The snow from the freak October storm that had given me thirty one inches of heavy wet snow came and went. Oddly enough, so did the snow and with bare ground at my house in Jaffrey, I was still free to hike. The season was in fact not over yet for me, which again gave me the feeling that maybe, I'll do some winter hiking. On this particular weekend, I had decided to set my sights on the two peaks of Hancock Mountain. Given the steepness of the trail, it had been advised that I travel from the north peak to the south peak and down again. This would complete a loop of the mountain and provide me with a nice day hike. Of course on the other side of hiking, I had accepted a date for the night from a man who lived close to me. He had billed himself as a hiker and one that might be able to keep up with me. So, I figured I would entertain the thought. This man was of course already emailing me his wishes of ‘Be careful’ and ‘Be safe”. A nice thought and I appreciate every time someone says this to me. Seeing as this man really wanted to hike with me I took it as a sign of maybe better things. They all seem to want to hike but none seem to pan out.
At the first hairpin turn of the Kancamangus highway, was the parking area for the trailhead. It was early in the morning as always. I took in a deep breath that always feels so good to me. It was kind of like I could breathe again after a long week of work. I had a great view of the Tripyramids from the parking area. This was a set of mountains that I had yet to climb and knew that I would be getting to them soon enough. I was hesitant to climb them as I had heard so much about the slide trail and how difficult it was. While I was not one to back down from a challenge, I needed to be psyched up to complete a challenge. I looked to them for a while and then scanning the horizon, I saw the clouds hovering over a peak and the sky had a brilliant pink color to it. It was sights like this that always put my thoughts into perspective. It was going to be a good day for a hike.
Crossing the highway, and starting down the trail, I could feel my legs already starting to complain.
“It’s way too early in the day to start that.” I thought to myself as I kept going.
The grade to start was easy enough. Relatively flat and not very rocky. I just needed to warm up my legs a little. I pushed myself to keep a quicker pace. I had developed a habit of psyching myself out and convincing myself to take more breaks than I probably needed. As I was walking along the flat section of the trail, my thoughts soon drifted to what I was trying to accomplish and that date that I had that night. I was really psyched about one and oddly, no so much about the other. One can bet which one was which. The journey was in full swing and I was at peace with a lot in my world. For today’s hike, one of these peaks would break me in the twenties and each step put me closer to my goal. This thought alone kept me walking. It was no longer about the mountains themselves. It was becoming more about overcoming and about accomplishing something that I thought was impossible not to long ago.
It did not take too long before I reached the first water crossing. Again, I slowed myself down to examine each step that I needed to take and as I crossed, each time I put my foot down it was with purpose. I did not want my foot or feet to go in. Not in the beginning of the hike anyway. I always found myself drifting back to my hike on Lafayette at the water crossings. Memories of my foot going in the cold water, was enough to make my work harder to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. The snow was starting to pick up on the trail not too long after that first water crossing. I was not cold but my mind drifted to winter hiking and weather I should or should not keep going. Should I do a winter set of the 48? That would be cool if I could solo on a winter set. A second water crossing had crept up on me as I was thinking and walking through the woods. Again, I stand and look for places to put my feet. Step out and hop across. Another one down and I am gaining confidence again. The weather is starting to warm up just slightly I notice. I had spent a lot of time taking pictures of the ice that was forming on the tree branches over another water crossing and I was also hoping that the weather would keep improving as there are some views at the top of the surrounding peaks. I am not a huge fan of wasting a view on a cloudy day. Occasionally, the view serves as a reward for all my hard work of the day. As I was walking, my silence was suddenly broken as I round a corner on the trail.
A young woman came out of the woods as if she had been bushwhacking and explained that she had lost the trail with a friend of hers and asked if I could help them. As it turned out, they had stopped at the next water crossing and not trusted that the trail was on the other side. I pointed out the blaze on a tree across the water and we all had a good laugh over it. I briefly thought about just moving on from them and continuing my solo attempt but, I also figured that we’d just be leap frogging each other (passing each other as we took breaks on the trail) so, we might as well hike together. So, I was joined by Vartika and Deb from Massachusetts. This would be a different kind of hike given that we were a pack of strong willed women. I found it refreshing.
We came to the trail junction for the north and south peaks and I gave the suggestion that we go north to south to save our legs from a steep decent over taking it on the ascension. Surprisingly, my two new companions did not protest and in fact followed me. I was not use to or comfortable with being a leader in any way. It just was not my thing however; it could become my thing if given enough chances. The trail was steep and rocky as we climbed. Each of us would laugh as we shared about ourselves and got to know one another. There were several time when I needed to take a break on the steepness of the trail. The only problem was the constant climb and the lack of flat trail to stand on. A person ends up not really resting and just bracing on the trail as one catches their breath. I did my best however; I was getting winded rather easily. The last thing that I wanted was to tell my new hiking friends to go on without me. How embarrassing would that be?
