About the Author: Susan Reenan climbed her very first mountain when she was forty years old and has yet to take a break. She has climbed in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Chisos Mountains of the high Chihuahuan Desert in Texas, the Sierra Nevada of California, and the Pacific Northwest. Susan now ranks as one of the first two hundred women ever to climb the Adirondack 46ers in winter, she has climbed forty-five of the fifty-eight 14,000+ foot peaks in the Colorado Rockies, and this past summer, she completed her all-season New Hampshire 48, New England 67, and Northeast 111. Susan’s current goal is to bag the Northeast 111 in winter. Really.
In my house we revel in March Madness, but not the kind that involves college basketball. Rather than agonizing over game brackets, my husband and I analyze trail maps, and the only trash talking we do revolves around the number of peaks we think we can bag during our annual week of hiking over March Break. In past years, March Mountain Madness took us to New York’s Adirondacks. Since our completion of the ADK Winter 46 two seasons ago, our attention has turned to New Hampshire’s Whites where, last year, we got five peaks during that final week of winter: Owls Head, Moriah, Passaconaway, Whiteface, and Cabot.
This year, the madness has turned into outright mania as we rapidly approach our New Hampshire 4,000ers winter finish. Our targets? Madison and Adams; Jefferson, Washington, and Monroe; Moosilauke; Canon; Carrigan; Flume; Garfield; and Hale, which would require seven or eight days of hiking, depending upon whether we do the northern Presidentials as a traverse or not. Ambitious but doable. Probably.
Me on the Fishin’ Jimmy Trail for the very last time, and I mean it! Probably.
I would be more optimistic, but my 2018-2019 winter hiking season thus far has proved to be, well, an adventure. We certainly enjoyed an auspicious start to the season. For our holiday vacation my husband and I traveled up the 95 from Providence then hopped on the 93 to New Hampshire on December 28th, and on the very next day, we met up with another couple who are also working on their New Hampshire Winter 48, Julie and Tom, for a fun hike up Tecumseh. The next day, we had a relatively easy hike from the trailhead located at the gigantic hairpin on the Kancamagus up East Osceola and Osceola with another couple, Collin and Hannah, and their fuzzy-faced dog, Max. On both of those days, the trails were well-tracked out, and while we were encased in clouds on Tecumseh, the weather made it up to us by affording fabulous views off of the Osceolas. The next day it snowed. A lot. Totally bummed by the weather, we watched The Great British Bake Off for two days straight and then shoveled the wall of snow out from in front of the door of the rental. The rest of the week ended up being incredibly productive, as we broke trail up Hancock and South Hancock on January 2nd, which turned out to be a bluebird day, and broke out the nefarious and deservedly much-maligned Fishin’ Jimmy Trail up to North Kinsman and South Kinsman on the 3rd. We took a rest day on the 4th, and successfully tackled Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack, and Liberty on the 5th. Ten mountains in one vacation? Yep, we crushed it.
Appreciating the sunshine and the view at the top of North Hancock.
But then, a couple of weeks later, Winter Storm Harper derailed our Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Fortunately, on Saturday before the storm hit, we trekked up Galehead and the Twins and got back down to the cross country ski trail that leads back to the Beaver Brook Trailhead just as the snow started to swirl in the beam of my headlamp, turning the circle of forest ahead into a snow globe. Sunday was a no-go for hiking; however, as it was Biscuit Week in the tent for the British bakers, we kept a stiff upper lip and machinated about our next big trip: Presidents’ Day weekend. Oh yes, we had big, big, one might even say huge, plans for that weekend. Madison and Adams on Saturday. Jefferson, Washington, and Monroe on Sunday. Pierce and Eisenhower on Monday. It promised to be a Presidents’ Day weekend packed with Presidentials, until the weekend actually arrived at the same time as the stomach bug. I was sick all Friday night, my husband was sick all Saturday night, and on Sunday, we moped and rehydrated while learning how to make ginger cake. (Because, you guessed it, it was Cake Week for the bakers!) By Monday, we had recovered enough to salvage the weekend with a climb up the Crawford Path, which was in brilliant super highway, concrete monorail form, to Pierce and Eisenhower.
By the end of February, we were down three potential hiking days and behind six peaks on our schedule. It was time for a bold move: we decided to do the Bond Cliff to Zealand traverse. Again. Actually, the first time we lost our minds and tackled this traverse, we climbed Hale first, scooted across to Zealand, went over Guyot, hit West Bond, ate a snack on Bond, and then tagged Bond Cliff on our way out to Lincoln Woods. It was a crazy long, chilly October day, a twenty-plus miles long day. Truth be told, I actually passed out the next day from calorie and sleep deprivation. (Try explaining to an ER doctor that you hiked 21.6 miles with an elevation gain of 7,795 feet just for fun.) Yet, if we did the traverse for winter, or at least a version of it, we could nab four peaks in one day. Super badass, right? True, but that much badassery requires Oceans 11-esque planning and precision-strike execution.
At the top of Zealand about 15 minutes and a few hundred feet from an almost disaster. The summit sign is usually high above my head.
