The Mt. Washington Valley was chock-full of folks over Columbus Day weekend. Everyone had Monday off. The Fryeburg Fair was ending and the Sandwich Fair was just beginning. And the foliage was at or near its peak.
The roads weren’t the only things clogged with visitors. The parking lot at trailhead of the Old Bridle Path was full of cars, and the overflow at the Appalachia lot stretched down Route 2.
So the boy and I set out for a more obscure peak among New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers. We settled on 4,006-foot Waumbek, whose wooded, viewless summit attracts relatively few hikers.
It’s not that we’re antisocial. Luke and I have met plenty of interesting people on the trail (One of them is even a TV star these days). But if we had to choose between a busy trail to a popular peak (Tuckerman Ravine up Washington) or a quieter path to a secondary summit (the Hale Brook Trail up Hale), we’ll choose the lonelier path every time.
So we were pretty pleased when we pulled into the lot for the Starr King Trail in Jefferson early Sunday morning and found only two other cars in the lot. We were a little less pleased when two other cars pulled in as we were gearing up. In all, five teams set off within two or three minutes of each other, and it looked like it was going to be one of those hikes where groups bump into each other all the way up and down the mountain.
It was one of those days. But rather than being a drag, it was one of our best hikes of the year. For the better part of three hours, we leapfrogged our way up the mountain, passing hikers who stopped to rest, then being passed in turn when we stopped for a break.
What made it fun? Everyone was having fun. People laughed, encouraged each other, shared Advil or complained about the weather (a steady, light rain turned to snow a couple of miles from the windy summit). In short, we became a community, if only for a short-time.
The highlight of the hike was the 15 or so minutes we spent on the freezing summit (31 degrees, according to one thermometer). It was the 48th and final 4,000-footer on the list for Margaret, who was hiking with three friends. The celebration included Death by Chocolate cupcakes and homemade chocolate chip cookoes, which they shared with the dozen strangers they met just a few hours ago. Another couple was handing out brownies. There was so much refined sugar being passed around that John, part of a group of five preparing for a Halloween Day hike of Owl’s Head, had no luck giving away his pound or so of salami (“It’s almost 50 percent fat. It’s the perfect hiking food.” Sorry. No deal).
A little later, 5-year-old Jack, who just finished his second 4,000-footer, started a snowball fight before tearing off down the mountain (like the rest of us, buzzed out of his mind on chocolate).
The snow had stopped and the sun had come out by the time we returned to the trailhead. We were wet, muddy and coming down from our sugar high. There were no views, and we were rarely out of sight of other hikers but it was one of our most enjoyable days in the mountains.