I always have a choice when I meet new people. I can either tell them about my illness and its effect on me or not. More often than not, I tell people. After all, on the trails, they have a need to know what is going on with me. It’s always not that I can’t do the hike. Just that it takes me extra time sometimes on the more strenuous hikes where I need to take extra breaks and linger at the back just a little. I think mostly I dread people seeing me struggle and then I fear hearing the “You can’t do this” talk. I’m not the type of person to tell that they can’t do something. Then I’ll just do twice as much and probably hurt myself in the process. Yet, I won’t regret anything. I chose this day to tell my new hiking friends. And I explained to them that I have a condition that causes my heart to race and my respiratory rate to skyrocket along with the heart rate and that while I look like I’m struggling for breath, a quick break and some water, and I’ll be fine. After all, I add… I have a date tonight. Which totally throws them off the fact that I’m a walking sick person? Their conversation quickly turned to our love lives (or lack thereof). Except for the fact that Deb was sixty and still going strong. And when I hear things like this, I always think of two things: My parents, and if she can do, so can I. Thyroid issue or not.
So, we keep climbing up the North side of Hancock Mountain. We hike through intermittent snow and bare ground. At times, the grade is so steep; my calves begin their lecture to me about why I insist on doing this week after week. I of course pretend that I can’t hear them and keep going… Up. The trail looks a lot like a slide in some places and by slide, I mean a rock slide that is not the easiest to climb up into. Quietly to myself I make a note that I was not told about this part of the trail. Lucky, this was the last push to get to the high point. I again reflect on what fun this hike has already been between three women who were strangers but now not really. The north summit is treed in (much like the south summit will be). However, there is an outlook that provides a nice back drop for my number 20 with a big smile. We each take several photos and one group shot with my tiny tripod.
The south peak is about a mile and a half away and we begin to make our way over the ridge. Realizing that it should be an easier hike than the relentless up of the north side. There is more snow in the higher elevation and that snow is still manageable without aid of traction. As we walk, we laugh and we talk like women usually talk. Noted was the fresh dye job on my hair and further explanation revealed that I was going grey at an early age and perhaps one day, I would go back natural. Grey and all. Suddenly, as we laughed, one of my hiking companion’s feet went straight through some ice and a fountain of mud shot up from the other side of her. We were apparently hiking on a half frozen mud bog and the sight of the mud fountain just made us laugh all the more and harder. And we kept hiking through these conditions that seemed to change with each turn. I was beginning to wonder if a date tonight was a good idea as I was sure that I would be tired. We continued on and a buried my concern in the thrill of peak number 21.
The outlook for the south peak was nowhere near as good as the north peak. We made the best of it though and took our summit pictures. At the summit cairn, we were met by a few friendly grey jays looking for a hand out. I had learned from past experiences to bring extra granola for them in case they were around. Both of my hiking companions marveled as one came and landed on my hand to have something to eat. The show gave me just enough time to rest up in order to begin the descent of the mountain. At least this part of the hike as always quicker and easier on me. I just seemed to let my momentum carry me down the mountain and that seemed good enough. Although the trail down had a considerable amount of rocks to navigate, we seemed to do just fine. Only a few times did we need to stop and concentrate on our footing. Talk soon turned to what was going on after the hike. I was invited for coffee which a respectfully declined given my impending date that night. I would need to get home and shower off the day’s grime. Thankfully my companions understood and yet truthfully, I was no longer looking forward to this date. In all truth, I was finding myself more and more at home in the mountains and on some deeper level, knew that this date was not going to bring me to any summits any time soon. Yet I was too polite to say no.
The flatter trail seemed to take forever and I could feel the bottoms of my feet begin the same lecture that my calves give me when I am on an incline. Again, I just ignore them and distract myself with thoughts of how tonight might go. Who knows, maybe I’ll be surprised. We begin to hike over familiar territory and I begin to see the same water crossings as when we were on our way up. There was a lot of interesting ice formations that I had missed on the initial start. Winter in the woods was beginning to captivate me and I really wanted the winter hiking experience. And with each hike that I get closer to the end of the 48, I still long for that one person to share the experience with and this is the one person that completely and thoroughly gets 'why we do this'. My present hiking companions and I make it back to the highway and soon we are back at the cars. I note that theirs is the car I first spotted when I entered into the parking area that morning. Again I am asked to coffee and I again decline (a little reluctantly this time) and go home and meet another potential hiker.
As it turned out, my feelings were right. My potential hiker was not even close to being able to walk down a flat road let alone a mountain trail. The search would continue and I would also continue climbing through the New Hampshire 48.