To that end, we arranged to car spot with a friend and her teenage daughters.They would do the traverse from the opposite direction, we would meet in the middle somewhere around West Bond to swap beta and keys, and at the end of the day, whichever party got off the mountains first would have a car. An added bonus would be that we would be breaking out trail for each other, as it was highly unlikely that anyone had tracked out the approximate eleven miles of trail between the turn off from Lincoln Woods to the Zealand Hut. As I had no intention of repeating the passing out incident, I bought a preposterous amount of food: trail mix, bars, blocks, sports beans, caffeinated sports beans, maple chicken sandwich meat, cheese, and bacon bars. To help with trail breaking and morale, we invited along a few reliable hiking friends, John and Andy, who are each just a handful of summits away from their Winter 48, and Julia, who had already finished her list, was along for the ride. On Saturday morning, our plan started to unfold without a hitch, and we all got on our respective sides of the trail almost when we said we would, which we agreed was pretty impressive. We spiked up and hoofed it down the six-mile road walk to the Bond Cliff Trail, which I call the “Justin Timberlake Trail” because the last time I hiked it, we played “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” to frighten away any bears that might be nosing around. (To my knowledge, no actual research exists to support the hypothesis that bears are scared of Justin Timberlake; however, I can report that we did not encounter any that evening. You connect the dots.)
Forget about Waldo! Where’s Susan? (I’m that tiny dot making my way across the ridge from Lafayette to Lincoln).
It was just after we turned left and began ascending that, without warning, my sports bra tried to kill me. Okay, if I had really been paying attention, I might have had an inkling that a problem was developing when I put the bra on at around 4:00 A.M., as I vaguely noted that something felt different, not strange enough to register alarm, just, you know, not quite right. During the road walk, I noticed that my shoulders felt a little tight, but when we made the turn off the road and started climbing, it became increasingly hard to breath. For those of you who have climbed at elevation, the sensation was similar. Where there once was air, suddenly there was none, or at least a lot less than there had been a few minutes before. By the time I was a quarter of a mile up the trail I was out of breath, my face was burning beet red, and I was pretty much convinced that I was on the verge of a heart attack. Or a stroke. I wasn’t exactly clear on all the potential diagnoses, but what was clear was that I was going to die an untimely death alone in the freezing cold with the refrain of what was arguably the best song of 2016 reverberating in ironic cheerfulness through my head because, of course, everybody else was chatting way up ahead, completely oblivious to my distress. Somehow in the midst of freaking out, it occurred to me that something similar had once happened to my husband. He had felt as though he was having a heart attack then realized that the chest strap on his pack was way too tight. I checked my chest strap. It was perfect. I checked my pack straps. They too were adjusted correctly. On a desperate whim, I tugged out the front of my bra. Air flow was restored.
There was no choice. I was going to have to go half commando and hike braless for the rest of the day. Easier said than done. Ten minutes later, I was still struggling in frustration, up to my knees in snow on the side of the trail, naked from the waist up, my arms twisted high above my head in the tangled web of my black sports bra. I eventually wriggled out without witnesses, grateful that I was not going to be featured on some random person’s Instagram or youtube video, and hopeful that maybe, just maybe my Girls Gone Wild (in the wild) moment of humiliation was (please, please, please) not captured by Google Earth. Once the bra, or rather no bra, situation was dialed in, my hike improved dramatically. Sure, there was lots of trail to break, the tree limbs were poking at our arms, legs, and eyeballs like an evil car wash, and we did get a bit lost following trails that dead-ended up to Bond, but, hey, I could breathe, so all seemed lovely.
A rare atmospheric treat: the whiteness of the snow on the Presidential Range reflects onto the dark storm clouds above as we try to outrun Harper on the North Twin Spur.
Lovely, that is, until we got off of Zealand and a pinetree decided to eat my snowshoe. I was just shushing along, glad to be off of the final peak of the day when Wham! Next thing I knew my left leg was caught underneath me and my right shot out in front. Stuck in a half-split, I took a little minute to reflect. Nothing inside of me had popped. Nothing outside of me had ripped. Both good signs. I gingerly disentangled myself and, other than being slightly shaken, my assessment was that I was f-i-n-e, fine. Actually, it turned out that I was w-r-o-n-g. In fact, the closer we got to the hut, the further away from fine I got. My left groin muscle protested loudly whenever I put any weight on it, which, of course, was every other step, and then some other muscle was shooting pain down the back of my left leg from my knee to my ankle. We still had six miles until we hit the parking lot. Those six miles rank among the longest of my hiking career. There was hobbling. And whining. It was not pretty, but I made it back to the car.
Here I sit, four days later, my body is still spotted black and blue from being jabbed by trees, I finally no longer feel famished, and I may even be adequately hydrated. I have stretched and rolled and soaked and heated and gone to the masseuse. My hiking clothes are repacked, tomorrow I am going out to stock up on trail food, and we leave for New Hampshire in two days. Will we be able to crush it again as we did in January? The weather forecast is suspiciously agreeable, my muscles are on the mend, and there will be dark chocolate peanut butter cups, which means that the outlook is definitely promising. But this winter, between storms, tummy troubles, strangler bras, and people-eating trees, who can tell? At this point, there only two things that I know for certain: next week is March Break, and it’s gonna be madness.
After a weekend of sickness, I was so happy to be on the top of a mountain that I gave Eisenhower a big hug!