A Mountain By Any Other Name Is Still Steep

Last Saturday I hiked Mount Lafayette in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I was with two friends who were training for a more ambitious goal: they are leaving in a few days to hike in the Rockies. I wish them good luck. I’m more of an old rounded mountain, under 6,000 footer kind of hiker myself.

I’ve had other bouts of hiking in the past. I was introduced to the Whites as a teenager with a youth volunteer group and spent many euphorically exhausting weekends on the mountains and staying in the Appalachian Mountain Club system of huts. If you haven’t hiked to and stayed in one of the huts, they are either your idea of heaven or hell. On the plus side you can hike up a mountain with just the clothes and snack food you need. You get to stay overnight on the mountain in a building, with a delicious home cooked dinner and breakfast, a toilet, a dry bed, and delightful entertainment from the hut crew members. The downside is that you sleep in a large dormitory style room with anywhere from 4 to 30 other sweaty hikers, some of whom may have eaten beans on the way up. I’m of the thank-god-someone-made-me-food-after-I-hiked-my-ass-off school, so I think it’s heaven. Also you get a solid overnight rest before you have to get your ass back down. That’s worth considering and key to my story.

For me there is also something cool about pushing your physical limits and reaching a modest goal. I don’t need Kilimanjaro or Everest to feel accomplishment. I have spent many a happy, peaceful, spiritual moment at the top of a mountain in the Whites, even though many of the hikes were often in the rain or fog or required all three layers of fleece and rain repellent jacket. Even though it was 75 and sunny at the bottom of the mountain. Even though I spent the last half of the hike down cursing the hike, the trail, my legs, any hapless hiker near me, and swearing I would never do it again. Until the next time.

I stopped hiking when I went away to college in Boston, and did not get back to it until my mid to late 20s. I rediscovered it with friends and then introduced my then-husband to it. He liked the hiking OK; the dorm of smelly hikers, not so much. It was another round of hiking up in wet weather, enjoying the spiritual epiphanies, eating the great food, cursing the hike down. On one trip to a hut, I even found the journal entry I had made as a teenager many years before. This is the magic that captivates me.

Then I had my son, and as I’m one of those people who isn’t hardy enough to hike and backpack with a small child, I let hiking go again in favor of trips to the beach and the science museum and the children’s museum.

And kids take a lot of time and energy, so I didn’t really think about hiking (OK, fine remember hiking) until this winter. Maybe it’s because I had such a great 50th year last year and have been rediscovering parts of myself I have not seen in a very long time. I decided to drive up on New Year’s weekend to see the White Mountains. It was like coming home to an old friend. Even in the cold, the mountains were beautiful, maybe even more so because of the snow. Also, I knew I didn’t have to hike them in the snow, so that was good. Nothing like being able to see them and be among them and then go sleep in a nice hotel to make the heart grow fonder. But the trip brought back all the memories of the highs, the lows, the farting, and the swearing. And how very much I am my best self when I am in these mountains.

And so I took advantage of my friends’ training hike for the Rockies, and we hiked up Mount Lafayette. It’s definitely a difficult hike — 8 miles round trip, with a height of 5,249 feet. It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day, which is something I have rarely encountered in the Whites, and the trail was packed with people. I still felt the sheer joy of being on the trail. The trail starts off fairly easily, and the fact that I was huffing and puffing was expected. I have been doing that since my teens. Even though I had not really trained much except for walking up and down Beacon Hills streets to break in my brand-new boots, I felt pretty confident. It’s been about 20 years since my last hike in the Whites, but I’ve been doing yoga and going to the gym regularly, which I had not done in my 20s. OK, so by “regularly” I mean once a week, but still. I never did that in my 20s.

I was pretty confident I’d be OK, and I was for pretty much the first two-thirds of the trail. The hiking poles my friend gave me helped a lot. I had never used them before, and I honestly don’t think I would’ve made it down without them. At the two-thirds mark I was experiencing a euphoric high from the hike, but I was also starting to tire, and I can blame some of my fatigue on the completely unfamiliar sensation of actually being overheated, as opposed to generating heat to stave of hypothermia.

