Archive for the ‘Hiking’ Category

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It’s the end of May, and now that I am finally done with training, I can start to relax and start thinking about other things. In the last couple weeks, I have been starting to get my head around going back to the mountains. Not quite ready to tackle the Whites just yet, I decided a good training hike would be to go back up Mt. Monadnock… On a Saturday.

Yeah, so weekend days are not usually my first choice to walk up one of the most traveled peaks in the country, but it’s the only day I have, so it’s going to have to do. I pull into the lot and it’s packed. People from all over travel to Jaffrey, New Hampshire to climb this mountain. While admittedly it’s no Everest, I would never refer to climbing any mountain as easy, and this one is no different. The result of this mass misunderstanding is that hundreds if not thousands of people, flock this place of elevation in an effort hike the White Dot to the summit.

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been here, and just as long since I’ve shouldered a pack and endeavored to climb any mountain. The last effort was on Mt. Moosilauke in August of 2013, a humbling trek that forced me to reevaluate my systems and make some much needed changes. The beating I took on that trip finally forced to admit that I needed to streamline my system and trim pounds to make a more manageable kit. Armed with a new, lighter pack, trail runners instead of heavy boots, lighter trekking poles and a gopro, I was ready to put some of those changes to the test.

Despite the crowds, I made pretty good time to the summit. Initially, I thought I would be annoyed by the mass of hikers on the White Dot trail, but on the ascent, I found it enjoyable to exchange pleasantries with people as we passed. Arriving at the summit in just under ninety minutes, I could see it was going to be a struggle to find a place to sit. The wind was blowing hard, and the throngs of hikers made it difficult to stake out a spot that would provide some shelter. I found a free piece of granite and took a seat to enjoy some much needed rest and a snack. The real benefit to Mondanock on a Saturday was the summit people watching. Everyone seemed in good spirits, and enjoying taking the requisite summit picture poses. I mean let’s be honest, no one comes to Mondanock on a weekend seeking solitude, right? So I might as well take a few minutes to enjoy the show.

I let some of the groups filter out before I picked up my gear and made my way back to the trail. For the hours of toiling to reach and recover from the summit, I always find it a shame that more time can’t be spent enjoying the view. Since I got a late start, I needed to start heading down. This is where the crowds became a bit of a problem. I’ve said before that the descent can be more dangerous than the climb up, so I’m not racing down the mountain, of course. I also know that a group only moves as fast as their slowest hiker. So with some of these larger, slow groups, some patience was going to be required as I maneuvered down the mountain.

The descent was uneventful until about 15 minutes above the parking lot. I could see a lone hiker ahead of me who I had been trailing for some time. Our pace seemed about the same until all of a sudden it wasn’t. As I closed the distance I could see him doubled over in pain and groaning. I stopped to ask if he was ok. “Yeah I’m just cramping up,” was his response. As it turns out it was his first time hiking a mountain, had gone through his two liters of water and was getting pretty dehydrated. I passed along some encouraging words and pressed on. But as I walked passed him I got to thinking. I had some extra water in my camelbak, and here’s a hiker in trouble. Sure, it’s not far to the parking lot, but dehydrated and cramping, that parking lot might as well be on the moon. I’ve been that guy, downed on the trail, and when I needed help someone was there. I couldn’t just leave him like that. I stopped and turned around. When I got back to him he was sitting on a log catching his breath. I told him that while I didn’t have much left, I had enough to fill some of his bottle so he could have a little more water to get down to the end of the hike. We snapped a quick photo, shook hands and parted. Helping that dude out was the right thing to do, and maybe next time he goes out to hike, or to work, and sees someone else in trouble, he might do a little something to help. You know, pay It forward and all that.

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Hey look I’m on Instagram. Internet fame achieved. Reality series to follow.

All in all a good day, and a good return to hiking in the mountains. Hopefully more to come this year.

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I’m a gear nerd. Let me just put that out there. I spend a tremendous (probably unreasonable) amount of time, reading, researching, and watching video reviews on various kinds of gear: running, tactical, backpacking, whatever. It’s a sickness. Since my reawakening to all things outdoors, my backpacking/hiking kit has gone through several evolutions. Usually, I find that after a trip is a good time to reassess what I’m carrying in the pack. I mean, what better time to take stock of what I have, and what should be cut or replaced with something better?

When you’re carrying everything you need on your back, weight should be the primary consideration. Is what I’m carrying worth the weight? That’s what I’m always asking myself. The catch here is that I can pretty much convince myself that something is justified. So it’s helpful to have an outside opinion. Usually, after a couple beers around the campfire, the topic of how much crap I’ve carried rears its ugly head. Most of the time I fend off the “you don’t need that,” conversation with, “but dude, it just saved the day.” There are, however, a few cases where I’m actually packing too much kit and I need to look at places to trim the fat. I’ll address this in more detail shortly, but the reason to mention it now is just to point out that any system needs review and adjustment.

The base of my backpacking system is, you guessed it, the pack. For day hikes I use the 5.11 Tactical Rush 12 pack. The pack itself is a bit on the heavy side, but it is just the right size for a day hiking adventure, and it’s molle webbing system is ideal for attaching additional pouches for accessories. I’ve used it now on several adventures and the only downside I can see in this pack is that because its not made specifically for hiking, it’s not super ergonomic. A lighter day pack with a waist strap might be better. But overall I’m pleased with it… For an overnight trip I have an (at this moment) untested REI Flash 45. I like the feel of the straps and the empty weight of just about two pounds makes it a solid choice. Once I figured out how to pack a little smarter, the 45L size is perfectly adequate for a two day trip. I’ll have more to say on this once I get it out in the woods and test it.

