Dreaming of Backpacking and Mountain Climbing

*Photo taken in the woods of Nelson, NH.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was brushing my teeth, I had a sudden attack of desire for backpacking. I closed my eyes for a few moments, imagining myself in the Adirondacks (one of my favorite places in the world) and I could smell the gorgeous alpine air. It reminded me how very much I value the beauty of slipping away from the rest of society, letting go of all the electronics and lights and noises, and just fall into the rhythm of walking a trail in the woods. If you hike, maybe you know what I mean. It’s almost a meditative experience once you get yourself adjusted with the pack settled just so, your shoes are tied right, and your belly is fueled with food. Your feet find their own way through the ruts, roots, and rocks. Thoughts come and go, the bugs whizz past your ears, birds sing across the spaces between the trees…you connect back with the primordial self which knows how to be in nature, no matter where you live in the world. Backpacking brings your body back into the rhythms of the sun, the long hours of travel by foot, the awareness of life in every inch of the world around you.

Michael and I walked so many trails in the Adirondacks, but one of our favorites is Avalanche Pass, where you get to enjoy the fun of scrambling over boulders, running across bridges, and climbing short ladders. It’s an absolute blast, like a playground in the woods. The water along the trail is the color of jewels, and the mountains rise upward on either side of the lake, their rocky ribs bared by erosion, too steep for any life to cling long. Taking this trail leads to many of the High Peaks most popular to climb, and it also leads directly to Lake Colden, where a lot of hikers tend to camp. If you hike Avalanche Pass, you can hike over Mount Colden as a day hike from this trail, but it’s also a good way to get to Algonquin, Wright Peak, Mount Marshall, Cliff Mountain…it’s a long list. Somehow on that same trip we also hiked up to Indian Head, where you get a gorgeous view of Gothics (one of the 46 High Peaks) and get to enjoy the top of the waterfall. To see the bottom, I don’t know what one must do, but I wasn’t willing to do it. The falls disappears over a steep cliff edge I was unwilling to scale, even in my braver state of climbing ability. We also hiked Little Marcy (I have yet to hike Marcy itself, as we didn’t want to deal with the crowds—it’s the most popular peak there because it’s the highest in the state), and during that same trip we got ourselves up and over Haystack. With packs. Zowie, but that was a feat! One of my favorite spots of all, though, was stopping at Panther Gorge, where a delicious roaring river lulled us to sleep, and only one quiet couple had hiked out that far into the wilderness.

This summer I have every intention of getting back to the Adirondacks for more hiking, especially since last summer got eaten up by work on our house in Olean. I had high hopes for hitting several peaks in one trip (pun totally intended), and had a route all planned out to hit some of the mountains in the more northerly area of the High Peaks. We’ve been back on the East Coast for long enough now that we can hopefully handle the blast of humidity which kept us from the summit of Monadnock last summer. Now that the nymph of spring is starting to knock on Old Man Winter’s door, I definitely am also getting revved up to hike up Monadnock again. I wrote a blog post about our failed attempt to climb it last summer, and both Michael and I were taken aback by this. We had hiked much higher mountains out in Nevada and California, and it was humbling to come home to the East Coast and be unable to summit a peak not even 4,000 feet high. It was especially frustrating for me, since I was out hiking every other day in Nevada, and one of my favorite hikes was out at Jack’s Valley Conservancy, where a 6,500-foot peak was one of my regular weekly hikes. I only hiked to the summit a few times while there, but I certainly hiked up a good 2/3 of the slope regularly—a demanding hike made up mostly of loose sand. It was not easy to get up that peak, and yet Monadnock pummeled me. Well, I have been forcing myself uphill quite a bit since coming back east, and I fully plan to reach the top of Monadnock again as soon as weather breaks enough to allow it. Right now the trails are probably sheer ice, and I have no doubt the wind up there is brutal. Generally, Monadnock is fairly windy at the summit, and even on a day when it’s nice at the base of the mountain you’ll be chilly at the top. This time I plan to douse myself with bug spray, unlike my last hike. Black flies ate me alive, and we were swarmed by mosquitoes. Regardless, I am going.

To solace myself until I can get into the mountains to conquer more peaks or backpack an escape from society, I have been hiking in our “back yard.” Yesterday Michael and I took a trail behind our house, following a sort of road whacked out of the trees and brush down the hill. In the spring it will probably be a marsh with all the water running off the hill to the watershed below, but right now it’s all locked up in ice. I slapped on my snowshoes and Michael bravely let the dogs run off leash in the woods while we picked through the tree branches grown over the trail. The other day I had taken this trail until I encountered a road block and had to turn back: a giant tree had broken about 12 feet up its trunk and fell right across the trail. It seemed too difficult to get under, over, or around it, so I didn’t think it would be easy to discover what lay beyond that point. But Michael brought along a hatchet and hacked away a few of the branches to make a sort of tunnel beneath the fallen tree. We got only a short way before the trail pretty much petered out entirely, but we sallied forth into the woods anyway, following the trail of one of the waterways through the woods. Eventually we turned back without ever getting the reward of a view or any very interesting trees or boulders, but I had a grin on my face the whole time. The sun was out, the dogs were thrilled, and my husband was with me in the woods. It doesn’t get much better than that.

