My friend Marcus Harmon loved to hike Mount Monadnock.
We had talked about hiking it together on many occasions, but life and schedules, work and commitments, have a way of preventing us from doing the things we really want to do. And after Marcus died on Dec. 5, 2015 in a car crash, I unfortunately never got the chance.
So now, each year on the anniversary of his passing, myself and two friends, Trevor Cutter and Tyler King, make the long trek to the summit from Monadnock State Park in Jaffrey to remember our friend. It’s a way to talk about him and tell old stories. Speculate about what he’d be saying about the conditions of the hike (it is December after all) and really just grieve his loss. Not that I don’t think about him every day, but doing something he enjoyed makes you feel close to him – especially on the day when you seem to miss him the most.
So no matter the conditions, we hike. Like I said, it is December and things can get a little tricky as you climb to 3,165 feet.
Now the first year, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into, but it was for Marcus. I’m not much of a hiker. I enjoy it, but just don’t do it much. One to two small mountains a year is probably about right, and can’t actually say any had been climbed in the winter.
It snowed a few inches overnight, and it made for some slippery conditions. We left the park headquarters on the White Dot Trail at a time that was probably too late (around 1 p.m.) for the route we took – undetermined at the time. We summated around 4 p.m. after what was a difficult hike for me along Cascade Link to Spellman Trail (one of the steeper trails on the mountain) to Pompelly. Tired and feeling the effects of the last three hours and with darkness coming a lot sooner than we’d be down the mountain, I got a little nervous.
The first order of business was to find the White Dot Trail. That was the way we had to go down because Spellman would have been too difficult. With very little visibility and being disoriented from trying to find a place to shelter from the elements, it took a while to figure out where to go, and even then we just started heading off the peak still not too sure of where we were going. Most of the hike down was in the dark in wet sweatpants and cramping legs, and lacking some of the necessities for a safe return.
Last year, we took the same route and it was again less than ideal conditions with a light drizzle falling the entire way, slippery conditions and wicked winds at the top that sent chunks of ice flying everywhere, but we left much earlier and were down before dark, although another difficult hike none the less.
And just last week, because of work schedules, we were set to leave around noon – a little later than we probably should, but it was for Marcus. We had to do it. So I called to see what the conditions were like and was told very icy and micro spikes were recommended. Not having any – neither did Tyler because I essentially ruined his the first year – Trevor picked up some on his way and we were on the trail just past midday.
But this time we took a different way. I just thought another trip on Spellman would be cutting it too close, so we took White Dot to the top. It’s the most direct (and straight up) and we actually saw other humans along the way. There was a guy who told us he was “the Goat,” and he hikes it twice a week in retirement.
He asked if I was the inexperienced one of the group (because he saw me looking at the map) and told us the trail didn’t get any better and that we should really consider putting on the microspikes. To this point we hadn’t really needed them. There was definitely ice, but also a fair amount of dry rock to climb. It actually seemed better than the first two years.
We summated, without the use of spikes, in less than two hours and had plenty of time to take in what we hadn’t been able to the previous two trips – the view. And going down the same way you went up makes for a much easier start to the decent – being able to find the trail and all. We were up and down the mountain in well under four hours and it seemed much quicker than that.
I’d say at least for myself, I learned a lot about hiking in the winter from the previous two trips. I always brought plenty of food and water. I ditched the sweatpants for jeans and fleece pajamas for added warmth. I now have hiking boots and wore my Long Trail T-shirt (the same one Marcus had that we’d wear on the same day from time to time) a thermal long sleeve, a sweatshirt, fleece and winter jackets – which was two too many layers – and brought a change of socks, gloves and winter hat. Just in case, I threw in two flashlights and a lantern.
But even though I felt more than prepared, I still checked in with Matt Rubino of Monadnock State Park earlier this week to get some recommendations for a safe winter hike. The first thing he mentioned was that microspikes were needed for this time of year.
“It’s really dangerous because you can slip and fall very easily,” he said.
Two liters of water is what they suggest, along with plenty of snacks and even a thermal flask with a warm drink. Rubino said it’s a good idea to let people know when you’re hiking, what your planned return time is and also to never hike alone.
“Having someone with you can make a big difference,” he said.
Keeping to the marked trails is something they stress, and only doing what you feel comfortable with. Wear extra layers and waterproof boots, and bring extra gloves and socks.
Rubino said to remember the summit is about 10 degrees colder, before the wind chill, so prepare for part of the hike, but added hikers should not linger at the top for too long.
And no matter when you go, bring a flashlight just in case.
“You don’t want to be coming down in the dark without a light,” Rubino said.
There’s also the hike safe card offered by the state. According to N.H. Fish and Game website, “the card will cover the calendar year from the date of purchase, expiring on Dec. 31. Pursuant to RSA 206:26-bb I, Any person determined by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to have acted negligently and requiring a search and rescue response by the Department shall be liable to the department for the reasonable cost of the department’s expenses for such search and rescue response. Unless the person shows proof of possessing a current year: N.H. Hunting or Fishing license, N.H. off highway recreational vehicle or snowmobile registration, N.H. boat registration and/or a voluntary Hike Safe Card.”
The card is $25 for an individual and $35 for a family and can be purchased at nhfishandgame.com/HikeSafe.aspx.
So far this year, Rubino said, there have been no winter rescue operations on Mount Monadnock, something we kind of joked about the first trip up two years ago – even though it wasn’t really all that funny.
You’re all probably well aware of the fact that Monadnock is the most climbed mountain in North America, and gets plenty of traffic in the winter.
It’s beautiful this time of year, and that’s a big reason why it’s still hiked on a daily basis. For me, it’s a once a year thing on Dec. 5 – at least when it comes to winter – and only time will tell what next year’s adventure will bring.