“Did you come up the auto road or the cog railway?” the woman asked my son Connor on the summit of Mount Washington. He didn’t have many words at age three, so he simply pointed down the mountain and said “There.” She followed his view down toward Tuckerman Ravine, which I had just climbed on foot from Pinkham Notch, with Connor on my back.
It’s a question I’d heard before, when my daughter Riley was three. That time we were at the Lakes of the Clouds hut for the evening. Again, the answer was neither; We’d hiked the southern Presidentials with her on foot for part of the way.
Yes, I’ve been climbing 4,000’ mountains with a pre-schooler in a backpack.
I can trace the idea to a June 2010 climb on Cannon Mountain. One of my hiking pals was new to this, and was worried about his weary legs navigating the steep ledges on the Hi-Cannon Trail. Previously, we had hiked smaller peaks like Gunstock, Sunapee, and Wachusett, with a couple of other friends and either my son Connor or daughter Riley.
For challenge, Cannon is a big step up. “This is a White,” I told my friend, trying to maintain the calm. “It’s a big hike, and it’s a four. We’ll take it carefully.” And we did. We reached the car with plenty of daylight, some sore muscles, and time for dinner.
A ‘Four’. It’s a familiar term to New England hikers. A ‘Four’ is a New England mountain with a summit over 4,000 feet high. I had done a handful of them before the children, and this was my second time on Cannon. It was my first 4K with a child in a backpack.
New Hampshire has 48 peaks that meet the Appalachian Mountain Club’s criteria, with 14 in Maine and 5 in Vermont. Hiking the NH4K list was never on my radar screen, but when I told my friend about the significance of the mountain he was on, I woke something in myself as well.
I decided to pursue the list. Not only that, I was going to bring one of my children with me on each hike. I knew they would do some of their own hiking, but few children under age 5 could hike any of these peaks completely on foot (I learned of Patricia Ellis Herr and her two amazing daughters well after I began my pursuit). My plan involved a Kelty FC3 backpack, the ten essentials (for two), and some overnights.
In other words, some epic adventures.
In 2010, we set out to reach some more accessible peaks like Tecumseh, Jackson and Pierce, and some of the one-day ‘three-fers’ like Mts Field, Willey, and Tom.
2011 was where we reached a 4K or three nearly every weekend, starting with Moosilauke, the Hancocks, Osceolas, Tripyramids, the Kinsmans. Our overnights included trips to Zealand and the Bonds, Cabot, Waumbek and Hale (with a trip to Santa’s Village in between), Owl’s Head, and a traverse of the Southern Presidentials, followed by Isolation. I learned the value of getting to the trailhead at 6AM to hike the Wildcats and Carters, and experienced snow for the first time on North Twin.
My kids started to do more of their own climbing, like the Whiteface Ledges and the Tripyramid North Slide. But they were in the Kelty FC3 backpack for most of every hike, even when their weight rose above 40 pounds. I usually carried between 55 and 65 pounds. Sometimes it’s 75 lbs with the tent, and I’ve had to modify the pack slightly to accommodate this.
In 2012, we started the year on South Twin and Galehead, then Moriah, and finally Washington and the Northern Presidentials, then Garfield, Flume and Liberty (where Connor climbed at least 1,200’ vertical feet of the Flume Slide Trail on his own). Mt. Carrigain was done as a 24-mile overnight from Lincoln Woods.
Now, with Lafayette and Lincoln reached on September 15, 2012, I’ve reached the 48 New Hampshire peaks, carrying a young child. They’ve been to all 8 AMC huts in the WMNF, as well as the two notch lodges. They’ve gathered firewood, hung bear bags, and used catholes. They’ve seen moose, climbed cracks, balanced on puncheon, posed at waterfalls, waded in clear streams, purified water, used a compass and map on a bushwhack, shared gorp with fellow hikers, and taken in some amazing views.
They even have their own hiking sticks now. We have some winter hikes coming, but next spring we’re going to start all over again without the child-carrier backpack.
It’s time they bag their own peaks.