Several Means of Skinning Felines

During a recent hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, Adam McKenney and I were given a lift by a pair of hikers who were around halfway through a ticklist of summits entitled “The Grid”. If I was to pick an adjective to describe Grid hikers, it would probably be unhinged. They freely identify themselves as “Gridiots”.

The White Mountains, although modest in height, are frequently underestimated. Mt Washington is the jewel in the crown that is the Presidential Range, a landmark made infamous by some of the planet’s worst weather. In 1934, meteorologists famously recorded the world’s highest land wind speed at a zippy 372km per hour. Given that Washington is located fairly close to the densely populated urban centres of New York, Boston and Montreal, there is no shortage of weekend warriors crowding what is arguably the East Coast’s most popular peak. Though the trekking is technically easy, the climate is remarkably volatile. Deaths occur every year, even in summer when arctic storms still make unexpected appearances.

During our stay, the weather was typically hostile. Temperatures plunged as a cold front moved through, preceded by tremendous gusts that tore across the treeless summits. We ditched our plans of crossing the Presidentials and opted instead for a more modest traverse from the wooded peak of Zealand to the exposed granite of Bondcliff and beyond.

We’d originally planned on a return journey, but were able to link the traverse after a kind offer of transport from the Grid Hikers who we met in the Zealand Hut the previous night. Zealand Lodge might have been a better moniker. With the ability to comfortably house 30 or so hikers at something like $150 a throw in peak season (full service, meals included), it is rather more opulent than the term “hut” might imply.

The two hikers left in the crisp darkness of early morning to bag an extra peak. As we were out for a leisurely stroll, we opted to forego West Bond, catching up to the pair near the end of the traverse. On the drive back, they told us of their mission to check off The Grid.

So just what is this notorious Grid? Well, let’s talk a little about peak bagging in New England.

The venerable Appalachian Mountain Club, who incidentally maintains the Zealand Hut as well as several others, has compiled a list of Four Thousand Footers. There are 48 of these mountains within New Hampshire, which to qualify as 4k’s need to have a minimum of 200ft of prominence over adjoining peaks.

It is a matter of some pride to have hiked each of these mountains, and to that end the AMC established the Four Thousand Footer Club in 1957 to recognise the achievement. All are technically easy, and mostly achievable during a day hike. Some peaks such as Owl’s Head are slightly more remote and may require an overnight effort.

Additionally, there are several more Four Thousand Footers within the greater New England Area. This list encompasses the milder summits of Vermont, and the wild peaks of Maine including the infamous terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mt Kahtahdin.

The AMC recognises several different lists: The White Mountains 4k’s, The New England 4k’s, The New England Highest 100, and lists for winter ascents and all-seasons ascents. Whilst not an official list, The Grid probably represents the pinnacle of ticklists in New England peak-bagging.

The premise is simple – climb each Four Thousand Footer in every month. That’s 12 ascents of 48 peaks, totalling 576 individual ascents. Even if you summited at a rate of 2 peaks each weekend, this would take you over 5.5 years. The fact that our new acquaintances were over halfway through this list is testament to a singular devotion to New England hiking.

It was inevitable that the list would eventually be completed, and to date there have been 63 completions. I can only imagine the emptiness that comes from achieving such an epic grind, an odyssey which could foreseeably consume an inordinate portion of one’s existence. What then? Well, you start again, of course. Not only has The Grid been completed, it has been successfully finished multiple times by 3 different men, two of which have completed the task 5 times each. FIVE FUCKING TIMES. That’s 2880 individual ascents. It’s pure insanity.

And the fun doesn’t stop there. Other (non-official) lists include:

  • reaching the summits in a specific order (e.g., alphabetically or by elevation),
  • reaching each summit on a moonlit night,
  • reaching each summit in the same winter
  • reaching each summit from all four cardinal compass points

That last one is the real smoking gun on how loony the whole peak-bagging enterprise can be. The standard ascent of each peak is by means of a well-trodden path, but to attack them from each cardinal point implies several weeks worth of heinous bushwhacking and difficult navigation. The creator of this lunatic endeavour was clearly driven to madness by the task, sadly ending his life on one of the summits by submitting to exposure and hypothermia.

So what to take from all this crazy talk? What can we glean from the excesses of New England peak-bagging?

None of these lists are tasks that I would personally set out to achieve. But for some, they function as small-scale adventure. Not everyone wants or is able to travel to exotic locations. Not all are interested in technical ascents or adrenaline surges. Not everyone can afford the occasionally ridiculous expenses that mountaineering, rock climbing or skiing can attract.

The point is that adventure can be as close as your backyard. There are many different ways to look at the same terrain, and many different ways to skin many different cats. Though few of us will embark on something as extravagantly masochistic as The Grid, we could all learn a little from the Gridiots. They are not lacking in passion.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
March 2016

 

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?