2017, A Year of Breaking Trails

In The Beginning…

I’m a planner; a list-making, ultra-organized, calendar-keeping, goal-setter.  Planning for something is all part of the fun for me and at the beginning of 2017, I made a list of goals (read: hikes) I wanted to accomplish over the next 365 days. I think it’s safe to say that everything looks easier on paper, and that goes for hiking as well.  Regardless of whether or not I met those lofty goals set almost one year ago, I learned more than I could have ever imagined in the past 364 days (and isn’t learning, becoming wiser, the ultimate goal?).

So Let’s Reflect.

I’ve grown; if nothing else has changed in 364 days, I can safely say that I’ve grown as a hiker. I may not be able to call myself a thru-hiker, (my plan to hike the Long Trail fell through) but I can call myself an experienced, all-season hiker now.  When I look back at things I used to do just 2 years ago (wearing cotton, carrying too much gear, not use trekking poles) I can say that I have most definitely grown.  Mountains that were hard for me in 2016 are now easy, and a 10 mile hike is short.  I’ve become an expert at reading my body and determining what it needs to keep moving, calculating how long it will take to hike a particular mountain, and am no longer scared to spend an entire day in the mountains without seeing a single person.

91 mountains later, almost all of them solo, taught me something; but a select few stand out in my mind.

Lessons Learned…

Mt. Jackson

My first hike of the year stands out in my mind not only because it was the first hike of the year, but on that hike I learned the importance of wearing goggles when descending a slab of rock covered in ice on a windy day.

The summit of Mt. Jackson

Mt. Pierce

On what should’ve been an easy 5 mile hike with clear skies I was given my trail name – Socked In.  It seemed like every time I set out on a hike where the weather was supposed to be sunny, clouds would roll in and there would be no views.  As I shared this dilemma with a fellow hiker on the summit of Mt. Pierce, we decided my trail name should be Socked In.  After a chuckle, that hiker stated that he would not be following me down the trail in hopes of finding some sun in the mountains that day.

Ascending Mt. Pierce on the Crawford Path.

Mt. Washington

Climbing Mt. Washington proved I can do hard things.  I never thought I could climb to the summit of that great peak, not because I wasn’t physically strong enough, but because I had set that particular mountain on such a high pedestal.  Finishing that hike taught me that my body can do great things, it’s my mind that I have to convince.

Ascending Mt. Washington via Tuckerman Ravine Trail.

Looking down into Tuckerman’s Ravine.

Mt. Waumbek & Mt. Cabot

Any person who is active in the hiking community in New Hampshire knows of the NH 4000 Footers List.  This is a list of 48 mountains that are at least 4000′ and if you hike all of them you earn a patch and bragging rights.  Typically speaking, you would hike a single 4k (or a series on the same trail, known as peak-bagging) in one day.  The really fancy hikers will do multiple 4ks from different trail heads in one day.  Those people (in my eyes) are strong, resilient, people I look up to.  After completing my hike of Mt. Washington, along with several other 4ks, I decided to give it a try.  I would summit Mt. Cabot, then drive to the trail head and summit Mt. Waumbek.  I didn’t really think I could do it, I didn’t think I would be strong enough, but once again my body proved my brain wrong.  On the day of the solar eclipse, just as the eclipse was happening overhead, I stood on the summit of Mt. Waumbek after climbing 2 separate 4ks in one day.

The summit cairn on Mt. Waumbek.

Owl’s Head

There are a few mountains on the NH48 list that are in hard-to-reach locations.  They require long treks into remote wilderness where if you get hurt, it’s going to be a long time (read: several hours) before help can arrive.  Two hikes are the longest and one requires a bushwhack to reach the summit.  When I told my mother that I was going to attempt to summit Owl’s Head, I knew she wouldn’t like it.  I knew that I needed to be smart, research the hike and bushwhack, and plan it on a day when there would be good weather.  Most people loath hiking Owl’s Head because it has a wooded summit and the total mileage runs around 18/19 miles.  After emerging from Lincoln Woods after a 19 mile day, I decided the longer the hike, the better.

The small cairn on the right marks the start of the herd path that leads to the slide trail and bushwhack leading to the wooded summit of Owl’s Head.

The Twins and The Bonds

The peaks known by local hikers as some of the most beautiful (even more so than Washington) and also the most remote are a set of three: Mt. Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff.  They are set 10 miles one way into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and usually are done as an overnight.  Overnighting in September in northern NH was not doable for me (its gets cold up there) so my only option was to attempt a single-day hike of the Bonds.  Regardless of which way I chose to approach these peaks, I was going to be doing a 20 mile day, so I decided to throw in North and South Twin Mountain, and Guyot, completing the Bonds as a traverse.  This hike taught me the most of all the ones I have done this year.

