flies not driven us off.
This is a picture of Sara sitting on "the throne".
What? Why are you giggling?
The rest of the hike involved retracing our steps. As we passed through the North Kinsman summit and began an ongoing descent, I realized my chronically hurting feet were holding up well. But my knee, occasionally gimpy, was beginning to flare up. I ignored it, as I had no choice. But as we continued dropping elevation, it continued worsening. This sort of straight ahead stepping down is the worst thing when it acts up, and eight miles into the hike I began having trouble walking.

The AMC "croo" improve these trails through backbreaking
labor... while wearing a vest and tie!
We passed an Appalachian Mountain Club “croo” who were breaking rocks, cutting logs, and creating some amazing trail improvements. The amount of effort these guys put into that work, and the energy it takes to improve each successive foot of the trail, is nuts. These guys clearly love what they do, and smiled appreciatively as we hiked by and expressed our appreciation for their work. I was limping before we ran across them but then felt obligated to do the man thing where I walk normally as pass them, not acknowledging the pain. But once out of sight I resumed my worsening limp, and by the time we hit the AMC hut I was out of water and struggling heavily.

Why do my kids think they're so cool when they
strike this pose, but Sara and Ted aren't?
I refilled my water bladder and rested as Sara tended to her broken blister. She and I reluctantly set out one last time to finish the hike out. We stopped chatting and bonding, as I began using my poles more as crutches, limping badly but persevering since no other option existed. For all the beauty, the conversations, and the adventure that bonded us over a challenging day, I ended the hike lost in my own bad space.

I recovered a little bit over a refreshing raspberry wheat beer and an unusual and deliciously salty Cubano sandwich. But I was nervous; my feet failed me for a year, were still affecting my choice of hikes for a second year, and now having the knee screaming in pain after our first day of hiking wasn’t good. Sara has been an avid hiker for years, and I chose to immerse myself in it a few years back partly as a way to bond with her and learn from her, not to become the anchor dragging down her ability to enjoy this activity. Frankly, this sucks. The big question for me was how I would rebound after some much-needed sleep. But I guess without a challenge, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure.

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Family Hike #7: Mount Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts

Hike #23: Mount Tom
Elevation: 627          
Date: August 8, 2015
Location: Holyoke, MA
Distance: 4.5 miles
Time: 3:26 (45:47/mile)

This was to be the final tune-up hike for my family before a Labor Day Weekend hike in which my girls would summit their first 4,000-foot mountains as part of a hut-to-hut hike. It was sunny and warm, but not brutally so, unlike their hike a month earlier when the heat messed with us.

This hike was re-planned following one daughter’s ankle injury. She was relegated to a medical boot for a couple of weeks to rest a chronic ankle problem that had worsened. Modifying the itinerary to be less mileage and elevation gain would avoid immediate stresses on the ankle that might result in re-injuring it. Mount Tom, in Western Massachusetts, is neither high nor strenuous. But the trail to its summit covers most of the elevation gain early, and often follows cliffs that provide fantastic views of the Connecticut River Valley. It’s also only about an hour’s drive from the house, avoiding the much longer ride into New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

My daughters' least favorite part of hiking: up.
After parking but before starting the hike, we checked out the visitor’s center. It’s not big, but features a mix of conversation-starters: a cross-section of a tree trunk several hundred years old; pelts you can touch; skulls to match with the right animals; and friendly staff who will explain those items and more. After the girls were sufficiently grossed out, especially by the animal pelts with no eyes, we started the hike.

Both girls were lethargic and slow, seeking excuses to stop. They had to be woken up in the morning, so their bodies didn’t have the amount of sleep they desired. But I also wondered about a less physically active summer contributing as well. As a training hike, one goal involved achieving a good pace.  The huts we’ll be hiking to are prompt about dinner, and bunks can be first come, first serve. Hiking in the dark is a whole other ball of wax, too. So, with the upcoming hike having a long day of seven miles, stopping every few minutes isn’t going to work. I finally felt forced to stop, explain, and request we maintain better speed. They obliged, and the second half of the ascent unfolded with great views and better time. The summit itself lay under a hot sun, so we descended slightly to a wooded area that served as a better spot for lunch.

