[UPDATE: I’ve reached Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, about 37 miles shy of the Maine state line. I left the trail there to fly home for a family wedding get-together. On July 6 I’ll be flying back to resume my hike for the coup de grâce in Maine.]
The White Mountains of New Hampshire periodically pop up in news stories. Sadly, the stories often have to do with death.
The Whites are the most rugged mountain range in the state. They extend from Kinsman Notch, New Hampshire into western Maine and include the Presidential Range, a series of 4,000-foot-plus peaks named after U.S. presidents. The granddaddy is Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the second tallest peak in the Appalachians after Clingman’s Dome.
Mount Washington is notable for having some of the most unpredictable weather in the world. For 62 years it held the record for the highest wind velocity: a phenomenal 231 miles per hour, recorded on April 12, 1934. Frigid temperatures are common even in summer.
Last Saturday—two days after I trod the same path—53-year-old Xi Chen of Andover, Massachusetts succumbed to hypothermia. It was on Mount Clay, just north of Washington. Chen was an experienced hiker who had already summited 19 mountains over 4,000 feet. Chen’s wife said “he’s not a quitter—that probably got him into trouble this time.”
This is something I’ve noticed with many A.T. thru-hikers: a propensity to continue no matter what. Last year I met Gravy, who had a torn ankle ligament but was adamant he would go all the way. When I last saw him in Tennessee, he had just hiked back-to-back 21-mile days on his bad ankle. This year I met Runner, whose hike was curtailed in 2021 due to contracting Lyme Disease, a horrible disease caused by infected tick bites. Runner is now back on trail, ticks be damned. There have been many others who, despite health setbacks, insist on doing the whole thing.
I don’t know if this is a distinctly American trait (“Never give up!”) or distinctly Appalachian Trail. I’m inclined to think the latter. Surmounting serious health issues to “go all the way” seems to be ingrained in the A.T. subculture. And the thinking is, if you can go all the way in one haul, you’re that much more special.
I see comments on hiking social media sites all the time like “Don’t give up!” “You can do it!” “Just one foot in front of the other!” These people mean well, but they’re unknowingly creating pressures that could have unintended consequences.
As a marathon runner, I see a similar tendency. At first we ran for exercise and enjoyment. Then for speed and medals. Then came ultra-marathons and triathlons. Now it’s running through Death Valley. The bar is always being raised.
A.T. hiking wasn’t always like this. Benton MacKaye, the forester who in 1921 conceived the idea of a long trail through the Appalachian Mountains, saw the A.T. as a way for city dwellers to temporarily escape urban sprawl. The first thru-hike (covering the entire length, Georgia to Maine) wasn’t until 1948. Most hikers in the early days were content to traverse pieces of the trail, to take in nature and temporarily escape industrialization.
But in recent years, thanks to cellphones, several popular hiking books and movies, and improvements in backpacking gear technology, thru-hiking has mushroomed into an industry. For many it’s an athletic endeavor, and nature appreciation has taken a back seat. Trail congestion is now a real problem. I’ve hiked from Georgia to (almost) Maine, and I’ve yet to overnight in a shelter, or tent-camp near a shelter, where there wasn’t at least one other person. What’s the point of escaping one “sprawl” only to find another?
Completing a thru-hike of any of the Triple Crown trails (A.T., PCT, or CDT), or other long trail, is an epic achievement and something to be proud of (even if the majority of thru-hikers these days frequently use a vehicle to transport their backpacks to make their hike easier—a practice known as “slackpacking”). But as impressive as a thru-hike is, it doesn’t qualify one for sainthood.
If you’re thinking of doing a thru-hike, make sure your heart is really in it and you’re not doing it merely because it’s cool or fashionable. Make sure you do the necessary homework. And if you begin one, nobody will think less of you if you choose to quit. (Nobody worthwhile, anyway.) Too many people have died trying not to be a “quitter.”