There was beginning to be a routine to my weeks in that almost immediately after coming down from a mountain, I would begin to think of where I would go next. What was calling to me? What was I in need of completing? And sometimes, that need came from a combination of interactions with people in my week day life. It could be a certain mood that I found myself in that caused me to go well above five thousand feet or stay at just around four thousand and happy or not, I was going up to work things out and express myself. At this point, the field of peaks was wide open and I had my pick of combinations. The other thing that was obvious to me was that it was hard for me to do just a single peak in one day. I needed multiples as it seemed like too short of a trip to complete just one peak in a given day.
Two days before Halloween, I had set my mind to hiking Mounts Tom (4051), Field (4340), and Willey (4285). Peaks seventeen through nineteen on my list of the 48. The choice was simple since we had spent some time the previous weekend talking about them and the parking area was the same as the week before. I felt familiar with them enough and three counted peaks would be a great challenge for me. Little Hay Stack had not counted so when I did Lafayette and Lincoln, it did not seem as though I was completing three peaks even though I had doen just that. Also, there was a snow storm brewing and at this point, I was content to stop for the winter. It would have seemed logically, that this snow storm marked a stopping point for me. Completing the three peaks of this range somehow made the season worth it.
I set out that Saturday morning early enough to reach the trail head between seven and eight. Daylight savings time was just around the corner so, I could still appreciate the later start to the hikes. This was yet another reason to stop for the winter. Did I really want to get up at three AM to gain maximum daylight for an eight hour hike or hike in a headlamp? I pulled into the Crawford Depot and smiled at the other hikers that were also there. No one really paid any mind to each other since we were all there for the same thing. We all went about getting our gear together and ready to hit the trails. There were certain rituals that I followed in order to be trail ready. Most were completed the night before but at the trail head, there were certain things that needed to be done. I never wear my hikers up to the trailhead so, those needed to be laced up and essential gear might need to be shifted to the top of my pack. In the case of this days hike, I needed my microspikes to be close to the top. There was actually snow on the ground and that meant a chance of slipping on ice. I figured I’d start out with a bare boot and adjust as I hike. My trekking pole needed to be adjusted to a comfortable height from its packed position too.
With everything set and the pack on my back, I began walking over the railroad tracks of the Crawford Depot to the start of the trail. Knowing that there was a potential storm moving up the coast, I wanted to see how much of this hike I could get in. Not thrilled about the ride home already since my snow tires had not been put on my car yet and still I was happy to be at my new home away from home in the White Mountains. I was comfortable here in the mountains and always found some kind of peace here. Knowing this and knowing the feeling of being content, made my bad weeks bearable as I would find myself looking forward to the freedom that the trails gave me. Today was no different. When I am not feeling well during the week physically, I can look forward to hitting the trail and not feeling sick for the time being. If I am having a bad week at work, I can listen to nothing but the wind through the trees and smile because no one is yelling. I would find my center in the mountains and that might be why I come back again and again.
As I headed up the Avalon trail, I was oddly at home with the sparce snow and the cold temps. The woman who enjoyed sitting on the beach in the hot sun suddenly discovered that she had a winter soul as well. The trail was pretty varied in terms of terrain, no real steep inclines to begin with but some hills to navigate. Not enough snow at the base to cover the rocks but the trees looked gorgeous with their covering. While walking, I had begun thinking about the past year and how much things had changed for me and the turn around that I was experiencing in terms of my health. People in my life were no longer telling me that I could not do something, they were cheering me on. Things felt right for a change instead of uncomfortable and wrong.
Coming up on my first water crossing, I was stopped studying how to navigate it without getting my feet wet and the sun light caught my eye. I could not help but smile as the sun felt warm in that late October day. It was hard to believe that a storm was moving up the coast at this point too. Again, while I was happy to see the season come to an end, a part of me wondered what I would need to do to replace hiking through the winter months. As I kept walking the trail, I tried to puzzle this out in my mind. Tried to convince myself the reading blogs and collecting essential gear would be good enough to keep me going.
Suddenly, with about a mile to go before the Mount Tom Spur trail, I noticed that there was more and more snow and that the trees around me looked less like fall and more like winter. It was beautiful and as I walked, I could feel it getting a little colder as I went up in elevation. I had come to a second water crossing and this one had plenty of rocks to hop over. It seemed pretty easy for me at this point and I didn’t even think twice about it. I had made it as far as the spur trail and was faced with another stretch of vertical trail…
“Here we go.” I said to no one in particular. “Up. “ Which was followed by “You can do this. “
It was only a half a mile and that didn’t seem so bad to me. A half an hour at best and I would be at the summit of Mount Tom. Of course, in that half an hour, I would find a vertical trail with a lot of rocks to climb over. Slow and steady, I began to climb and it didn’t seem too bad. In fact, I began to see a lot of open blue sky beginning to overtake the trees. And even though the views were not completely open, I was able to walk around and see different mountains from different angles. Again, acknowledging the blue skies and knowing that a storm was moving up the coast, I found the summit cairn and snapped my picture using the tripod I had packed. Number seventeen had officially been counted on my multi season list and that felt pretty good to me.
With the snow on the summit, a person could almost think it was winter instead of a few days before Halloween. I had some really great views of Mount Washington. The one mountain that I wanted to bag again… Maybe even in winter? I was starting to soften to the idea of winter hiking which if I did, would change the whole meaning to what I am doing. Perhaps it was less about the number 48 and more about the actual hiking and trying to accomplish as many peaks as I can in a years’ time? Maybe it was about the New England 67 over the 48?
