Story and photo by Barbara Neville Wilson
On Saturday I wake to a subtly rose colored, gilt-edged sky. The sun just rising above the mountains is framed, either side, by silhouettes of fir trees. I flick a snowflake from my eyeglasses, duck into Guyot Shelter, and shake the shoulder of my friend. “You have to see this,” I whisper, trying not to wake sleeping hikers around us. “The sunrise is stunning…and it’s snowing!”
She rubs her sleepy eyes and stares into my face. “You have GOT to be kidding,” she breathes venomously and burrows deeper into her sleeping bag.
This year – 2017 – has been a splendid one for hiking. Not too wet, not too cold. Many days have been just right, and despite the turn of the calendar, there are still many hikes ahead. How can you make each of them a “Goldilocks”?
First off, recognize that while every hike can be “Just Right” after it’s over, and most will have amazing highs along the way, there is rarely a trail that will be pure joy at every step, nor does every hiker awake fired up for the miles ahead. Like most every activity worth doing, it takes some concerted effort (read: “hard work” and “discomfort”) along the way to reach the stunning view, the coveted destination, or the next stepping-off point for the journey ahead. And sometimes the best memories come while just putting one foot in front of the other: the funny expression on a friend’s face as she negotiates a brook crossing; the quick glimpse of a critter near its home; the answers to life’s questions you find in conversation; the short quips of comradery when you meet new friends on a pass.
Second, be prepared. Know where you’re going and how to recognize the path along the way. Bring a trail map with you and if available, a description, too. Being ever conscious of weight, I cut my trail maps out of the guidebook and carry them in zip-lock bags. You may be tempted to just snap a photo of the map on the kiosk at the trailhead and have it available on your phone, but it’s always wise to carry a hard copy back-up, too. Phones fail, and an Internet connection is not always reliable.
Make sure you are physically ready for the hike you choose and the time you allow to complete it is realistic. When hiking Mount Major last month, we met up with some city dwellers. They were excited to have found the trail and had left plenty of time to hike it, they thought. After all, they walk all the time in New York City at a pace of a few miles per hour. When we met them around 4:30 pm at the top of the mountain, their 7 pm appointment on the other side of the lake seemed impossibly far away, especially since they still had to hike down the mountain—and in our rocky region, the going down often takes longer than the climbing up.
Dress appropriately for the weather when you leave, and carry gear for the weather you may encounter. “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute,” is a New England adage with special resonance around here. In the days before our overnight at Guyot, weather predictions had vacillated frequently, with precipitation probability of 30 percent one day and 60 percent the next, and temperatures ranging from the high-40s to the mid-30s. We carried layers of thermals and fleece, mittens and hats, and waterproof raingear. Although we planned to stay in the shelter, we still carried a tent in case plans had to change. We were shocked the second morning when we met a trio of 20-somethings on the 4,265-foot high Bondcliff who asked if we had a pair of mittens to sell. No hat, no mittens, an oversized cotton sweatshirt, and a plan to hike at least eight more miles into a night with the prediction of freezing temperatures made us jokingly check, “Hope you have lots more layers in your packs.” “Nope. This is it,” they answered, motioning to what they were wearing, and off they clomped into the Pemigewasset wilderness. I think my jaw dragged the ground for a few hundred yards after that encounter. I still wonder: did they reconsider their plans later that day?
Being willing to change your plans is key to safety. It’s important to realize that Mother Nature calls the shots on the trail. An early fall walk up the moderate-rated Mount Roberts Trail at Castle in the Clouds started in heat became increasingly and surprisingly chilly as shadows deepened and wind rose. My companion and I decided to turn around before we reached the coveted vista at the top of the mountain. While it would seem a shame to be “beaten” by a short day hike, you have to be ready to abort if your margin—daylight, warmth, energy—decreases substantially. The Bard was right. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. There’s nothing brave about walking headlong into a dicey situation you could have avoided.
No one can avoid every emergency that arises, but being prepared can certainly help prevent a crisis from escalating to disaster. For decades, hikers have been advised to pack the “Ten Essentials” in their pack regardless of the distance they intend to go. In addition to extra clothing, maps, and emergency shelter, make sure you carry sun protection, a headlamp or flashlight, first aid kit, matches or lighter, knife or multi-purpose tool, and more food and water than you expect to need. You should also include a cell phone and extra battery cells, recognizing, however, that there is no guarantee of cell service everywhere, and that you alone are responsible for your safety. New Hampshire Fish and Game and White Mountain National Forest personnel do not have resources to get involved with any but the most extreme emergency situations.
Safe hiking resources and regional maps can be found through Trail Magic Adventures www.trailmagicadventures.org in Wolfeboro, the New Hampshire Fish & Game http://www.wildlife.state.nh.us , and the NH chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, http://amc-nh.org. Maps and trail resources used for this article were found at the Lakes Region Conservation Trust, www.lrct.org, the Belknap Range Trails, http://belknaprangetrails.org and the 29th edition of The White Mountain Guide by Steven D. Smith and Mike Dickerman.