It's unclear if they're enjoying the view
or procrastinating hiking further.
Descending the same way we’d climbed, we again enjoyed great views. We also shaved about 20% off our time. My older daughter continued to seem to struggle and wasn’t very talkative, but she persevered without complaint, spending more time toward the front of the group. I’d been setting the pace on the climb, but acted as a sweeper on the return trip, and mostly chatted with my younger daughter. She seemed in good spirits, but I soon noticed a limp that worsened during the remaining hike out.
Bravely standing on the edge of a cliff, soaring with the falcons.
She explained to me that her ankle had, in fact, sometimes hurt when her medical boot was on, and it continued to hurt since the two weeks expired. At this moment, it was hurting bad enough to almost warrant crying. When I’d checked on her during the preceding days, it turns out she answered literally: “it doesn’t hurt” meant that, at that precise moment in time, it was pain-free, unlike some other moments when it did hurt. Ugh, bad time to be so literal!
The faster you descend, the faster you get back to the truck.
P.S. if you look up, the views are beautiful!

After coming out of the woods, we got her off her feet. It leaves plans unsettled on a few fronts.  I’m unclear how much healing even occurred, let alone if it’s enough to keep our Labor Day Weekend hiking plans. I’m also unsure if she’ll be able to start up again with dance classes in the fall, which greatly contributed to the original issue. Those classes have given her more confidence, assertiveness, perseverance, feelings of accomplishment, and physical activity that anything else over the last year, so she’d be heartbroken at missing a month or two of classes. Lastly, I’m unclear how injured she is and what the exact injury might be. The doctor was sure the boot would do the trick, but she limped painfully by the end of a very gentle hike.

Although I questioned the doctor thoroughly at her appointment, and this activity was explicitly approved, I can’t help but now question myself for pushing her. I had the best of intentions, and the upcoming hike will be strenuous for them, requiring some training. But guilt is always easy for a parent to come by.

A big point of the upcoming hike is to push the girls outside of their comfort zones. While I’ll always want to protect my girls and see them happy, life won’t allow them to live entirely in a happy, easy space. Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable becomes important; it creates coping skills, allowing the girls to better manage both themselves and difficult situations. If the girls are to have and pursue dreams, achieving those dreams and goals will only happen if they can deal with tough challenges. Rather than keep them in an alternate reality of easy bliss until adulthood, I’ve chosen to create challenges for them to overcome, with obvious rewards and a chance to experience the stress and then the pride of such experiences. Seems like a good plan, but not when the training plan involves crying on one hike and almost crying on another.

So, now the challenge is to figure out how best to move forward without compounding my guilt and her injury, but while still finding opportunities for the girls to challenge themselves and grow. Will we still hike? Will we cancel but look for an alternative adventure to push them beyond their comfort zone? I don’t know how this will play out, but who ever said parenting was easy?

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Family Hike #6: Welch-Dickey Loop, New Hampshire

Hike #22: Welch-Dickey Loop
Elevation: 2,605 (Welch Mountain) and 2,734 (Dickey Mountain)           
Date: July 11, 2015
Location: Thornton, NH
Distance: 4.5 miles
Time: 4:24 (58:40/mile)

I’d like to think I’m a good dad: I promote reading, creativity, physical activities. I have my special foods such as omelets and grilled cheeses that are as good as any chef could make. A few years ago, I even turned a rainy day into Spa Day, although the girls established that no amount of make-up can make me beautiful. And, of course, I worry that I’m constantly getting things wrong, which will inevitably lead to their therapy to come to grips with my mistakes (“Dad!  How could you tell us that swallowing apple seeds would cause us to poo crabapples in the Fall?!?!”).

We headed out for another training hike in mid-July, in advance of our three-day, hut-to-hut hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains over Labor Day Weekend. We’d purchased hiking boots for the girls and this was a second chance to break them in. The Welch-Dickey Loop is a 4.5-mile trail that is renowned for its views, and would offer the girls their first chance to hit two summits in a single hike. It is also a good hike for families. Allegedly.

