In middle school, I was a Boy Scout, routinely hiking and camping 12 months a year. In high school, I spent two weeks on Outward Bound-style treks through the Catskills and the Adirondacks, led by a phys-ed teacher whose mission was to teach students to love the outdoors. But in recent years, busy with work and children, my outdoor experiences have been limited to infrequent dog walking through suburban woods with my wife.
Even before COVID-19 turned camping into 2020′s vacation of choice, I would sometimes daydream about finding ways to return to a more outdoorsy version of myself. I’d idly click on the Outward Bound website, eyeing trips. I’d browse the courses in Maine at L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Programs. And most frequently, I’d visit outdoors.org, the website run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Boston-based nonprofit, founded in 1876, operates a series of lodges and high-mountain huts stretching from Maine to New Jersey. Each year, it sponsors guided trips — from backpacking in the White Mountains to skiing in the Italian Alps. For many of these outings, it provides the necessary equipment. As I’ve contemplated ways to get back into outdoor activities without investing in gear, Appalachian Mountain Club trips seemed like an ideal way to get started.
This year is different, of course. Most of the group’s organized trips have been canceled, and its network of trailside huts is closed to overnight visitors, though bathrooms in some locations remain open. But its New Hampshire lodges unlocked their doors on July 1 and are scheduled to remain open through the fall — which is perhaps the best time to visit the White Mountains. So along with my 21-year-old daughter, Abby, I booked a room at Highland Center Lodge (outdoors.org/lodging-camping/lodges/highland; 603-466-2727). The facility, in Bretton Woods, is the organization’s largest property. In addition to its communal bunk rooms (closed this year), it also has individual rooms with queen beds, bunk beds, and private baths. Ordinarily, the Highland Center Lodge is a hub of activity: morning group hikes, nightly stargazing, and an equipment room that lets guests demo hiking and camping gear. Due to the pandemic, all those amenities are unavailable; instead, at check-in, we receive surgical masks and hand sanitizer. Dinner, ordinarily eaten buffet-style, will instead be served at socially distant tables, by masked waiters.
Nonetheless, two nights in the White Mountains proves a welcome respite from corona anxiety — and during a year marked by sedentariness and risk-avoidance, an opportunity to try new ways to move and take calculated chances.
Hiking may be the biggest draw of the White Mountains. On weekend mornings at Highland Center, Appalachian Mountain Club volunteers in the lobby stand ready with maps, serving as hiking concierges to help guests identify their ideal jaunts. During my conversation with volunteer Mary-Pat Cormier, we discuss my previous hiking experience, how much time Abby and I have, and the trade-offs between elevation and distance. I tell her I’ve previously climbed nearby Mount Willard — a popular (and often crowded) hike from Crawford Notch, whose trailhead is a few hundred yards away. We talk about the pros and cons of hiking adjoining Mount Avalon. (It’s comparable to Willard, but much steeper near the top.) Instead, she suggests Crawford Path, first blazed in 1819 and billed as America’s oldest continuously hiked trail. Abby and I set off with a daypack, engaging in the COVID kabuki of raising and lowering face masks whenever we encounter another trekker. It’s a scenic excursion but with an eye on the clock, we stop short of the top. We have an afternoon reservation on the water.
Located across from the Mount Washington Auto Road in Gorham, Great Glen Trails (greatglentrails.com; 603-466-3988) offers kayaking trips and mountain biking. (AMC hires Great Glen guides for some of its kayaking trips.) We’d hoped to try white-water kayaking, but that requires a full-day commitment; instead, we sign up for a half-day, $80 guided flat-water wildlife excursion. Cassie Bernyk, our guide, is a former Appalachian Mountain Club outdoors guide who made the shift to aquatics this summer. As she’s getting our group of six adults outfitted in water boots and life preservers, two of the guests seem unusually familiar with her. “Yes, it’s take your parents to work day here,” Cassie says sheepishly, introducing her parents, who’ve traveled from New Jersey to see their daughter for the first time since the pandemic began.
We mask up and board a shuttle bus for the 20-minute drive to Shelburne, where Cassie loads our kayaks (and then us) into the Androscoggin River. For the next 2½ hours, she leads a leisurely paddle downstream. She relates the history of the river, once used to transport logs. She points out bald eagles, a beaver dam, a blue heron, and a large snapping turtle sunning itself on a rock. (On morning tours, she sometimes encounters bathing moose.) At the halfway point, just before we paddle across the state border into Maine, we beach our kayaks on a sandbar and jump in the water, floating on our backs in our life preservers. With our phones tucked away in waterproof containers, there’s nothing to do here but relax.
Back in our kayaks, we near Gilead, Maine, where we’ll exit the river and reboard the shuttle bus for the return trip to Gorham. We round a bend, yielding a great view of the mountains. Our group is quiet, taking it in. Cassie’s mom looks over at her daughter. “Cassie, you’ve got the best job,” her mom enthuses. “You’re living the dream, girl.” Mom is right.