In list form, the rest of it looks like this :

Cooking:
GSI Pinnacle Kettalist
GSI Insulated Mug
Fuel Cartridge
Soto Stove
GSI Titanium Long Spork

Water Management:
MSR Sweetwater Filter
1L Folding Water Bottle
Seattle Sports Water Bucket
3L CamelBak

Woodcraft tools:
Sven 15″ Folding Saw
Ontario Gen II SP46
Leather Work Gloves

Lighting/Nav:
B.D. Orbit Lantern
Black Diamond Head Lamp
Garmin Etrex Venture GPS
Map and Compass

Survival:
Fire Starting Kit – lighter, flint/steel, trioxane, storm proof matches
First Aid/Emer Kit – basic first aid, space blanket, signal mirror, chem lite etc.

Bivouac System:
EMS Velocity 1 Tent
EMS Mountain Lite 35
ThermaRest +11 Sleeping Bag Liner (optional)
ThermaRest NeoAir All Season Pad
Big Agnes Inflatable Pillow

Misc:
Pack Cover
Camp Towel
Camp Spade
50 ft. Reflective paracord

This doesn’t include much in the way of cold weather gear, because I’m rarely camping below 40 degrees. I’ll usually take a packable jacket, fleece, light base layer, gloves and a fleece watch cap.

Like any good system, it is constantly evolving. This year brought a major change to my overnight system. I swapped out my tent, heavy synthetic bag and equally heavy sleeping pad for lighter replacements which in total saved me a six pounds. In addition replacing the Gregory Z65 with the Flash 45, weighing in at just two pounds, helped me shave a shocking eight pounds off my load out. EIGHT. Pounds. Dude, that’s significant. I don’t think I’m going to go as far as some of the ultralight set ups that you read about, but with these changes, I’m looking at roughly twenty five pounds completely loaded out. To give some perspective, when we hiked Whiteface, my pack weighed fifty pounds. And believe me, I felt every ounce of it. That was two years, two packs ago and a tent ago.

It occurs to me that in backpacking, much like in life, when experienced people talk, it is in my best interest to listen. I had been resisting my buddy’s constant haranguing over the weight of my day pack, until I ran myself into the ground on Moosilauke. That enjoyable moment lead to my finally admitting that my first aid/survival kit was absurdly heavy. Believe me when I tell you there is no worse feeling, nor greater motivator in the world than watching your buddy hump some of your gear. This simply will not do. So I trimmed and cut until I ended up with a far lighter kit with fewer, albeit more realistic options.

A month later when I set out for Sawyer Pond, I spent the night with two guys who had recently finished all of the 4000 footers in New Hampshire. An impressive accomplishment to be sure. During the night we talked a lot about where to save weight while still taking what you need (in their case: beer). On that trip I brought the Z65 for a total of about 32 pounds of gear. Not too bad, but it was that experience that got me thinking about how pack weight affects total weight and the benefits of down over synthetic. I came back with some new ideas about where I could cut down, and thus, this current revision of the system was born.

So now the fun part: testing and review. The only real way to know if your system is going to work is to get out into the wilderness and put it to work. My limited experience has shown me that the weak points in the system will immediately make themselves known. It’s usually the stuff that looks really cool, but in reality offers little in the way of practical use. A perfect example of this is my Alite folding camp chair. I thought this chair was just the coolest thing. Weighing in at 1.4 pounds I brought it along on several adventures, but really only used it once… For a few minutes. Now to be fair, they were several well earned minutes, but after three more trips on which it went unused, it became obvious that I didn’t actually need it, and the room and weight it took up could do much to help lighten the load.

It’s that real world trial and error, and advice from more experienced people that has helped me learn over the years. It’s my hope that one day I can pass on some of the knowledge gained from my successes and failures to someone just starting out, perhaps helping them shed a few unnecessary pounds, or ditch that piece of gear they “just have to have,” for something better/lighter, or more functional. Hiking and backpacking is hard enough, there’s no reason to make it any harder.

September 2013

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The decision:

I’m going. My usual backpacking partner can’t make it, and determined to get one more camp in before the end of the season, I’ve decided to go in on my own. The decision to go out by myself is, for me, a big one. The time I’ve spent in the wilderness has mostly been with my buddy, who I consider a far more established hiker than I. Sure, we disagree about gear from time to time, but he’s always had my back, and this time ill be doing it without him.

The route:

As of this moment, I’m undecided. I have a couple ideas, and I have to carefully weigh the options. The epic ridge hike I had been considering seems like it might be a lot for my first solo overnight. I’m leaning towards the relatively easy hike into 13 Falls in Lincoln, NH. I’ve been around that area before, so it wouldn’t be a total unknown, and if for some reason I had to bail, it wouldn’t be too hard to get out. The other option is Sawyer Pond. The hike in is about the same, and the campsite overlooks the pond. The view would be nice, but it’s a small camp and could potentially be crowded.

The hike:

In a bout of indecision, I decided on the easier adventure. The plan was to hike into the Lincoln Woods on the Pemi East trail and camp at the Franconia Brook tentsite. It’s a short two and a half mile hike to a well put together set of tent sites right on the Pemigewasset River. I had been there once before on my first trip into the woods in decades. So leaving my house I thought it would be a good place to have my first solo camp. That was the plan.

