For the last 3 years, I’ve been hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains when I could get time away. Specifically, I’ve been going after the list of 48 4,000 footers. I’m guessing that was 400+ miles of walking in the mountains. At long last, I completed the list, and have applied to be a member in the AMC 4,000 Footer Club. As part of the process, applicants are asked to submit a trip report from their last peak or an essay describing the whole NH 48 experience. Here’s what I sent to the committee.
My first encounter with the 48 4,000 footers was in the form of the list found in the back of the AMC White Mountain Guide. “Huh,” I thought. “There’s 48 of them? That’s a lot of mountains. You’ve got to be a little nuts to do all of that.” And I didn’t think that much more about it. I enjoyed the occasional hike, and that seemed enough.
My second encounter with the 48 was chatting on the summit of I believe Mt. Lincoln with a gentleman who had summited all 48. I was staring somewhat blankly at the mountains visible in all directions on that particularly clear day. While I enjoyed the view, I didn’t have much sense of what I was looking at. I tried to translate the trail topo map to the peaks I was seeing, but wasn’t having much luck. On the other hand, this hiker knew all of them, naming them confidently in a full circle. He slipped in that he’d climbed all 48, and done some other hiking besides. And then it all made sense. Want to learn the Whites? Go climb them. All 48 of the highest is a good start.
My third encounter with the 48 was own decision to bag them all. Working at a desk all day does little for physical fitness as middle age sets in. Getting out to hike from time to time seemed like a good way to stave off the sort of shape a body gets in when subjected to what medicine describes as “Lazy Butt Disorder,” a phenomenon covered in all the science journals. What better way to stay motivated then to work on the 48 list?
From there, I was hooked. And I must say, I learned a lot along the way. For instance:
- Hanging stream-soaked socks on your pack to dry results in frozen socks, at least it does on a cold day hiking up Mt. Moosilauke.
- The most welcoming place in the entire world is Galehead Hut after 8 hours of walking across Zealand, the Bonds, and Twinway in wind-driven rain. I still remember puddles forming around my feet as I stood in the doorway while the previous arrivals remarked and commiserated.
- Fear is one injury away. That’s exactly what I felt, soloing back from the summit of Carrigain when my knee decided the 5 miles in via Signal Ridge was plenty for that day, thank you very much. Never had it taken so long to get out of the woods.
- The best water to be found anywhere is along the Dry River Cutoff on the way back from Mt. Isolation. My opinion might be biased in that I’d run out of water, it was terribly hot, and I was really quite thirsty.
- It turns out that sleeping in a cloud near the South Tripyramid summit is far less novel than it sounds, due to perpetual dripping from trees over your tent.
- Hikers on Mt. Washington are exhibits for tourists, like zoo animals or museum displays. As evidence, I submit the looks of pity the Cog passengers gave us, staring through the glass at me and my gridiot* wife as we waited in the wind and rain for the train to pass. I’m fairly sure we saw a small child pointing at us and crying.
- There is no cold so intimidating as the Kinsman ridgeline on a dour winter day.
- I’ve never met a trail dog I didn’t like. And I’m a cat person! Whoda thunk?
- Mountains have personalities. Owl’s Head is aloof. Hale is timid. The Twins throw themselves arrogantly against the wind. The Bonds are remote and proud of it. Passaconaway titters while Whiteface pokes it in the ribs. There’s not a peak you can bag where you don’t come away with a feeling about what the mountain thinks of you – or the unsettling feeling that comes when you consider whether the mountain thinks of you at all.
- While perhaps not offering ideal views, Cabot provides as much satisfaction as any when you bag it to finish off the 48. I’ll take it.
Those memories were borne of good days filled with hard walking: pushing oneself away from the normal life and tasting a bit of wilderness adventure. Cutting off a savory slice of the pioneer experience. Hiking in the Whites has enriched my life with experiences unlike anything else I’ve had.
While other states have high peaks I may go after, they’ll never matter as much to me as the Whites. While other of the world’s mountain ranges offer beauty, I submit a clear winter view from Franconia ridge as the most beautiful one could consume without bursting asunder. Sure – there’s other places I might hike. The Appalachian Trail tempts me. Colorado peaks are impressive. Mt. Rainier tipped its snowy cap to me as I glimpsed it from a Seattle train. And of course, Maine and Vermont are close by with their own challenges. But no matter where else I might wander when the tramping itch strikes, I will always come back to the Whites. The Whites are my own; they are home.
*Gridiot – In the context of the NH 48, a “grid” is equal to hiking all 48 4,000 footers in every month; a grid does not have to be completed in a calendar year. A “gridiot” is one pursuing a grid. That’s my wife. That’s not me. I have other windmills to tilt at.