Finishing The (New Hampshire 48) List
Two years ago, my future fiancee and I joined a friend to hike Franconia Ridge, hitting two four thousand foot peaks (Mts. Lafayette and Lincoln) along the way on a partially overcast, moody and ultimately breathtaking traverse of one of the most beautiful ranges in New England. I was dressed pretty well but nothing like the dependable wardrobe I would eventually perfect over many climbs all over the Granite State the next few months. My pack was too large, shorts too heavy and my shoes were appropriate but on the old side. It didn’t matter. The views that day were intoxicating, even with some cloud cover, and the vibe on that weekend day was festive, a late spring crowd enjoying one of the first real weekends of hiking of the year. I decided that day I wanted to hike every four thousand footer in New Hampshire, no matter how long it took.
Two years and seven months later, it’s done. After a snowy, cold ascent of Mt. Cabot three days before Christmas, my fiancee and I completed the circuit of New Hampshire four thousand footers, a goal we chased steadily for months, getting up early on weekends, heading out in the dark and often coming home the same way, notching another peak in our logbooks after slugging out another long trek up some remote mountain in northern New Hampshire. We anticipated the ascent up Cabot to be relatively moderate, even easy compared to other hikes we had done in the weeks prior. After one aborted attempt of the mountain weeks before (we got spooked by a very close, very large moose on our first try and turned back) we made the three hour drive back and were determined to summit, which we did, but not nearly as easily as expected. We started in micro spikes, switched to snowshoes and then finally back to straight boots for the descent. But we got it done. Over the last two years, we have gotten really good at packing for all four seasons and looking for “weather windows” online, all the while charting our course for future hikes. Now it’s all done. We will continue hiking, certainly, probably hitting many of the same peaks again along with others we put off in our pursuit of The 48. Probably start checking off the New England 67 or some other collection. But this cycle is over.
Although I have detailed data about each of our hikes (thanks AllTrails) I don’t really think about that when reflecting on our hikes on these magnificent mountains. Instead, I think of snapshots of various hikes, not necessarily in chronological order or even the best of times, but all images and memories which provide a patchwork visual portfolio of our experience together on these trails and up these peaks. Our first (and still only) climb over Franconia Ridge. An October snow hike up Garfield that nearly blew us off the summit. Our first ascent of Moosilaukee’s sprawling summit. Watching the sun rise just below the summit of Adams. Gleefully sliding down the snowy trails of South Hancock. Taking in the sheer beauty of the Bonds. Completing not one, but two single day Presidential Traverses. Mingling with blue birds in the deep snow en route to Waumbek. Slugging out a tough Willey Traverse on one of the hottest days in September (love Avalon, though). Deciding to scale the grassy, off season slopes up Wildcat instead of the trail thinking it would be easier (not a wise move). Navigating the exhilarating rock slides of the Tripyramids. Cursing our damp feet near the end of a long and brutal Owl’s Head trek. Contemplating the logic of having to hike down to hike up to the summit of Isolation. Agreeing to meet a friend at midnight to hike Carrigain on only a few hours notice (and no sleep). Early morning rides up to the White Mountains (in the dark) that never got old. These are the things I think of when looking back at hiking the New Hampshire 48, not the stats.
Like anyone finishing this list, Washington is the highest (6288’) while Tecumseh (4003’) is the lowest but for me, neither was the hardest or easiest climbs of this group. We became adamant about hiking loops unless forced to do out and backs just for the sake of variety. We looked for the best combinations of multiple peaks, determined to make the most of our trips up north. We met great people on the trail, like minded souls with whom brief connections were easy. We met others on the trail who became great friends. We filled our phones with pictures. Lots of pictures, to the point where I took less of them because they were starting to look the same after awhile (but I still love going through post-hike shots as a ritual).
Still, here’s some cool data: we hiked Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington and Eisenhower the most (three times each) with some others twice (Moosilaukee, Pierce, Monroe and Liberty). The rest we did once and for a small handful of them, swore we’d never do them again (I’m looking at you, Owl’s Head). We hiked tens of thousands of feel of elevation during all four seasons, actually becoming very fond of hiking in the winter months for both its serenity and lack of crowds (and bugs). We became very good at changing into clean clothes in parking lots after hikes discreetly and without offending anyone (at least I think--nobody’s said anything yet). Four aborted hikes total (Liberty, Isolation, Adams and Cabot for various and different reasons) but we returned to each one to experience them in full. One thing I learned through experience? No matter how hard it is mentally (and it is, believe me) never regret a decision to turn back. Trust your instincts. I learned to eat hiking snacks other than Clif bars.
