How I started hiking

It is wintery-mixing here. I had planned to go for a run tonight, but all I can hear is the sound of tiny iceballs bouncing off the skylight, so I think I will delay a little and hope it stops.


Hiking is a relatively new thing for me. My parents are not what anyone would call “outdoors people.” Not that they didn’t like the outdoors–I went to summer camp at an Audubon wildlife refuge, we did plenty of short dayhikes to waterfalls and suchlike–but going to the woods was just another option for vacation, like going to Howe Caverns or Nigara Falls or to museums. I started running in high school, and got into good enough shape that I almost signed up for my college’s pre-orientation backpacking trip (not that I’d ever backpacked before)…but didn’t. Throughout college and until medical school, I didn’t own a car, so I rarely went anywhere that I couldn’t walk (or later bike), take the bus, or take the train to. Then I got into medical school. The school itself was in the suburbs, but the hospitals were scattered in cities and towns within a 30 mile radius. Other sites were even farther away. I got a car, and spent the next 4 years driving hither and yon across the state of Connecticut. It was a pain to pay insurance and taxes and keep the thing running, but there were perks. I could get to stuff that I couldn’t before. I started taking my partner, who’s from the West Coast, to see parts of New England outside of Boston and Hartford. We went on some day hikes, we went to Vermont. Both of us liked it.

Meanwhile, I finished medical school and moved to a different part of New England for residency. To counter the stress of being in the hospital running around like a nut, I started walking in the woods in nearby wildlife refuges. I took H with me, and we both liked it so much that we decided to work some hiking in to our vacation in mid-May of 2010. We decided to go to the two big green patches within driving distance on the map–the Green Mountains, and the White Mountains. We started in Vermont, stayed with Jane at the Green Trails Inn in Brookfield,  got lost driving on dirt roads in the dark, waded in freezing Sunset Lake, and had a fabulous time. The trails we hiked in the Green Mountains were much like the ones I’d hiked on before: dirt paths with good footing, the occasional rocky or rooty section, through mostly broadleaf forests. Relaxing, pleasant, but nothing too different.*

The Whites rocked my world.

We came via Rt-302 into Crawford Notch, with the Southern Presidential and Willey Ranges opening on either side of the road like hands. Followed 302 east to 16 north until we arrived at the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge. Mount Washington loomed over us. We got in late in the afternoon, too late for a real hike, but tripped up Tuckerman Ravine Trail to look at Crystal Cascade…noting on the way the avalanche warnings…

Avalanches?! This implied snow…steepness…avalanches… This was new. As were all the posters on the lodge walls with dire warnings about above-treeline exposure and hypothermia…

We shared our dinner table with a lovely older couple from Québec, who said they came to the Whites as often as they could, and seemed to have hiked most–if not all–of the peaks in the area. They suggested we hike up Boott Spur–so next morning, that’s what we did.We started on Tuckerman Ravine again, turned on to Boott Spur on a narrow but well trodden dirt path, gently sloping upward…and then we came to the ladder. That was the first surprise. Ladders, until that point, were not in my mental model of what hiking entailed. Then we started to ascend, “at a moderate grade” according to the guidebook, at a 75 degree angle by any other standard. There were rocks. There were roots. In fact, there was not much to the trail besides rocks and roots…until we came to the snow. And the snowmelt. Then for a while, until we hit treeline, we were basically climbing on or punching through crusts of snow, with brisk little streams hidden just below. It was hard work, and required much cursing. But then the path broke through the trees to the lookout over Tuckerman Ravine…

Once we got above treeline, the landscape completely changed. If you’ve never been above treeline–it’s like being on the moon. Sparse grasses, tiny alpine shrubs, and fields and fields of grey granite boulders encrusted with lichens. We went up and up, and finally reached the ridge. The wind blew my braids out at a right angle. We turned onto Davis Path, heading away from Mount Washington. Watched a handful of other hikers go by, had a snack and some water, and then started our descent via Glen Boulder. At first there was no snow on the trail, and then, as the elevation dropped, there was a lot of snow. Before either H or I knew the word “postholing”, we experienced it first hand. There was more cursing, particularly from me (I am short). Then an ominous black cloud appeared over the ridge above us. More cursing. Finally, the snow ended and we arrived on the enormous rock slab that leads down to Glen Boulder itself. More cursing (I hate steep slopes). The ominous cloud dissipated and we picked our way down the trail below the huge boulder, now descending “at a moderate grade.” It wasn’t long before we arrived at the Direttissima. The Direttissima “in general…is almost level, [but] there are several significant ups and downs” according to the Guide. At this point we were both tired, and it felt like a very long time (but only a mile) before the friendly sight of Joe Dodge came into view. There was more cursing. We hauled ourselves into the shower, then to dinner, then to bed, and the next day did a nice flat walk on Old Jackson Road to Lowe’s Bald Spot.

The car was hardly out of the Pinkham Notch parking lot before I started talking about when we could do it again.

We came back in July and climbed Mount Washington, Carter Dome, and Mount Hight, plus a bunch of below-treeline exploration.

We came back again last May and climbed Lafayette, Jackson, and attempted Cannon and Madison. And in August to hike Franconia Ridge Lincoln. September to do North and South Kinsman (and a big flat loop in Lincoln Woods). October for Liberty and Flume. November for Pierce (started a little too late for Eisenhower).

I am hooked. The Whites are probably the wildest, loneliest place I know. They force me to find strength and stamina I did not know I had, to plan ahead very carefully and yet take risks judiciously. They push me to face my fears and reward me with joy and beauty and phenomenal sleep.

And that is why I hike.



*I am told that not all trails in VT are like this…

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