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