What was it Moltke said? “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Seems legit.

In this case, “the enemy” was a tailgating woman in a Honda Pilot. Unsure of the location of the parking lot I was driving slower than normal up the Kangamangus Highway. In between watching intently for signs indicating the Lincoln Woods parking lot, I noticed the SUV riding my tail pretty tight. She was close enough that when I finally saw the lot, I couldn’t slow quick enough without causing an accident. So, I kept going. The trouble was that there are only a few spots to turn around, and being somewhat unfamiliar, I was going to have to slow quickly to get off. With my new found shadow closely in tow, that wasnt going to be easy.

As I got farther away from my intended objective, it occurred to me that the Sawyer Pond trail was somewhere in this direction. I initially wanted to hike in there, and since it was getting closer, and the Pemi farther away, I called an audible. Instead of taking the easier hike into known territory, I would take the longer hike into an unknown destination. Eventually, I pulled off to let the Honda pass, and kept my eyes peeled for any signs indicating Sawyer Pond.

It took about 30 minutes to find the trailhead. As I pulled in the lot, I noticed another car with a couple hikers milling about. It wasn’t clear if they were coming or going, day hiking, or camping, so I pulled into a spot and killed the engine. I sat for a moment contemplating my decision. I didn’t have a map, which is a pretty big failure on my part, but I do have GPS with terrain, so I was pretty certain I would be able to navigate to and from the pond. I got out to check the map at the trailhead. It seemed pretty straight forward, so I solidified my resolve and got my gear.

Keeping an eye on the other pair of hikers, I got the GPS up and running, and sent a check-in message to my wife. The message will give her my new coordinates, so she’ll know that I changed the plan. As I shouldered my pack, I heard, “Hey guy, where ya headed.” I told them I was hiking into Sawyer Pond and as it turned out, so were they. No sweat, there should be plenty of room. I turned and headed down the trail was immediately confronted with a river. Well, more of a stream, but it ran right down the middle of the trail. “Um, who the hell put that here?” Yeah, I get it, nature.. But still, I had to figure out how to get across.

Somewhat stymied by this unexpected turn of events, I made a right through some trees on the shore to see if I can find a way across. Nothing. Waist deep water at best was all I could see. I began to worry that this adventure was going to be over before it even started. About the time I got back to the trail. The other two hikers arrived and started looking for their own way to cross. They found a shallow spot, about knee deep down a seven foot ledge. It seemed to be the best solution so I watched them ease their way down the ledge into the water, took my boots off and followed suit. It was chilly, but not terrible. Using my poles for stability, I slowly made it across to the rocky shore.

Sitting on the shore getting dried off, I got to talking with the other guys. They seemed nice enough, and since we were all going the same way, were amenable to my joining their hike. With our gear squared away, we found the trail and started making our way towards Sawyer Pond.

The four and a half mile hike in was pleasant. Except for a small-ish gain in elevation near Birch Hill, the trail was mostly flat. My GPS wasn’t quite cooperating at first, and I immediately regretted that fact that I didn’t have a map with me. I mean, really, who goes into the wilderness without a map? Apparently I do. Not really cool, but fortunately, the guys I linked up with had one and we were able to find the trail as it branched off at a snowmobile trail.

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After just a couple hours of hiking, we arrived at Sawyer Pond. Following the trail around the wooded shore line lead to the shelter that sits facing the water. A fire ring and an improvised bench made it pretty clear that this was the place to be. We figured that since it was going to be chilly overnight, there wouldn’t be much threat of bugs and we’d sleep in the shelter rather than set up the tents at one of the the set back tent sites. It was looking to be a nice night and with the open side of the shelter facing east, we’d get a nice view of the sunrise over the hills in the morning.

I made a cup of tea as the sun set behind us and the night slowly crept in. The temperature was dropping and we got to work setting up the camp fire. The area was pretty well picked over for firewood so scrounging without cutting anything down was difficult. After scouring most of the empty tent sites we managed to find enough wood to last the night. The temperature got down into the high 40’s and rest of that night was spent beside the campfire bs’ing over a couple beers and freeze dried food. Not a terrible way to spend an evening.

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In the morning, as promised, the sun made it’s way over the hills and into the shelter. By sheer luck I had positioned my sleeping bag in the far corner, which gave me some protection from the fiery ball in the sky that was interrupting my otherwise enjoyable morning sleep. And then, cutting through the tranquil, still morning air:

“Guess what day it is? Guess. What. Day. It. Is? Mikemikemikemikemike.. Guess what day it is?”

“Fuck you, I’m sleeping.” Is the response.

“Matt… Matty.. Come on, I know you can hear me… What day is it?”

“Its Wednesday?”

“Hump day! Yeeeahh.”

“You’re an asshole.”

Good morning Sawyer Pond.

We pulled down the bear bags, and got the fire going again for breakfast. They were planning to hike the other side of the Sawyer Pond Trail and then cycle back to the five miles back to the parking lot. I thought about hiking the long way out, but it was going to be ten miles, and I decided to take the trail back the way we came. After spending an hour or so waking up and eating, I packed up my gear, bid the guys farewell, and headed back towards the truck.

