The trail circled the summit of New Hampshire's Mount Tecumseh, then climbed to its rocky top. An autumn-yellow valley bordered by distant peaks stretched before me. But on this October day, my reward for climbing 4,003-foot Mount Tecumseh was more than the view.
Tecumseh is No. 48 on the official Appalachian Mountain Club list of New Hampshire peaks of more than 4,000 feet, and I had finally climbed them all. I was eligible to join the White Mountain Four Thousand Footer Club.
For 46 years, the challenge of earning the Four Thousand Footer Club arm patch has lured peak-baggers, as frequent climbers are known, to the Whites. More than 7,360 people have officially summited the 48.
The rules for joining are simple: You climb each designated White Mountain peak on foot; no bicycles, ATVs, or other vehicles are allowed. You send in a list of your hikes by date and an $8 application fee to the all-volunteer Four Thousand Footer Club Committee, and you get the patch and a souvenir map of the mountains in return. The fee also helps fund a $4,000 yearly gift to the AMC for trail maintenance.
But to most who climb the 48, the patch is not what lures us to the mountains. Nor is it the eligibility to attend the club's annual spring reunion in southern New Hampshire, where throngs gather to congratulate recent finishers. What drives us is the love of a project that reveals practically every corner of the White Mountain National Forest.
From moss-shrouded trees on top of Mount Waumbek to the wilderness panorama that spreads below Bondcliff, the White Mountain peak-bagger sees them all.
And for months -- or many years, in some cases -- completing the list gives form and purpose to each weekend jaunt.
Crossing state lines
Peak-bagging is, of course, more than just a Granite State sport. Hikers can add to their New Hampshire list five mountains in Vermont and 14 in Maine that are higher than 4,000 feet. That makes the climbers eligible for the New England Four Thousand Footer Club. (The highest peak in Massachusetts, Mount Greylock, is 3,491 feet.)
There's a club for those who summit the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet. Scotland has a program for walkers who reach the top of 279 "Munros" above 3,000 feet. You can risk your life trying to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents.
All of which makes peak-bagging controversial. Critics ask: Why make a game of mountain climbing? Why lure crowds to environmentally sensitive summits?
These thoughts and others ran through my mind this fall as I stood alone on Mount Tecumseh. But I had little time alone, as peak-baggers galore joined me on the rock.
Following me to the summit were Jim and Andrea Volinsky of Newport, N. H. The mountain was No. 14 in their quest. Then a half-dozen more hikers appeared, among them Ted Gruen, a 42-year-old administrator at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Roslindale. Mount Tecumseh was his first 4,000-footer. He plans to do them all.
"I see it as a challenge," he said. "And there's the feeling of accomplishment when you're done."
Gene Daniell, secretary to the all-volunteer Four Thousand Footer Club Committee, processes each one-page application form that successful hikers mail to his home in Concord, N. H. The 7,360 who hold the patch don't account for all the hikers who have climbed the 4,000-footers, Daniell says.
"There's probably twice as many who have climbed them all," he said. "A lot of people don't apply because they feel they don't need a merit badge."
Among those who go for the patch, a minority strive for extra distinction. In 1960, Robert and Miriam Underhill became the first to climb the 4,000-footers in winter; since then, 284 men and women have repeated their feat. The late Guy Waterman of Vermont climbed the 48 from all four points of the compass, an adventure that required technical mountaineering on some peaks.
Although the Four Thousand Footer Club Committee doesn't keep speed records, Tim Seaver, a 41-year-old photographer from Calais, Vt., may have climbed the 48 the fastest in July -- in three days, 15 hours, and 51 minutes.
"This was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he said. "It took about two months to fully recover. For quite a while I couldn't walk normally."
Not surprisingly, some hikers and wilderness lovers disapprove of racing through mountains, and of peak-bagging in general. As early as 1973, Philip D. Levin of Gloucester sounded the alarm in an eight-page article for Appalachia, the Appalachian Mountain Club journal.
"What I am questioning . . . is the existence of formal clubs specifically designed to encourage and increase adherence to these artificial standards," he wrote.
Levin climbed the 48 and never applied for a patch. "There is a people impact to peak-bagging," he said in an interview. "There is a psychological carrying capacity to mountains, and I think that's where it's at for me."
But Steven Smith, coauthor of "The 4,000 Footers of the White Mountains," praises the club for introducing hikers to peaks they might miss. "Doing the 4,000-footers got me out to places I had never visited before," said Smith, who lives in Lincoln, N. H., where he owns the Mountain Wanderer Book Store. "I got to know and appreciate the mountains better. I don't know of anyone who climbed the 4,000-footers and gave up climbing. I think it sparks a lifelong passion for mountains."
A climber's trail
My own interest in the New Hampshire 4,000-footers began during a hike with my brother on the Franconia Range in 1963. As we crossed the summit of 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette and headed down the Garfield Ridge Trail, it hit me: Why not go for the patch?
(In 1963, only 46 New Hampshire peaks qualified as 4,000-footers. Fine-tuning of US Geological Survey maps turned up two more that qualify: Galehead and Bondcliff.)
One year after my vow to earn the patch, I had completed 29 summits. Then life intruded, in the form of marriage, children, and work. Only in retirement did I fully rediscover my passion. And what fun I've had climbing the final 19 mountains. What a great feeling it is to awake with the stars still shining and a backpack leaning against the chair, knowing it's a 4,000-footer day.
On such a morning, a foggy day in mid-November, I headed off to appropriately named Mount Isolation on the Davis Path. I've heard white-throated sparrows sing on Mount Lafayette. I've basked in June sunshine on Mount Osceola.
Though I understand the criticism of peak-bagging, I adore the Four Thousand Footer Club. It has brought me to summits I never would have visited without the lure of the list.
And what is left now that I've done the 48?
That would be the New England Four Thousand Footers, of course. I've climbed most of the 14 Maine peaks above the magic mark. The New Hampshire group is history. But I've never hiked in Vermont, which has five 4,000-footers.
Bagging them is a great excuse for a hiking vacation in the Green Mountain State.