“You need to head into the White Mountains.” I was told one night as I was discussing my future in hiking with a skydiver I was once close to. Having just done Cardigan the previous week and having seen an excellent presentation on the New Hampshire 48 that inspired me, I was really considering it. I was looking for some reassurance that everything would be fine. Doing small mountains on my own was great. I felt comfortable and as though I could summit anything. Going into The White Mountains seemed to conjure up images of people getting stranded and rescued on Tuckerman’s Ravine. I really didn’t need that blow to my ego or my life and still, I needed to do something. I wanted to do the 48 more than ever now. But I wanted to do the 48 for myself and myself alone which was crucial to my eventual start. first, I needed to set foot though in the White Mountains. Crawford and Stairs offered me that chance.
Like most hikers, my decision is based on trail research and watching the weather. There were also many conversations with friends, family, and even my therapist. Close to the end of the week, I had determined that not only would I be going into The White. I’d be doing two peaks: Mount Crawford (3129Ft) and the nearby peak of Stairs Mountain (3463 ft). I would be flirting dangerously close to four thousand feet at this point. I had studied the maps and read about the trails. I had even read up on what I should be carrying in my pack and what I could possibly encounter. I was not going into this without some kind of knowledge. As a person whjo craves information rather than being surprised, I thrive on the trip planning. I was playing it smart because if this was going to continue, I was going to learn what was needed to keep myself safe and to have fun. At this point, I had added a first aid kit to my expanding pack and was now carrying a change of clothes along with a lot of extra food. Still, I was only carrying a two liter bottle of water. Everything was set the night before as this would be my first time getting to the trailhead for 7:30am.
My alarm goes off at 4am and I remember fondly the days I could sleep until noon. I am off down the highway in the dark and on my way to the White Mountains. As I am driving up on interstate 93, just before Franconia Notch, I see this big black spot run across the highway in front of me. Only it really wasn’t a spot. It was a bear. I was some distance away and not so quick with the camera but I was happy to have seen one. I was also happy that I was in the car and it was distracted by trying to get across the highway. As I kept driving, the sun was coming up and I had not seen Franconia Notch since I use to drive to college on this road. It felt a little like home to me and driving through, I am taken by the size of the mountains and the different shapes. The ones on my right, I do not know the names yet and I know that I will come to know them eventually. I watch Cannon Mountain mostly and I wonder if I will need to climb the steep rock face? Or if there is another trail? Some of the peaks are pointed and I can picture myself standing on them. I make my way down route three and begin looking for the trailhead for The Davis Path by the Saco River.
I’m surprised that there are a few more cars at the trailhead and at the same time, I am beginning to learn that hikers start their days early. Sometimes they find themselves on the trails even before the sun comes up. I hoist the pack on my back, lock up the car, and I am off down the trail. The first obstacle I come to is a suspension bridge over the Saco River. I am reminded of the quote from the movie A River Runs Through it “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it”. I now know that there is a lot of truth int hat statement. The trail leads me right by someone’s house and into the woods. I am officially walking in the Presidential Range. A sly smile creeps to my lips as it always does when I am bound for new experiences and I keep walking. The trail is relatively flat to start out and the sun feels just beautiful in the early morning. Not long after I started out, I find myself crossing a dry river bed. Then the rocks start to overtake the trail that was once flat. This is soon followed by an uneven set of rock stairs and some switchback trail that seems to have a combination of rocks and roots. I have just one thought it seems as I am walking and that’s “Get me up this mountain”. My usual conversation is replaced with words of encouragement that I can do this and that I will go on to do the 48 peaks. I’m thinking to myself that all those that were promising me adventures before and never came through didn’t really matter. What did matter was that I was here now and I was going to succeed in bagging my peaks. Today, I continued to have Crawford and Stairs in my sights. At about an hour and a half into the hike, I began to break through the trees and I could see other mountains through the branches. Turning another corner on the trail and moving on about 75 feet and I am on a ledge, looking down to the road below. Everything looks so small and I feel like I am on top of the world. Yet I have not made it to the summit yet. Again, the trees begin to do their usual trick of getting shorter and shorter as I march myself up the open rock face to the actual summit of Mount Crawford. There are a few trees at the top so, it’s not a completely bald top. I am surrounded by peaks as I turn myself 360 degrees and look out from my perch. As I had promised myself so many times before, I am finally able to pull out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and indulge in it at the top. Of course, the original idea was to have this with a hiking partner and maybe he was yet to come? I was satisfied for the moment though to have one for today. I had set out and completed half my goal. After I finished eating, I was on my way to Stairs Mountain.