Almost immediately I realized that leaving my pack on the ground during the night had opened the valve to my Camelbak and leaked out all of my water. Rookie mistake. (Those hooks are there for a reason bro.) As I made my way back, I came up to a small brook, kneeled down between the tracks of what I hoped was a passing moose, and filtered in a couple liters. The rest of the hike out went by fast enough and I soon arrived at the stream that ran across the trail leading to the parking lot. I did another quick recon on the shore line and came to the conclusion that the only way across was the way we came the day before. Only now I was going to have to climb up that ledge. I carefully waded across and got to the other side. I tossed my boots and poles up over the edge and, using a nearby tree root, hauled myself up and over the top. The effort lacked anything remotely like grace or style, but I made it. A few yards later I found my truck, in the same place I left it the morning before. I snapped a few pictures to bookend this adventure and headed home. While it didn’t turn out to be a solo trip into the Lincoln Woods, I was happy to have the company and discover a new part of the White Mountains. It seems that sometimes the adventure we set out on is not the one we end up having.

It’s taken me nearly a year to finish this post, and now, looking back on this overnight backpacking trip I’m reminded why I make the effort and take the time to embark on these adventures. On our way in, we talked about what draws us to the back country and I think Steve said it best: “How will you know what you’re made of unless you come out here and do this.” I think it’s an excellent point. I’m ever a student of the outdoors and I always try to take a little something from each trip that I can apply to the next one. This trip was no different.

So, what’s next? I guess all I have to do is pick a point on the map and grab my pack.

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Recently, I read a book about the space race in the 1960’s. As one might expect, no account of those events are complete without referencing President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962. You know the one I mean:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Like so many, I found those words inspiring, but realized that while I had heard this sound byte dozens of times, I had never actually heard the full speech. So, through the magic of YouTube, I sat down and listened to the 17 minute speech that talked about why it was important to take on the challenge of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth. I know, I know, to raise funding and get there before the damned dirty Soviets (just kidding Putin, you da man). Still, I felt that I was missing something. So I read and reread the transcript, and I found this:

“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
– William Bradford; Plymouth Bay Colony 1630

Thats interesting. Anything worth doing is hard, and greatness lies in the courage to endure the difficulty. We might be onto something here.

Much in the way Kennedy challenged the american people to develop the means to land a man on the moon, using materials and technology that had yet to be invented, (which I’m sure at the time seemed a daunting task) we must challenge ourselves to do great things. Things that are difficult, and sometimes scary, and things we are absolutely certain we can’t do… Until we do them. It took me a long time to figure this out. I have spent a great deal of my life avoiding challenges that seemed too hard, or in my opinion, certain to fail. Until recently, I had positively identified my comfort zone and set up shop.

The comfort zone… Yeah, you know, that place under the blanket, on the couch curled up with the dog and the remote control. I love that place. It’s warm and cozy, requires no effort to enjoy. The dog looks up at me, wags her tail, and gets an approving scratch behind the ears for her trouble. Everyone is happy. Sounds great, right? Totally. Here’s the problem: What good are we doing ourselves by letting life pass by on the couch surfing daytime tv? Are we alive? Of course. But, are we living? This is debatable. Staying in our everyday routines, on the proverbial couch with the pooch, is safe and we know we cant screw it up. Getting outside the comfort zone means being willing to risk failure. This is obviously undesirable. Which begs the question: why? Why are we so afraid to fail? Vanity? Insecurity? Low self esteem? All would seem good reasons to stay ensconced in the relative safety of an epic dog hug, Seinfeld reruns and video games. To some degree, I struggle with all of these issues, and it’s not always easy to put them aside.

Notably, no endeavor worth doing is without risk of failure. It can’t be. We have to accept that, and more importantly, learn to embrace it. Failure isnt something to be feared, its something to learn from. With that in mind, locate the nearest emergency exit out of your comfort zone, and exit that mofo like its on fire. It’s making that choice, the choice to look uncertainty in the eye and take on a challenge, that defines us.

It starts with a choice. That’s the hardest part, choosing to go. Once committed to the challenge, less energy can be spent on focusing on how hard the thing is, and more on the overall goal. Thats not to say that I’m always confident. It occurs to me that if I cant be the very image of brimming self confidence, I can at least try to prepare as much as possible… And then fake it. Often times this translates to researching gear, techniques for completing the task at hand, and the experience of others. Part of my own insecurity lies in the unknown. But, if I develop a general idea of what I’m about to get into, I can mentally prepare. So, I pour over maps, read endless gear reviews to choose the right equipment, read and watch testimonials of those who have gone before me. Every adventure is unique, and one can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality but by laying the groundwork ahead of time, we can remove some of the unknowns. However, if and when we are faced with something we’re not prepared for, a simple, “Screw it, lets go,” may just be the answer.

That mental toughness is not innate. It has to be learned through experience. The first step is doing the thing that you’re absolutely certain you can’t do. “The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of and get the courage after you do it, not before you do it.” (This was actually a George Clooney quote from a mediocre movie, but the point is no less valid.)

I submit the following short narrative of my wife’s (to this point) previously undiscovered inner badass. I like to refer to it as Warrior-Beth. It’s quite possibly one of my favorite things.

In July of this year, my wife and I took at trip to Sedona to celebrate our fifth anniversary with some outdoor adventuring. She thought I would really enjoy renting atvs and trekking out in the desert to see some Native American ruins. She was right. It was a blast. This anecdote isn’t so much about me. We are both motorcycle riders and didn’t give much consideration to the fact that riding a street bike has absolutely nothing to do with off road atv-ing. We get the quads, and I can tell she’s nervous. “How bad can it be?” I tell her. I promptly received the look husbands get when they say such stupid things to their wives… Who usually know better.