When we returned to our house, we even got out my new bow and practiced shooting. I’ve never shot a bow before, even though I’ve wanted one for years. For a newbie, I was proud of myself. I actually hit two out of five targets. We didn’t shoot long, though, because the snow kept eating my arrows. That led to buying a cheap target block so I would have something bigger to hit, and I will be less likely to lose them in the woods. Still, it was fun, and I’m excited to get out there and do it again. Today in Southern New Hampshire we had some new snow fall, so maybe I can get out with my snowshoes again, too. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. I was able to hike up and down slopes with no trouble—but my snowshoes have claws (I’m totally making that term up because I have no idea what they really are) on the bottom, and they dig right into the snow and ice. Even though the snow was mostly iced over, my snowshoes didn’t care. My intention was to use the snowshoes as a means to keep hiking in winter, and when we’ve had enough snow to keep me off the road, I was able to do that. Mission accomplished. Now that we’re deep into February, I’m getting that itch for spring. It’s always this time of year when I get tired of piling on the layers of clothing to go outdoors, tired of shoveling, tired of having to clean off my car, tired of the short days. This may very well send me into a lifestyle as a snow bird far earlier than retirement age, but for the moment I plan to enjoy the snow if I must live in the North.

As always, I hope you are snuggled up somewhere warm and have the contentment of being able to enjoy nature in some way. Find the wild places in your neighborhood. Scout out the places where you can watch birds, fish, chipmunks, or deer. Almost every town has a park, even if you live in a massive city. Take the subway there if you must, but do it. Give yourself the gift of green or natural places at least once a week if you can. It refuels your mind and spirit in a way nothing else can. Allow yourself to drink in the filtered light from beneath a tree, find where the flowers grow in a botanical garden, or enjoy a community vegetable garden in a greenhouse. In winter, get out to parks and watch the cardinals or crows, listen for the return of the blue jays and robins. I learned from watching the stunning series Blue Planet II that peregrine falcons have made their homes in New York City, and actually delight in the canyon-like spaces between the skyscrapers. What fun to look up and see one of those magnificent birds soaring like a bullet between the buildings! And the added bonus is that they eat rats and mice, the perfect street food. Maybe if you live in the city, you could see them from a rooftop or bridge. I imagine that would be a treat. Wherever you are, there nature will be, right under your nose. Find it. Explore it. Enjoy it. The world will turn whether or not you notice, but your life may be the better for you taking the time to breathe, see, and appreciate even the littlest things, like the way the snow sparkles when the sun shines.




Failure to Climb

*Photo taken below summit near tree line from the Dublin Trail on Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire.

We all have those moments in life where we fail at something, but it’s especially jarring when we fail at something we expect to achieve with ease. It’s a life lesson, maybe. Or maybe it’s just a bad day. I blamed my failure on spring allergies, exhaustion, and not eating enough breakfast. It really is my own fault, but I want to blame it on things out of my control. I really can’t. In reality, I think we all like to blame other people, unfortunate circumstances, the dog, random problems at the grocery store, whatever excuses we can find when we fail. This weekend I failed to climb a mountain I thought I should be able to climb with ease. The entire time I struggled, I sought for reasons why I was having such a difficult time. We humans often like to do that. Blame. Well, crickets, we can only blame ourselves when we fail. Good news: we can also rise to the occasion and try again. Let me explain.

Over the weekend I drove to New Hampshire to visit Michael. I miss him horribly, and because his schedule at work is so erratic, I often only get to see him once every ten days to two weeks. It’s hard for both of us, but we chose this because if I stay in Olean I can keep working on the house while he makes money in New Hampshire. We don’t like it, but it’s temporary. We plan to make New Hampshire our new home base soon, and we will continue traveling for a while because we love it, but we need to sell our Olean home in order to buy land in New Hampshire. The drive to New Hampshire from Olean is seven hours, about half of which is highway driving. It’s a long drive to make for just a short few days, especially when two of those days is spent on the road. Too short, but we make the most of it.

I brought along our Camelback water bladders so we could hike Monadnock on Saturday because both Michael and I want to go backpacking in the Adirondacks over the summer, and we both need to get ourselves in condition for the trip. Though Mount Monadnock is only a little over 3,000 feet, it’s the kind of climbing one must do in the Adirondacks: lots of scrambling over boulders and big rocks. I expected this to be a snap, since out West I climbed much higher mountains out there every other day. Heck, I climbed to the peak of a prominent mountain in the chain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, well over 12,000 feet, though I did only have to climb the last 2,000 feet to get to the top. Still. It was high, and plenty of the climbing I did on other peaks was very challenging with a lot of loose sand and steep slopes. Plus, a few years ago I climbed Mount Haystack in the Adirondacks with a 30-pound pack on my back, and that peak was almost 5,000 feet. So you can see my thinking here. This peak which I climbed a couple of summers ago should have been easy.

