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.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

My Favorite 4,000-Foot Summits

I’m often asked, “Which is your favorite 4,000-footer?”

There’s no easy answer for me. I find charm in every single one of them, even those others loath. Look at Mount Waumbek, for instance. It is by far one of the least favorites of those who chase after peaks. The reasons being two-fold: lack of views (you get a view a mile before the summit, while on top of Mount Starr King, and another limited one 30 yards beyond the summit, through the trees towards the Presidential Range), and the fact that there’s no quick way to get there. However, I’m always enchanted by the woods, especially the wind ravaged col between Starr King and Waumbek.

Others hate Owl’s Head – because of the lack of a view and the 18 mile round trip. But there’s something to be said for getting lost in your head in the woods for so many hours and wading through those rivers on a summer day.

Just for the heck of it I’ve decided to rank my top 10 summits out of the 48, starting with number 10 and finishing with my favorite.

10. Eisenhower: Last summer, while sitting on the wide, grassy expanse on the summit with Ken and Ann Stampfer and Atticus under an azure sky with an armada of the most impressive white billowy clouds I’ve ever seen floating over Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Clay and Jefferson, I thought, “This is as good as it gets.” (Pictured above.)
9. Liberty: Natural stone recliners over the cliffs make this a comfortable place to take a nap and wake up to the view across Franconia Notch towards Cannon, which seems bigger than it actually is from this angle. In the photo to the right Atticus watches an undercast just after sunrise on Liberty.
8. Lincoln: Some would say neighbor, Lafayette, but I prefer Lincoln because you get to see Lafayette rising up in the North and you get to see everything else you get to see from Lafayette. Besides, looking south along Franconia Ridge the trail towards Liberty often reminds me of the Great Wall of China. One day Atti and I started out at 1:00 a.m. from Lincoln Woods in our attempt to do a 33.5 mile Pemi Loop. Lyme Disease stopped me on Lafayette but we started early enough that we had Flume, Liberty and Lincoln to ourselves at daybreak.
7. Monroe: It’s not just the summit perch and the close-up view of Washington; it’s also the walk south along the ridge towards Little Monroe and Franklin. The wind plays with the mountain grass on either side of the trail making it look like gentle waves. Meanwhile in the distance, there is a never-ending view of mountains. There’s something precious about a view that gives the illusion that the mountains never end.
6. Isolation: Saint-Exupery wrote: “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” One winter day, Atticus and I stood alone on the summit of Isolation in 30 below zero wind chills. The unique view of the Southern Presidentials capped in snow and clouds flying over them like ghosts so moved me, the tears rolling down my cheeks froze – and yet I could not move. I didn’t want to leave. In some ways I never have.
5. Madison: Others would say Jefferson or Adams. I can't argue with them. I choose Madison simply for the feel of it. Sitting atop the last of the Presidential peaks makes me feel like I’m sitting on the end of the world. And just like the view from Adams or Jefferson, the view of Washington is better than being on Washington itself, which is nearly always crowded in the summer. (Picking up on a trend here? That’s right, any mountain we can have to ourselves is a pretty special place.)
4. Bondcliff: The first time I stood atop Bondcliff and held Atticus in my arms, a passing hiker took my photo. The next day I shared it with my dad. Looking at the cliff and its incredible drop into Hellgate Ravine below he said, “Oh, it makes my feet ache!” That’s when I learned who I inherited my fear of heights from. Nevertheless, to stand there, especially when emerging from the scrub of Bondcliff Trail to the south, to see those first glimpses of incredible mountains in every direction, is breath taking!
3. South Twin: Sometimes I’m surprised by the view from South Twin. From its lofty rocks I see many mountains from a different perspective and it makes me think of them in different ways. That’s quite a gift: to look at familiar things and see them in new ways.
2. Garfield: My first 4,000-foot summit is still one of my favorites. I feel like I’m sitting on Nature’s front porch the way the ledges fall away precipitously at my feet and Owl’s Head and the Pemi Wilderness spreads out before me like some immense rolling sea of green. It sits at the head of a bowl of mountains shaped by Franconia Ridge to the west and the Twins, Galehead and the Bonds to the east. Off in the distance there is the illusion of faded blue mountain after faded blue mountain extending towards forever. It just feels like home. (An added plus is that with all the ledges there are plenty of places to get away from the crowd on a busy day.)
1. West Bond: Steve Smith refers to this as a ‘scatter your ashes’ kind of summit. He’s right. Other than a glimpse of the ski slopes of Loon Mountain far off in the distance, it’s difficult to see any other signs of civilization. Of course it helps that it is locked in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and most of the times I’ve been there I’ve had it to myself. There was one mild winter day when Atticus and I did a Bonds Traverse over Bondcliff, Bond, West Bond, Zealand and Hale and didn’t see another soul all day. I felt like we had the world to ourselves…and I loved it.

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