Another half a mile down the spur trail and I was back at the junction. People had left their bags but they were nowhere to be seen and I did not run into them going up to Mount Tom as I was coming back down. Seeing this was troubling as anything can happen and to be without supplies could be costly. I had just about a mile to get to Mount Field and then it would be just over another mile to get to Mount Willey. Footprints were visible and easy to follow. They got me going on the right trail after a short water and food break among the left packs. As I walked, I began to really think about what I was doing and what I wanted to do. Believing that I am capable of anything was a large part of what kept me hiking. I would not be able to get up the tallest peaks with nothing less. Knowing that I had people in my corner cheering for me was another motivator. And then I got to thinking of the doubter… Few and far between but they do exist… They too, kept me going to do better than they thought I would. Not that they would really matter. Just that in those doubters there exists a small piece of angry motivation.
Trying not to trip over half exposed rocks and roots, I was concentrating on my footing and having a conversation with myself about the aforementioned doubters… I came upon another solo hiker who stopped with me to chat about the conditions and what was ahead for me. He was impressed with what I had done so far and congratulated me on all I had accomplished. Another thing that makes it for me… Complete strangers happy for what was being laid out in front of me in the form of this journey. We are quickly joined by two gray jays on the trail. Whenever two hikers meet and stop, there has to be food. At least that is what I think they are thinking. As we wrap up our conversation, I grab a bag of gluten free trail mix. And begin to get a handful ready for them.
“I hope they like it, I’m gluten free so, there’s not a lot that most would eat. But I guess a bird is different.” I smile.
“Gluten free? There’s usually a reason for that. I’m sure those birds won’t mind, they eat anything and have already had half of mine on Field.”
I laughed at his thought. “I have a thyroid disease. Being gluten free is part of how I manage it.” I tell him.
“Well then. Hiking like that, I wish you all the luck you need. It can’t be easy.” He smiled. “Happy trails. Make sure those birds can still fly by not eating too much.”
And with that, he was off moving towards Mount Tom. I stood and snapped pictures of the gray jays eating out of my hand. They didn’t mind my special trail mix at all. Of course, I really didn’t think they would. I left the rest of the trail mix on the trail for the birds to pick up and continued up a short vertical climb. It was not too bad for me after the rest I had and came to a sign that the summit was 100 yards ahead. Of course, this was after another vertical climb. There were limited views as it was both treed in and beginning to cloud over. I came to the summit cairn which was covered in snow and smiled. Dropped my pack and rummaged for my tripod. As I was doing this, another hiker came up to the summit.
“Hi there… Beautiful day out here.” This was the standard greeting at the summits it seemed. “Would you mind?” I motioned to the camera. No one has ever said they did. I took out my number and he snapped the picture. Number 18 was now recorded.
There was more small talk and jokes about adventures on different peaks. Usually these conversations end when one of the people talking gets cold again. It’s a sure sign that one needs to keep moving down the trail. The heat generated from hiking is enough to get a hiker up and around a summit but to stop for too long, the cold can set in and you may not shake it (at least that’s how I feel). My new acquaintance was the first to move on towards Mount Willey. I’ll admit that sometimes, I let other hikers go ahead of me so that they don’t see me huffing and puffing on the trail or taking a rest trying to catch my breath. I began to make my way towards mount Willey about 2 minutes behind him.
It was a mile and a half to the summit of Mount Willey. A mile and a half of steep downs and open ridges to walk on and I loved the open parts. The rocks and roots were doing their best to make themselves known. Sometimes they were ice covered. Sometimes, they were just exposed and I was not watching so, I would trip. Again, the steep verticals would get to me and my heart would pound in my ears. And I would rest and get moving again after some water. To get to the summit of Mount Willey, it seemed strange to go so far up and then have a steep down followed by a shallow climb but no trail is ever straight to the top. Then after some think trees, the sky became known and so did the summit cairn. I made it.
A smile as I came up to the cairn. It was just a rock pile on the trail but it was the high point. The younger hiker was there admiring something of a view through the trees. As it turns out, his name was Chris and he was hoping to do some snowshoeing after the snow tonight. He offered to take my number 19 summit picture and I was happy for that. The clouds were moving in so, neither of us wanted to stick around too long. Seems we both had places to be. However, I let him gain some distance as I made my way back to mount Field. Of course, going back meant a lot more down than up which I was thankful for. My speed increased and I was back at mount Field in no time.
From there, I decided to take the Mount Avalon trail back to the highway and the Depot. It just seemed easier than to go all the way back around to mount Tom. The mount Avalon trail provided a cut across for me. The tradeoff was a vertical down trail full of ice. I decided to help myself by finally putting on my microspikes. Of course, this was quickly followed by the revelation that this was the best invention ever. I could only imagine this trail in the dead of winter. But then again, snow covered was better than ice covered. It seemed that I was down and back out to the car in no time flat. There were not too many people on the lower trails and I was guessing that the weather was playing a role.
On the way home, around Concord NH, the snow was falling at a high rate and covering the roads. I had not put my snow tires on yet. So, I just grabbed the wheel and went really slow, hoping that everyone else would do the same. I was lucky. People did slow down and keep distance. I was able to get home with minimal time added. Of course, waking up Sunday morning I was greeted by thirty one inches of snow… Had my hiking season just come to an end?