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A Yankee Notebook

October 13, 2014


JAFFREY, NH – On a Thursday morning in October, the first intimation that the hike ahead of us might not be a solitary one was the full parking lot at the foot of the mountain. Mount Monadnock is apparently one of the world’s most-climbed mountains. Weekend traffic here must be fierce.

Turns out it is. Larry, our genial, garrulous guide, told us that when the mountain is busiest, the rangers institute one-way traffic on the two most popular trails – one for uphill, the other for down. Still, there are frequent traffic jams at two or three rock pitches that require scrambling on all fours, sometimes after a bit of deliberation.

As our party of eight started up the lower section of the main trail, it felt familiar to me, and I remembered I’d been here twice before, in October of 1952 and 1985. I also remembered that in 1952 I wanted to be the first of my high school class to make it to the top, and ran up the mountain. Today, I was just hoping to get there – and get back down in one piece.

It’s only 2.2 miles from the trailhead to the 3165-foot-high summit, but there’s an 1800-foot climb, most of it in the second mile. A little before the halfway mark, a clear, cold spring bubbled out of the mountainside through a steel pipe. Just after that, even though I was ready for it, the trail tilted upward like a barn roof, and then out of sight in the trees, in a most breathtaking way. Time to shorten my hiking poles and shift into trudge mode.

Translations of Native American languages into any others is always tricky and often imprecise; but the consensus about the meaning of the Abenaki word,“monadnock,” is that it means “mountain that stands alone.” Which it certainly does: There’s not another anywhere near it. The term has become the geological generic for any similar isolated mountain. Considering that New Hampshire was at least once submerged under continental ice sheets that scoured, plucked, and deposited rock, sand, and gravel everywhere, it’s easy to conclude that the bulk of Mount Monadnock was harder and more resistant than the surrounding bedrock.

Sure enough, the first thing I noticed – after the sudden steepening of the slope – was the hardness of the rock. It’s heavily metamorphosed schist and quartzite of the so-called Littleton Formation, which achieved its present composition during the great clash of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates about 400 million years ago. What happened here is best illustrated by pushing a scatter rug from both ends; it forms up-folds and down-folds. There are many of those here on Monadnock. The largest is a downfold (syncline) that’s tipped over on its side. Geology students can have a field day doping out the mountain’s history – or losing their minds trying to.

My carbide steel-tipped hiking poles that bite so beautifully in White Mountain granite, slid sideways now and then and left me teetering for balance. Mount Cube in Orford is similar: shiny with glacial polish and laced with veins of milky quartz. Naturally, the rubber tips that fit onto my poles, and would have been a big help, were home in a drawer. On the bright side, however, the composition of the soles of modern hiking shoes is almost like glue in its stickiness; where the slabs were dry, the traction was great.

The crew and I were here to film a story about Larry Davis, a fiftyish, ponytailed athlete who claims over 6000 ascents of Monadnock, including a stretch of 2850 consecutive days (almost eight years) that ended when pneumonia stopped the streak. He still climbs it nearly daily, bicycling half an hour to the base from his apartment in Jaffrey. He and his friends – two of them here with us today – carry plastic bags and collect every bit of trash they spot on the mountain. The combination of their efforts and a growing environmental awareness among hikers has led to a major reduction.

The mountain has taken its lumps over the millennia. After its tortured nativity, it existed as a moderate eminence until the ice sheets arrived and bulldozed almost everything in their path. Its “upstream” slope is scoured clean and grooved with striations; its downstream side is piled high with boulders and fragments dumped as the ice went by. Native Americans had little interest in mountaineering; besides, spirits often inhabited the summits. The first recorded ascent was made in 1725 by a Captain Samuel Willard and 14 British-American rangers on an Indian-hunting trip. They used the summit as a lookout – for the smoke of campfires, I presume.

There was lots of smoke here about 75 years later, when Yankee sheep farmers set the red spruce forest ablaze to clear the land for pasture. Later, convinced that the remaining forest concealed predators, they burned that, too, between 1810 and 1820; the mountain’s top 1000 feet has been bald ever since. Nowadays, more than 125,000 hikers annually stream up and down the trails, with amazingly little wear and tear – the result, probably, of volunteer maintenance (Larry, for example, showed me a stretch of trail in boggy ground near the summit, that he paved with large flat rocks) and the prevalence of bedrock ledges, which are hard to wear out.

We climbed through mountain ash and mountain cranberry and reached the cold, windy summit in early afternoon. The demands of the cameras, both television and still, and the severity of the perilous descent – I think I prayed and gasped a lot – slowed us down considerably; we reached the parking lot just as the last light faded from the sky and the trail beneath our feet became indistinct. I think we were the last people down. The mountain loomed above us under a bright rising moon. I took a long, long look. Unlike Larry Davis, I may never get up there again.

Photo by Willem lange