Many peaks and some personal valleys mark a daunting quest

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004


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  Lisa Marie Pane poses atop Mt. Adams on Sept. 5, 2004 in the rugged northern Presidentials of New Hampshire. Mt. Adams is the state's second-highest peak at 5,774 feet. AP Photo/courtesy of Lisa Marie

A solitary hiker sits on rocks Sept. 11, 2004 off the summit of Mt. Monroe, N.H., with a view toward the Dry River Wilderness.The mountain is among 48 in the state that reach 4,000 feet and higher.

AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane

Editor's note: At this time of year when many ponder resolutions, an Associated Press writer reflects on a challenge she set herself and what its pursuit cost her.

WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST, N.H. - It had taken me more than four hours to climb to this spot in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Now, as I studied the treacherous slide of loose rock and jutting boulders that stood between me and the summit of Owl's Head mountain, my doubts mounted.

Why was I here? Did I have any business doing this?

After all, I'm a good 20 pounds overweight, and I'm no Olympic athlete. I was never even a Girl Scout.

Suddenly, tears cascaded down my cheeks. I hung my head, not wanting to look up and certainly not wanting to look down.

''I don't want to do this!'' I wailed.

My hiking buddy calmly reminded me that if I didn't finish this hike, I'd never reach the goal I'd set myself.

It had become an albatross, this quest.

Like a lot of people, I had taken on a new challenge during a low point in my life. My marriage had collapsed. I was frightened, angry, rebellious and in search of something new to hold onto.

Part of me wanted to repudiate what my ex-husband had come to symbolize to me - laziness. Another part hungered for something that would make me happy after spending too long trying to make someone else happy.

I thought back to the times when I was most at peace and remembered hours of mountain biking in Connecticut and cross-country skiing in Vermont: the smell of pine, the rustling leaves, the way the woods muffled the sounds of ''real life'' and made me feel as though I were safely wrapped in nature's cocoon.

That was the backdrop as I sought to exorcise the demons of heartbreak. Some recent divorcees soothe the ache with spending sprees. I went on a hiking binge.

First, it was leisurely strolls along flat paths through suburban forests. Then came longer hikes. Eventually, I graduated to overnight backpacking along the Appalachian Trail.

But it was never enough.

Then, I heard about a hobby known in hiking circles as ''peakbagging'' - notching mountains off a list.

In the Northeast, this pursuit revolves around the ''4Ks,'' as hikers call mountains that are 4,000 feet and higher.

This was what I'd looked for: A challenging to-do list, a way to blend my back-to-nature instinct with a competitive drive.

I'd bag the New Hampshire 48.

My odyssey began in earnest on May 7, 2000, with Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast at 6,288 feet.

Its elevation pales in comparison to mountains in the West, but it's atop Mount Washington where the fiercest winds on earth have been recorded: 231 miles per hour.

I had attempted to climb Mount Washington before. I was probably two miles from the top when I turned back, my legs rubber and my lungs burning.

This time, enough of the winter's snow had disappeared that my hiking partner, Dan, and I were able to take a more manageable trail to the top.

Still, by the time we made it above treeline, around 4,000 feet, I was overheating from the exertion. I plunked down on a rock and puked. The release reinvigorated me, and I bounded up the trail.

By the time I reached the summit, I was tired but emotionally charged. With a Frankenstein gait, I jerked my way toward the summit sign and cried tears of joy.

A photo shows me decked out in full winter gear - Gore-Tex jacket and bibs, ice ax held aloft, oblivious to the gathering clouds.

At the summit weather observatory, Dan and I were urged to head down fast. A storm was coming.

Within minutes, thunder shook the ground, resonating in our internal organs. The sky turned a weird dark green.

We started running. Dan was 20 feet ahead when he stopped at a spot where immense slabs of rock, each about 10 feet high, frame a narrow passageway.

I heard his voice faintly over the storm's roar:

''Get rid of your ice ax!''

Instantly, I threw it to my right, the metal pinging against rock.

We crouched between the boulders, sitting on our backpacks. We didn't want to be in direct contact with the rock as lightning danced atop Washington.

I wondered if I would make it down alive.

