The 4,000 footer committee asks that those who complete the list submit an essay about their experience. (Though no applicant will be turned away for lack of one.)
This is mine.
It was in January of 2018, the darkest month of the year, that I had a bright idea. For a long time, hiking the forty eight 4,000 footers was too big an idea for me to wrap my head around. And so it sat, just a curious list at the back of my copy of the AMC White Mountain Guide. But now, it gripped me. I couldn’t ignore it. It was time.
Four months later, on Cannon Mountain, I looked out and looked back. The view of Franconia Ridge was inspiring, and the memory of having crossed it just two months earlier was still fresh. Stepping onto Cannon’s summit, I completed my goal and joined the club.
I set for myself the goal of being done by the end of Spring. More than that, I’d bag as many peaks as I could before the end of winter, because there’s the winter list that I’d like to finish one day, too. And my last rule was to hike all 48, regardless of whether I’d done a peak before. I researched what I needed to know, and hit the trail running, beginning with Mt Tecumseh. At 4,003 feet, it was a good choice, being a simple trail not too far from home. And so after a couple hours of hiking, I had one checked off the list, 47 more to go.
The mountains taught their lessons. Doing the 48 in four months meant I couldn’t pick and choose the conditions. I had to let go and serenely accept what was there. But I learned it didn’t matter: a hike is glorious no matter what. Sometimes the view stretches for miles, and other days, the view is only of the flora and the fauna nearby, on a summit obscured by clouds. Every day on the trail, smiles prevailed, regardless of the view.
Beyond that, I came to make peace with the weather. I could spend all my time waiting for perfect conditions, but I’d miss all kinds of magical experiences. Nothing compares to a warm, sunny day with cobalt blue skies and endless visibility, but all the same, hiking through cold, soggy weather became a normal thing to do. Likewise, leaning into it when slammed by intense summit winds became just another day in the mountains.
And on those days when the weather was cold and wet, or the trail was littered with blowdowns, or it was so foggy that I couldn’t see cairns 50 feet away, I’d always get back to my car after summiting with a sense of real accomplishment. Many of those days were the most fun of all. I have fond memories of water crossings on my trip up Owl’s Head, where I was knee-deep in ice-cold water. Or snowshoeing across Jackson while being soaked by a cold, wet cloud. It sounds strange, I know, unless you’ve been there.
In the mountains, beauty is everywhere. The trail hides wonders in plain sight, to be discovered by anyone who looks for them. Rime ice in curious patterns, betraying the shape and direction of the wind. Hoar frost with its delicate, needle-like form, catching the sunlight with its magic. Spiderwebs that caught the morning dew.
I always had something new to see: patterns of lowland deciduous trees, upslope conifers, alpine krumholtz. I began noticing, more and more, the underlying geology and hydrology, learning and understanding how the Whites came into being, and the ways in which they’re changing with time. And I read about the people who came before, whose hands changed the Whites for the good: Kate Sleeper, the Crawford family, Arnold Guyot, the Underhills, and others.
More than that, though, I met so many nice people on the trail. There was only one mountain where I hit the trailhead with a companion, yet so many times, I’d wrap up a hike with a new friend or three. I encountered AT hikers offering their unique perspectives on the trail, which added to the experience. Occasionally, I’d tell someone about my blog, only to find out they’d been reading it all along. Some even said I gave them valuable information about a trail they’d been thinking about hiking, which always feels good to hear.
As I progressed through the list, the inexorable shift in seasons changed the landscape. The snows melted, revealing the emerging alpine flowers, which added wonder and delight. Birds returned on their northerly migration, and the bugs and insects reappeared. I saw animals of all shapes and sizes — although curiously, and maybe a little disappointingly, in all the time I hiked the 48, I never saw hide nor hair of a bear.
While I always had things to look at, most importantly, I have things to return to. Trails I saw in winter that I can’t wait to see in summer. Trails that I’ve seen in summer that I can’t wait to see in winter. And plenty of views that I just want to revisit, because they were that awe inspiring.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the White Mountain National Forest, and I’m glad my hiking the 48 coincides with that momentous occasion. However, looking at all I’ve seen and done, I’m left wondering why I didn’t do it sooner. In four months, I started with a few well known trails and mountains and finished with an expanded list of friends, like Guyot, Isolation, Owl’s Head, and Moriah. And after staring at all those maps for all those hours, I’ve found a few other places that look promising. Which probably means it’s time to lace up my hiking boots and hit the trail again…
…Next stop, the New England 67. And after that, who knows? Maybe I’ll be one of those AT hikers, paying my trail wisdom forward.
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