By Marty Adler
Through the years, some of my subjects have undertaken a challenge to complete a list of specific activities, such as running a marathon in every state or riding every roller coaster he came across. We now add another: climbing to the summit of every 4,000-foot mountain in New England. The term for this kind of activity is “peakbagging.” Eric Savage has not only accomplished this, he is now chair and corresponding secretary of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Four Thousand Footer Committee.
Eric got an early start on mountain climbing. His father, who was generally more interested in the botany than the peaks, was a member of the AMC and took Eric on many hikes. On some of the hikes, Eric heard about the lists of peaks from other participants, who also talked about the more difficult trailless peaks. These lodged in his mind like mythical places of legend. Later he hiked in the White Mountains as a Boy Scout and was introduced to backpacking, i.e., multi-day trips. After high school, he pursued the White Mountain 4,000-Footers (the basic list). It took three summers. By that time he was hooked on the pursuit and moved on to the next lists.
While membership in the AMC is open to anyone who pays the annual dues, to qualify for one of the Four Thousand Footer clubs you have to hike on foot to and from each summit on the current list. The clubs are open to nonmembers of the AMC. There are three official lists recognized by the Four Thousand Footer Committee at this time:
- New Hampshire Four Thousand Footers (White Mountains): 48 peaks
- New England Four Thousand Footers: 67 peaks, including the 48 from New Hampshire
- New England Hundred Highest: 100 peaks, the 4,000-footers plus 33 lower peaks
There is separate recognition for those who complete a list in winter. A winter ascent must occur between the precise hour and minute of the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. The committee resolves technicalities such as when it is appropriate to use a bike and what qualifies as a legitimate starting point. There is no time limit for completing a list. Under the honor system, applicants simply record the dates of their hikes, along with any comments or companions on an application form, and submit an application fee. They also submit an essay on a topic related to their 4,000-footer experience, often a description of the final trip. As corresponding secretary, Eric reads over 400 applications a year.
The primary challenges are the distance and elevation gain. While a few of the peaks can be reached in a 4.5 to 5 mile round trip, a more typical day is closer to 10 miles. The elevation gain is anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 feet, which makes even the short trips challenging because they are that much steeper. Several peaks are 11 or 12 miles one-way, often climbed on multi-day excursions. Other peaks are close enough to one another that a 10-12 mile hike can get you two or three peaks in one day. To distinguish “real” mountains from shoulders and spurs, the committee ruled that a peak had to rise at least 200 feet from the ridge connecting it to a higher neighbor to be added to the list.
Concerns about weather, footing and, for some lists, lack of trails add to the challenge. It is colder at higher elevations, even in the summer and can also be raining or snowing on the mountain when it is nice elsewhere. Unless you are very picky about the days that you hike, you need to be prepared for the unexpected with a certain amount of extra clothing. The highest peaks are above tree line, i.e., nothing can grow very tall at that elevation, causing even more exposure, especially high winds. Mt. Washington holds the record for highest recorded wind speed. The trails in New England are also rugged with rough footing and frequently include challenging scrambles up ledges. Above tree line on some of the highest peaks, there is nothing but a jumble of rocks to walk up and across. Climbing trailless mountains adds the challenge of off-trail navigation, a.k.a. “bushwhacking.” It requires excellent map and compass skills. Some people now use GPS, but it can’t always be relied on in the thick woods prevalent at these elevations. The absence of trails also means that you have to find your way through, over, or under the woods. Above an elevation of 3,000-3,500 feet, most of the woods consist of dense evergreens. Adding to the challenge are blowdowns, trees that have died and have fallen or been blown over. When the blowdowns are hiding in a stand of young spruce, you can’t see the obstacles until you are right in front of them, and new trees often grow where old trees have come down and left an opening in the canopy. On a recent trip, the blowdowns were stacked two or three high in some places. It was like climbing over a series of split rail fences while pushing through a “car wash” (a descriptive term for the experience of pushing through the intertwined branches of a stand of young spruce, unable to see where you’re going). The art of bushwhacking is finding the path of least resistance that still gets you to the top of the mountain. Sometimes there is no good way, just a less nasty way, to get there.
Winter adds the challenges of extra distance on unplowed access roads and shorter days, which often means starting and/or ending a trip in the dark, rougher and more unpredictable weather, and more extensive gear and clothing, with a significantly larger pack to hold it all. There are two notable advantages, however: no black flies and mosquitoes, and better footing, as rocks and roots are covered with a thick layer of snow.
Peakbagging requires proper boots, enough of the right kind of clothing to deal with whatever weather you encounter, a large backpack, sticks or trekking poles, map, and compass. For longer trips, you should have extra clothing and enough gear, including a stove in the winter, to spend the night out in the woods in case something happens and you or someone in the group is unable to make it back to the car. Winter hiking requires specialized foot gear, notably snowshoes and crampons.
Eric completed his first list (White Mountain 4,000-Footers) by traversing the Presidential Range, which includes the five highest peaks in the Northeast. Instead of backpacking, he finished in style with two good friends by staying in the AMC huts (mountain lodges that provide a bunk as well as dinner and breakfast). They had “an incredible time.”
Eric’s longest one-day hike was doing the Bonds in winter (a set of peaks in New Hampshire consisting of Mt. Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff). In addition to hiking 22.6 miles with less than 12 hours of daylight, they also faced nearly hurricane-force winds on an open ridge on the way back. They had to crawl on their hands and knees to cross the ridge without getting blown over. On that trip, he learned where the line is between doable and unsafe.
His first major bushwhack was on Scar Ridge, also in New Hampshire, a trailless peak on the New England Hundred Highest list. Not appreciating the full extent of the challenge, he and a friend tried a point-to-point compass course to tag all eight subpeaks of the ridge. It was an epic ordeal through thick spruce, blowdowns, and all of the other challenges of bushwhacking. They managed to tag six of the eight knobs, including the only one with any view, before deciding to get out of the woods before dark. After that, almost every other bushwhack seems easy.
Every April the club recognizes and presents certificates to new members, with a dinner beforehand. The ceremony is held in April because it is mud season, and the event won’t interfere with a good hiking day. For the first few years as corresponding secretary, he was studying for an exam while processing last-minute applications and preparing for the awards ceremony. Despite help with many of the preparations, it was an incredible exercise in time management (and required a lot of understanding from his wife and kids). This was never more so than the year he took Exam 7, scheduled only three days after the awards night.
Eric most enjoys the scenery, the exploration, the sense of accomplishment, and just getting away from civilization and mundane concerns—particularly after exams! The views from many of the summits are absolutely incredible. Often the trails go through beautiful forests and follow along brooks and streams, some with waterfalls. There are often outlooks on the way up, as well as at the top.
He has also become something of a celebrity. He has created two unofficial lists. One lists all 3,000-footers with trails in New Hampshire and is posted on a hiking Web site.
He has heard from several people who are pursuing it. Once, when teaching at an AMC hiking workshop, his group stopped on the slopes of one of those 3,000-footers. A couple of men came hiking up the trail and struck up a conversation. When Eric introduced himself, one of them reacted as if he’d just met a celebrity and said that he was on this very hike because he was working on Eric’s list. A similar incident occurred in his previous career as a teacher, when one of his colleagues put two and two together in the faculty room one day and suddenly said “Wait, you’re that Eric Savage?” The man had apparently been using Eric’s unofficial Web site as a source of information in his own pursuit of the list and didn’t realize at first that he was working alongside its creator.
Eric Savage is an Actuary at RiverStone Resources.