After about 20 minutes, as the most ominous clouds rolled away, we made a break. Charging down the trail, we scraped our knees and slid on patches of snow before reaching a line of krummholz - short, nubby trees gnarled by the high winds. We were below treeline, our safety net.

By the time I was back home, I was on a high.

Though Mount Washington was the closest I'd ever come to death, each of the climbs ahead held its adventures.

On Mount Passaconaway in February 2001, hypothermia struck after a five-hour hike in below-zero temperatures. One minute, I was fine. But as soon as my hiking buddy, Jim, and I stopped to set up camp, I started to shiver. I could barely move my fingers and couldn't think straight.

I chaotically yanked gear from my pack and threw it into my tent. I slipped into my sleeping bag and yelled that my headlamp wouldn't work.

''Do you want another one?'' Jim called as he fired up his stove.


''Do you want anything to eat?''


I was making no sense. Thankfully, Jim ignored my strange replies and forced me to down some macaroni and cheese.

I stayed tucked away in my down sleeping bag for more than 12 hours. By morning, I was still lethargic, but I felt satisfied to have bagged another peak.

In August 2001, I camped at the Kinsman Pond tentsite in Franconia Notch after bagging both North and South Kinsman.

Peering through the mesh of my tent, I watched shooting stars, then read a bit of Nathaniel Hawthorne by the light of my headlamp before falling asleep.

When it came time to trek back out, I was well-rested and proud. But as the saying goes: Getting to the summit is optional; getting back down is not.


Lisa Marie Pane poses atop Mt. Adams on Sept. 5, 2004 in the rugged northern Presidentials of New Hampshire. Mt. Adams is the state's second-highest peak at 5,774 feet.

AP Photo/courtesy of Lisa Marie

I still don't know exactly what happened. It happened so fast. And yet it happened in slow motion. I can only guess that I had planted one of my hiking sticks so deeply that I got tripped up.

The next thing I knew, I was propelled forward. I hit my mouth on a rock, then my nose, then my forehead. I was stunned to see dripping blood.

Sitting on the trail, I determined the blood was from a gash that stretched from my upper lip to my nostrils. I had scraped up my forearms and knees.

My hiking buddy checked my wounds and swapped his lighter pack with my heavier one.

Four hours later, back at our cars, I assured him I was OK - but I stopped by a Boston emergency room anyway. The doctors found nothing was broken, and I didn't have a concussion, though my face would be swollen and I sported a broad nose and two black eyes for a time.

And there was this bit of self-discovery I hadn't anticipated when I started my quest: I have a mighty hard head.

When you first start out, the trail maps are foreign. You feel like Paul Bunyan, as though you could easily bound over each and every hump.

Ignorance was bliss in my first hikes.

The challenges were exciting and unexpected, and in my first year of tackling the 4Ks, I notched off 23.

Many were solo treks. There's something about hiking alone that intensifies the experience. You have time to listen and watch and smell all that's around you without worrying about whether you're hiking too fast or too slow.

And there's so much to take in: the way the sun glows through the trees, the way quartz bleeds through rock, the thin mist that rolls across a mountaintop. Smelling balsam, feeding a tame Canadian jay out of your hand, spying a moose in the forest.

There's the feeling of being on another planet when you're looking down at the clouds.

But over time, as the pain of my break-up eased, I lost a big motivator for getting into the mountains. I was no longer looking for an escape.

That's when fear began to seep in. I kept replaying in my mind the head-banging I took coming down off the Kinsmans.

If it could happen on relatively easy terrain like that, what might happen traversing a ledge, or edging along a ridgeline?

Enter ''SherpaKroto.''

White Mountain peakbaggers are fond of adopting trail names - especially the climbers who frequent Web bulletin boards like and the Appalachian Mountain Club's There's Farmer Bob and LittleBear and Poison Ivy. There's Dirt-Girl and FantasmaGris and Seeker.

I go by Alpinista, which means ''mountain climber'' in Italian.

Personalities come through in their posts. You figure out which ones are the speed hikers, which ones meander, which ones are out for adventure and which for escape. You get a sense of which ones put safety first, and which ones wing it.

