A physical vacation challenge
My wife, Cheryl, likes to tell friends we've gone “mountain climbing” during past vacations. In reality, we've done modest hiking, including up and down some hills, but never did we tackle a challenge like the one we took on while in New England this month.
I mapped out an itinerary during our 13-day trip that included the possibility of hiking two mountains. I knew weather, driving time and physical demands might leave one or both ideas on the wayside.
I took my laptop computer along, and after doing a little more research, decided we'd best pass on trying to climb Sugarloaf Mountain, north of Farmington, Maine. We arrived too late in the day, for one thing, and we were already lagging almost a full day on our itinerary.
Besides, the second and more intriguing peak seemed to be 3,165-foot Mount Monadnock, in a so-named state park in New Hampshire. Some say it's the most climbed mountain in the U.S. I figured there must be a reason for that, and I found trails about 2 miles long to the summit and suggestions the round-trip hike of three to four hours rated a difficulty of 3 on a 1-to-5 scale.
We planned the hike for last Thursday, but the forecast suggested rain. The day, however, turned out delightful, mostly sunny with a temperature around 70.
We arrived at the park about 11:30 a.m. and chatted briefly with a guy who was getting back in his car. I asked if he had climbed to the summit.
No, he said, but he had just taken a friend and novice hiker out for an early-morning jaunt and they didn't have time to reach the summit. He had to get to work, he told us as he donned a tie. Besides, he had hiked to the summit numerous times, including five round trips in one day.
“Why,” I asked him, “would you do that?” He said he did it to challenge himself the day he turned 50.
Reasonable enough, I thought, and the mere notion of doing the hike that many times in a single day encouraged me that we could do it once without problem.
I was foolish for thinking that.
We took what's called the white dot trail on the hike up because, well, painted white dots mark the trail. On the way down, we would take the white cross trail, which is a tad longer but easier to descend. A ranger at the park entrance said that circular route is most popular.
We got a map that showed where the two white trails join and divert and where other trails intersect. These points would show us about how far we had walked and had yet to travel. Figuring we had at least 6½ hours of daylight, I opted not to tote a flashlight. I strapped on a fanny pack large enough to hold string cheese for a snack and four water bottles, grabbed our walking sticks, the camera and zoom lens, and we were off.
The trail at first was gentle and modest if rocky. It got steeper and stonier as we went along. I asked two women descending if they'd reached the summit.
“Oh no,” the older one, perhaps in her 40s, told me. “It gets pretty steep, and my knees can't take that.”
That was our first word of warning of what lay ahead. Two more women passed us when we were at about the halfway point, and I could sense Cheryl was feeling challenged. Neither of us wore ideal hiking boots. Cheryl had sneakers on that were worn smooth. I donned hiking sandals that likewise were worn from years of use. I asked these two women if we'd passed the most difficult spot yet. No, it gets even steeper, they said. Neither had hiking sticks, but I noticed one wore what looked like hiking gloves. She told us that you literally are climbing on all fours in some stretches.
That was discouraging, particularly when I kept wondering if I'd engaged Cheryl, who's older than me, in too big a challenge.
We kept going, however, and in one of the most difficult stretches, where we were climbing up slick rocks, a group of eighth-graders with their teachers came trickling past us, often sliding down the massive boulders on their butts.
Finally, we emerged from the deciduous tree line and only scrubby pines remained tucked among the boulders. We had about a half mile to go when we saw other hikers, like tiny stick figures, standing atop the summit. Cheryl seemed exhausted and suggested leaving me the camera while I climbed to the top and she took a photo of me. But I encouraged her, suggesting that she'd come so far, and wouldn't she like to feel the sense of accomplishment of reaching the peak?
We forged on, though slowly, taking frequent breaks. Often, I reached out with my long walking stick for Cheryl to grab onto as I pulled her up a slippery boulder. Finally, we joined the handful of climbers enjoying wonderful views from the summit.
A young woman sat huddled near us. She said she was a fitness instructor but was feeling a sudden fear of the height amid the stiff wind. Cheryl asked her if she would like to join us on the descent, saying that it might help ease her fears. The woman agreed and joined us.
The white cross trail might have been an easier descent, but the rocky, puddle-lined trail was anything but an easy walk. About halfway down, Cheryl told me, “I just want to get off this mountain.”
Our female companion finally felt confident and forged on more swiftly ahead of us. Finally, Cheryl and I made it to flatter ground. We reached the car just before 5 p.m.
You don't need ropes to climb Mount Monadnock, but it's a physically demanding “walk.” Cheryl told me Tuesday night her feet were still sore from stepping down on rocks almost every step on the descent. I was glad the foot she broke just stepping awkwardly at home last summer held up. I was also happy that her knee, which locked up on a 44-mile bike ride we took more than a decade ago, was no factor.
Still, Mount Monadnock was the biggest physical challenge we've ever undertaken as a couple. It was more difficult than that 44-mile ride, or the six-mile round-trip day hike we took into the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail almost 10 years ago. Or the 90 miles we hiked in the five national parks in a two-week trip to southern Utah.
I'd never ask Cheryl to climb Monadnock again, and I'd never knowingly ask her to hike another mountain so difficult. Yet we both feel a sense of accomplishment for having reached Monadnock's summit.