Undeterred, we head off into the Arizona desert. The large dirt road we were both expecting quickly turns into a rutted trail full of rocks. This trail eventually winds its way to the first of two “obstacles.” The obstacle in question is a steep, slick, rocky hill who’s grade is matched only by the size and number of the rocks found in it. We are going to have negotiate this treacherous slope on atvs we have never ridden before. Awesome. I look over to my wife to find that she’s less nervous now, and more freaking out. I couldn’t blame her. I wasnt sure how it was going to work out either. “Screw it….” I head down first and it’s uncomfortable and rocky and I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow, manage to arrive safely at the bottom of the hill. I look up and I see she’s gotten around the bend, part way down, but I can tell she’s not going to be able to get it down the super steep part of the trail. I head back up to help, hop on her atv and just as before, slowly and awkwardly negotiate it down the hill. I felt bad that she was scared, but we had long since been committed to the adventure, and had to find a way to press on. We had plenty of time, so we took few minutes at the bottom to rest up and have a snack and some water. When she was ready, we got rolling towards the ruins

The vista was amazing, red rocks and plains for as far as the eye could see. When our engines were shut down we heard…. Nothing. Total silence. We could see the ruins off in the distance as we finally arrived at the second obstacle which was similar to the first in its grade and rockiness. The difference here is that there’s a slightly less steep way down. We take a look at it, and I tell her that just like before, ill ride down first and then come back up to bring hers down. I get the thumbs up and head down the hill. Just as I reach the bottom, I turn around to see her working her way down the obstacle with a huge smile on her face. She looked her fear in the eye, gave it the finger, and did it on her own. I asked her how she did it, and she said,”I just got angry at it, got it done.” I could not have been more proud.

This is the moment we should strive for. The moment where we overcome the fear, say some insulting things to an inanimate object, and accomplish something awesome, if for no other reason than to say we did it. My wife did exactly that. She did the thing that scared the hell out of her, only to discover that she was capable of more than she gave herself credit for. We should all be so lucky.

“But why, some say…. Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?”

In part, the answer, as George Mallory so aptly put it is, “Because it’s there.” While I understand what Mr. Mallory is getting at, I think there’s more to it. The purpose of choosing the challenge, be it climbing a mountain, running a marathon or landing on the moon is to discover something in ourselves. To become better people as a result of our endeavors. The pictures of us triumphantly standing at the summit marker or crossing the finish line signify not just the physical accomplishment, but the mental strength and determination it took to get there. It’s about finding out what you really can do if you simply choose to do it.

We are all capable of great things. It’s up to us to step outside the box and make it happen.

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I knew it was coming. I could feel it. My heart was racing, I was breathing hard. One foot in front of the other, hand over hand climbing we made our way up the Beaver Brook trail on Mt. Moosilauke. I knew we were going hard and fast up this impressively steep trail that was aptly described as ‘arduous’ in the guide book. It seemed the unspoken plan was to hit it hard and get the suck behind us as quick as possible. I also knew this was probably a mistake. “I should stop and let my heart rate recover,” I thought. But at that point, it was already too late. The crash was coming. The only thing left was how I was going to handle it.

I’m light headed as I call ahead up to my buddy to tell him I’m going to take a minute. That minute turns into twenty. I can’t slow my heart rate, and my vision is graying at the sides. I sit on a nearby rock at the edge of the trail and try to regain my composure. I’m trying hard to stay focused on getting my breathing under control. I don’t know how much time passed. I can hear the waterfall. I can’t see.

Are my eyes open? Uh, no. That can’t be good.

“Open your eyes, dude.”

“What?”

“Open your eyes. Now.”

I see the tree in front of me, and the cliff just beyond it that leads to the falls.

“Get up.”

“Nah, man. I’m good. I’ll just sit here for a while.” My eyes get heavy and I hear the voice again.

“Open your eyes and get on your feet. Right. Fucking. Now.”

“Ok ok, I’m up.” I grab the tree and hoist my increasingly heavy body up onto my feet. I call up to Chris. I’m in trouble.

I’m leaning against the tree and its slowly starting to come back. My hands are tingling and I sit back down on the rock. A minute later he comes down from the trail above. I tell him about the crash and he immediately gets me to take in some calories and some water. I feel like shit, and I probably look worse. I can’t figure it out. I’m in good shape. I run, I’ve climbed mountains. How the hell am I having an epic crash on this hike.

We sit for a minute and I repeatedly apologize for slowing us down. I feel like a jerk. The tingling in my hands subsides, and it occurs to me that I have a decision to make. We’re only 40 minutes and a few hundred feet into the climb and there’s a hell of long way to go. The safe play is to call an abort and head back down to the truck. At the moment it seems like the obvious choice. The other option is to press on to the top. Is this an isolated incident? A relapse at a higher altitude is going to be more dangerous than down here. Am I willing to take the risk and continue to the summit? I take another drink, and I’m starting to feel better.

“What do you think?” He asks. “Wanna try going slow?”

I pause and consider the options. We didn’t come all this way to quit. It’s a contest of wills. We’ll just go slow. One step at a time.

“Yeah man,” I reply as I get back on my feet, “Lets give it a shot.”

