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Benton MacKaye, the visionary planner best known as the guy who came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail, knew his mountains. And he considered Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire to be much more than a nice peak rising all by its lonesome.
The summit of Monadnock, he said, was an ideally situated vantage point, a craggy eminence that held New England together in spirit.
"It is the Fujiyama of New England," he wrote in "The New Exploration," his call for a sensible land use ethic. "It stands forth in simple solitary majesty, the emblem of a unified homeland, and functions for a natural region as the scepter functions for a royal state."
From the 3,165-foot summit, he explained, all six New England states can be seen. It may be the only New England summit from which that claim can be made, though even on Monadnock you'll need an especially clear day and a knack for geography if you want to check off six states.
While the mountain offers grand views in all directions, it is nowhere near the biggest peak in New England. What is more important is that Monadnock is not only well situated, it happens to be just the right size, a mountain made for the masses. Monadnock is not only worth doing, it is doable.
It requires no technical climbing equipment, though crampons are strongly recommended in winter, and most reasonably fit people, young and old, can make it up and down in four or five hours. You can take an eager 9-year-old up Monadnock and not regret it. You can't always say that about Mount Washington or Mount Katahdin, New England's biggies.
Monadnock is just high enough and just difficult enough that for many people it is adventure, an achievement, something worth boasting about. It is not so big, though, that you have to spend the next few days in pain.
On a summer day especially, you'll see vacationers trudging up the mountain in sneakers and sandals, thrilled when they get to the top. It is probably safe to assume that Monadnock has created more than a few new serious hikers.
More than 100,000 people showed up at the mountain last year, so you should expect company there.
In fact, go anywhere near the mountain and you will hear that it is the second most climbed mountain in the world, after Fuji. That is the kind of unverifiable claim that a journalist ought to be skeptical of, but who knows? Maybe it is only the 10th most popular mountain in the world, maybe it is number one. But day in, day out, there are people on this mountain, hundreds of them on a Sunday in September.
Even in winter Monadnock is surprisingly popular, and a sure tonic for cabin fever. Andrew Zboray, the Monadnock State Park manager, estimates that with decent weather 150 people climb the mountain on a typical weekend day in winter.
It was a cold morning, about 15 degrees, with gusty winds, when a friend of mine, Dan Edson, and I arrived one day this month. I'd climbed the mountain twice before, but only in warm weather. I had snowshoes along, assuming I might need them. But I discovered that the trails are so tramped, even in winter, that snowshoes are not often needed. At exposed upper elevations, the wind scours the snow away.
A pair of hiking boots, gaiters and a hiking staff - or cross-country ski poles - are the preferred winter getup. Crampons sure are clunky, but strongly recommended. I used them in the exposed rock areas near the summit, which were icy, as they often are, and they helped. Most of the Monadnock regulars use crampons in winter.
Monadnock is laced with 37 trails totaling 37 miles, not surprising for a mountain that has been drawing hikers for two centuries. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson climbed Monadnock. Thoreau did it four times. Just last year several members of the Thoreau Society, drawing from fragmentary references, including some in Thoreau's journal, pinned down the locations of one of his campsites. It's on the southeast side.
We hiked the white cross trail on the way up, and the white dot trail on the way down. The white cross is slightly longer, and slightly less steep. The white dot, while steeper, is the shortest route to the top, and by far the most popular trail.
If you want a little more elbow room, check the trail map for one of the other trails. There are some on the other side of the mountain that are far less busy.
Despite the blustery cold, within a half-hour we found ourselves sweating and peeling off a layer of clothing. On a beautiful summer day the mountain gods may look the other way on hiker carelessness, but in winter you dress appropriately, lots of layers, and keep an eye on the weather.
We had along a first-aid kit, lighters, plenty of water, food, a compass and rope. With the sun shining and easily 100 hikers on the mountain that day, it probably was overkill. But you never know.
The trail can be steep, and the tendency is to concentrate on the steps ahead. But stop now and then and look back. It's a progress report of the most satisfying kind: sweeping views of the valley below. Renewed, you trudge on.
As you climb, the vegetation changes. In the lower elevations, there are maples and birches. But as you approach the summit, only the hardy red spruces, stunted though they are, survive the harsh conditions. There are times, in fact, when you will see only three colors: the blue of the sky, the green of the spruce, the white of the snow. That image alone is enough to make the day worthwhile.
There are a couple of very steep stretches as you approach the summit on both the white cross and the white dot trails, and you want to be careful at anytime, but especially in winter.
We arrived on the summit at midday to find a half dozen other hikers huddled on the downwind side of the summit. The wind was blowing, and it was cold. Time to put a layer of clothing back on. Before we joined the huddle, however, we surveyed the view. Wind or not, you climb a mountain, you reward yourself with the view at the first opportunity.
More than 65 miles off in the distance was the Boston skyline, the Hancock and Prudential buildings most prominent. To the northeast were the White Mountains. To the west, the Green Mountains, including Mount Ascutney. Looking south maybe we saw Soapstone Mountain in Somers, Conn., maybe we didn't. But I know that on a clear day you can see Monadnock from Soapstone. Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts was clear.
Could we see Mount Agamenticus in Maine, as MacKaye did? If we did, we didn't recognize it as such. Nor did we see anything that screamed "this is Rhode Island." But we could see for at least 70 miles or so in any direction. We took in our views, and ducked into the huddle behind a big slab of granite.
We had water, fruit and sandwiches along. If you can put up with the weight on a winter hike, hot soup in a thermos is special. I had homemade cheddar cheese soup along, and we each had a cup. Of the five people we met in our huddle, two had driven from Connecticut, one from Enfield, one from Windsor. Others came from the Boston area, and elsewhere in New Hampshire. Nothing like wind and cold to encourage mountaintop camaraderie; we descended the mountain with Tom Gray, a teacher at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor.
From the summit it was clear why the Abnakis called it Monadnock, for mountain that stands alone. It is an isolated peak in the ancient Appalachian Range of the eastern U. S. All those mountains we could see were cousins, just not close cousins. So good an example of a solitary mountain is Monadnock that it is not only the name given this mountain, but, for the last 100 years, the general geological term for all such mountains worldwide.
Fitting, for the little mountain with the big appeal.
IF YOU GO
Mount Monadnock, Jaffrey and Dublin New Hampshire
Directions: Take I-91 north to Exit 28A, Massachusetts Route 10 to New Hampshire Route 119 to Route 202. Follow signs to the park. Information: 603-532-8862 or www.new-hampshire.net/park.htm.
Ambiance: 37 trails totaling 37 miles. Great views in all directions from the summit. Highly popular, trails on sunny days can be heavily traveled.
Activities: Hiking, nature study, camping in campground only.
Facilities: Park store selling snacks; visitor center with educational exhibits.
Pets: Not allowed.
Handicapped Access: Limited.
Fees: $3 per person over 12 years old.