Peak Experience: New Hampshire's White Mountains

This month's great read, selected by our editors: Who celebrates a new marriage and a big birthday with a grueling hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains? Joyce Maynard does.

From the April 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

It’s just before noon on a Tuesday in August, and at almost any other place in the state of New Hampshire, the sun would be shining and my new husband, Jim, and I would be wearing T-shirts and shorts. But we are three hours into day two of our multiday hike along the Presidential Range in the White Mountains—and we’ve just summited the highest White, Mount Washington, known (in weather circles anyway) for the strongest wind speed ever recorded in North America. Right now the gauges around the mountaintop weather station are measuring gusts of over 80 miles an hour. The thermometer hovers at 38°F. But the toughest part is not the wind whipping my face, or my aching knees. It’s that in a day and a half of rigorous hiking, not one glorious vista has shown itself through the mist. The view I’ve had is of my boots tromping up a trail so covered with rocks and gnarly tree roots that one false step could send me flying.

“What’s the point of climbing a mountain,” I ask Jim, an Eagle Scout with a long list of hiking successes but no experience of the East Coast, “when all you get at the top is clouds?”

No response. Even when his socks are wet (as is true now), Jim seldom complains.

“Would you please remind me why we are here?” I prod.

In fact, I know the answer. One of those birthdays looms again for me—the kind with a zero at the end of it. Back in the comfort of home it had seemed like a great idea to mark my 60th year by mastering a large physical challenge, something that daunted me even when I was young. Say, bagging seven peaks in four days. I am a proud native of New Hampshire (transplanted to California), with a refrigerator magnet that trumpets the Granite State’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” displayed prominently in my kitchen. For years, my best friend during my New Hampshire youth, Laurie, regaled me with stories of her “glorious” White Mountain hikes and urged me to accompany her, but I always begged off. In the 40-plus years I’d called the state home, I’d never gotten around to climbing even one peak in the range. Honestly, the prospect intimidated me.

New Hampshirites grow up with stories of capricious and even fatal weather changes in these mountains. Snowfall has been recorded on Mount Washington every month of the year. Even when the sun shines, obstacles await. Where trails in the West tend to feature switchbacks, no-nonsense New Englanders preferred shortest distances between points and laid the trails out in a way that calls for nearly nonstop ascent, or descent. For these reasons, a hike of the Presidential Range—a route that visits seven peaks honoring American presidents—is one of the most rigorous of the entire Appalachian Trail system.

I have another reason to return to the Presidentials in my 60th year. On a considerably smaller and sunnier New Hampshire mountain just five weeks ago, Jim and I got married—both for the second time and each after being single for many years. As a celebration of the rare good fortune of finding each other at this point in our lives, after no shortage of rocky times, we’ve chosen to tackle these mountains together. I haven’t been totally at ease with the challenge, but that’s part of the point. There is nobody I’d rather have at my side when feeling shaky than Jim.

If I’m hoping for Vince Lombardi–style encouragement from him, however, all I’m getting is, “You can do this, baby. You’ve done harder things.” True for us both, though now he’s talking more about mental strength, the kind that—if we summon it up—can go a long way to replacing what we may have lost, over the years, in muscle power. And therein lies the secret weapon of what I believe is termed a “sexagenarian”: tenacity.

DAY ONE HAD BEEN EASIER. Knowing we had just 2.6 miles of moderate climbing from the base camp known as Highland Center to the Mizpah Spring hut, where we’d spend our first night, we let ourselves linger over lunch, only alerting friends we’d be unreachable before setting out in the early afternoon. It felt good, signing off. Everything would have to wait.

A few crazy souls tackle the Presidential Range in a single brutal run, predawn to nightfall. What makes the traverse possible for those of us on a less speedy timetable is a system of trail huts, where dinner and breakfast are served and bunks provided, allowing hikers to make the climb without the burden of sleeping bags and provisions. Soon I’ll conclude that for me, navigating the trail with a light pack is challenge enough.

The first day, rain dogs us much of the way up the trail. Any views are obscured by a sea of clouds. So I focus on the smaller things: lichens on boulders, the sound of water trickling over rocks, a rare cinquefoil flower. I let my mind go where it wants, or to no place at all: a welcome stillness. And I concentrate on the feeling within my body—my inflating lungs, the wind on my face, the mist on my skin.

We reach the hut at Mizpah Spring a little before 5 p.m. A crew of young people who tend the huts—a lively gang of college kids on summer break, mostly—have set out hot chocolate and coffee. We can smell a promising dinner in the works.