A few months after my Kinsmans tumble, I got an e-mail from SherpaKroto, real name Paul Croteau, asking me to join him in climbing Mount Whiteface, known for its steep, smooth ledges.

Years ago, there were wooden blocks drilled into the rock in spots difficult to navigate, but those had been removed. Now narrow cracks are the footholds, and hikers must rely on good balance and luck. It was a tough mountain to tackle as the first after my fall.

I don't know what possessed me to say yes.

As the day approached, fear took hold. A guidebook describes the Blueberry Ledge Trail that leads to the summit as ''one of the more challenging climbs in the White Mountains.'' And this was November. Would there be snow and ice? What would happen if I slipped?

I kept telling myself I'd turn back if it got dicey.

Sherpa made it easy, keeping me preoccupied by gabbing along the whole route. At one particularly tough spot, I took a step and my foot shook wildly. I took a deep breath and willed myself up and over. We made it to the summit without a hitch.

I had climbed 38 of the peaks now, but the 10 left on the list seemed daunting.

Something in me was changing. It was becoming increasingly difficult to leave the comforts of home. The hikes were becoming mentally draining. I kept asking myself why I was out there? Was I too fixated on ''The List''?

In the beginning, the list was a compass pointing me to new places to explore. Now it was a chore. It hung over me, nagged at me.

Without really deciding to, I gave myself a break. For a year, I didn't hit a single 4K.

Then, last July Fourth weekend, I returned to the Carter Notch Hut in the White Mountains, to the solitude I knew and loved. It's a simple jaunt along an easy trail.

I hiked in during the morning, and spent the day listening to the nature around me and then reading a spy thriller - a nice break from my routine of five daily newspapers and the AP wire.

The next day, I hooked up with a southbound thru-hiker - someone who hikes the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia - and we decided to tackle the Wildcats. In one hike, I bagged two more peaks.

Maybe I would not give up after all, though some hard climbs lay ahead.

Owl's Head is relatively small, 4,025 feet; but reaching it requires a long slog, 18 miles round-trip. It's mostly along a railroad bed once used by loggers, except for the last bit that goes up and down a slide trail.

Flat trails are monotonous, and there's too much time to think. Maybe that's what led to my crying jag.

As I studied the treacherous, loose rock and boulders between me and the summit, I kept envisioning a misstep would send me plunging.

A debate raged in my head: Wouldn't a nice steak and a glass of wine taste good about now? Yet, I had traveled so far - and I didn't want to repeat this hike.

I put one hesitant foot in front of the other. Before I knew it, I was having fun.

Finally, I touched the carved wooden marker saying ''Owl's Head,'' nailed to a tree at the summit. I was thrilled.

The whole trek down, I was riding a high. I had done it. It took some cheerleading from Sherpa, but I was the one who got myself up there.

It was a sunny day, and we stopped beside the slide to refuel. I gazed at the mountains in the distance.

Lafayette. Lincoln. Garfield. Galehead. South Twin.

I had done them all and had just seven left.

On this hike, a weight was lifted. I had battled a lot to reach Owl's Head, but I had not backed down. It gave me the confidence I needed to keep going.

Finally, I had just one peak to go: Mount Isolation.

Fall was approaching, and with it the prospect of wintry weather that can arrive with little notice in the mountains. I hadn't done much solo hiking for a while, but I was too antsy to wait for a time that would be convenient for my hiking partners. Keeping an eye on the weather forecasts, I waited for the right day to venture out.

That day arrived on Sept. 23.

I could barely sleep the night before - not from nerves but from excitement. I felt like a kid at Christmas.

Well before sunrise, I hit the trailhead. Normally, I'm a slow hiker. This time, I got into a rhythm and had to force myself to slow down so I wouldn't burn out. This was a wonderful walk in the woods, past cross-country ski trails and birch stands, through clearings, and over five river crossings.

At last, I scrambled up a steep, rocky path onto a broad, sun-basked summit.

Words, even pictures, cannot do justice to the view I took in as I rested there, glad to be alone. So many mountains, so many memories.

I gazed at Mount Washington, where it all began. Its crown is normally encased in fog - just as my own quest had been fogged with doubts at times. But on this day, everything was just so clear.

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