The beginning of April marked the passing of winter for me. A winter where not many peaks were gained for my winter list (the count ended at 21). I was determined to pick it up again and get myself back on track for the New England 67. I had not hiked a peak on that list since November of the previous year and I was eager to get going again. Things were in a state of change for me and while I had no idea about my future, I was looking forward to it nervously. I would not be alone on this hike though. Isis, my 8 month old puppy was about as good of company as I could ask for at the moment and as I woke her from her kennel at the ridiculous hour of 3am (hiker happy hour), I smiled and left everything weighing me down behind. “Come on girl, let’s go grab another peak. Let’s go hiking.” I whispered to her careful not to wake anyone else in the house.
The pup and I drove north and the ride seemed to take forever as we chased the sunrise to Grafton Notch State Park in Maine. Maine peaks were going to challenge me only in the timing and planning as they were further away and required some thought. There was very little communicated with anyone about this trip beyond my decision to go and what trails I would be on. I was free to do what I wanted to now and it was both liberating and strange at the same time. Once the pup and I arrived at the park and the trailhead, a sense of excitement came back to me. I was going solo which was something that had not happened for a long time and I was eager to get started. The pup and I checked out the trail first which seemed to be packed pretty well so, I made a decision to just bring my microspikes and leave the snowshoes in the trunk. I could hear the wind howling already above me and figured we were in for a wild day. There was no one else in the parking lot just after 8am.
The Old Speck Trail (Appalachian Trail) started out with a gentile grade and the snow was packed so well that continued to figure it would be an easy day to the top. With some encouragement, the pup got her feet underneath her and managed to get in a good pace and rhythm. The grade changed just slightly as we began climbing. I noted my breathing which was beginning to get harder and took stock of myself. Constantly checking in with me was a habit while solo so I could determine if I continued or if I went home. Today, I was pushing myself to continue. I stopped on an incline to make a clothing switch as I was getting warm, knowing that I would be layering up towards the top (the wind was still howling above me). The trail began to climb again and I passed the entrance to the eyebrow trail. If I was truly solo (without the pup), I would have taken it for the series of ladders and ledges. I resolved to go back and hike it again by taking the eyebrow.
The trail presented a series of ledges and also, the snow was getting a lot deeper where sections of the trail had not been broken out. I was really beginning to feel it in my legs and wished that I had my snowshoes. As I climbed over each ledge, I began to wonder if I had again bitten off more than I could chew but I was determined to make the summit. I began taking more breaks to catch my breath and with each ledge, I began thinking that it would make a great “summit”. Turning back into the trees, I plunged into the snow up to my knee and Isis stopped dead in her tracks. A loud exhale and I kept going back into the trees, Isis and I continued to walk and fall into the snow. It quickly deteriorated however, there was another set of footprints that I was following and those footprints also did not have snow shoes. It seemed that the trail was going on forever at this point and being tired might have had something to do with it. I kept pushing forward and at this time upward towards the summit (I hoped).
It seemed as though I had lost the trail and was bushwhacking but the reality of it was that I was following a trail that was not broken out and still deep with spring snow. I was getting tangled in branches that should have been over my head at a safe distance. I was also beginning to worry that I had lost the trail and was getting lost myself. My options were to keep going or to turn around and follow my footsteps back. You can bet what I chose. In this section, the trees were dense and blocked most of the wind. There was one switch back that led up an incline and it was there I ran into the other set of footprints. I was told that no one really hiked to the summit since the blizzard. We chatted for a little while about peaks and trails and before getting too cold, Isis and I were on our way. One last piece of advice from the footprints, “It gets deeper on the way to summit.”
Isis and I made our way through the trees and even though it was the trail, the snow was so deep that we continued to crash into branches. We rounded the trail and it opened up briefly on an incline that looked really steep. I once again wished for snowshoes but none appeared on my feet. I made due with the microspikes and just hoped that the pup did not stop for fear that I would slide back down too. Once on the ledge, the wind whipped and howled but the sun was beautiful and the view was amazing. The ledge was narrow and slick and again I prayed for good footing. Back into the trees, I looked down to find a trail sign peeking out of the snow. This sign should be up by my head which meant the snow was deep. I took a picture and thought that I put the camera back in its sheath. Another 100ft of crashing into branches and getting caught and yanked to my knees, and when I went to take another picture, my camera was not there. I panicked and attempted the walk back wasting energy and knew that I needed that summit. It was too close to not get it and if I kept looking for the camera, I would not make it. We made the final push and the trail opened up after a struggle with low branches to an open summit and a lookout tower. There was only a ladder to the top so; I did not go up due to having the pup. I had made it to number 50.
We didn’t’ stay long at the summit and made our way back down. I did find the camera sitting in the trail and in the snow. Undamaged, I warmed it and continued on. All those steep inclines suddenly became easy as we just slid down them. Retracing steps, I attempted to break it out as best I could without snowshoes. Stopping every now and then to talk to the people heading up and to warn them that they needed gear. Making our way back the start seemed a little easier or at least familiar. At the parking area, I had our picture taken together to commemorate the hike. While loading the gear in the car, I a kind older man struck up a conversation with me. He had a hard time believing that I climbed the peak today let alone that it was my 50th individual 4k peak. We talked trails and the differences between the 3 states that I’d be focused on but he kept going back to me and my completion of Old Speck. He just could not believe it. I smiled and said it was true and I had done most of them on my own. We wished each other a good day and I made the 4 hour trip back home.
It was a trip I was proud of. After all, so many times I could have turned around and I didn’t. I came home to an empty house and celebrated my accomplishment quietly. I could not wait to see what would happen with the next trip.