There was a time not too long ago when I laughed in derision at peakbaggers. We all did, my friends and I: we were young, fit, motivated, and part of the finest college outing club in the world, of course.
What is a peakbagger, you might ask? Well, it is a hiker whose main goal is to summit a bunch of mountains – for example the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks, or all the 4,000-footers in New Hampshire, or all the 13,000-footers in Colorado – and are more driven by the desire to check things off the list than the actual challenge and experience.
While I don’t consider myself a peakbagger, I am, in my “old age”, beginning to understand why somebody might be. When you have a job and a grown-up life, it’s a little harder to get out the door sometimes to go on a run or a hike. There’s simply too many other things to do. Having goals helps with this, and once you’re out there, you’re always glad you left the house.
For example, when I was in Florida, I didn’t really enjoy running that much. There were some quiet neighborhoods but you had to cross large, busy roads, and the community wasn’t particularly pedestrian-friendly. I was often honked at, and not in a positive way. So to get myself to go running, I set a goal. When I returned to New England, I wanted to do a Presi Traverse. It was something I’d been thinking about for a couple of years, and now that I would be leaving for the west coast for an indefinite amount of time, it was now or never on the traverse.
There are a couple of ways to do a Presi Traverse and a few peaks which can be included or omitted, but I picked out a route, rented a Dartmouth Outing Club cabin in Randolph, NH, and then invited my friends to join me. We’d be hiking about 20 miles with approximately 20,000 feet of cumulative climbing, or so I’m told. Susan, Hannah and I mentally committed to waking up obscenely early on Thursday morning and hiking across the ridge all day. We made our pasta for dinner and then went to bed early in preparation for something that would surely make all three of us very, very sore all weekend.
And on Thursday we did wake up early, managed to get out the door, and parked at Crawford Notch. We headed up the Webster-Jackson Trail, still groggy but excited for what we thought was going to be an awesome day in the mountains. A traverse was something that we had all wanted to do – I wasn’t the only one who had spent a few years unsuccessfully trying to fit it into my training schedule. But I was perhaps the most excited, because in Florida, there hadn’t been any mountains. This was my glorious return, if only my body could deal with all that climbing.
Anyway, we got to the top of Mount Jackson, the first peak on our route, and suddenly the atmosphere changed from pleasant to difficult. It was extremely windy, windy enough to blow us slightly off course as we navigated over the summit. But it was still sunny, at least, and we had some good views…. in one direction. We looked toward Mount Washington and couldn’t see the summit. Huh.
We knew that if it was this windy on Jackson, Washington would be impossible. So much of the mountain is exposed, it’s not like you can just pop out of the trees and make a quick trip to the top. At this point, we more or less knew that our traverse was doomed. We still thought, however, that we might be able to take a lower route and stay in the trees- a sort of shoulder traverse, if you will.
When we got to the Mizpah Springs Hut, we consulted our map and didn’t see any way to stay below treeline on Washington without going way, way lower – something that didn’t seem worth it. And we saw that the forecasted winds were 55 to 75 miles per hour. Reluctantly, we agreed that we shouldn’t have any extended routes above treeline. At this point, it also started raining.
Not wanting to give up entirely, we pushed on over Mount Pierce and on up Mount Eisenhower. On Ike, things really got tough. The wind was gusting and fierce, and through the fog and clouds we couldn’t really see anything. In fact, the only way we could really tell that we were at the summit was the absolutely gigantic cairn we saw. This must be it, we decided, and snapped a quick photo.
Despite being cold and wet – our fingers turned red and white and swelled up in protest against the freezing conditions – we were pretty happy to have made it over three peaks. Still though, we were relieved when we started down the Edmands Path and into the trees. We kind of stopped to regroup. We could actually hear each other talk here! Up on Eisenhower, we had each been in our own little world, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. I had been struggling to breathe in the cold wind, my asthma kicking in as it sometimes does when I climb through a severe temperature change. We hadn’t been a group, but rather three isolated hikers.
On the way down, we were back to chattering. By the time we got to the bottom, it was practically sunny, although when we looked up we still couldn’t see the ridge, was by now even more obscured by clouds and fog. It was 11 a.m. and we unexpectedly had half a day to waste. At least we had good company.
If I was a true peakbagger, I would have been dismayed not to check a half-dozen new mountains off my list. But that wasn’t why I was disappointed about abandoning our traverse. Mostly, I had wanted to spend those eight or nine or more hours in the mountains, looking out over my home state and drinking in the fresh, clean air. I had wanted to spend that time doing something difficult, making my body really earn its keep. I had wanted to spend it with my two friends, just as we had so many times before at Dartmouth and at Craftsbury.
But, the Presidentials will always be there, and we can always try again. We did have a great time and I still got to see my friends. I can’t complain too much.