I completed the traverse in 10.75 hours, hiking 21 miles, summitting 6 peaks, gaining 5200′ in elevation, and doing so on one of the hottest days of the year, SOLO.  I filtered water, fought exhaustion, and dehydration.  But as I made the long trek out of Lincoln Woods, I got to a place where my mind was no longer telling my body what to do, my legs were just going, as if by their own power.  After completing this hike I found myself getting to a place on all future treks where it was no longer my mind telling my body what to do.

It was as though my body has known what to do all along, it just took turning off my mind to allow it to do it.  

Me standing on top of Bondcliff.

The bridge entering Lincoln Woods.

Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, Mt. Madison

In my opinion, the northern presidential mountains are the most beautiful mountains in the Whites.  I completed all three as a traverse and although the day started off windy and socked in, the weather cleared as I descended Mt. Adams.  Although I didn’t get as many views of the landscape due to the cloud cover, I was able to see enough to know that there is nowhere else that compares to the Alpine Zone and rocky summits of the northern presidential range.  The beauty I experienced up there, in what appeared to be another planet, brought tears to my eyes.  I also learned that it is just as tiring to descend large amounts of elevation as it is to gain it (6200′ of descent to be exact).

Looking up at the rocky “trail” I had just climbed down.

Looking towards Mt. Madison.

Mt. Carrigain

In 2016, I climbed a handful of mountains and began my journey of completing the NH48 list.  The only time I thought seriously about turning around when almost at the summit was on Mt. Carrigain.  At 4700′ and 6 miles one way, it’s certainly not the most difficult mountain to climb, but when I set out on the hottest day of the year in 2016, I almost didn’t make it.  From that day forward, I had a great sense of contempt for and hatred toward that mountain.

Re-hiking that mountain a little more than a year later, and shaving 1.5 hours off my total time to climb it, made me realize that I was getting stronger.

The leaf-covered trail ascending Carrigain.

Mt. Isolation

Every mountain is unique and every hike is different.  You may climb a mountain one day and have an easy time, then hike it a few days later and hate it.  I’ve learned after climbing the same mountains several times that your mood, attitude, even the weather, can affect how much you enjoy your time in the woods.

The most difficult thing I’ve had to learn, and continue to learn as a solo hiker, is that the sense of fear, anxiety, or straight up terror is all in your head.

Being on a trail that is a literal brook, (I’m talking about you, Rocky Branch Trail) and then descending into a deciduous forest with no trail markers can be nerve-wracking.  There has never been another time that I have questioned whether I was lost, but on the Rocky Branch Trail, descending Mt. Isolation, it took a lot of mental strength to keep my wits about me.  As I walked through a brook for miles, I thought there is no way this is the trail (it was the trail).

*On another note, I got to hitch my first ride on this hike, and it was surprisingly easy and not scary!  

The Southern Presidentials with just a tad bit of snow on them from Davis Path.

North & Middle Tripyramid – Attempt

The weather outside is frightful, etc., etc.  It has been a tough December in New Hampshire.  We received a few feet of snow already and over the past week the weather has been unbelievably cold (-20 and lower on the summits).  I had hoped to complete my NH48 before the end of the year, but the mountains have other plans, I suppose.  At first I was really disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to spend my winter break hiking.  I even made an attempt at climbing a few mountains when it was a little warmer (-9 at the trailhead without the windchill).  But I have resolved myself to ending 2017 with a meager 3-4 hikes left to complete my goal by January 21.

Before ending the year, though, I was able to get in one more learning experience, and it seems fitting that on the last hike of the year I had to call it quits with .8 miles of unbroken trail left.

Breaking a trail in the winter is like nothing I’ve done before.  The untouched snow stretching out in front of you is confirmation that you are, indeed, all alone.  As you trudge along slowly, breaking through the crust of ice and then the subsequent layers of powder, it feels as though you are intruding on and destroying something beautiful.  Every time I would turn around and look at the path I was blazing as sense of sorrow would come over me.  I was the one disturbing the peace and solitude of the forest.

The beauty of the trail, the undisturbed snow that lay out in front of me as I turned around, unable to make the final climb up the mountain, seems a fitting metaphor for the year ahead.  I kept sliding down the hill, unable to make it up to the top and finally I just gave up.  I kept telling myself that I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t physically strong enough, but looking back I know it was my mind that was holding me back.

Now, with less than 12 hours left in 2017 I ask myself: am I going to let the past keep me from climbing the mountain – from making it to the summit?  Will the path of unbroken trail that stretches before me be too hard to face and cause me to turn around?  Or, will I push through the pain, the self-doubt, the fear of failure and make it up the hill….  

The unbroken trail…


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