In September, as I was getting my head around imminent surgery and radiation, I decided to schedule a mountain retreat so I’d have something on the calendar to look forward to. I reserved a little cabin near Franconia Notch in the White Mountains, where I’d be close to a number of trailheads. If I felt horrible, I’d just hunker down and do some writing and drawing; if I felt well enough, I’d take on a hike–scale would be dependent on my strength and any side effects from cancer treatment.
As it turned out, my weekend trip landed two-thirds of the way through radiation. I was a little worn down and had some discomfort in my chest, arm, and back, but I’d started running again post-surgery and found that getting my blood flowing made every part of me feel better. I was eager to be in the mountains and out of my daily work routine.
Knowing the trails would be wet, I rerouted to I.M.E. on my drive up and found a pair of light La Sportiva gore-tex hiking boots that would protect my feet from wet and cold. I was in and out of the store in under 10 minutes. Given all the holiday COVID warnings, I was surprised to see the streets of North Conway packed with Black Friday shoppers and tons of out of state plates.
I headed from North Conway to Lincoln via the Kancamagus Highway, and pulled into Greeley Pond trailhead in the late afternoon for a short scouting hike to assess the state of the trails (wet, so I glad for the new boots!). It felt great to be in the elements. I got back to the car at dusk and headed for my cabin.
After I’d settled in, I laid out my supplies for the next day: hi vis outerwear, layers, extra socks, food, water, extra gloves, a puffy down jacket, headlamp, crampons, and a pair of sneakers in case the new boots chaffed. I looked through my list of possible hikes and decided to take on the most ambitious, Mt. Lafayette.
Given that I was hiking alone, and my body was in the midst of other trials, I was determined to be conservative about the day. I would assess the conditions and my own strength and turn around if anything felt dodgy.
As I pulled into Lafayette Place to park, I noted a handful of other cars, with a few people gearing up for the trail. I popped my pack on my back and headed out. About a mile up, light snow began to fall, dusting the trail as I climbed a bit further. At one point, the trail was a frozen stream of solid ice, so I pulled on my Hillsound crampons. Above the tree line, the rocky peak was coated with a crust of ice and a layer of fresh snow. Everything about the mountain was stunning, and the trail was drawing me up. I felt great, and grateful.
As I climbed, the visibility diminished, but I kept my eyes on the cairns and determined that I would summit as long as the snow didn’t pick up. As I started questioning the wisdom of continuing on, I came across three young guys chatting on their way down.
“Am I close,” I asked?
“You’re practically there, and you’re killin’ it!” they replied.
I started grinning and couldn’t stop. After a few more winding turns and a few more cairns, I reached the summit of Mt. Lafayette at 5249 feet. I looked up to see a couple standing near the trail signs at the top, looking confused. They glanced up nervously.
“Does that trail lead to Greenleaf?” they asked.
“Yes,” I responded, “Greenleaf is a mile down.”
I could see cairns and boot tracks in a few different directions, and with the low visibility, getting lost would be easy. I planted myself right near the cairn marking my trail. I didn’t want to risk getting turned around. I pulled on my puffy down jacket, had a few bites of a leftover thanksgiving turkey sandwich, swallowed a few sips of water, and started the trek down.
The full hike was around 8 miles. It was a magical day. I felt completely transformed at a cellular level—with a clear mind, full heart, and very, very sore legs.
The tale in photos: