Sunday, April 24, 2016
I've identified as a cyclist for two decades now. Back in 1996, a poor health wake-up call prodded me into finding an activity to lose weight and improve fitness. I rode bikes as a kid, no differently than most. It is part of growing up. In my 30's I rediscovered the joy of riding, especially off-road. It quickly became a passion that my life evolved around.
I moved from Michigan to New Hampshire in 1997. The decision to relocate to the northeast was driven in part by the topography. There are real mountains here! Southwest Michigan is pretty flat, and I was excited to explore more challenging terrain on my mountain bike.
As I lost weight and gained fitness, I discovered I didn't suck going up hill. Not only that, I enjoyed suffering on long, steep climbs. I sought out ski area service roads to ride up. There were only so many place you could ride up hill to summits, especially off-road.
I chose my parents wisely. I seem to have a genetic predisposition to turn large volumes of oxygen into power. I got involved with cycling competition and won a lot of races.
I dabbled in hiking over the years. I never solo hiked. It usually was a family or couples thing. There were a couple of non-trivial hikes, like the time I took my wife and mom up Tuckerman Ravine to the summit of Mt Washington. My mom still jokes that I was trying to get my inheritance early. The climb was a bit much for mom, but the descent left me with crippling DOMS for days afterward. Not mom.
Last year a cycling buddy who hiked regularly asked if I was interested in a Presidential Traverse. My first reaction was yeah, right, I wouldn't get half way across without being crippled. Even though I was highly fit as a cyclist, there's something about going downhill that debilitates unconditioned muscles. The motion is called eccentric muscle contraction, and it causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
If there was one hike to do before leaving this great state, it would be the Presi traverse. My wife and I may retire before too long, and now was the time to do this nearly 20 mile hike with upwards of 10,000ft of climbing. Early August 2015 was the date. It was less than two months away. Could I build any modicum of hiking specific fitness in time?
It wasn't the 10,000ft of climbing I feared. Cycling ensured I would handle that just fine. But what the bicycle can't give you is the ability to slow yourself down with your legs (not with any of my bikes anyway). So I set out on some training hikes.
I picked the Tripyramids for my first training hike on the first weekend of July. I was familiar with the Waterville Valley area from Nordic skiing. Hike up Livermore Rd, north slide, the peaks, south slide, how hard could that be? It was "only" 10 miles. I hadn't hiked solo before, and I had never hiked a slide before. I quickly learned this is one of the scarier slide trails to scramble up. I was terrified. Not having the right shoes didn't help matters. I finished the loop at a respectable pace. The following days were a nightmare. Each day the DOMS got worse. I think it took a full week before my legs felt normal again. Six hour bike ride in the mountains? Could do it again the next day. A 3-4hr hike? Crippled for days.
I was aware the Tripyramids were 4000-footers. I don't think I was aware of how many 4000 footers there were in NH though. It didn't concern me.
The following four weekends I hiked locally, Mt Monadnock, the Pack Monadnocks and Cardigan in southern NH. The DOMS became progressively less severe with each hike. Would these five hikes be enough to tackle the big one on August 8?
The big day arrived. I didn't sleep well, and it was a very early start to the day, driving up the morning of. Three of us were making the traverse, starting on Valley Way and finishing on Crawford Path. At least we were blessed with near ideal weather conditions.
The hike went well, although my knees and ankles were ready to crap out descending Crawford Path. The sound of motor vehicles on Rt 302 was music to my ears that day. I was moderately crippled for a few days after, but not like after the Tripyramids hike.
I was left pondering deep thoughts after that epic hike. I had hiked every weekend six weeks in a row. It would be kind of a shame to throw what little fitness I had built up away. And besides, I kind of liked it. I got to peaks I can't ride to and saw sights I would not have seen otherwise. I did another local hike the following weekend while contemplating the future.
While still unsure if I wanted to continue hiking, I found myself on the Osceolas the following weekend. I found some more sketchy scrambling there on The Chimney. Of all the times I've skied at Waterville Valley, both alpine and Nordic, I had no idea there were such fantastic views so close by. The people you'd meet on the trail didn't suck either. Maybe there's something to this hiking business.
I headed out west for vacation the first half of September. I actually packed my shoes and hiking poles! What did that mean? I was confused. I go on cycling trips, not hiking trips. To continue the momentum, I solo hiked one of Idaho's nine 12,000 footers. It was a beaut of a day, and that hike put me in a zen state that I thought only long trail rides through remote terrain could do.
