If you’re a hiker in New Hampshire, you probably know that hiking all of the state’s 4,000-ft peaks is a thing. As a transplant from the west coast, I did not know this, until late one August when my son did not want to report back to middle school. I could hardly blame him, but his angst was enough to warrant a meeting with his guidance counselor. At the end of the meeting the counselor, knowing my son’s love of the outdoors (and apathy for soccer, the default fall sport for middle schoolers) told him about the 4,000er thing, and the book—The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains— that would tell us, in meticulous detail about “bagging” each of the 48 peaks on the list. As we drove away from school my son, still not psyched for school, but with a whiff of hope asked, “Can we get that book right now?”
I grew up in at 6200 feet in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, and later moved to Colorado where Fourteeners are the thing. Not surprisingly having, “4,000 ers,” as a goal seemed more laughable than daunting. The book alluded otherwise, describing scrambles, slogs, challenging conditions and spectacular vistas of the White Mountains. It offered options for double and triple bagging peaks and confessed that viewless, remote Owl’s Head is “everything a mountain should not be.” It sugarcoated nothing yet silenced all fair weather excuses by providing winter options for every hike. Implicit in all descriptions was something greater than each individual peak—the goal of ticking off every peak on the two-page list at the very end of the book.
The day before school started, instead of getting last minute supplies, my son and I started at the bottom of the list, hiking 4004 ft Mt Tecumseh. We had already hiked Mousilauke many times, and Tecumseh was the next closest to home. Even this smallest of options was a sizeable effort that, like many eastern mountains, only rewarded us with a view at it’s fairly unremarkable summit. There we met two bouncy ten-year-old boys who indentified other 4K peaks on the horizon and lamented that they were “only at #10” in their own quest. That was all the spark needed. From then on my son angled to hike every available fall weekend, sometimes with a friend but usually with mom or dad. Each hike followed the same pattern: start full of vim; encounter a crisis of faith; fall into a rhythm of dogged determination; rejoice at the top. Each time, the process reinforced the whole point of the quest.
I soon came to respect that every 4K is formidable. Thanks to the rocky, rooty, often slimy and sometimes near vertical surface of New England hiking trails, most are more challenging than my favorite western hiking trails which, by comparison, look like a manicured Hollywood set, something the Brady Bunch—with Tiger in tow—might have ventured out on for an overnight. That first hike up Tecumseh was followed by rainy days with viewless summits and scrambles up wet granite, bluebird days with top-of-the-world views from Franconia Ridge, missions foiled by injury and illness, epically long days where we washed away exhaustion in swimming holes and the jubilation of triple-bag victories in the Presidentials. One such 7-hour journey my son’s friend described as “the best hike EVER!”
Exactly one year after the start of our 4K quest, we decided to spend my son’s last night before starting school in the most remote AMC hut, from which we could bag three peaks and boost him over the halfway mark. Given the time of year I knew we would encounter Appalachian Trail thru-hikers hurrying towards Mt Katahdin and the end of their 2,100ish mile journey. I mentioned to my son that some of the people on the trail are “transitional.” He looked at me quizzically and I explained: “You know, looking for direction; between jobs, or relationships; fresh out of school or in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Being on the trail gives you time to think and sort things out.” We hiked in to Galehead Hut, perched above the Pemigewasset Wilderness and dropped our gear. From there we scrambled up 1,100 vertical ft in .8 mile to the summit of S.Twin. It was chilly, we were tired and gray clouds were layering up on each other making the afternoon dark. We had planned on hiking 1.3 (mostly flat) miles further to N. Twin, but in a moment of weakness, we told ourselves it was smart to turn around. Back at the hut we made an easy 15-minute hike up to the unremarkable summit of Mt. Galehead then settled in at the hut for a primer on “transitional.”
All types of all ages rolled into the cabin, some with advance reservations like us, but many more looking for free shelter in the first of the chilly weather in the high country. (When the huts have vacancy thru-hikers can work in exchange for floorspace). The thru-hikers used their well-worn trail names (“Johnnie Walker” wasn’t upright for long) and swapped stories of life on the trail, sprinkled with hints about the circumstances that brought them there. We escaped outside to watch the moon rise over the ridge, not saying what we were both thinking. We wimped out. Now, bagging N.Twin would mean another three hours of driving and 5-6 hours of hiking, all because we had a weak moment. Quietly, we watched the moon illuminate the wilderness, and listened to Johnnie Walker stumble around inside the hut.
Morning dawned crisp and spectacular. Our plan was to get up and out of there. We needed to shift gears, get home, get ready for school. Chop chop! We packed up by 7 am, and after breakfast listened to hutmaster’s daily weather report: “…Visibility from the top of Mt Washington is 110 miles.” A regular next to us nodded his approval and added, “You can see the ocean from up there on days like this.” My son turned to me and locked eyes: “Let’s go for it!” We grabbed our packs, took a right instead of a left, headed back up the wall of boulders to S. Twin. In all previous climbs we’d never been on a summit so early, and rarely alone. From there we practically skipped to N. Twin, which is far enough from its sibling to have “prominence” and be its own summit, but not far enough to tire us one bit on this perfect morning.
Will he get his “NH48” this summer? Probably not. Eventually? Yep. Then perhaps he’ll move on to the next wacky challenge, like hiking them all in winter, or twice in a year, or something else entirely.
The Internet is silly with info on the NH 4000 ft peaks. Start here and here and go nuts. Command Central for High Mountain Huts is the Appalachian Mountain Club. And c’mon, you know you want it—get your very own 4K bible here.