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Mountain Madness: The Limits of Human Endurance and Lessons the Mountains Teach

I was running down the mountain as fast as I could, while still being safe, trying to quickly return to the car to retrieve water so that I could hike back up the mountain to deliver some much-needed hydration to Logan.  Then, I heard it.  A shrieking howl piercing the wilderness, tearing through the trees along the trail and down the valley, shredding the silence of the mountain, upon which the only other audible sound was the distant rushing of the rivers and waterfalls that lay at the trailhead from earlier in the day: “RRRAAAAGGGGHHHHHHH!! WHY DOES THIS MOUNTAIN HAVE TO BE SO FRIGGIN’ LOOOOONNNNNNNGGGGG!” On the one hand, I couldn’t help but lol—out loud; he was being terribly dramatic: the howling rage, the demands that I call a medi-vac chopper to rescue him, and the threats to pitch himself headlong over the very next cliff so that he could break a leg and force a rescue, were more than over the top; ‘ahem,’ no pun intended.  On the other hand, Logan was dehydrated, cramping, incredibly sore, probably hungry— and kept stopping every three or four minutes—perhaps even more frequently—to rest.  He’d been complaining since before we summited Lafayette, and by the time we reached Green Leaf Hut on the way down, where I tried to get him to rest a while and get some water, I began to wonder if I had pushed him just a little too far.  Where, exactly, is that line?  How do you know when you walk up to it?  How do you know when it’s been crossed?  What happens when there is no going back?  What was I trying to teach him?  In some ways, this is an open letter to my son to explain; in others, I’m seeking answers to these questions in the hope that he learned something from this excursion.

The Franconia Ridge Loop is the premier trail for any hiker in New Hampshire.  It’s a must do for sure, with, quite possibly, the most spectacular views of the White Mountains and the National Forest of any of the peaks in NH.  Ranking as the seventh highest peak in New England and situated at the eastern edge of the forest, there’s good reason for this: one sees the entirety of the White Mountain range and the National Forest from the summit of Lafayette as well as the dramatic drop-off to the valley below.  The loop trailhead is located across from Lafayette Campground on highway 93 in Franconia State Park.  According to the Alltrails App, the ridge loop includes 8.4 miles of hiking, a skosh over 3,800 feet of elevation gain, and three summits: 4,760, 5,089, and 5,249 feet (Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette) respectively.  It features waterfalls, lush green forests, famed New Hampshire granite cliffs and walls, as well as 360° views of the White Mountain National Forest.  Part of the famed Appalachian Trail lies along its ridge system; on the Lafayette side of the loop lies the Green Leaf Hut, refuge of day and thru-hikers alike, where one can get a good night’s rest and a meal for the price of volunteering around the hut.  The loop challenges even experienced hikers and pays off with both majestic scenery and a sense of accomplishing something not everyone can or will do. 

I started asking myself if I was pushing him too far even before we had reached the summit of the first peak, Little Haystack.  Logan started talking about going back right around the time we reached the alpine zone.  (There is no strict determined elevation for the alpine zone worldwide; it varies from geographical region to geographical region.  The standard definition of an alpine zone is the place where trees grow to an average of eight feet or less.  In New England, this happens at relatively low elevations, somewhere around 3,000 feet, due to the harshness of the weather in this area.  If you haven’t yet read my story on surviving these extremes, check out “Nature Boys From the ‘Hood”, where Jon and Pierre attempt to brave some of the worst weather New England has to offer, at elevation, in the dead of winter.)  And while it’s true that the weather from the start was foggy, rainy, a little on the cool side, and everything was slick and/or covered with mud and muck, this is something that never came up in his complaints.  His complaints were consistent: tired, sore, unable to continue.  I was torn between believing that he wouldn’t make it because this mountain was, in fact, kicking our ass, and believing that he just wanted to give up because it was hard.  I vacillated between belief and doubt because Logan has a tendency to lie about how difficult things are when he doesn’t want to do something.  Like school.  He comes home with either hundreds or zeros.  Nothing in between.  Then he tells his mother and I that his poor grades are because his school work is too difficult and that he doesn’t understand it.  This is contrary to everything his teachers tell us.  Half the time I want to scream, “STOP GIVING UP, Logan!”  I believe that some small, perhaps not so small, part of me thought that his giving up, his failure to conquer the mountain, would be mine as well—as a father.  That part of me was unwilling to let that happen.  Going back would mean that the mountain had won, that I had allowed him to give up in the face of a struggle, that I would allow him would accept defeat.  I decided that I had to keep pushing him (and me). 

In retrospect, perhaps part of this hike, this trip, was my attempt to show him that he needs to continue to push himself when things get hard, that he has to stop giving up because something is difficult or he doesn’t want to do it, like he does in school.  I hoped that he would read his physical suffering as a metaphor at the end of the day.  Life is hard; it hurts; sometimes it can feel like the sun will never shine; it will be tedious; circumstances will be overwhelming, like there is no end in sight; it may seem like you’re climbing a god-damned mountain for Christ’s sake; but you have to keep going: through the rain, through the sweat, through the pain and agony of a sore back, tired legs, cut and bruised shins and arms, blistering feet, an aching, dehydrated and cramping body, and the temptation to give in because, maybe, “I’ve done enough”.  There are times when that’s true, and giving up is okay: the end of a long day of work, especially when you don’t work a traditional nine-to-five: a book that really, really sucks—never finish a book just because you started it: when your eyes are bigger than your stomach: when you’ve had a good day in the stock market.  And there are times when that’s not okay: quitting school without a plan: because something is too hard: when just a little more means success: just because it hurts: if pain leads to self-improvement.  Under those circumstances you should stick it out.  It is okay to quit–sometimes.  I hope he learns the difference between the two. 

