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.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Greetings From Mount Stanton & Mount Pickering

Please don’t tell anyone, but Atticus and I climbed a 4,000-footer this week. As a matter of fact over the past few weeks we’ve climbed several 4,000-footers. We’re just trying to keep it quiet.

You see we have these friends who are obsessed with the mania of collecting 4,000-footers. Like most hikers they set out to climb each of the 48. Then like some of us they took it to the extreme and attempted to do them all in winter. Some of us have even attempted to do them all in one winter. But there are those who go even further. They are obsessed with climbing each of the 48 in all four seasons. Then if the bug really bites them they will try to do them all in each of the 12 months. In a recent column I reported that this is called doing “The Grid”. It used to be only a select group of long time hikers did “The Grid”, and it was mostly by circumstance. They hiked long enough and often enough that one day they looked up and realized they’d done them in each of the 12 months. People thought it was pretty cool when the first guy did it. They also thought it was cool when a handful of others did it, too. But lately, it seems like a lot of people are taking it to the extreme and it’s their goal to finish “The Grid”. A year or two ago I checked out a woman’s hiking blog and while she hadn’t even climbed half of the 48 one time through, she was keeping track of how she was doing on “The Grid”. That’s 576 peaks or 48 peaks 12 times each.

And she’s not the only one. There are many who are equally obsessed these days. It’s a strange phenomenon brought on by the Internet. ‘On-line’ everyone has a chance to be somebody, even if they really are nobody. All they have to do is post their accomplishments and suddenly they are somebody…I guess.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those obsessed with peak-bagging are wasting their time. They have every right to do what they want to do in these mountains. I’m just saying I was wasting my time when I was doing it. I enjoyed doing the 48 with Atticus. And I enjoyed using the 48 in winter as a fundraising tool, but other than that it didn’t really mean anything to me. Just as getting a patch and a scroll from the Appalachian Mountain Club for hiking the 4000-footers didn’t mean anything – so we didn’t do it. I mean what is Atticus going to do with a patch and scroll? (He’d rather have a cookie.) Walt Whitman had it right when comparing animals to people, and peakbagging hadn’t even been invented yet:

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they're so placid and self contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.”

If you ever have gone for a walk in the woods with a dog you know it’s a joyous, carefree dance with the earth. There are aromas, places to run and jump, things to look at and other creatures to see. And they look at things as if they’re seeing them for the very first time even if they’ve seen them time and time again.

When a dog is in the woods he is completely aware of the experience. And when he is done he doesn’t go running to write down what he’s just accomplished. They get something to eat and drink and then they lie down and take a nap. They are spent and content.

The best part about a hiking, if you are a dog, I think, is that they get to spend the day playing with us. Well, they are playing at least. To some human hikers the weekly jaunt in the woods has turned into a responsibility. They say, “I need Mount Hale this month.”

“I need”? What happened to fun? They “need” and when they are done they hurry back to their laptop and log on to a hiking site and let the hiking world know what they’ve accomplished. Don’t let anyone fool you. Peakbagging, more often than not, is a solipsistic exercise.

There are three hikers in the Whites I admire more than any of the others I’ve met. They are the antithesis of the ego-driven hiker. And it just so happens Atticus and I met them during our first summer up here and we continue to call them friends. The first is Steve Smith, the owner of the Mountain Wanderer Map & Book Store in Lincoln. Steve’s also an author of several books about the Whites, a columnist in the Mountain Ear, and a blogger. The other two are Ken and Ann Stampfer. Ken’s a photographer whose photos are used in Steve’s books and are sold at the store.
Between the three of them they have more than 50 years of hiking experience and yet each time they venture out into the woods they do so with a sense of wonder. They are the least list-motivated people I know.

Atticus and I have hiked with Ken and Ann several times. While we've never hiked with Steve we had the good fortune of running into him on the Tripyramids one winter day. None of them have been jaded by time. Each trip is still full a joy and a chance for them to renew themselves again and again. But I suspect what keeps them fresh and excited about these mountains is that their motivation comes from within. It's not an external, competitive thing. They've found their peace here and they've discovered how to hold onto it.

I learned a lot from the three of them that first summer and winter. They’d done all the 4,000-footers but they also understand the beauty and charm of places that aren’t quite that high. During the last few years they’ve pointed us in various directions and the results have been memorable.
It is because of the influence of Ann, Ken and Steve that when I was asked to submit an essay for a book about peak experiences in the Whites, I used a story about a journey up little Mount Pemigewasset. After all, it’s not about the size of the mountain that matters. It’s about the experience of getting to the peak.

I am more than happy to let you know that Atticus and I hiked Mount Stanton and Mount Pickering this morning. Neither peak tops out above 2,000 feet. As far as the 4,000-footers we’ve done recently, I’m not talking, although you might be able to get it out of Atticus if you offer him a treat. Then again, he could care less if you know which peaks we do. That’s the best part about him.
(For those of you who are list obsessed, just to drive you a little crazy, we stopped keeping track of the 4,000-footers we have climbed these past four years, but know it's well over 400.)


Anonymous said...

Keeping track of mtns hiked is like keeping track of bowel movements, insane!

David Olson said...

Hey Tom.

This post (and your others on the topic) really hit home with me. Last summer was fantastic in many ways, but I rarely enjoyed the hikes as much as I could. I was always thinking ahead to the next peak on the list, worrying about what the weather would be the next weekend, figuring out how to take extra time off from work to "catch up" to an artificial deadline I set for myself. I was rarely completely in the present, and it made me miserable at times. That's no way to live, and it's certainly no way to hike (for me, anyway). I still very much want to finish the 48, hopefully this year if all goes well. As I begin to think more clearly about my goals and motivations, however, the 'list' is feeling less like an accomplishment and more like an apprenticeship. I'm already wiser for my failed attempt last year; I'm eager to find out what I'll learn next...

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hi Dave (& Anonymous),

Thanks for your comments.

During our first summer in the Whites each time I started a hike I started my stop watch and didn't stop it until I returned to the car. Steve Smith once referred to my 'racing' through the 48 as 'inhaling' them. He was correct.

The next summer Atti and I went back and did them again, slower the second time around, without a watch, and with a desire to see what I missed the first time.

I think peakbagging is fine for some folks. But inherently it is about ego and measuring yourself against someone or something.

The mountains offer so much and everyone has a right to hike his or her own hike, but for my life, following the same trails over and over again for the sake of completing a list was like painting by numbers. The Whites inspire me so much I'd rather have a blank canvas.