Mountains Become Mirror

June 9, 2012

The White Mountains seem unchanged while the experience as I age is ever-changing.

My first-ever column for The NH Sunday News five years ago featured Mt. Washington as a “circus” that June. Runners raced up the Auto Road, Motorcycle Week and sports car rally enthusiasts drove the same route while hikers crowded the trails. Showman P.T. Barnum famously proclaimed the view from our highest summit “the second-Greatest Show on Earth.” And true enough, it’s a circus once more each June.

Last week, I returned to see the alpine flowers blooming on Mt. Washington on a quiet day while in good company. The snow-streaked glacial cirques of Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines, Alpine Garden, the breeding songs of colorful migrant birds and tapestry of human history are all reasons enough to return. Yet that rich natural and cultural history alone do not compel me to re-climb through stunted spruce at tree line and thence upward through the lichen-crusted jumble of boulders below the summit. The stronger lure is revisiting the landscape of memory.

The Alpine Garden Trail to Nelson Crag skirts the sheer headwall of Huntington Ravine. There, amid tiny ephemeral flowers of tenacious plants well-adapted to life in harsh alpine conditions, I re-encounter myself. Other avid hikers confirm a similar, singular nostalgia for favored destinations in the White Mountains. Upon returning to cherished summits, the impassive stone faces of our mountains are transformed into a (sometimes frosty) window pane that offers views out and, when the light is right, a reflection of the maturing countenances - our own faces - in the glass. Mountain becomes mirror.

My mind wanders while my boots resume the old familiar, albeit slower, climbing cadence. People stories - memories of past hikes and hiking partners – have become integral to my hiking experience. In that rarified alpine air, I vividly remember conversations with former hiking partners and chance encounters with interesting people. The landscape is now well-storied with personal history. I remember first ascents, daring climbs, romance, a honeymoon and hiking with young children. With passing time, these mountains remain unchanged while everything else around them has changed much.

I remember hikes with family and friends - some of whom have grown-up or moved away or aged fitfully. Others have sadly hung-up their Limmer boots as age slowed their gait and enthusiasm, particularly during the cold rainy days of early spring and late autumn. These mountain memories emerge from the mists at tree line.

I admit to being a fair weather hiker now. Favorable weather conditions seldom last in the White Mountains. Summer is as ephemeral as youth itself. Each climb rekindles the familiar cardio-vascular workout and triggers an inevitable comparison to a more youthful pace with more miles attained. Ascending had once been the primary chore while descending was sheer joy of running trail, skipping from stone to stone. Now those roles are reversed. Climbing is steady and relatively easy while the fatigue of a long, pounding descent on knees and ankles grows wearisome.

Let’s see… I last climbed Mt. Washington with my son who was then entering his Junior year of high school. I told him about my PSU Outing Club hikes “back in the day” when we wore thrift shop wool pants, leather boots, canvas Chuck Roast gaiters and flexible steel crampons. I was proud to prattle, another story like some fossil relict tossed into a trailside cairn of the larger “rock pile” itself.

I recited the mountain lore and stern warnings: stories of early ascents, the fastest ski descent and ever-growing annals of tragic accidents and daring rescues. Each year, new names are etched in the record of those who perished in the Presidentials. You practically hear the ominous strains of viola theme music portending disaster when dark clouds obscure the sun and the wind rises above treeline.

My son is now a college senior. He completed his forty-eight 4000-footers early last summer. His pace, mileage goals and winter climbing exploits far exceed my aspirations. But once I had hiked while carrying him on my shoulders. Now I ponder my future as an armchair mountaineer.

The principle value of hiking is for exercise. The value of hiking with friends is for the distraction of social interaction, the shared experience and, of course, for group safety.

Yet beyond the shared experience lies a subjective landscape of memories. How fortunate that our conservation predecessors possessed the foresight to create the White Mountain National Forest – a mountain fastness where collective and individual memories reside in stone vaults of New Hampshire’s solid granite.

Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at or through the Forest Society Web site: