Jan raises an entertaining point about climbing mountains – 4000 feet doesn’t sound like much when compared with the peaks of the Rockies. Why do we even call them by the same name when the difference is that great? As a boy, I just assumed it was a local chauvinism perpetuated by history. The Appalachian Range and all its progeny were already called mountains before the Rockies were discovered by the Europeans, that reasoning goes, so they just shrugged and said “Well yours are really big mountains, then, but we’re not changing it.” This would fit somewhat with the idea of settlement by the English, whose mountains also boast less-than-stunning elevations. That is weakened a bit by the idea that the British Isles were certainly aware of the Alps for centuries back, but still, you can see some sense in the idea.
I did ask about that among the people I knew who climbed, decades ago. One common answer was “Let them come here and try it, and then see what they say,” delivered in a chippy tone. Well, yes, that’s technically an unarguable answer, but not a very useful one. We can’t know about anything until we have done it, but we also haven’t the time to do everything, so we must have some way of weeding out the likely possibilities from the unlikely. You could say the same thing about Bray Hill outside Dublin, too.
Significantly, the first person that I asked about this gave me a good answer, which I discounted. Brother Louis had grown up in the Italian Alps, and now, a Somascan working at a school for troubled boys, thought that pushing them up and down mountains was just the thing. I noted that it must be quite a come-down to go from the Alps to our poor New England offerings. He disagreed. He noted that the terrain was much harder, and people usually climbed more than one mountain at a time, here. I just figured that he was young when in Italy and middle-aged now (1977), and thus had the false impression of equivalence. I persisted in my Peak Envy.
That is entirely reasonable. That Eastern skiers might be generally superior to Western ones (no longer true, I hear), because of learning under more challenging conditions, that I could accept. But there were factors so stark in any hiking comparison that even quite genuine qualifiers could not erase them. The thinner atmosphere, in and of itself, makes the Rockies more difficult and even dangerous. Next, the difference in elevation gain is quite high, two or three times as great. You can get well over 4000’ elevation gain on Mt. Washington – 5000’ on a loop trail – but the Presedentials are an exception. A three thousand foot gain is more typical.
This simplest answer is bad trail design. Steepness matters, as I noted in my earlier post, and many of the trails here are just straight up the mountain, wavering neither to the left nor the right in their course. No one had laid out trails in Europe that much, remember. They had developed over time, and anything stupidly designed tended to be less-often used and another took its place. Given centuries, you get a nice balance. But even in the 1800’s when people designed the first trails, not much was known. Think of the contrast between climbing a ladder versus climbing stairs versus handicap ramps. If you’ve got that nice burst of leg strength, the ladder seems easiest. Stack a few of those on top of each other and you start looking for the stairs. Apparently – and I don’t know this myself – you have longer trails to accomplish the same rise in the Rockies. Not hugely so, but enough to keep yourself from wasting so much energy. You can find a lot of places on NH trails where people have started to go around the long way. These are either embraced by the trail clubs or blocked off, depending on their own whims.
Insert: But wait. I did some research to check this out. I knew Western trails started out higher, but I hadn’t realized they were that much higher. Colorado trails start at 8-10,000 feet. They don’t, in fact, have 3x elevation gain, and not often 2x. Mount Blanco is the 5th-highest. A gain of 5600’ over 14 miles. Mt. Elbert, 4600 over 8 miles, Bison 4300 over 11 miles, Holy Cross 5600 over 10 miles. Like I said about steepness.
But what Brother Louis may have meant by “terrain” is simply footing. It’s horrible. Sections of trail are just rocky stream beds in the spring, mudbeds by May, with no flat place to get a purchase with your boots. If you try walking on your toes for any distance, you’ll see what I mean. A twenty-yard stretch of even trail is pure joy. I don’t know what things are like on Mt. Powell, though. Maybe just as bad.
And then there are those multiple mountains, known as “peak-bagging” here. Goaded by Brother Louis, I did three in a day myself once as a young man, and did that at least twice more with my sons. Come to think of it, I did two yesterday.
So yeah, Jan (I said in a chippy tone of voice). Come here and try it.