This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 edition of the Mountain Passages.
In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning, my sons are leaving their warm beds, not to creep downstairs to check their stockings but to don their hiking clothes and collect their pillows to prepare for the trek to Grafton Notch State Park. I’m making fried egg and cheese sandwiches for the ride, and my husband is loading the car with our packs. Whether this is cruel and unusual punishment or the beginning of a cherished family memory remains to be seen.
My husband and I debated the merits of this two days ago when the forecast called for clouds on Christmas Eve, the day we planned to hike to Table Rock, a viewpoint on the Appalachian Trail heading up Baldpate Mountain in Maine. We thought the boys would prefer to hike on a clear day, and when we approached them with the choice of hiking in socked-in conditions on Christmas Eve or under blue sky on Christmas Day, they chose the latter with little hesitation. So it was decided.
If they’re blaming anyone for this early morning, they can start with the folks at Down East Magazine for featuring snowshoe hikes in Acadia in their February 2015 issue. “Climb Cadillac Mountain in the winter and you’ll feel you’ve achieved something” is the line that particularly resonated with me, along with the accompanying photos. That article, written by Andrew Vietze, sparked what would later become a full-fledged obsession with winter hiking.
When I couldn’t fit a trip to Acadia into my schedule that winter, I put my plans on hold but kept the magazine in a prominent location in our home so that my winter hiking dream would continue to be nourished, if only in my imagination. The following summer I was back on the trail, and as I enjoyed the views I couldn’t help but wonder what I was missing in the winter. If not for the Appalachian Mountain Club, (AMC) I would still be wondering.
The real culprits behind this Christmas morning hike are the organizers of the AMC’s NH Chapter winter hiking series. In the summer of 2016 I was flirting with the idea of signing up for this class. I had even gone so far as to download the application. Still, my experience was a bit sparse – under “Please describe your winter hiking experience,” I indicated that I had read Not Without Peril, Into Thin Air, and Touching the Void in hopes that my literary proficiency could make up for my lack of experience. That half-finished application may have continued to sit on my desktop if not for a phone conversation with AMC trip leader Dan Heon. Dan encouraged me to apply. With the recommendation of several hike leaders, I was admitted to the series.
My family was baffled by my desire to hike high peaks in the winter, but they supported me as I headed off to the Highland Center for the initial weekend of training and hiking. The hike that weekend was socked in, but it was a treat to see the first snow of the season. I sent photos home, and my husband and sons were a bit jealous that I had been among snow-laden trees as they raked the lawn.
I hiked six more peaks in November and early December and each time I returned home, my family was more intrigued. They decided they’d like to give winter hiking a try. On Christmas morning, geared up with winter hiking boots, Microspikes, winter gaiters, and snowshoes, and armed with everything I had learned from the winter hiking series, we were ready.
As we drove down Route 26 that morning, it was impossible not to notice the wind. It occasionally hurled stray branches against the side of the car. The wind chill was -5 degrees. We wondered aloud how many other cars would be at the trailhead. We guessed two. There were none. Despite the conditions and the comfort of the warm car, we rallied, bundled up, and soon we were in the safety of the trees, sheltered from the wind. Our boys quickly took the lead. They’re faster hikers than we are in every season.
When they arrived at the overlook and took in the snowy scene – the view from Table Rock truly is spectacular, as the sign indicates – they were hooked. Cloaked in snow, Grafton Notch was a site to behold. Our Christmas morning hike would be the start of many more winter hiking adventures.
Throughout that 2016-17 winter, I witnessed breathtakingly beautiful landscapes that no lens can truly capture, made more beautiful, perhaps, by the fact that I had arrived at each place on my own power. I met new friends who have continued to challenge me. Most importantly, though, my quest inspired my then twelve- and fourteen-year-old sons, and together we’ve shared many miraculous moments on the trail. I’m grateful for the winter hiking series for preparing me to confidently and safely trek into the snow up high peaks. It allowed my family to embark on adventures that we never thought possible.