The Four Thousand Footer Club

I recently sent off my application for a patch saying I’m admitted to the Four Thousand Footer Club . It’s a club I’ve wanted to be part of for years. The only way to join this elite group of the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) is to climb all 48 peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet high.

If you’re from the West, you’re probably sneering right now. Four thousand feet is probably half the height you’re used to. But are you used to elevation gains of 2500’ to 4200’ in four to ten miles? Probably not.

East vs. West

Your Western mountain trails start up high, often at 8,000 or 10,000 feet, leaving only a couple of thousand feet to arrive at the summit. The mountains themselves are so young, compared to our eastern mountains, and so big there’s lots of room to have long, leisurely traverses during those elevation gains. Switchbacks in the Whites are a luxury, and they tend to be pretty short. We simply don’t have the height or the width for long, gentle angles in our trails. Add to that the fact that our trails are built on rock and root, not that nice soft stuff called dirt or an even sweeter layer of fallen pine needles.

I hiked my first “Fourteener” (a mountain over 14,000 feet) in the Rockies last year and, trust me, the trail was technically a piece of cake compared to what one encounters in the 4000 Footers of the Whites. Of course I could hardly breathe, but that’s another issue.

Why The Delay?

Am I pleased with myself to have done the 48 peaks? More than pleased—thrilled, delighted, proud. Ecstatic!

So why did it take me a year-and-a-half to send off to join the Four Thousand Footer club?

Part of the reason is that it never really was about joining the club, about getting the patch or the T shirt. Hiking the 48 provided me a framework for getting out into nature, staying in shape, and spending long chunks of time with friends or alone in the majesty of a national forest. I found peace hiking. My mind couldn’t chatter at me about all the things I should be doing or hadn’t already done. I left my responsibilities at home.

There was nothing for me to fix in the mountains, nothing I had to do except leave no trace of my passing and get up and back down as best I could. I found myself, over time, feeling connected to the trees, the sky, the rocks. I came to love lichen, that varied and colorful stuff that grows on rocks, breaking down bits of the rock to provide enough soil for ferny things to grow . . . that break down the rock further so little plants and saplings take root and, voila! Eventually, you have more soil and more forest.

Hiking all these mountains made me want to know more about the world I spent so many hours walking in. I started noticing birds. And toads. Snakes. Beavers. Coyotes. I never saw a moose or bear on a trail (only crossing or by the side of the road, oddly enough) though I saw their signs and scat. I began to feel like one of a very large family in which only some of the siblings were configured more or less like me.

Oh, I kept track of my hiking times to see if and when I could beat book time, book time being defined as what the AMC White Mountain Guide estimates as the time to get up a trail. And I never liked it when other hikers passed by me on the way up or down because they were faster. So don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I wasn’t competitive. I am. But it was so much more than that for me.

The End and The Letter

Now that I’ve sent off the application, I think another reason it took me so long was because I didn’t want it, the whole glorious complex quest, to be over.

Much as I wanted to be done when I climbed my last peak, Mt. Isolation (13.3 miles, 3800’ elevation gain), much as I celebrated with hiking pals when I’d completed my years’ long journey through the Whites, I think a part of me hated that I was finished. Now I didn’t have the big hiking goal that added so much richness to my life.

Here’s the letter I sent with my application to that stalwart and generous group of volunteers who keep the Four Thousand Footer Club going:

Dear 4K Footer Folks,

Thank you so much for creating, managing and continuing this venture.

Hiking the 48 has been one of the highlights of my life. It took me ten years to finish. During that time I had several injuries, lost two years to breast cancer, and watched my hiking buddy die from ovarian cancer.  The Whites sustained me though it all. I’m writing a book about it.

I am so grateful to you.

Best regards,