So, we trudged on.  After lunch on Little Haystack that consisted of some canned chicken salad, fruit and trail mix, we started hiking the ridge, thinking all the climbing was behind us: we were wrong.  Visibility was down to thirty feet, maybe fifty at best.  We could see the path directly under our feet and some ways in front of us, but views of the valley and the surrounding range were completely obstructed by rain, mist and fog.  Those magnificent views of the valley and that ridgeline is part of why people hike this loop.  Without those views this was just walking uphill in the rain.  And while it’s true that the most difficult hiking was behind us, we still had both Lincoln and Lafayette to climb.  However, we had less than 500 total feet of elevation-gain remaining and that was spread out over roughly 8/10 of a mile: that’s an 11% gradient.  Peanuts, really.  The gradient on the way up was nearly double that: almost 2,000 feet in less than three miles, about 21%.  Although, if readers try, they can feel his pain a little.  He thought we were done.  Adding insult to injury, the peaks kept appearing out of the mist.  The trail levels off for a bit after leaving the summit of Little Haystack.  Then, the gradient slowly increases as it approaches two minor unnamed “peaks” before summiting again on Lincoln.  From Lincoln, the ridge system continues its gentle undulation, surpassing two more, also unnamed, minor “peaks”, before topping out above 5,000 feet at Lafayette.  Every time an incline reared its head from the mist Logan erupted, “Oh you gotta be fucking kidding me!  When is this gonna end?!”  I did feel bad, but there really was no going back now.  If we were going to turn around it would have had to have been back at Little Haystack.  We were well past halfway and had to keep going.  Finishing the trail was our only option. 

I finally felt a little justified as we approached Lafayette, maybe 100 feet from the summit, when Logan erupted with a “HOLY SHIT!”  The rain had stopped by now, and the fog had cleared on the east side of the mountain, lifting her skirts, so to speak, giving us a view of the valley below, down to the trailhead, and across 93 to Cannon Mountain.  For the first time that day, other than back at the waterfalls what seemed like ages ago, I felt like it was worth it.  “Aren’t you glad you came and decided not to give up?”  He didn’t say anything.  We sat for a short while, removed our backpacks and shirts, plopped on a boulder and attempted to dry off a bit.  The gods were smiling; the weather was clearing only minutes before we bagged our final peak of the day.  What are the odds of that?  His attitude had also completely changed by this point and I feel like seeing things from a new perspective had changed how he felt, physically as well as mentally.  This turn assuaged the guilt I felt for what looked to be turning into a bad decision. 

It was literally all downhill from the summit of Lafayette, and the hike down to the Green Leaf Hut was somewhat uneventful, even lighthearted and convivial.  Logan found a massive tree branch that reminded him of something from the game Skylander.  He does this on all hikes for some reason; he picks up random large objects and carries them with us.  Earlier this week we climbed Monadnock and he first found a large icicle that he carried with us, then a small sheet of ice.  Anyway, he clearly felt better heading back to the trail head and this got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, he was being a little bit of a diva on the way up. 

The worst was yet to come.  He didn’t want to stay and rest for too long at Green Leaf, so we left after perhaps ten minutes.  I should have filled up our Nalgene bottles; that’s my bad.  We ran out of water not too long after that, and that’s when the “Mountain Madness” set in.  Mountain Madness is what Logan afterward dubbed his behavior on the final descent to the car.  There was much screaming, cursing, stopping to rest/give up, threatening to hurl himself from every cliff we saw.  I think he was grieving.  I feel like he went through all the stages of grief: denial that this was happening, anger that it was, bargaining with me to call a helicopter to come get us—I’m not even kidding or exaggerating as I write this, he was like, “can’t you just call a helicopter, because I’m not gonna make it”—depressed about the fact that this was never going to be over, only to get up and accept that here we were here and the only way to finish the day and get off this mountain was to hike down.  Repeat that process about twenty or thirty times over the last three miles and you have some idea of what it was like hiking with him.  It was not a pretty sight.

We did eventually make it off the mountain, and at the end of the day he was fine.  In the car we both had a good laugh about the hike.  Ten hours on that mountain, nearly nine total miles climbed, and something like 4,000 total feet of elevation gain.  I’m uncertain of the exact numbers as my phone died almost immediately after we hit our highest point.  Yesterday, as I was polishing up this draft I asked him what he learned from that trip: “nothing”, he said.  But refused to say more.  I’m not really convinced of that.  I like to think he is just a typical, uncommunicative teen, and that he really learned something about himself on that trip, even if he looks back to realize it later in life.  He said he’s not ready to do another hike like that anytime soon, but only a few days ago we hiked Monadnock in Jaffrey, NH.  Monadnock is a little over 3,000 feet and the trail we followed took us out and back over the course of almost four and a half miles.  That was a great day and he said he’s ready for another one like it this weekend coming up, the first weekend of the New Year.

So, how far is too far?  Where is that line?  I’m still not certain I know.  It seems to be that humans are ever able to push that line further and further into the distance by putting one foot in front of the other.  One more step, then one more, then one more.  If you think about it, what’s the difference between walking ten miles and walking ten miles plus one step?  Or plus two steps?  The cut-off is arbitrary.  At some point steps turn into feet, feet turn into miles, and miles disappear into the landscape.  Being human means not only living with pain, but also possessing the capacity to walk with that pain, perhaps even through it.  Grandma Gatewood taught me that.  To endure, ultimately, is to be human. 

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