This hike was on our 28th wedding anniversary. Things have been so chaotic it was nice to just do the thing we do together. It almost didn't happen, though. While the weather below 3,500 feet was fine, if a bit windy and cold. Above 4,000 feet was downright wintery. The socials we subscribe to were ominous. We had previously planned for Jefferson, which is way past 4,000 feet--5,712 actually--so we opted for the 4,043 foot Passaconaway instead. Over the course of the day we considered a modified out-and-back to Whiteface next door...but in the end chose not to.
What we did do was pack for colder weather before we started. Al and I both tend toward the heavy end of the packing spectrum. It is a comfort issue as much as anything else. We like water and snacks. We want the various layers that can get us through fluctuations in temperature both while walking and while resting. Who can argue with that, right? There are actually plenty of folks who would, preferring a lighter load that gets them up and down with greater ease. This hike, however, most of the people in the lot were playing it safe and adding a few items for comfort and safety.
Most of the trail was long but relatively gentle. I had climbed three shorter mountains earlier in the week and the trail was longer but comparable to the combination of those. In fact the round trip comparisons for mileage and elevation for the two days were about the same. On Passaconaway, the big challenge occurred after the turn off for the ridge trail to Whiteface. Things got steep, cold, and wet about then. We started the ritual of adding and subtracting hats and jackets as the situation required. We even got as far as putting on our gloves! We passed a few people on the trail, all of whom were doing the same thing. Some had warnings for us. No one suggested we turn around, but they wanted us to know the conditions at the top.
The conditions were...not ideal. They also were nowhere near as bad as what we encountered in the fall and winter. It was just a little unexpected given the lovely day at ground level. After the summit, we naturally struggled a bit with the possibility of hitting Whiteface. In the end--as I mentioned earlier--we chose not to. We were tired and wet and our plan would have just taken way too long. Still, it was a good hike on a good, if challenging day.
I think it is probably worth noting that another hiker--an experienced and knowledgeable one--died that day while attempting a presidential traverse. The traverse involves hiking across a ridge of much higher mountains that are named after presidents. This includes Mount Washington--the tallest peak--and Mount Jefferson--which we expressly avoided--among others. We could not help but feel it. His family will miss him and, as fellow hikers, it is hard not to feel like we knew him a little bit. This tragedy put a bit of a damper on the day and reminded us of the need to respect the weather and understand our abilities, not just in general but on any specific day. There are times when we are strong and times when we are not. This is true no matter how good a condition we are in and how skilled we are at a particular task.
Respecting nature means knowing when not to engage. The mountains do not care if you are ready for your attempt or not. Hiking, like many hobbies, comes with plenty of risk. This risk is part of what attracts people. When you climb a big mountain in the woods you come face to face with the vastness of the wilderness around you. You feel small and--perhaps conversely--in that smallness you feel empowered as part of something much, much larger. There is a spiritual element that is outward-facing. Yes, people go on these trips to challenge themselves, but that isn't all that is going on. Otherwise we could save a lot of time by hitting the treadmill or peloton. There is an attraction toward that smallness and the return to Creation that it represents. Still, it is good to know when to turn around or just stay home.
We did not stay home and I am glad we didn't. However, we did change our plans and then we did turn around when we realized our tanks were close to empty. This was good too. I guess the lesson is to walk with humility and to not let the quest for perfection conquer the good before us.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.