Essay for the 4,000 footer committee, winter edition  

Looking out, looking inward, and returning to quietude.

In 2018, I made a decision that would change my life, even though at the time, I had little sense of what I was doing. My life had once again hit a point, where I felt unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Change was in order, and my gaze had randomly fallen on my underused AMC White Mountain Guide. Aimlessly leafing through, I rediscovered the 4,000 footer list, the first of the appendices in the back of the book. Up until then, that list seemed like something other people did; a collection of hardy souls who were in some way different to everyone else. But in that moment, I asked the fateful question: “Why not? What makes them more special than me?” I had to find out. And so it began as I laced up my boots.

As you continue along a journey, you inevitably lose some of yourself. Unneeded and unwanted bits, stuff you’ve clung onto for no good reason, all those bits of flotsam and jetsam are cast aside. What replaces that? If you’re lucky, something more sublime. Continuing onward, and with some amount of looking inward, you realize you’ve actually lost nothing, but begun to gain yourself. Midway through that first, fateful round of the 48, I began to realize change had happened, was happening, and more importantly, likely to continue to happen. Rather than being worrisome, this realization felt good and it felt proper, and I wanted it to go on. 

Beyond the changes I was feeling inside myself, there were changes in my approach to the outside, too. No longer did I see the White Mountains as something “over there”, or the 4,000 footer lists as something “those other people” did. They became a part of me. I began  to have a real, enduring affection for the trail, and a love for the mountains. I became one of “those other people.” Getting out of bed in the early morning still takes effort, but I’d certainly feel something missing if I stayed home. And more importantly, winter hiking was no longer in the realm of “you’re out of your mind… don’t you realize it’s freaking cold?!” 

Even in summer, I close my eyes, and fondly remember the times I’ve hiked in the fresh, cold air of winter, and they induce in me the sense of calm that I get when I feel alone in the woods. The music of the trail…. waterfalls, the rare birdsong, wind in the trees… the only noise being the crunch of snow under my boots. Accompanying that are the sights. Passing through a tunnel of snow covered trees, branches bending gracefully downward in a winter wonderland. The reduction of wild landscapes in brilliant summertime hues to a pure wintertime distillation in black and white. 

Memories abound, indelibly etched into my mind. I remember vividly the feeling of excitement when I saw a bear’s paw print in the snow. Climbing over the ledges on Whiteface, and with each step, an unfolding panorama beyond. Hoar frost on Garfield. Rime ice on Jefferson. Snowflies. Alpenglow. Magic. And those skies! Summertime has nothing when you gaze into the deep azure blue abyss on a sunny winter day. Hiking up Scaur Ridge trail on my second attempt of the Tripyramids, the bare branches reaching up into the richest cobalt blue sky. Wow! 

Monorail that’s hard as concrete.

These are the transcendent moments that draw me back to the forest, time after time. 

Beginning work on the four thousand footers in February of 2018, when that winter ended, I’d finished ten peaks already. My aim was just to finish the list, paying no regard to season, but already I’d come to know winter is a special time. The hikers I’d met were a different bunch… I’d learn this as springtime unfolded. There was a subtle change in April, where not as many people crowded the still snow-covered trail without the impetus to finish the winter 48. The warmth of May and June brought out the masses, enjoying the trails under sunshine and blue skies. But winter hikers see the snow as no reason to stop hiking… they are a special breed. 

I hiked onward and upward. Across all four seasons, as time passed, the miles accumulated under my feet. The following year, my opening ten winter peaks had turned into 20. By season’s end, I had passed the halfway point on the winter list. Sometime around autumn, I was well past having completed two rounds of the 4,000 footer list. It was beyond the time I needed to admit that I was hiking the grid. I allowed myself to accept that I was also redlining, because if I was going to hike Adams ten more times, I needed to do more than hike up and down Valley Way. Implicit in all that was an understanding that “this is gonna take awhile.” But with these admissions, there was a realization. I wasn’t who I once was.   Over time, I realized I wasn’t visiting the forest and the mountains as an interloper. A transcendence had taken place. I was now passing amongst the trees as something of an insider; a new comfort had come over me. The forest was now a home as it had never been before. It extended a warmth and friendship, and even in the depths of winter, that warmth is tangible. Laughing spontaneously at some point on a hike has become the incurable element that surprised the heck out of me. 

Early on, I would spend a long time preparing for a hike, reading guides, watching the weather, studying maps. As I write this, I’ve finished the 48 in all four seasons, and am more than a third through my grid. And so perhaps predictably, I spend less time preparing. My pack is in a perpetual state of readiness, my boots sit by the door. Usually I’m content to just make a quick check of the weather, maybe have a look online at the trail conditions, and then head out. Fear of the unknown has been replaced by experience. That list of unknown peaks has become a list of places I’ve been to and will visit again and again. 

And yet, studying maps hasn’t gone away, just changed. Now I look for the trails not taken. The comfort I feel in the woods has meant I no longer need to stick to established routes. A hint of a bushwhack is enough for me to want to explore. Finding a long forgotten way in an antique copy of the White Mountain Guide is a way of charting the history of the White Mountains. Spotting signs of an old logging camp is a thrill. Signing a summit register tied to a tree is a rare treat. Familiarity hasn’t yielded to boredom, but rather given me the mental space to look around more. In doing so, I’ve found the bounty of those mountains is endless. One needs only to look around.  

When I finished my first round of the four thousand footer list, I stood on top of Cannon Mountain, having come over from the Kinsmans. Gazing across at Lincoln and Lafayette, I took time to reflect on where I’d been and where I was planning to go next, knowing already that my life had fundamentally changed. I had a new-found relationship with dirt and trees, rocks and roots. It was a nascent relationship, but already I was seeing a lot of things in my life — both on the mountain and off — in a very new light. 

Approaching the end of my winter list, I knew I had to finish on Lafayette. For years, Franconia Notch has been a spiritual home. That part of Franconia Ridge between Little Haystack and Lafayette was my very first taste of hiking in the White Mountains, during a fine summer outing back when I was in college. It had taken me two previous tries to summit — ironically both in winter — but finally I made it. I can still remember the sun on my face, the fresh air, and a glider soaring on invisible air currents. An incredible sense of satisfaction. It was a glorious day to be alive. 

Closing the loop on Lafayette felt right. I had gazed out toward that peak from Cannon, when I finished the first chapter of this odyssey. But now, for this chapter, I needed to be home. And so I set out from the trailhead on a bluebird day, snow crunching underfoot, familiar sights and sounds in abundance. Hikers on their way down from morning hikes of Little Haystack told me I’d picked the perfect time. It was an enjoyable hike, with epic weather, and it was indeed how I’d hoped I would close out my winter list, in so many ways. 

As I sat on the summit, enjoying nearly endless views in all directions, I savored the precious moment. It had been a long time getting here. I’d suffered endless miles of rough weather and steep trails. I’d been turned around more than once by the unexpected, and on Mt Adams, even broken an ankle. When I started that fateful journey in 2018, I had no idea where I’d end up, or even if I would finish. But here I was, four times through the list, happy as could be, but not nearly the same person as I was back then. Enjoying the sight of all the miles of surrounding mountains, a transcendence washed over me yet again. I felt a rare contentment. Under blue skies and that warm sun, in my spiritual home, I looked out and back inward. I looked forward, and returned to the quietude of the trail. 

And so it continues as I lace up my boots… 

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