Thats how it started.

The first third of the Beaver Brook trail is by all counts, absurdly difficult. The book tells you it’s rough and arduous. The trail signage says its extremely tough and for experienced hikers only. Every hiker we encounter along the way said the same thing: It sucks… hard.. You just gotta get through it. They are all correct.

The views of the falls are spectacular, and it is the shortest route to the summit. Thats why we’re here. As we (very) slowly climb up out of this leg of the trail we run into a group of hikers on their way down. Concerned about the weather, they turned back at the shelter a little ways ahead. They didn’t want to risk coming down this steep trail in the rain. I don’t blame them. The good news, they tell us, is that we’re just about out of the suck, and the trail eases up not too far ahead. That is good news. I’m feeling pretty much back to normal and our pace feels good, but I’m looking forward to putting this leg of the hike behind us.

Once we reach the shelter, Chris walks down to check on a young through hiker that past us while we were talking with the other group. A little trail karma is a good thing. Maybe helping this kid out with some extra food might keep the mountain in a forgiving mood. Maybe. As I wait at the intersection, another hiker comes down from the top with his Great Dane. He stops to chat for a minute expressing an obvious reluctance to descend down in the the steep section of the trail. After a few minutes, the dog decides its time to go and they’re off. I wish them both well and we head on.

As promised, just past the shelter the trail becomes significantly easier. You know, for a mountain. The grade is a bit more forgiving, and we settle into an easy, yet not crawling pace. From here to the summit the views are unimpressive. Most of the trail is under tree cover. We can sneak a peek at the valley from time to time, but unlike the other mountains we’ve climbed it’s not bare and rocky at the higher elevations. It robs us of the view, but might be useful if the weather goes bad.

As the Beaver Brook trail joins with the Benton trail, it incorporates two descents on the hike to the top. We descend down into the first col before climbing back up, and from a turn in the trail ahead Chris tells me to walk quietly as I come around the corner. “Great,” I think, “He found a damned bear.”

I make the turn, and I see him crouching down with what appears to be a grouse walking around him. It’s making an odd half growl half clucking noise as it paces back and forth, blocking the trail. I don’t know much about birds, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a good thing. It circles over and for a second looks friendly. Just for a second. The circle, now obviously a flanking maneuver, ends at his back, which is where this warbird decides to strike. In a flurry of wings and clucking it attacks my unsuspecting friend from behind and sends us both running down the trail back the way we came, screaming like school girls. This bird is clearly an asshole.

To get to the summit, we are going to have to get past him. We’re not about to be scared off the summit by a six pound bird. The scene vaguely reminds of something out of a Monty Python movie. I’m half expecting it to ask me three random questions about swallows carrying coconuts and then peck my eyes out when I get the wrong answer. It’s obvious, we’re just gonna have to run for it.

The bird of prey, now between us, has adopted what appears to be a divide and conquer battle plan. Ok, I’m up. I make a dash past it and I hear the clucking and fluttering of its pursuit as I quickly round the corner to safety. Somehow, in its pursuit of me, it positioned itself between us again. Clever little bastard. Now it’s Chris who has to sprint to my position. He makes his move and runs like his life depends on it. I think, for a minute, the bird might actually have him. Fortunately for us, we’re faster and the would be predator gives up the chase.

The trees finally break and the summit is in sight. We follow the rock lined trail up the grassy field to the cross that indicates our arrival at 4802 feet. After taking a couple photos and having a bite to eat we decide to head back. I look across the valley and can see rain showers on the opposite peaks to the west. It’s gonna suck if that hits us. No sooner do I finish the thought, the skies open up. On this exposed section of the trail we are getting rained on pretty good, but we both agree that once we hit the tree line, we ought to be more protected. We are both keenly aware that the last steep leg of the trail, which was already treacherous, is now going to be down right dangerous. We must be cautious.

Choosing my steps carefully, we make our way down. Its slick for sure, but if I can just pay attention to where my feet go, I’ll be able to stay upright. Seems easy enough, right? Sure. Before I knew what was happening, my feet come out from under me. Fortunately, my face broke my fall. Laying there with my face firmly pressed up against the rocks, I do a quick assessment. Nothing feels broken or especially out of place, so I give the thumbs up, “I’m ok..”

“You may be ok dude, but you just landed on your face.” He said more than half laughing at me.

“It looked awesome though. Right?” Is my reply. I collect my battered self up off the ground, dust myself off and we move down into the suck, which has now, in places, become a river. Awesome. In case I wasnt sure before, it is now apparent that this mountain is, in fact, trying to kill me.

We stop at the shelter one last time to check in on the through hiker. We both give him what extra snacks we have. He needs it more than we do. Starting in Maine at Mt. Katahdin, hes been hiking the Appalachain Trail, north to south, for about four months. Its quite an accomplishment. We stay and chat for a few minutes, and wish him safe travels on his long journey. The shadows are getting longer and it’s time we got moving.

The remaining third of the hike is a slow, treacherous suckfest of slippery rocks and poor footing. Nearly falling several more times, we finally reach the bottom, battered and bruised, but otherwise triumphant.