Near the end of each hike, whenever visibility permitted, I always gazed back to the peak just climbed, its profile always less foreboding the farther away we got from it, amazed we had just been up there and were now, once again, done with another mountain. There’s something simple and affecting looking at a distant location, something seemingly unreachable, and know you got there.
Driving south of Gorham and looking up at the vast Presidential Range and thinking that you’ve been up there. That never gets old for me. This going away look is important because it can be what keeps you coming back, the possibility of another one conquered, at least for a few minutes before moving on to the next place. In this way, we must be thankful for memories losing their sharp edges after time passes since we might not do things again if not for that pleasant forgetfulness. Many times coming down a mountain I have settled on the idea of it being the “only time” I’ll ever do it while mentally checking it off the list in my head. But later it doesn’t seem so bad and I can fully contemplate doing it all over again (maybe). The outdoors will do that to you.
In many ways, all the trails seemed the same at various times, especially in the beginning and end. But each trail also possesses its own unique quirks and intricacies, parts which make them what they are, something experienced by everyone is slightly different ways. There were more than a handful of times I saw something stunning which prompted me to take out my phone for a quick shot only to find the device couldn’t capture how it looked to me at that moment, something which frustrated me at first but then became an exercise in appreciating fleeting beauty, another lesson the mountains can teach us. Now there are hikes where I end up only taking a picture at the summit and nothing else. Other hikes I try to capture small things on the way up or down, like a particular type of tree or the way the sunlight strikes a set of leaves or maybe a unique snow filled scene. Those are the things to pay attention to while hiking, too, the things which in the beginning makes us stop and look more often but often fade in significance after dozens of hikes and more familiarity with one’s surroundings. Mt. Adams is probably my favorite of the 48s (with many, many close seconds) but each hike has been very different in the most beautiful and challenging of ways. The same is true of other summits I’ve hit more than once and I know I am far from the only one who feels this way. I suppose it’s not even the mountain that makes it a favorite but the experiences associated with it, the conditions and variables encountered while traveling up and down its face. I guess even picking one’s favorite mountain is akin to picking your favorite kid and in this case, the hiking community has 48 of them in New Hampshire of this variety.
I thought after doing this I might put together a technical guide to New Hampshire’s four thousand footers, a kind of online handbook one could easily reference for whatever peak he or she had in mind. But there are all kinds of those out there now, excellent and informative resources for people to browse or obsess over in anticipation of a cool hike. And who knows, maybe I will end up contributing to this body of information, but for now, this piece is really just about the snapshots in my head, the things which most stand out and are the most meaningful in the end about the collective experience. In a lot of ways, each mountain is like a blank memory canvas, something identical to everyone on its face but unique and layered upon experience based on the participant. The mountains give you a lot but you have to be open to them; whatever you bring with you will be there, too. Make it positive. Wipe it away after you leave.
Hiking all the New Hampshire 48s is not an entirely unique experience; thousands of people have done it and the group is growing each year. Many have done it multiple times, some of whom are seeking to complete a Grid or some other unique approach to climbing all the mountains. But still, the vast majority of people have not done this and probably never will, and those who have each carved out their own experiences on the same trials and peaks everyone else traversed, a common blueprint which makes the NH48 club rewarding in its own way, kind of like how no two people see--really see--a color the same way even if it’s close. Of anyone who’s done The List, nobody has experienced it like I did and the same is true for everyone else in this group. Doing something like this is more about consistency and good fortune than physical prowess or superior skills. Sure, it requires a certain level of physical fitness and a knowledge of preparedness, but the most important thing it requires is simply showing up. Again and again. This, in my view, is what climbing mountains has taught me. Show up. Be open. Take what is given to you and enjoy what you can. If you can manage this, anything you do will far surpass the significance of any checklist. You will do far more than climb mountains. You will truly live.