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, February 18, 2008

My Most Recent Submission To The Northcountry News

Last night, my editor, Bryan Flagg, reminded me of two things: deadline was approaching; and for Atticus and me to be careful out there on the trails. It is a refrain constantly repeated in messages from friends over the last couple of weeks in light of the recent searches for lost hikers.

These mountains are stunning, their God-given beauty can be breathtaking, but it is important to remember they are as wild as the beasts that roam them, as is the weather that exists up high. The relationship between man and mountain works, but only if you respect the mountains, the weather and the conditions.

When it comes to winter hiking my most valuable pieces of equipment are not my snowshoes or crampons but my conservative approach and my relationship with Atticus. Yes, we do many hikes lasting between 15-25 miles and nearly always hike alone, but there are safeguards in place. Were it just me I would most likely take chances I don’t take now. The reason I don’t is because I’m in charge of making decisions for the two of us. Oh, there are days Atticus lets me know he doesn’t feel comfortable in the wind or cold and I listen to him.

On the sunny day the helicopters were buzzing above our apartment in search of two lost hikers on Franconia Ridge we awoke to bright blue skies and a stiff wind. We went outside and it was clear that Atticus wanted to have little to do with the elements of the day. We could have hiked something less exposed but I trust his judgment and wish to give him a say. Instead of hiking we stayed in; while I wrote, he tufted up his Woolrich blanket and settled in for a nice nap.

We have set out this winter to hike the 48 4,000-footers twice in the 90 days of winter as a fundraiser for Angell Animal Medical Center. Tuesday marked the two month mark and we are only at 43 peaks. There is still a chance we will make our goal, but not at the risk of little Atticus or myself. In keeping him safe, I keep myself safe. There is a reason we have only topped 43 peaks thus far, other than the snow conditions, I haven’t felt comfortable taking this little dog above treeline other than a couple of times.

Winter hiking comes with many dangers but I believe we are well served by the basic rule of thumb: only take what the mountain gods offer you.

We will soon hike from Mt. Washington, over Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson on a single day. But it will be a day with low winds, great visibility and reasonable temperatures where we both will be safe.

As for hiking alone, I check in with people when I leave and when I return and they know what time I’m expected back by. They know where I’m going and by what route we will be hiking. In my pack there is enough to get us through the night if something were to happen to me where we were stuck in the woods.

In losing one hiker to hypothermia recently, the entire hiking community felt the loss… “there but for the grace of God goes I”. I am not a religious man but consider myself spiritual and on the day the helicopters were circling the mountains virtually right outside my bathroom window I prayed for the rescue of two men and when one died I prayed for his family and the friends who knew and loved him.

The White Mountains are a valuable resource and they are here for our enjoyment but we have to respect them. In each of the three instances where hikers have been lost and needed rescuing the weather was questionable at best. I was not in any of their boots so I cannot say what made them feel it was a good day to hike the high peaks, but I prefer to choose only the best weather days to be up there above the trees and exposed to all the grandeur an above treeline trek offers.

While I’m at it, I must also thank the many Search and Rescue individuals who put themselves at risk in setting out to find those who have been lost. I appreciate their efforts and can only hope that in the future hikers will use wise decisions on when and where to hike, not only to keep themselves safe, but also to keep the people from Search and Rescue safe as well.

In my case, I am lucky, I have a little dog whose love and companionship leaves me no doubt as to where my priorities lie. Last spring it looked as if I might lose him to cancer. Now that he’s healthy again I am reminded of this gift with every hike we take and it is a pleasure to see him happy and healthy bouncing along the trails. He trusts me, and the least I can do for him is to see to it that his trust is well-placed.

Over the next month we will shoot to finish our goal and will take on the higher peaks, but only on those days we are supposed to be up there. If you wish to follow along on our journey over the coming month, please do at