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June 1, 2021

Hiking & Grief: The 48 Peaks that Healed Me when I felt Broken.

I had lost my grandmother, my mom’s mother, in February 2016.

The first few months of that year were incredibly tough for me.

This was the first death of a close family member that I was old enough to understand, and it was really difficult for me. On top of that, I was also still settling into a new position at my job.

I was stressed and grief-stricken, and the lack of control in my life was foreign and overwhelming. As a self-described introvert who is a master at hiding emotion, I felt I couldn’t confide in anybody. I had never felt so despondent.

My mental and physical health deteriorated, and in a few short months, my lack of an appetite led me to unintentionally lose a substantial amount of weight. I had trouble sleeping most nights, and the scarcity of energy led me to live a monotonous cycle: wake up, go to work, come home, and go to bed.

I did not like or recognize the person I had become, and it seemed to be a never-ending struggle as I attempted to normalize my life again.

In April of 2016, I was invited by a friend to hike Mount Major, a small but popular mountain located on the outskirts of New Hampshire’s largest lake.

As we scaled that 1,785-foot mountain, I was panting as if I ran a full marathon. I had a cramp in my side, and my legs were burning with lactic acid.

I definitely was not in prime shape to be doing something like this.

On a ledge just before the summit, we stopped and turned to look at the mammoth waters of Lake Winnipesaukee. I scanned the landscape, and a sense of peace consumed me. A surge of underused endorphins released into my bloodstream, and I finally felt my shoulders relax.

And like a fleeing pilgrim who had sailed for thousands of miles across a malignant and desolate sea, I had finally found my sacred place.

On Memorial Day weekend of that year, I decided to climb Mount Lincoln and Lafayette. Out of the 48 different 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire, these two are the most popular.

I decided to do this hike by myself, and unbeknownst to me, this set a precedent for all my future climbs.

I was still definitely out of shape for this hike, but I loved the feeling of standing on top of these two mountains. When I got back to the car after nine miles of hiking and feeling like my heart was going to explode, I made it a goal to hike the other 46 mountains—thus began my love affair with the White Mountains.

Almost every other weekend, I would make the two-hour drive up north to check another mountain off the 4,000 footer list.

I became obsessed with planning my weekend excursions to the highest peaks in New Hampshire. I studied maps, learned to use a compass, and frequently checked weather reports.

As a solo hiker, I had to be self-reliant, and I think I will always find comfort in knowing that everything I need to survive in this world can fit in a bag strapped to my back.

Soon I was knocking out 10 to 15-mile hikes like it was nobody’s business.

My appetite increased, the pure mountain air and sheer exhaustion helped me sleep better, and I felt my body become stronger as my muscle and endurance returned.

I had fallen, bruised, and bled more times than I can count. If I felt like quitting, I pushed my body to go even farther. I felt considerably healthier, but most importantly, I felt happier.

It took me 13 months to finish all these 4,000-footers. In those months, I had hiked almost 300 miles and gained thousands of feet in elevation.

I did not have the luxury of car spots, so if I hiked 10 miles in, I would have to hike 10 miles back out. I started my hikes early in the morning because I enjoyed the feeling of being awake before the rest of the world. I also appreciated avoiding the crowds and having the trail all to myself.

Trekking through the wilderness without anyone to talk to gave me a lot of time to think, and I have uncovered aspects about myself that I never knew existed.

I have learned that isolation is not always lonely.

The toughest hikes don’t always lead to the best views, trekking poles are a godsend, and a pair of 20-dollar blister-resistant socks is the best thing I have ever purchased. I determined that I don’t like protein bars of any kind, even when covered in chocolate.

I discovered that total silence creeps me out, so I prefer to hike while listening to music. I felt as if I became acquaintances with Bon Iver, Eric Church, Lord Huron, The Lumineers, and Jon Bellion as I listened to their music over and over.

I have felt how awry and exhilarating it is to trek 24 miles through the snow to the most secluded mountains in the state and not see another soul for the entire day.

I have experienced a thunderstorm on the top of Mount Liberty in mid-July, crept through the fog above treeline on Mount Moosilauke, was blinded by snow on Mount Carrigain, and have felt the euphoria of finally touching the summit sign on Mount Washington, New England’s tallest mountain, after rock hopping through Tuckerman Ravine on my birthday.

My 48th peak was Mount Jefferson, the third tallest mountain in New Hampshire that is tucked between Mount Adams and Mount Washington.

When I finally touched the summit marker, I didn’t have an expansive view to look out on. The fog that swamped me the whole way up was unmoving, and the wind whipped my raincoat as it hung off my body.

I sat on a rock just below the summit, set up my tripod to snap a quick picture of me beaming at the camera, and scurried my way down back to the trailhead.

When most hikers finish their 4,000-footers, they usually ask their friends and family to accompany them. At the summit, there is cheering and applause, and sometimes even a bottle of champagne is popped open. But for this introvert, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

It’s been four years, and I have only revisited one 4,000-footer once.

It felt bittersweet, almost like I was walking the halls of my high school again.

At a difficult time, I flung myself into the depths of these mountains, and they stood steady as I traced their trails. They comforted me as I unfurled the emotions that poisoned my thoughts and compressed my chest.

And when I emerged from them, I was stronger—they made me feel alive again.

No matter how many other mountains I hike, I will always feel drawn to these peaks because they healed me in a time when I felt broken—and for that, I will feel forever grateful.

~

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