Hot or no,though, there’s a certain rhythm to hiking a White Mountain mountain. It usually involves being OK at the beginning, and then at some point, you hit the super steep, rocky places, and you’re sometimes climbing hand-over-hand. At that point, you get to the top of a steep pitch and go around a slight bend, only to discover there’s yet another steep incline, and you want to poke your eyes out. Until you emerge from the trees and when it’s sunny you get those amazing views that take your breath away; well, more than it already has been taken away by the sheer exertion. And then it’s all good.

I was following this pattern, but the odd thing was this time the heat was actually getting to me. I can honestly say that most of the other times I’ve hiked the White Mountains, I have never been overheated. I’ve gotten warm because of the exertion, which helps keep hypothermia at bay, but I don’t remember being so hot before. Even when we were well above tree line, the temperature should have dropped, but I was still sweating and huffing and puffing. Not so odd was the story I heard from a fellow hiker that merely a week before two hikers had been rescued from hypothermia by a through hiker. In this sun-beating-down spot where I was sweating and swooning, a week before people had nearly perished from the cold. And that is the fascination of the Whites.

I got to the mountain top. I rested a bit, ate a bit, drank a bit, took in the sites, posted the I’m-on-top-of-the-mountain photos on Facebook (I was amazed that I could get a signal–that has changed over the years).

And then it was time to go down.

Many people will say that going down is much harder than going up. I had never been of that opinion. For me going up was always harder because of the exertion, and my body seems to prefer to hold back my movements rather than having to push against gravity. I was pretty tired, but I wasn’t worried about the hike down. My body likes going down.

Or at least it used to. Within the first five or 10 minutes down, I knew I was in trouble. My legs were beyond jelly tired, which in the past had often happened towards the bottom when I just basically kicked my legs out in front of me and it was all I could do to keep myself from careening down. This fatigue  was more like an all out-and-out strike. My legs were pretty much saying, “We don’t really want to do what the brain is saying, and god help you if you think we’re going to hold your weight.”

Um, say what, now?

My arms were picking up the slack, but after a while they started complaining too. Great. My legs refused to pay any attention to me at all, and a couple of times I put my leg down and started to lower myself, and my legs just said, “Fuck you, lady,” and I sat on my ass.

It became a game of matching wits with my body. All I could do was just shuffle like a granny because I was afraid if I took a bigger step my legs would really crap out on me. They seemed to barely tolerate the little grandma steps. As a result, I kept having to pull over on the trail because people needed to pass me.That turned out to be to be a blessing, because it gave me time to rest, say, every five minutes.

Yoga has taught me when you’re trying to do something hard, you bring in all your other body parts, For example, I struggled with tree and only achieved it by gripping with my foot, ankle, shin. But once I engaged my core, my toes no longer needed to have a death grip on the mat for me to stay upright. So I asked all my other body parts to kick in anything they had. My arms were already working to capacity and were also on the verge of a strike, so no help there. My core was busy huffing and puffing, so all I had left was yoga breath. It kept me going and it kept me calm, but I was definitely breathing like a mofo. It also didn’t help  when I knew I had to be close to the end, but every turn of the path revealed another long stretch of wooded trail in front of me. So I stuck to tradition and I cursed and swore and texted my friends, “Where the hell is the end of this fucking thing?” They had made it out a lot sooner .

I kept breathing, and shuffling, and I made it out. I have to say overall it was a grand success. I did not hurt myself, and I did not have any thoughts about how I could break a leg to get helicoptered out, like I did when I was crawling out of the Grand Canyon many years ago. And two days later, I could barely navigate stairs without looking like a spaz.

But that is all as it should be, as has been since I was a teenager. Sure things have changed a little, but the pattern has remained to the same. And now that I can climb stairs without thinking, the next step is, when can I go again?


1 Comment

  1. I love the Whites, have hiked the Berkshires, and loved this adventure. (My ass met the ground not out of well-earned fatigue, but out of sheer vertigo terror on the way down. Not as heroic.) This is a wonderful broad picture of the experience in NE, and a hilarious tale of your personal walk. Go yoga.

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