Hut protocol requires hikers to sign in. We do, grab a bunk, change out of our sweat-damp clothes, and gather in the lodge’s main room to meet our fellow hikers. White Mountaineers will prove to be a diverse crowd with one thing in common—a love of the trail. I talk with a couple in their early 20s. Another couple, here on their 18th visit, look to be past 70. We greet members of a New Hampshire singles club, a mother trekking with her two teenage sons, and solo hikers. “I’m retracing the steps I took 50 years ago,” one man tells me.

But the ones we’re most drawn to—remembering our own days as young parents—are Amy and Ralph DiLeone, university professors hiking the range for the third summer with their children, nine-year-old Leo and Tiana, six. I express surprise, and admiration, that they brought young children on such an active and demanding trip. It’s clear, watching them gathered around the table playing cards, that they’re loving it.

“No one told Tiana and Leo that they’re too young to hike the Presidentials,” says Ralph. “They look forward to this all year.”

Dinner at the huts is served family style at long tables in the main room. Looking out over the setting sun, we feast on rich leek-and-potato soup, a salad of fresh greens (no iceberg lettuce in sight), two vegetables, and a roast beef or vegetarian entrée. Each table gets its own loaf of freshly baked bread, and the brownies are so good, I pocket one for the next day’s hike.

That evening, a hut staffer explains the huts’ use of green energy—they’re off the grid—and the labor-intensive disposal of trash. Every piece of litter is brought down to a trailhead on the backs of crew members. The vision of our young staff with 60-pound packs on their backs inspires me to fold up wrappers rather than leave them in the (communal) bathroom.

At 9:30 p.m., it’s lights out. With my headlamp, I find the hut’s small library and spot a book that recounts tragedies that have befallen hikers in the Whites. The list is long of those who died on the trail, tumbling off cliffs or freezing in blizzards that came out of nowhere. My spartan bunk and thin pillow have just become more inviting. As I make my way back to our room, the wind outside howls.

“Want to join me?” I whisper to my husband, tucked into the bunk above. Partly I’m inviting him out of affection—and partly for additional body heat.

The next morning we wake to dark skies and temperatures just above freezing. A few hikers who’d sought refuge late in the night stir on the lodge floor. In inclement weather, no hiker is turned away at the huts.

Following my friend Laurie’s advice, Jim and I dress in many layers of clothing, which will let us peel down or add on according to what the weather chooses to deliver from hour to hour. As we head for coffee, the hut crew lets loose with a wake-up song. At breakfast—oatmeal, bacon, pancakes, eggs, fruit, bread—we get the all-important weather report: more rain and fog.

I want to get right back into bed, but the reality is, the sooner we start, the sooner we will reach the next hut, at Lakes of the Clouds. Today’s trek is a seven-mile march, which will include a significant detour to ascend Mount Washington.

“Head ’em up, move ’em out,” Jim says.

An interesting reversal has taken place in our relationship. My attorney husband, who has a tendency to anticipate all that could go wrong, has become the enthusiast, already planning our next trek even as this one remains unfinished. I, who had suggested this trip, and in my native state, am the one not loving the experience. Then I think of my parents, who lived in New Hampshire for almost 40 years without ever setting foot on one of these trails—and of my daughter, who hikes her way up steep Tuckerman Ravine every spring to ride her snowboard down. I’m between those two extremes, making my way over the rugged granite, one foot in front of the other.

Now here we are, above the tree line, and the conditions are brutal. I can just make out Jim’s face in the fog and wind as we consult our map, encased in a Ziploc bag, in anticipation of rain, which is currently falling. Sideways.

“Six months from now,” he offers, “what we’re going to remember is how good it felt, that we could do this.”

“The only thing that feels good,” I answer, “is that we’ll never have to do this again. Ever.”

The truth is, I’m flagging in body and spirit. This is the furthest thing from a celebration I could have devised.

Then it happens. Till now, I’ve kept my eyes on the ground, watching for tricky footing. Suddenly, I feel warmth on my back, and look up. A patch of blue has opened, revealing the east flank of one Presidential peak. I’m dazzled. In a flash, I understand why people come up here. And return. Within minutes, one whole side of the sky has cleared. We can make out the silhouettes of half a dozen mountains in the distance, including craggy Mount Washington, with its cog railway chugging up, carrying passengers who have paid up to $68 to take in the sights through the window of a train car.