After a hiatus for the Vermont 50 mile mountain bike race, I resumed hiking in the Whites. Flume and Liberty looked cool, easily accessible. More sketchy slide scrambling again!
I started noticing physiological changes in my body. I was gaining range of motion in certain movements. My sense of balance seemed to be improving. Most importantly, I was starting to feel agile on my feet. I've always had unstable ankles and suffered a severe double-fracture several years ago. In fact, I always carried lace-up ankle braces with me on hikes for when my ankles started rolling. But the rolling wasn't really happening anymore. I think there were two factors behind it, both which hiking brought about. One was simply strength. Strength in the stabilizing muscles, strength in the connective tissues. The other was a neurological, or motor reflex response thing. I found that when my ankle started to roll, there was quicker response to correct it. These physiological adaptations helped fuel my stoke for hiking.
I still had no goals for hiking. I was just going with the flow. Somewhere around this time I printed out the list of 48 4000 footers. I mainly wanted to see what the biggest peaks were and wanted to hike something new each weekend. Some of the hikes seemed lame, like Owl's Head or Mt Isolation. Why would I want to do those? Big commitment, little reward.
Winter came, or what little there was to this winter. People die hiking in the winter. Heck, people even die in the summer from exposure. I hiked mostly solo. If I was going to continue, I needed to buy more gear. And buy I did. A bigger backpack. Snowshoes. Microspikes. Down jacket, Goretex and more. I generally avoided the most treacherous conditions by hiking more locally when it was tough in the Whites.
The list of 48 started accumulating a lot of check marks. Am I really chasing a list, something I said did not interest me? Maybe I shouldn't have left that list on my desk where I saw it all the time. Before I knew it, I had hiked Owl's Head, Cabot, Isolation and other out of the way peaks. A group hike netted the Carters. The list was becoming tantalizing close to being completed over the winter. I crossed a threshold where I might as well hike all of New Hampshire's 48 highest.
I was down to three remaining peaks, the Bonds. I had hoped for a group traverse, but I have only a few friends into hiking at that level. Then I thought I'll wait until this summer, when talk of Pemi Loops start. I didn't really want to do a 20+ mile hike on snow and ice anyway.
As avid hikers know, this winter was almost a non-season. Rarely were snowshoes needed. When a nice weekend opened up in mid-April, I decided to give the Bonds a go. I hadn't hiked in two weeks and just got back from an 8-day MTB cycling trip. How hard could a 24 mile hike be? My plan was to hike the three Bonds as an out-and-back from Lincoln Woods. That means I hit two of the three peaks twice, for five summits total. There isn't a whole lot of climbing once up on the ridge though.
That hike was a marvelous experience. Short sleeve weather at the summits, barely a breeze and clear skies. The ice was softened up and very manageable with microspikes. The hike went much more quickly than I expected. I left home from southern NH after sunup and got back home before sunset. The views along Bondcliff are dramatic, among the best in the White Mountains. Was a treat to finish the 48 this way.
So now what? I kind of feel lost without some new direction. For some, completing the 48 is a huge goal. It is a very attainable for most people. Around 12,000 people have hiked the 48. I don't need a goal to push myself, I've done that to a fault on the bike for years. I need ideas for new pursuits. There are many other lists out there, There's the winter 48, which I'm probably half way through just chasing the 48. Then there's the grid, doing each of the 48 climbs in each of the months of the year. I just don't see myself as a gridder, or gridiot as some might say. But then again, I didn't see myself hiking 48 peaks in short order either. The New England 67 looks interesting, as it adds the 4000 footers in VT and ME to the list. Lot more driving to reach some of those peaks though, probably requiring overnight stays. Maybe roll-your-own hikes, bushwhacks or slide scrambles to get off the oft traveled path. Nothing wrong with repeating favorite hikes. I hit the same trails over and over again on my bike and do not tire of them.
One thing is certain. Future trips won't solely be cycling. Hikes will be planned into the itinerary. I hope to visit Colorado again this fall. The places I like to ride have many 14ers nearby, the equivalent to New Hampshire's 4kers. Only there is a lot less air to breath two vertical miles higher above sea level! My time is becoming evenly split between on-wheels and on-foot. This makes me wonder, is hiking my primary passion and cycling that other thing I do? Hard to tell where this goes from here.