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Perspectives on Outings: My Favorite Hike
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by Dan Soeder, Outings Chair | 2011

We all have favorite hikes or trips. Here's one of Dan's!

Several of us were chatting recently at SierraFest about our favorite hikes. Everyone who has done some outdoor activities has collected many experiences that are mundane, some that are interesting, and a few that are spectacular. The spectacular ones stay with you for a long time, and can be retrieved like a favorite old book and savored in a quiet moment.

These thoughts were triggered by Pam Peitz remarking that she and a friend were planning an autumn hike on Mount Washington in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. This happens to be one of my favorites. I hiked this area with my brother about ten years ago – we met up in the Appalachian Mountain Club lodge at Pinkham Notch, and left the next morning to hike to the top of the mountain. My late brother Jim had been a pretty rigorous hiker, doing a lot of strenuous trails out west and in Alaska, many of them solo. He bragged about going from the south rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and back in one day, waltzing right past the trail sign posted by the National Park Service, which states that this is NOT considered a reasonable day hike. Not by most people, anyway.

So we ended up following a group of goofy French Canadians who were merrily singing folk songs in undecipherable, archaic French as they sauntered out of the AMC lodge and slogged uphill to Tuckerman Ravine. We chatted with some of them on the way, and they turned out to be pretty cool, if still a bit goofy. The ravine is misnamed – rather than the narrow, steep valley one might expect, it is instead a broad, bowl shaped feature called a cirque. These bowls were formed during the Ice Age as a glacier accumulated on a mountainside, and scooped out a round valley below it. Knifeedge ridges between adjacent cirques are known as arêtes, and if three of these ridges join up to form a pyramidal central peak, it is called a horn, as in the Matterhorn. A lake that occurs inside a cirque is a tarn, and ridges of soil and rock left behind by the melting glacier are called moraines. I love glacial terms – everything always sounds so exotic.

There was no tarn in the ancient cirque forming Tuckerman Ravine, just brush and grasses. The trail skirted one edge of the bowl, and then began a vertical ascent up the headwall of the cirque. This was an amazing climb on stone steps set into the bedrock, with no guardrail, nothing to hold onto, and a thousand feet of empty space yawning out below us. Once we got out of the cirque, the remainder of the hike was a boulder hop across large rocks paving the mountaintop like some giant’s idea of a cobblestone road. This part was actually quite tiring. The rocks were close enough together that they had to be gone over rather than around, but far enough apart that you couldn’t just step from one to another – hopping was required. When we finally got to the top, people who had come up via the auto road were surprised to learn that we had walked. Their cars all had bumper stickers that said “This car climbed Mount Washington.” I never did find any similar sticker for hikers. Still, there is no view on the Mount Washington auto road that comes close to resembling the scene from the stone stairway at the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine.

We noodled around the trails on top of Mount Washington for awhile and visited the weather observatory famous for foul weather (it is built like a bunker), before heading back down by another route along a ridge. There was no way I was going to hike face first down the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. At least when hiking up, I could focus on the stone stairway. Going down required looking at (or at least acknowledging the presence of) a lot of empty space. I’m not usually afraid of heights, but this was special. I never did get any of my pictures back from this hike. I had sent the film to be developed at a photo lab in Connecticut, and as best I could ever determine, my returning pictures were in the New York City post office transfer station inside the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. So for me, this hike really does exist only as a memory.

I have other favorite hikes in the Spring Mountains of Nevada, the Sedona area in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, a few places in Hawaii and even several trails in West  Virginia, like Dolly Sods and Blackwater. So what is your favorite? Think about it, and maybe suggest it as an outing. We’d all enjoy the memories, I’m sure.

See you outside!

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