(Andrew Ryan/Globe Staff)
JAFFREY, N.H. -- The legend that echoes incessantly in this southwest corner of New Hampshire always struck me as dubious: The rounded hill named Mount Monadnock is the most-climbed mountain in the world.
The distinction seemed more apt for a loftier, better known peak, such as Japan's Mount Fuji, Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, or Oregon's Mount Hood. Even Mount Washington in the northern corner of the Granite State is more of a household name. At 3,165 feet, Mount Monadnock seemed to me to be more of a knoll than a mountain, a stubby mound that appears prominent because it stands alone.
But on drives from Boston to my visit in-laws in a village north of Keene, as Mount Monadnock looms out the car window, my wife has been known to repeat that legend she learned as a child: "Most-climbed mountain in the world," she says with the same New Hampshire pride that claims Keene has the widest Main Street in America.
The truth about the mountain is a little more complicated.
"I know it's a point of pride for a lot of people in the region with Monadnock's distinction as being one of the most climbed," said Patrick Hummel, the manager of Monadnock State Park, adding, "Henry David Thoreau complained about the crowds on the mountain. That was 150 years ago."
The most-climbed legend really took hold in the 1970s, Hummel said, and has been the subject of great local debate. Park officials even hid secret counters along the trails in the 1990s to try to measure the mountain's popularity, but accurately counting the more than 100,000 that hike there each year can be difficult.
The superlative is carefully couched on the website of New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation, which notes that Mount Monadnock "is said to be the second-most-frequently climbed mountain in the world, after Japan's Mount Fuji."
The geological marker on Mount Monadnock's summit. (Andrew Ryan/Globe Staff)
But a recently published book by local author Craig Brandon knocked Mount Monadnock one notch lower to third, with top billing going to Mount Tai in China, which according to his research had some 6 million visitors in 2003. That leaves Monadnock with the less lofty title of most-climbed mountain in North America, but "always with an asterisk of 'as far as we know,' " Hummel said.
To put my skepticism to the test, I became a Monadnock statistic earlier this fall, joining the tens of thousands of other Massachusetts residents who make a pilgrimage each year. The overwhelming majority of the hikers come from the Bay State.
"You can have breakfast in Boston and come up and come down and be home in time for dinner," said Brandon, whose 2007 book, "Monadnock: More than a Mountain," is considered the definitive history.
My wife and I attacked the hill from the north slope, taking the less-traveled Dublin Trail to the top. The hike was short but strenuous. Several large boulders required a scramble on all fours, pulling myself upward on small trees and ledges on the rock.
During the 90-minute ascent, we encountered less than two dozen others: senior citizens, college students, grade-schoolers with their parents, serious hikers with Nordic poles, and one young man with an open can of Budweiser that he sipped as he walked.
As we pushed above the tree line, the silence of the wildness gave way to a din that sounded like chatter in a cafeteria. When the summit finally came into view, at least 200 lounged on the bald, rounded peak. The crowd gathered in small clusters, many sitting to eat lunch. Young children took turns mugging for photographs as they stood on the geological marker that designated the highest point.
"If you go up there on Columbus Day weekend," Brandon said, "it's standing room only."
The allure loomed in the distance. After a compact, doable hike, Mount Monadnock offered the payoff of climbing a larger mountain: A breathtaking vista that encompassed a great swath of New England.
To the southeast, I could see 60 miles to Boston, the outline of the skyline just visible like jagged teeth on the horizon. On clearer day, the panorama extends 100 miles north to Mount Washington, rising as the highest point in the Northeast.
It is that view that some purists argue makes Mount Monadnock the most climbed mountain in the world. Mount Tai and Mount Fuji draw religious pilgrims, and treks are aided by cable cars and other motorized transportation. On Mount Monadnock, all climbers must make the ascent entirely by foot.
"If you are talking about the most-climbed mountain in the world from bottom to top," said Brandon, the New Hampshire author, "then it probably is Mount Monadnock."
The Monadnock park manager offered another way to quell the dispute.
"The only thing that I guarantee people," Hummel said, "is that Monadnock is the most-hiked mountain in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. That much we know."
(AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
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