Savoring the Solitude on Mount Monadnock (Not!)
When friends planning a group hike up Mount Monadnock asked which day I would recommend, Sunday or Monday, I instantly replied, “Monday; it’s less crowded. You’ll be wading through teeming hordes on a Sunday.”
So on a bright, blustery and chilly Monday last week seven of us rendezvoused at the base parking lot in Jaffrey, N.H., strapped on day packs and began tramping up the White Dot Trail, the most popular route to the 3,165-foot summit.
Though only about two miles long, the path ascends steadily and steeply in sections, particularly over bare ledge near the top, making it a worthy climb, especially for the expansive views from the peak. Monadnock, derived from an Abenaki word loosely translated as “mountain that stands alone” because it rises 1,000 feet higher than any nearby hilltop, inspired such writers as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who clambered to the top on several occasions. A couple lookouts on Monadnock bear their names.
These days some 125,000 people scale Monadnock annually, making it the most-climbed mountain in America, and third in the world behind only Japan’s Mt. Fuji (about 200,000 hikers) and the Chinese peak Tai Shan (reportedly visited by 2 million people a year). Peak baggers also consider Monadnock, a National Natural Landmark, one of the 50 finest mountains in New England.
Our merry band included longtime kayaking-hiking buds Mary Lou Lowrie and Nat Steele, who were on their way back from her son’s wedding on Long Island to their home in Maine; Phil Warner, a kayaking pal who lives in Massachusetts; Bob Graham, with whom I run almost every morning – in fact, Bob, Mary Lou, Nat and I went for a jog together an hour before driving up to Monadnock; Jenna Cho; a newspaper colleague and fellow outdoor enthusiast who I accompanied one long day last year on a 22-mile hike of the Narragansett Trail; and Karin Crompton, who I never got around to hiking with when she worked as a reporter, but at Jenna’s urging managed to get the day off from her real estate business and responsibilities as the mother of a 3-year-old.
A relative novice to mountain trails, she asked me about the difficulty of Monadnock.
“It’s a bastard,” I replied, suppressing a mischievous grin.
As we ascended I noticed quite a few teenage boys on their way down.
“Playing hooky?” I asked one kid taking a break.
“Naaah. It’s a school thing.”
Soon more teenagers emerged from the path ahead of us, whooping, hollering and sliding down rock faces.
“Try it face-first,” I joked, and then shouted, “Wait!” when one turned to the kid next to him and cried, “Dude! Let’s do it!”
We now were at the steepest section, with room for only one person at a time to go up or down, and my heart sank. A line of dozens of descending hikers stretched uphill and disappeared into the trees. Amid this sea of raging hormones an adult head appeared.
“What is this? A class trip?” I asked.
He nodded. “Mountain Day at Eaglebrook School,” he said, referring to a junior boarding school in nearby Deerfield, Mass. “We do it once every year.” Our lucky day.
“How many kids?” I asked.
“More than 250.”
So we waited, waited and waited while the teenagers slid down, one after another, until finally another teacher called out, “Hey guys, hold up a minute. Let these folks pass.”
We scrambled by and soon poked above tree line. Normally trees in New England stop growing at about 4,000 feet, but fires set by 19th century settlers lowered the line by about 1,000 feet on Monadnock and created its signature bare summit.
The wind whipped up to about 30 mph and temperature dropped into the 40s, so we hastily donned shells, hats and mittens before proceeding to the top.
A jutting rock at the summit created a perfect windbreak and we huddled in the lee, making extra room for Phil, the only one in the group with enough sense to bring chocolate peanut butter cups instead of granola and other tasteless snacks.
As we munched away before preparing to descend I thought about the Eaglebrook students.
Having an entire school climb a mountain together is a good thing, I decided. I’m always glad to see people enjoying the outdoors.
But maybe next time I head for Monadnock I’ll call the school first to make sure it’s not Mountain Day.
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