Michael and I both suffered from a lack of sleep, to be fair, but I am used to having my sleep interrupted and functioning without much difficulty. We ate a decent breakfast, filled our Camelbacks, brought along a few snacks, and away we went to the Dublin trail on the western side of the mountain. If you hike Monadnock, you can go to the White Dot or White Cross trail, which is supposedly easier, but you have to pay a fee. We chose the Dublin trail because it was closer to drive, and because we wanted a little variety. When we got there it was early afternoon, plenty of time to hike the peak and back before dinner. I read a website post that stated it should take about 2 ½ hours…right. Well, if you’re not slow as molasses in January, which is what we were. At first, I got on the trail and felt fine. I was excited to hike the peak again because I remember it being fun to scramble on the rocks to get to the top. It’s a fun challenge to be free of the past terror that used to turn my legs to jelly when I saw how high I was on a mountainside. Now I climb with the glee of a Billy goat, tackling slopes I never would have dared in the past. Little by little the dirt track became large rocks to negotiate on the trail, and then the rocks became more like stairs. Stairs which went up and up and up, seemingly without end. Without bug spray, we were at the mercy of the gnats and mosquitoes under the trees, which only made the experience more difficult. Still, despite my growing fatigue, I felt determined to push onward.

By the time we reached the portion of the trail where the trees shrank in size and the exposed rocks became the norm, both of us felt whooped. I could not believe it had taken us two hours to get to the point where we still had at least another half hour (or an hour at our rate of speed) to achieve the summit. What the heck? We sat down and ate some almonds, looking at the beautiful view. From that height, we could see the dots of lakes that appear as puddles in amongst the saddles of the rounded valleys. The sun shone between the imposing clouds, birds soared in the updrafts, and the breeze kept the bugs away for a while. Despite this delicious moment on the mountainside, we felt spent. We knew it would be a mistake to try to press ourselves any farther, as both of us knew we were running on empty. At the time, we blamed the humidity, the lack of sleep, our work schedules…blah, blah, blah. We threw in the towel because we had to get back down without getting hurt, and it was a wise choice. By the time we got to the bottom again, I was in a haze of exhaustion like I had been hiking for days. In fact, I’ve felt better after days of hiking than I did coming off that peak.

What reason could possibly be blamed for such a bad climb? I have only myself to blame. Since coming back to the East Coast, I have climbed zero mountains. The only hiking I have done has been on relatively flat trails, with only a few occasions when I climbed up hills, not mountains. Hills do not qualify as training for mountain climbing. After all my hard work out West, once I got home I got wrapped up in working on tearing the guts out of the Airstream, and then working on the house in Olean. I did not climb any mountains. The last mountain I climbed was in February. February! That, in my mind, seems like weeks ago, but it’s been months. And though I have had plenty of success climbing mountains in the East, the climbing I did out West was very different. Less humidity actually works to your advantage out West, in my opinion. Your sweat actually does its job out there because it evaporates and cools you. In the East, not so much. Also, even though you have less oxygen out West due to altitude, you also have much easier climbing on the slopes because the trails are a gentle grade, even up high peaks, most of the time. For some reason, East Coast hiking means climbing much more difficult grades while also scrambling over boulders. Not so easy.

Now I find myself in the position to have to work very hard to train before I attempt any hiking in the mountains here, otherwise I will most likely face a very miserable trip. At this point, I absolutely must find a place where I can scramble up a steep slope at least once a week if I want to move at a pace faster than a sloth when I don my heavy pack in the wilderness. But I am glad to have the face-slap on an afternoon hike, rather than to have the misery of unexpected fatigue and suffering due to unpreparedness on a backpacking trip. Even though I’ve been hiking for a long time, even I need to be reminded to take care of myself in order to avoid issues on the trail. Let this be a lesson, hikers. If you plan to get out there this summer, take the time to prep yourself with a strenuous day hike first. Know your body and what it can do, and then learn what you must strengthen before you have to be reliant on your body for days or even weeks on the trail. Even if you’ve backpacked in the past, if it’s been a while, take the time to test your limits before you go so you don’t have any nasty surprises. Nothing is worse than getting out on the mountain only to discover you don’t have the strength to make it over the peak to the camping area on the other side. Trust me, it’s not fun. So, get out there and get strong. Find the views. Enjoy the struggle. Drink in the fresh air and bask in the sunshine. Those of us who choose to hike know that the struggle and conquering the peak is a joy like no other, and we do it for the satisfaction of being able to say, “I climbed that mountain.” Yes, I did climb that mountain once. And I will do it again.