I think every hike has a lesson to be learned. There were a couple on this one. Most importantly, respect the mountain. Not in that tree hugging, mountains are magical kinda way. You have to respect the difficulty and danger in endeavoring to climb mountains. Even the small ones. I knew this going in, but I didn’t respect how hard the first part of this climb was going to be, and my overconfidence was my undoing. I got lucky, it could have been worse. It’s not a race. If you rush, the mountain will win. And losing is not something you can afford. At the end of the day, Moosilauke provided us one hell of an adventure. As this is written, exhausted and sore, I can’t help but wonder, when and were the next one is going to be.

Monadnock

Posted: June 22, 2013 in Hiking
Tags: , , , ,

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I’m nervous.

That’s stupid. There’s no reason to be nervous. I’ve climbed this mountain before. Hell, I’ve climbed harder mountains than this before. So what’s different? Oh thats right, I’m doing it alone.

Lets keep things in perspective. Its not like im about to solo climb the Eiger Nordwand (which would be awesome). I’m about to climb a relatively “easy” mountain, that is possibly one of the most climbed peaks in the world. Mt. Monadnock towers over the town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire. It’s a small town of nearly 5500 people that also happens to be the home of this rather popular mountain. By all counts, mine included, this is not a hard climb. Because it isn’t a super challenging hike, it seemed like a good choice for my first solo climb. Never the less, difficult or not, it’s still a mountain, and I would be remiss if I didn’t have a plan.

I double and triple check my gear before I leave the house. I have everything I need. Actually, I have more than I need, but that’s nothing new. The pack (5.11 Rush 12), fully loaded out, weighs about 18 pounds. That’s not too bad. I have no intention of using most of what I’m carrying, but if things go sideways, I’ll have some options. Some of the highlights include, emegency shelter, first aid, cold weather and rain gear, my GPS, and the newest addition to my backpacking system, the GPS SPOT messenger. I’ve got enough food for the day, and if I needed to, I could make it last through the night, and my standard 3L Camelbak bladder. It’s more than enough.

It’s a gorgeous day. The sky is clear, and the temperature is a comfortable 80 degrees. With the top down on the Jeep, the drive is pleasant and takes just an hour. As I make a last minute check of my gear in the parking lot, I am reminded that the last time I came to see Monadnock, I was with my wife. We had just started hiking again, and I hadn’t really done much research into the equipment needed to make hiking a little safer. We didn’t have enough water, my pack was terrible, and forget about shelter or first aid. We’ve come a long way since then, and I was looking forward to tackling this mountain again, only this time armed with a little more knowledge and experience.

I start down the White Dot trail, which, with a gradual increase in elevation, winds its way to the first of many steep rock fields. It kinda feels like the staircase from hell. I try to manage my pace so I don’t burn out too early. I mentioned earlier that I’m not the most experience backpacker that ever walked the earth. This is true. I’m also not the fastest. I have plenty of time today, I’m on my own and its certainly not a race, so I decide to take a slow steady pace, taking each steep climb one at a time. It takes some time for my body to acclimate to what I’m putting it through. I take a moment at the top of each rock field, to take a breath and let my heart rate recover. Then, I press on. This is the first climb since Whiteface, which was nearly a year ago. My work with the trekking poles is sloppy and unsteady, but as I put more elevation behind me, it starts to feel more familiar. I occasionally reference my GPS (Garmin HTC Venture) to see how much elevation I’ve gained, but more importantly, how far I have to go. Im starting to see some progress as I slowly make my way towards the summit.

And then, without really expecting it, I hit the halfway marker. It’s nice that they put that there. It’s a little motivator to hikers that they’ve put some good work in, and only have to push for a little longer to get to the summit. I stop and take a knee, grab a drink, and send a Check-In message to my wife. It feels good to get the pack off my shoulders for a moment, but I try not to linger for too long. Theres still plenty of work left to do. Getting comfortable now is only going to make it harder to get moving again. With the message sent, I shoulder my pack and head for the top.

It’s my favorite part. It really is. It’s that part of any climb when you break through the tree line, and get your first view of the horizon. I have to half scramble, half climb a rock face to get to this point, but as I right myself on the ledge, I turn around and take in the view. Awesome. It’s pretty much why any of us are here.

While I’m standing there admiring the view I hear a bit of commotion from the rocks above. I make my way up to find a party of three on their way down stalled at a particularly slick looking slab. I make my way around and greet them. “How’s it going,” I ask. They are all just fine but the one having the issue is a first time hiker, and is nervous about coming down this steep piece of granite. “It’s my first mountain ever,” she says, “and I’m freaking out!” “You’re doing great,” I tell her, “Congrats on making your first climb.” She thanks me for my enthusiasm, but it seems to do little to assuage her fear of sliding off the mountain into the oblivion of western New Hampshire. I exchange pleasantries with her friends and move along.

Earlier in the climb, while I was catching my breath at the top of a rock field, I was passed by a father and young son. Not an uncommon occurrence for me, and as such, I thought nothing of it. Now, as I make my way up the last rocky third of the mountain, I see them again… Coming down. “Nice work,” he says as we pass. “Almost there.” I thank him and then it occurs to me, how the hell did he do that so fast? Up to the top, and back down a third, before I even reach the summit… I know, I’m slow. Im even ok with that. I’m just impressed that people can fly up these climbs like its some kinda stairmaster and get down before lunch. Of course they weren’t carrying any weight. Maybe that makes a difference. Maybe I’m just slow.