I head back down to the Stairs Col Trail. Crossing over to the next peak, I look back and up at where I was just standing. It amazes me that I am actually able to climb thousands of feet up and stand on top of my world. Looking up at the summit I was just on, I smile and say to myself “What goes up must come down”. I continue over to the Col and actually begin running into a few other hikers along the way. Everyone seemed to be coming from a different peak and that was when I realized the network of trails running through the mountains was huge and at any given time, there are probably thousands of hikers on them moving from one place to another.
After spending some time in the low point of the Col, it begins to ascend Stairs Mountain. After a quick stretch of over grown grass on the trail, it quickly turns to rocks. Not just a random boulder but jagged and tricky to navigate. There didn’t seem to be any dirt on the trail. As I hop from rock to rock, the trail then turns to rocky switchback as it ascends to the summit. Again, on Stairs, I have another first and I discover a new love… Rock scrambles. This is where you have to use both your hands and feet (literally your whole body) to get up a rocky pass. My first scramble was not only steep. It also had water running down it. Truth be told, I looked at this particular section of trail and seeing that it was the first time I had encountered something like this, I debated with myself for about a minute and in the end, there was “No place to go but up”. Looking back down it once I climbed, I was amazed. Amazed and proud. My confidence in myself was growing and my strength was returning.
After a short section of switchback and another scramble, I find an open ledge that I had read about. The trail had lead me here and it looked as though I could go no further. This was another case of what I thought would need to be a bushwhack to the top and that was not something I really wanted to do considering the steepness and my lack of experience. I sat down feeling a little defeated. I pulled out my second sandwich that I had made for the summit and ate it looking at the view from the ledge. For the record, this view was equally beautiful and I’m not even sure at this point if I will see a bad view. I resolve to be OK with just making it this far. Even though in my heart, I am disappointed in myself. I speak to myself to reassure myself that it’s OK to not make a summit from time to time. Even though to make the summit was what I came to do. I put my pack back on and make my way back to the trail from the ledge. Something (or someone) tells me to look up and I see the trail that I could not see before. I smile and begin climbing once again. The rest of the trail to the summit was more rocky switchback and scramble and I loved it. Once at the summit, there looked to be a campsite in the wooded area. Different paths lead to different views. I spent quite a lot of time on the rock ledge in the bright sun. It felt incredible beating on my face and shoulders as I tipped my face into the brightness. I truly felt at home here. It never matters what kind of a week I am having or what is going on in my life. I know that I can come to the mountains and just be.
As I make my way back to the car walking the trails in reveres, I run into many more hikers. Ones that maybe didn’t wake up so early or were out just to hike the flats and not the peaks. Once I am on the down side of Crawford and back on the Davis Path, I run into a guy who pulls over to the side to let me pass. “You look like you are moving a lot faster than I am so, please go ahead”. I ask if he’s OK and he tells me that he’s just had knee surgery 2 weeks ago and just summited Crawford. I congratulate him on his triumph tell him to keep it up. ‘I guess we all have something that brings us here”. I tell him. He smiles and agrees. I bid him happy trails and I keep going. The familiar trail leads me back to the parking area and as I approach, I can hear the car engines getting louder. Reality has greeted me once more except this time, I am excited. Next weekend, I am supposed to summit Mount Chocorua and instead of a solo hike, I was to have company for the first time since I started this journey.