She's either learning about delicate ecosystems
or finding an excuse to not hike.
Everyone was dressed appropriately, with plenty of water and food in their packs as we set out from the trailhead. The weather was beautiful but steamy, and later in the morning than I preferred. I quickly learned that the weather would dominate the hike.

Only a few hundred yards into the hike, I sensed that something was wrong with my older daughter. I suspected that if I were reading her right, she’d cry if I asked directly. Do I ask? Do I silently nudge her along? Do I stop and turn back and let the other two go on? I agonized in my head for a moment before probing. Sure enough, she broke down. She didn’t feel well, which I concluded was due to over-exertion and under-hydration the prior couple of (hot) days, so she was starting this hike at a deficit and the heat and humidity were quickly getting to her. The tears were partly because of how she felt, and partly out of frustration.

We didn’t quit the hike. Sara and my youngest daughter paired off for a bit while I coached my oldest to keep hydrating and showed her how she can soak her bandana in the nearby stream to cool off her neck. We continued on until we arrived at the first clearing, partway up Welch Mountain. Some brownies and water helped refresh a little before soldiering on.

Is it a lesson in disco or geography?
The trail continued steeply up open rock, under bright sun, with temperatures now well into the 80’s. The girls persevered but it took real effort. Reaching the summit of Welch Mountain wasn’t glorious; it was a relief. We found a secluded spot and rested. I noticed my oldest was again shedding some tears. She nestled her head on Sara’s lap and covered her face with the wet bandana, under the pretense of hiding from the sun beating down on us. Since her tears were silent and she laughed occasionally, we grown-ups pretended to not notice. We also eventually pushed the girls on, seeking a chance to get back under the tree canopy.

I proudly watched the girls faced their
fears on a challenging descent!
We were immediately faced with an intimidating descent in the saddle between Welch and Dickey. Scared, the girls still moved forward, scooting on their behinds through part of it, careful to avoid a steep drop-off on one side. The canopy was nowhere to be found, so we continued to cook as we moved to the summit of Dickey Mountain. We continued along a ridgeline for a while before coming out on a big expanse of cliff overlooking much of the loop we’d traversed. Then, finally, blessedly, we descended below tree line and after what seemed like forever, we emerged back at the parking lot.

I watched the girls closely much of the time, and when one had a water bottle with funky water, I gave my own to keep her going. I prompted refueling periodically, sometimes with brownies. But I kept pushing them. Tears have a way of making me question my actions. But, upon hitting the second summit and even over the next hour of mostly still being in the open, I noticed my oldest slowly but increasingly bounce back. She even became outgoing and animated for the first time even though we were over three hours into the hike, showing an ability to endure.
On the summit of Dicket, with Welch behind us.
"Quick, girls - pretend you're happy and smile!"
We dined at a restaurant and they earned the right to eat whatever they wanted. This was not billed as a tough hike, but the weather truly challenged us. Yet, I watched one who normally lags push herself, maintaining a much better pace than she normally does while remaining upbeat. Her commitment to dance and basketball and her increased physicality paid off in a way not previously seen, not to mention taking the lead over her sister near several cliffs. I watched another who can shy away from risks and challenges push herself as well. Seeing her grow stronger over the course of the hike, and push through her fears near very steep spots, allowed me chances to point out her successes, hopefully giving her more belief in herself.
One daughter bravely venturing onto a cliff

Actually, all of these hikes aren’t just about family bonding that the kids would be happy to skip. They’re opportunities for the girls take on very real and increasing challenges and equally real successes. It’s also about equipping them with the skills to navigate when outside their comfort zones. Pictures with them bravely (and timidly) standing on the edge of a cliff with a steep drop-off, or with the first summit in the background, aren’t just capturing family moments. They’re also trophies earned through perseverance. My Man Code requires that I be emotionally stunted and bury the few feelings I still feel. But it was poignant to watch them dig deep and offer up an achievement worthy of pride, and to laugh in the process. I am still as utterly confident I’ll screw something up in the near future as I am that science teachers would disapprove of my “teaching” the girls that oceans taste salty because of all of the fish pee. For this hike, however, it felt as if it weren’t just a demonstration of the kids’ triumphs, but also a great parenting moment.
Sibling humor - a sign of doing more than just surviving the hike!
See you on the trail,

Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper