Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tom & Atticus Featured in Mike Dickerman's Column "The Beaten Path" (March 25, 2007)

(The following Mike Dickerman piece ran as his weekly column in several newspapers, including Foster's Daily Democrat and the Littleton Currier.)

Michael Dickerman: Individual quests spice up 2007 winter peakbagging season

With the official start of spring earlier this week, another winter hiking season has come to an end in the White Mountains. Now I'd be kidding myself and all of you if I said winter had now completely given over to spring, because in the mountains winter-like conditions will certainly persist for another month and maybe even longer. When I say the winter hiking season has ended, I mean only that hiking during "calendar winter" is no longer possible.

To the average hiker, the distinction between hiking in winter and hiking under winter-like conditions doesn't mean a whole lot. It does matter, however, if you are among the legion of trampers who are working on the White Mountain 4,000-footer winter peakbagging list, for only summits reached during the calendar winter count on one's tally sheet. The growing popularity of winter hiking, and peakbagging in particular, has led to some interesting individual quests in recent years.

The winter of 2006-2007 proved no different, as the following two stories will attest. First there's the tale of Tom Ryan, 45, of Newburyport, Mass., and his faithful companion, Atticus M. Finch. By trade, Ryan is a journalist, but over the last two years he has frequently traded in his laptop computer and reporter's notepad for a backpack and a pair of hiking boots or snowshoes.

Ryan began exploring the Whites in 2005 and an instant love affair began. In less than two full calendar years he's been to the top of a 4,000-foot summit more than 235 times. And in most instances he's been joined by his faithful four-legged companion, Atticus, a miniature schnauzer with an apparently equal love of hiking and the mountains.

After completing the all-season 4,000-footer list in late 2005, Ryan and four-year-old Atticus tried their hand at winter hiking last year and found it instantly to both their liking. So this winter, Tom and Atticus set out to hike as many of the 4,000-footers as they could squeeze into the three-month season, and in doing so decided to raise money for the Jimmy Fund and the Dana- Farber Cancer Institute in Boston by getting sponsors to pledge money for each summit reached. They called their winter-long adventure, "Quest for a Cure."The tireless pair practically lived in the Whites for all three months, and on average wound up bagging nearly a peak a day.

Though Tom's goal of reaching all 48 of the peaks twice in the same winter season was not realized, he and the amazing Atticus did hit 81 peaks. Only the eight official peaks of the Presidential Range, the six summits along the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range, and remote Mount Isolation on Montalban Ridge eluded the pair on their second go-around of the season.

That the two were able to reach as many summits as they did is a pretty remarkable achievement in itself, especially given the nature of this winter's weather. While the season was certainly late in arriving, once it came, it stayed. The Valentine's Day snowstorm that dumped up to two feet of snow in the mountains did not help Tom and Atticus as trail conditions were as tough in the storm's aftermath as anything hikers have seen in several years. Likewise, last week's warm-up and rain created a whole set of new problem for hikers (see below), as did persistent winds all winter long on the Presidentials. Those winds, in fact, limited the Tom and Atticus to just a couple of days of above treeline travel, not so much out of concern for Tom's well-being, but for his dog's. For Atticus's safety always came first.

The second interesting peakbagging story of note from this winter evolved around Mats Roing of Brighton, Mass., who late in the season added a bit of drama to the New Hampshire hiking scene when he attempted to set a new speed record for reaching all the 4,000-footers. (The existing winter record is 9 days, 20 hours, and 24 minutes established in March 2006 by Vermonter Tim Seaver.) Roing set off on his peakbagging sprint March 10 with a successful traverse of the Presidential Range. After following that up with a single-day traverse of the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range, things looked promising for Roing. Then the weather gods took control.

A tougher than expected hike up Mounts Whiteface and Passaconaway on the third day of his quest forced him to alter his already tight schedule and postpone to another day ascents of three additional summits. The next day he reached three new summits, including one of the peaks originally planned for the previous day, but again he fell a bit further behind schedule.

Then on Day Five, unseasonably warm temperatures, combined with rainy weather, allowed Roing to snatch just one of the five peaks he'd hoped to grab that day. Following a near six-and-a-half-hour round-trip slog up Mount Carrigain, he drove west on Route 302 to Crawford Notch, where he began a planned traverse of the three peaks of the Willey Range.

Continued rain and uncooperative trail conditions reluctantly forced him to abandon that trek and a separate hike up Mount Hale.

To make up for the lost peaks, Roing caught a few winks of sleep, then headed to Cannon Mountain sometime after midnight, where he hoped to take advantage of colder temperatures and firmer snow conditions and hike up Cannon and neighboring North and South Kinsman. Hiking by himself, he slogged his way up Cannon under still unseasonably warm conditions. From the summit he sloshed down to Lonesome Lake, then attempted an ascent of the Kinsmans by way of the Fishin' Jimmy Trail. Melting snow and resulting runoff had flooded major portions of the trail, however, and less than halfway up the mountain he was forced to reverse course once again.With a major snowstorm looming the next day, more than half the 4,000-footers still left to climb, and less than five days to reach them if a new record was to be set, Roing knew the jig was up and made the call to abandon his effort. He immediately vowed to make another attempt next year, chalking up his failed 2007 run as a great educational experience.

So here's to Tom, Atticus, and Mats for making this a fun and interesting season of winter hiking and peakbagging. And to think, it's less than nine months before winter rolls around again.

Don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to it already.

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