As I sit here writing, the last vestiges of winter are starting to disappear. Crocuses are sprouting everywhere around the yard, dirt-crusted snow piles are shrinking into simple piles of dirt, and the air is filled with the calming roar of Harleys out for the first ride of the season.
And I have an itch I’ve been waiting all winter to scratch.
This summer, I’ll be climbing every 4,000+ foot mountain in New Hampshire. For those of you keeping count, that’s 48 mountains in 90 days. You can check out the list here. I’ll be covering roughly 243 miles and climbing about 77,150 feet in total. And no, I’m not giving up my day job to do it.
If you’ve read this far, your first question must be “Why?”
The short answer is that after spending the better part of the last two decades in front of a computer, I’ve learned I need the rigors and rewards of hiking and climbing to keep my grip on sanity. I’m never more at peace than when I’m on a mountain, even if I’m stuck in a thunderstorm, picking myself up after falling hard on my ass on good old New England granite or eating crushed, melted M&Ms from the bottom of a plastic bag.
It’s better than any medication, and believe me, I’ve tried a few.
If only I knew then what I know now. I grew up in the middle of the White Mountains, in Conway, N.H. Mount Washington wasn’t a destination — it was part of the neighborhood. As Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts we went on countless hikes (including the 4,000-footers) and camping trips in the backwoods. We didn’t have to drive anywhere to go cross country skiing — we could strap on skis in the backyard and step onto miles of trails.
Over the years, those trails gave way to subdivisions and prefab homes. I went off to college, then the newspaper business on the Massachusetts seacoast. Exercise gave way to overtime and weekends were for recovering from work, not getting outdoors. I gradually became fatter, balder and more stressed.
Two years ago my son, Lucas, turned me around. He had joined a conservation club and had come to love the outdoors as much as I had. At his urging, we borrowed a tent from a friend and spent a few summer days at the Dolly Copp campground in the White Mountain National Forest. We took a few (very) short hikes during the day and built unnecessarily large campfires at night. It was one of the best weekends of my life.
A few weeks later we hit a different site and added a more substantial hike up Carter Ledge, a modest bump on the shoulder of Chocorua. My face was as red as my shirt, which was soaked salty with sweat. My ankles and knees were screaming. Other hikers looked at me with concern. But it was fun. When he took my picture at the top, Lucas said “Dad, they’re going to think I Photoshopped you into this. No one’s going to think you made it up here.”
He’s a funny, funny boy.
But it turns out hiking is an activity a fat man can do, as long as his heart and knees don’t explode. Mine didn’t, so we were back in the woods last summer, this time almost every other weekend. We climbed a few 4,000-footers together; I did a few more on my own. There were other hikes, including Chocorua (that’s where the header photo for the blog was taken) and an August jaunt up Washington that was interrupted by thunder, lightning and two inches of hail. A trip to the Carter Notch AMC hut was fun for me but pure torture for the boy, who caught a daylong case of the hiccups just as we pulled into the trailhead.
At the end of the summer I was still fat and balding. But the static in my head was gone.
Thanks to the boy, I had learned — or relearned — there’s great peace in the mountains. There’s no TV, no Internet, no cell phones (although folks still try to use them), no 90-minute meeting or last-minute work crisis. Everyone on the woods is there because they want to be there, and most hikers are pretty cool.
The lessons don’t stop there: Blueberries picked during a break on a mountain climb taste sweeter than the ones in the store. A moose crossing your path on the trail is more impressive than one seen from a car on the side of the road. There’s something special about not just seeing a view but being in one, and having gotten there under leg and lung power. If your 14-year-old son has gas, make sure you hike in front of him and not behind.
OK, you ask, but why the 48 4,000 footers, and why now?
There’s no better challenge than the one you’re not sure you can handle. And there’s no better time than now.
There are plenty of folks who have touched all 48 summits in one summer, and many who have done it in a single winter (Check this link for the cool, cool story of Atticus and his human companion,Tom). An ultramarathoner did it in a little less than three days and 15 hours. There’s a wide variety of firsts. One peakbagger, June Gutowski, is the first person to have juggled at the top of all 48 mountains.
The vast majority of hikers, however, take years, even decades to complete the list, so it would be pretty significant accomplishment if I could reach all the summits in 90 days. A fat but fairly fit guy like myself can pull off a difficult hike every once in a while. A summer-long series of difficult hikes — including a handful of traverses taking several days — is another thing altogether. It’s been a long time since I challenged myself physically, and the longer I wait the less of a chance it’s going to happen. I’ve spent the winter in the gym, getting as ready as I can. I’ll do some training hikes this spring. This summer, all I’ll need is a well-thought-out plan for getting to and from trailheads. The hiking’s the easy part; it’s the driving that takes its toll.
The hikes will also give me a chance to repay, in a small way, Kestrel Educational Adventures, which started the conservation club that fueled my son’s already strong love for the outdoors and started us on a journey that’s changed both our lives for the better. I’ll have more details in my next post, but I plan to use my hikes as a fundraiser for Kestrel, with donors offering a specific amount for each mountain I climb. A dollar a mountain would mean $48 if I finish them all. Get enough donors and you’re doing some good for a great organization that does a lot of work with a little money. Again, more on that later.
The challenge kicks off June 21 — Father’s Day, no less — when the boy and I take a whack at Mt. Moosilauke, near Dartmouth College.