It (he?) was the iconic symbol of New Hampshire. The craggy stone outcropping that looked like a person’s head – the Old Man of the Mountain. Unfortunately, like all old folks, this stony icon eventually collapsed (in 2003), but for years no visit to Franconia Notch in the White Mountains was complete without checking up on the endurance of the Old Man.
And last week, another old man tested his endurance in the White Mountains. Four old men, actually – brothers who used to hike regularly back in the day, but who found themselves, as life went on, putting more and more investment into families and careers and less and less into boots and tents.
With two of us in Connecticut, one in California, and one in New Jersey, our opportunities to get together were rare in recent decades, and usually revolved around holidays and other milestone family events. Mountain-climbing seemed to be buried in the past, until a window of opportunity opened to get together in the autumn and someone suggested we do something that we later realized we had never done together – all four of us, just the four of us, on an overnight adventure and major hike. Four guys at, or a bit on either side of, the fifth decade mark, hoping to snatch a bit of the past and bring it into the present for a few brief hours – hopefully, without serious injury or age-related collapse!
Of the brothers, I was generally the most desk-bound, and while not in bad shape, I anticipated the hike up and over three big peaks (Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette) with a certain amount of trepidation. Did I still have it? Could I attack and conquer mountains that way I once did? The White Mountains are not for the faint of heart, and we’d be going from 1,800 feet of elevation to 5,260 feet, and back (the “Loop”), in one nine-mile day of strenuous effort.
It was a beautiful time of year – early October, shortly before peak foliage season – to explore in New Hampshire, and though it was cloudy and cool as we started out on the Little Haystack ascent, I found that the old pre-hike adrenaline, even after so many years of being off-trail, had begun to kick in big time. A surge of confident energy accompanied me as we began climbing, amidst an endless stream of banter and teasing between us, in the classic Woodruff tradition.
Lovely waterfalls flowed alongside the early part of the trail, and the climb, while a bit challenging, was proving to be no match for our eager feet, and our lungs filled with fresh mountain air. Sure, we’ve got a few years on us, but we can do this – it felt like old times!
We knew it could be cool in the White Mountains at any time – and positively bone-chilling during the raw winter months – so we’d brought some layers of clothes, including rain gear just in case. But what we didn’t expect to see, about an hour into the ascent, was snow flakes – hey, this is early October! Soon, we were walking through stands of snow-covered balsam and hemlock, a Christmas-y riot of sight and scent. This was kind of fun, and two of us were taking lots of pictures to document the adventure. A little taste of winter wouldn’t stop us.
As we got closer to the Knife Edge (the ridge that runs along the top of the three peaks, which is also a piece of the Appalachian Trail), I began to experience the hiker’s high – the sense of euphoria that you’re in a beautiful place, that you’re making steady progress, that you can conquer this challenge and have a great time doing it. The old man was going to take on this mountain and endure! All those fears about being unable to pull this off faded into the background – sure, my legs were getting a bit sore, but we were almost to the top of the first peak, and that was the hardest part, right?
As it turned out, the mountain had more cards to play. I had cruised through the early rounds, piling up points with each bell, but this set of peaks comes on strong in the later rounds, and my lack of conditioning was about to be exposed.
The snow kept falling, heavier now, and as we neared the Knife Edge, we donned our outer layers and walked into a windswept whiteout. The peaks were covered in clouds that were steadily shedding the white stuff, and all the great autumn vistas we were anticipating from the top vanished into a stinging grey fog blanketing the ridge. While regretting the loss of great high-altitude photographs, I secretly delighted in the severe weather – this just made it a more wild challenge, and it would make a great story – walking on top of the White Mountains in a setting that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Unfortunately, that’s when the counter-punches began.
Instead of a triumphant stroll along the peaks and then a pleasant descent down to more temperate climes, I was rudely awakened to the reality that my no-longer-youthful knees were not ready for the punishment they were now enduring. This was not a smooth path – all the way up, and all along the ridge, it was rough, rocky, full of roots – there was hardly a flat stretch in any section. As we continued over Little Haystack, ascended Lincoln, then headed to Lafayette, the agony grew – limping replaced walking, and I knew what was awaiting after we reached the highest point.
If you’ve not climbed mountains before, you might think that the ascent is the hardest, and the descent easy. Actually, that is rare. In fact, if the descent is steep and filled with rocky unevenness and ledges, it can be way more punishing than the climb up. And the trail down from Lafayette was going to be a…bear.
Mile after painful mile, the mountain took its toll on the old man. Progress was agonizingly slow; this was now an endurance contest. And there is no Plan B for getting off this mountain. I began to wonder who was going to conquer whom, and my patient brothers began to wonder if they’d need to carry me out on a litter made out of trailside birches. No more hiker’s high – now it was mano-y-mountain, with only determination and ibuprofen on my side.
That pile of rocks in the other corner of the ring suddenly seemed a lot more formidable.
We did make it – my brothers in better shape than the stiff-legged Lurch – and I have to tip my hat to a very worthy opponent. That mountain simply did what it always does in the ring – “come and get me” – and I initially underestimated it. Maybe it was a draw, maybe it was a split decision in my favor because I got past the final bell without a TKO – but either way, it was one heck of an adventure. Welcome back to New England, Steve. Be more ready next time.
Would I take on the mountains again? Of course – but maybe with a little more training up front. A little more realistic view of the challenge, and my own limits. Because I don’t want to collapse like that other Old Man…