I can see it from here. I can see a few people standing on the summit, milling about, taking in the view. The climb from here is mostly granite all the way to the top. I follow the trail markers, stopping occasionally to drink and snap a photo, and finally reach the summit. Holy crap, there are a lot of people here. Its the down side to climbing this vastly popular mountain. Its mostly kids of late high school/early college age, a few couples, and some other solo hikers. I find a small piece of granite that provides some shelter from the wind, set my pack down, and grab a seat. I send an update message to my wife, and just sit and watch for a few minutes. A few kids checking out tadpoles in a nearby rain puddle, a couple just arriving to the summit, the guy on his cell phone.. This seems wrong… A gaggle high school kids joking and eating lunch, and the requisite photo takers. The backdrop to this scene is a beautiful early summer day in New England. There’s not much in the way of cloud cover and the visibility on the summit is in excess of twenty miles. You couldn’t have asked for a nicer afternoon.

There’s something I’ve noticed in climbing these small peaks. I have never had an unpleasant exchange with anyone I’ve met in these adventures. I’m sure it’s in part because we’re all out doing something we enjoy, but it’s more than that. I’ve met some real jackasses on the golf course, which is also an activity that attracts a lot of people. But here high above the parking lot, its different. There seems to be a certain camaraderie amongst those who choose to take part in this challenge. It’s not everyone. Sometimes it’s just quick hello as you yield the trail to someone coming the opposite way, and sometimes it’s taking a moment to encourage the new hiker that is trying to figure out who talked them into this, and how the hell to get off the mountain in one piece. Perhaps it brings out the best in us. Perhaps it’s this unique challenge that allows us to be friendly to our fellow hikers, our fellow man, even though they may be the very people that might piss us off in traffic for driving under the speed limit.

After resting for a bit, and having some lunch, I decide its time to get moving. I collect my gear, snap a couple photos, make my way through the crowd and head down. The rock up here can be a little steep and treacherous, so I choose my steps carefully, using the poles for support when I need them. I reach the intersection of the White Dot and White Cross trails. I came up on the White Dot as it is the fastest most direct route to the top. The same holds true in reverse, but I decide that a little change of scenery might be nice and choose the White Cross for my descent. It has its steep moments, but overall it’s not a difficult trail to navigate. The catch is that due to the usual June rainfall, the rocks and part of the trail are really wet and muddy. I noticed this a bit on the way up, but it seems this trail is a lot wetter. People will tell you that most accidents on mountains happen on the descent, so care should be taken as you make your way down. This is especially true when already tricky rock fields are wet and dangerously slick.

I make my way safely down to the parking lot, toss my boots and gear into the back of the Jeep, and sit on the tailgate for a moment finishing the last of my water. My first solo hike went pretty well. I’m looking forward to a few more of these as I prepare to climb Mt Washington before the end of the season. More on that to follow. All in all, its been a pretty good day.

The gear:

5.11 Rush 12 Assault Pack
Hiker LT Trekking Poles
Garmin HTC Venture
Spot GPS PLB
Keen Targhee Boots
Camelbak 3L Bladder
Coghlans Tube Tent – Emergency Shelter
20 ft. Olive drab 550 cord
Emergency kit – this includes first aid, fire starting etc.
SOL Rescue Growler
Milspec Black Boonie
Fleece watch cap and gloves
Under Armour Base Layer 2.0
Polartec Fleece
EMS Thunderhead Rain Jacket
Kershaw Skyline
Victorinox Spartan
4sevens Preon 2
Black Diamond headlamp

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I took my first lead fall recently.

I haven’t been lead climbing long. I got into it because my buddy, who is a far more established climber than I, talked me into it. That’s cool, I’m up for a challenge. So I’ve gotten the hang of lead belaying. We have pretty good communication, which anyone will tell you is important. When I’ve climbed, my clipping is mostly ok. Sometimes it sucks.

That was not the case on this particular climb. Only a 5.8, I was climbing and clipping like it was my job. Until I got to the second to last clip, that is. There’s this particularly reachy point right at the top of the climb. Lots of holds, but the distance between clips seems enormous. So I’m holding with my right hand and taking huge bites (literally) of rope with my left trying desperately to get the damned rope into the increasingly tiny quickdraw. I could reach it, I could stab at it, but the problem was that the arm holding my weight was bent and starting to fatigue. It started to become apparent to me that I was going to come off the wall.

I’ll take a moment here to point out, that prior to this, while I have been aware of the lead fall, I’ve never had to experience it. I’ve belayed my buddy when he has come off, I’ve watched videos, I’ve read books, I understand that if my belayer is squared away (fortunately for me he is), while it looks terrifying, I’m not going to die. I also knew that my irrational, “I’m just not gonna fall” mentality was going to catch up with me and eventually I was going to have to do it. I knew all of these things logically, but that night, on the wall, I was fairly certain that I, was in fact, going to die.

So there I am, my arms are shaking, and I’m pretty sure there’s no way I’m going to miracle the rope into that quickdraw. Like most things in life, the decision presented itself. I was going to have to let go. As you can imagine, I wasn’t pleased with this unfortunate turn of events during, what was up until that point, a very successful climb. The last thing I remember thinking was, “just don’t scream like a bitch.”

I let go. I think I fell all of 10 feet. Maybe less. Who knows, but as I was swinging there in my harness, I felt this weight lifted off me. I had taken my first fall, handled it reasonably well, and had come out the other side. The fear of the lead fall had been taken away. My buddy lowered me down with a big smile of his face. “Welcome to lead climbing dude.”

Well said. Hell of a good night. Carry on.