A wave of pride fills me; I’ve made it under my own steam. I can feel my right knee throb, and my fingers are numb. But for the first time, I’m happy, really happy, to be here. The appearance of sunlight invigorates both of us.

We’re reminded soon enough, however, that hiking the Whites is a serious thing. Reaching the Lakes of the Clouds hut, we greet friends from the previous day. Then another hiker enters the lodge. It’s the mother with two teenage sons, who has fallen and hit her head. She is so bruised (and apparently suffering from a mild concussion) that the hut crew gets out the first aid kit and is evaluating whether she should be brought down the mountain. I whisper a thank-you that I have Jim by my side.

TWO FULL DAYS on the trail have us in a rhythm now. We gather at 6 p.m. for the group dinner, then play cards with the DiLeone family. At one point I look up and realize what’s missing: the glow of screens. People are talking, telling stories, the way my family once did. Lights out finds Jim and me in our bunk, surrounded by the soft sound of snoring hikers. We have no trouble finding sleep.

Morning dawns cold enough to warrant gloves—in August—and I wonder about the day’s 6.8-mile trek from Lakes of the Clouds to the recently renovated Madison Spring hut. I’d been told this hike is the most rugged.

So far, we have bagged five peaks, including Mount Eisenhower, Mount Pierce, and Mount Washington. One can opt to not go to the top of each peak along the Presidentials, generally an extra hour or so of hiking. But for my husband and me, there’s no question we have to reach the top of Mount Adams, even though it requires climbing over rock fragments sharp as arrowheads. The only indications of a trail are stacks of piled stones.

“Is there any reason to follow one route over another,” I grumble loudly enough for my husband to hear, “when all that exists, in every direction, is stone, and more stone, and more stone?”

Jim keeps marching—a trait I love. Once, in remote Guatemala, he drove ten hours straight on a road over boulders the size of Hubbard squashes. He isn’t a man who gives up easily, if at all.

To distract myself from the throbbing in my knee, I recite the opening lines of “Dover Beach,” a poem by the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold.

“The sea is calm tonight,” I begin. “The tide is full, the moon lies fair.” None of this has much to do with anything we’re seeing in these mountains, but I’d rather reach for the next line than ponder the sign we just passed, indicating another half mile at what feels like a 60-degree angle, to the summit of Mount Adams.

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“Keep your eyes on the ground,” Jim calls back, grimly. “Land the wrong way on this granite, and you won’t get up.”

It is while I am studying the steep, seemingly endless expanse of rock that I spot it: a small blue mitten I recognize as belonging to Tiana. She, with her family, appears to have surged ahead of us on the trail. Sore as I am, and weary, when I pick up the mitten to return it to its owner, a good feeling comes over me. Fifty years from now I won’t be hiking these mountains, but I bet the younger DiLeones will. The Whites aren’t going anywhere.

It has taken me 60 years to accept what Tiana is learning at six: The best experiences are worth working, even struggling, to achieve. Our hike of the Presidential Range reminds me of what I am capable of, and it’s much more than I supposed.

AT THE TOP of Mount Adams we meet a man recognizable to us by now as an Appalachian Trail through-hiker.

“I started out in Georgia in June,” he tells us. “Plan to be in Maine sometime next week, before Labor Day, get me some of that lobster. This has been the gnarliest stretch of trail yet.”

It cheers me to hear a fit person in his 20s express this view. It is definitely the gnarliest stretch I’ve encountered.

We spend our final night at Madison Spring hut, where I will return Tiana’s mitten to her. After dinner, Jim takes my hand and we step outside to study the sky. At last it’s clear enough that we can see the constellations in a way possible only in a place where the sole source of electricity is a single generator. A stab of regret comes over me, that this is our final night on the trail.

Back in the hut, an annual reunion is under way, of descendants from a legend-ary group of Vermont mountaineers who served on the European front in World War II. For many of these descendants, hiking the Presidential Range is pushing the envelope, as it has for me.

“The thing that got me up this peak,” says a woman a few years older, I guess, than Jim and I and not looking that fit, “is knowing the things Dad had to do in the war that were so much harder.”

My husband and I dine at our own table, listening to the toasts to the heroic fathers and grandfathers, long dead. Seeing the red wine flow, I study my tea.

“Next time,” I say, “let’s bring wine.”

It’s the first moment that I realize: We will do this again.

Contributing editor JOYCE MAYNARD’s ninth novel, Under the Influence, comes out in August. This was the second Presidential Range trek for our director of photography, DAN WESTERGREN.
Follow Joyce and Dan on Twitter @joycemaynard and @dwestergren.

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