Tag Archive 'mountains'

Jul 08 2022

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Two Completely Different Landscapes

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Last month, towards the end of a big trip out West, I hiked in the Mojave Desert with my friend Bill Weiss. We went into Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California to be specific. We left his Jeep at the end of a dirt road and hiked to Queen Mountain before sunrise – before the sun had a chance to really heat things up. We wore jackets to protect ourselves from a strong, dry wind that threatened to strip the moisture from our bodies. The air temperature was in the 70s when we started, and in the 80s when we finished our hike a few hours later.

A fine dust covered the ground, along with rocks of all sizes. There was no sign of water anywhere. Yucca, creosote and cactus plants arose from the arid landscape. They sported all kinds of needles and other hard, sharp edges. As Bill pointed out, desert plants have attitude.

When the sun rose, I was awestruck by the beauty of this wide-open country. The mountains in the distance were awash in pastel colors, and the folds in the ground closer to us cast long shadows as did the vegetation. Oh, but that blinding orb shined relentlessly once it finally showed itself. We stripped off our jackets and tipped the bills of our hats down over our eyes as we hiked out. We sucked down precious water from our bottles. Dust mixed with the sweat and sunscreen on my exposed forearms. In the desert there is no place to hide from that blazing sun. We were glad to be back indoors later on that day, when temps spiked over 100 degrees.

Yesterday I hiked up Mount Abraham in central Vermont. Temps were in the 60s when I started and in the low 70s when I finished. Nice and cool, especially under the cover of trees, but I sweated the entire time anyway. The forest was damp, very damp, after weeks of considerable rain. There was water running everywhere, and the trail was all roots and rocks and mud puddles. From the top of the mountain, I marveled at the Green Mountains rolling away to the south beneath billowing clouds. A thick haze covered the Champlain Valley to the west, due to high humidity. The sun peaked occasionally from the clouds. The wind blew but it was more comforting than threatening as it usually is this time of year. The wind in the middle of winter, well, that’s another story.

The desert has its charms, but I’m a creature of the forest. I like having that canopy overhead and feel quite comfortable in the endlessly green understory. Granted, it’s a lot easier to get lost in the woods than it is in the open desert, but I always manage to find my way home. And I don’t like being very far away from water. Others don’t mind it, though. To each his/her own, I suppose.

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May 14 2021

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Ridge Gambling

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I was in the mood for a big hike yesterday so I drove to Lake George to explore the Tongue Mountain Range. That range runs parallel to the lake, with the second half of it on a peninsula jutting southward. There’s a trail along the top of the range – nine miles over half a dozen summits. I couldn’t possibly do all that and retrace my steps in one day, so I started at Clay Meadows Trailhead near the middle. I climbed a thousand feet over two miles to reach the top of the ridge. Then I headed south towards Fifth Peak.

Half a mile along the ridge, a side trail goes up to a lean-to atop Fifth Peak. I took that. Upon reaching the lean-to, I encountered a nice couple from Buffalo, Matt and Carmen, who had spent the night. I chatted with them a short while before snapping a few pictures of the lake from a lookout. Then I returned to the main trail and continued south along the ridge towards French Point Mountain. I had read online that there was a great view from the top of it.

Headed south, I gradually lost a hundred and fifty feet of elevation along the ridge as expected, then went up a slight rise before the trail dropped sharply down into a col another several hundred feet. Hmm… I would have to climb up this on my way back to the trailhead. Oh well. That’s the way ridge running goes. Up and down.

After reaching the col I began an ascent up what I thought was French Point Peak. It turned out to be just a bump on the ridge. Nice views from lookouts there, as well, so I thought about stopping. But no, the day was young and I still had plenty of strength. The third descent was almost as steep as the second one. The ridge upped the ante another hundred feet or so. I kept going. After another short ascent, the trail dropped again. Now I was concerned about all the climbing I would have to do on the way out. Ridge gambling. Would the view be worth it? I matched the ridge’s ante and kept going.

One last climb before reaching the top of French Point Mountain, a good two miles south of Fifth Peak. Then I walked out to the edge of a cliff for a spectacular view. Lake George sprawled fifteen miles south before me, and another ten miles or so north towards Ticonderoga. The sun shined brightly from a partly cloudy sky. A few black flies came out as temps rose into the 60s. I enjoyed the view while eating lunch. Then I turned around and faced the long, arduous hike back to the car.

Four ascents over two miles, back to Fifth Peak. Then another two and a half miles down to the trailhead parking lot. I climbed 2,500 feet total, hiking nine miles. During the last mile, the muscles around my partially worn-out right knee began to cramp. By then I was out of water and the black flies were swarming. Was it worth it? Absolutely! The gamble had paid off, but I couldn’t have gone another mile.

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Sep 20 2011

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Favorite Mountain

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Someone recently asked me what my favorite mountain is. Without hesitation, I blurted out, “Wheeler Mountain,” surprising myself by this.  After all, I hadn’t seen the mountain, much less hiked it, in over twenty years.

A couple days ago, I revisited that great mound of rock.  My wife, Judy, wanted to visit friends in Vermont’s mythical Northeast Kingdom, so I tagged along.  Wheeler Mountain is only twelve miles away from her friends’ house.  So after lunch, I broke away to climb it with my dog, Matika.

I had to use maps to find the trailhead, but the trail itself was surprisingly familiar.  The mountain hadn’t changed much in my twenty-year absence.  My memory of it made the absence seem more like two years.

Wheeler Mountain is a great place to hike.  It’s a fun scramble over solid granite that provides breathtaking views for relatively little effort.  And the mountain is located just far enough off the beaten path to feel remote.  But it’s important to me for a different reason: I had my best guiding experience there.

Back in the early 90s, I worked as a guide for Vermont Hiking Holidays.  We took novice hikers on day hikes in Vermont and the Adirondacks, introducing them to the many wonders of nature.  My greatest success occurred on Wheeler Mountain. I had seven yuppies who wanted more than the tame morning hike done by the larger group.  That afternoon, I took them up Wheeler Mountain with the promise of great views.  During the hike they were all chatting away incessantly, per usual, but when we entered a small copse of conifers near the top, I stopped and said: “Listen.”   It took a couple minutes but eventually they all heard it, even the stockbroker.  Their eyes widened as they slowly grasped the great, wild silence enveloping the mountain.

My life as a nature writer is all about getting people to stop and listen to the wild.  This task has turned out to be much harder than I ever imagined it would be.  We live in a noisy, fast-paced culture chock full of distractions, and the elemental wildness of the world is overwhelmed by it.  We are overwhelmed, I should say, and the wild remains largely hidden in plain sight as a consequence.

There are easier hikes up more magnificent mountains and much more dramatic views, but Wheeler will always be my favorite.  While climbing it the other day, I stopped and listened for a minute or two to the sound of my own heavy breathing until a raven in the distance broke the silence.  Then I smiled.  Yessir, Wheeler still has the power… and that gives me hope.

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