Back at Highland Lodge, it’s time for dinner. Earlier in the day, breakfast — egg burritos, pancakes with local maple syrup, sausage, yogurt parfaits — was perfection. On an earlier trip, we’d loved the inexpensive a la carte sandwiches and salads at lunch at Highland Center. Dinners over Friday and Saturday, in contrast, are largely vegan and very nutritious: ravioli with portabellos, lentil penne scampi with roasted vegetables, and orecchiette pasta with pancetta, peas, and shrimp. We don’t love it, but a strong list of craft beers and top-notch cannoli make us happy. (For our private room, I paid $146 per person per night including breakfast and dinner — a reduced rate after purchasing a $50 one-year individual membership in Appalachian Mountain Club. Lower rates are available for teens, children, or for those choosing not to include dinner — but be warned, apart from the pricey restaurants at the nearby Omni Mount Washington Resort, other dining options are a significant drive.)
Back in our room, there is no TV or air conditioning, but neither is necessary. With nighttime temperatures dipping into the 50s, I put the supplied box fan into the window, read a book until 10 p.m., and fall into what is, according to my Fitbit, the deepest sleep I’ve enjoyed in the last six weeks.
By 10 a.m. on Sunday, we’re craning our necks, looking up at Cathedral Ledge, a rock climbing haven located in a New Hampshire state park a few minutes outside North Conway. Our guide, Keith Moon of Eastern Mountain Sports Schools (emsoutdoors.com; 845-668-2030), helps us into harnesses and teaches us to tie basic knots. Then he lead-climbs up the granite face, a route known locally as Thin Air. About 65 feet above us, he secures three anchors into crevices, loops a rope through the carabiner attached to them, and nimbly returns to flat ground. Beyond basic safety instructions, so far Moon has offered very little guidance on how to climb, but no matter: Now it’s our turn.
Abby has indoor rock climbing experience, and I climbed outdoors a few times as a teenager, 30 years and 30 pounds ago. I go first. We’re “top roping,” with a rope tied to our harnesses, looped through the anchor above, and back down to Moon, who holds the rope taut to stop us if we fall (that’s called “belaying”). Grasping rocky nubs and finding footholds, I get halfway up this section. My feet are in secure spots, and there’s a wide ledge at the height of my collarbones. But taking this next step requires removing my feet from their safe place and then pushing up with my arms, like getting out of the deep end of a pool. I’m uneasy. I stop, look how far down it is, and give a long pause. “No, I’m done,” I say, letting Moon slowly lower me to the ground. Abby, lighter and more flexible, ascends with ease. Soon she’s looking down from the top of the rope. “You danced up that rock,” Moon says, clearly pleased.
After Abby descends, our guide unhooks his ropes and steps toward the rock to begin offering pointers. My biggest problem, he says, is that I’m trying to play it safe by keeping my body too close to the cliff. I’m also reluctant to put much weight on narrow footholds. That makes sense, but success in rock climbing is counterintuitive: Be willing to shift your hips away from the rock, to give your feet greater range to find distant footholds, and then put more weight on your feet, which results in more secure footing. “You have to commit,” Moon says. Armed with that advice, I try again. This time, Moon is more directive, pointing me toward specific handholds and footholds when I languish. His advice is a game changer: Although I’m more comfortable while pressed against the cliff, I realize the only way up is to shift my center of gravity away from the wall. It takes some time, but eventually I slap the top anchor, looking down at how far I’ve come.
At midday, we break for sandwiches. Moon tells us about his career: He’s been climbing for 25 years and guiding in the White Mountains for 15. During the summer he climbs at least five days a week (with clients, who pay $225 per person for a full day of instruction, or on his own for fun); during the winter, he leads backcountry ski trips. (AMC hires Moon and his colleagues for some of its outings.) Business has been slow during the pandemic, and many part-time guides are leaving the profession. Moon is worried how travel restrictions might limit the winter season. For would-be climbers, he notes, it’s ironic that the autumn — by far the prettiest season in the White Mountains — is typically a slow season for climbing guides. If newbies want to give rock climbing a try this fall, Moon and his colleagues can use the business.
After a third climb up Thin Air — it takes Abby less than four minutes, a sign this is becoming old hat — we debate our options. Moon describes several other nearby climbing venues. We choose Whitehorse Ledge, a few minutes drive away, to try “slab climbing.” When most people think of rock climbing, they envision a sheer cliff, like the one we’d been exploring all morning. Slab climbing is different: It’s done on a rock surface at a less-than-vertical angle, requiring a different set of skills.
Looking up from the bottom of Whitehorse Ledge, we estimate its angle at about 60 degrees. During parts of the first pitch, we aren’t really climbing; we’re just walking carefully up a very steep rock, albeit with ropes to protect us. Soon it gets steeper and we’re crawling on all fours; at points, it approaches vertical, and we begin searching for handholds and footholds. Still, this is easier than the morning’s climb, and within a few minutes we’re 325 feet from the bottom, staring out at a gorgeous vista across a valley toward Cannon Mountain.
Moon is a fantastic guide, and I’m having a great time . . . sort of. I don’t love heights. And during a year in which every trip to the grocery store has felt risky, taking intentional risks on a cliff feels disorienting. I find myself catastrophizing, worrying about the fastness of the anchors holding us in place, or how we’d get down if Moon accidentally dropped the rope while setting us up to rappel to the bottom. (I also notice I’m more nervous when Abby climbs than when I do.) I thoroughly enjoyed this day, and I’m glad I got out of my comfort zone — but I don’t foresee myself becoming a frequent rock climber.
Still, if not for COVID, there’s little chance Abby and I would have found ourselves together, high on this massive chunk of granite. And in a year when so much of what we expected didn’t come to pass, recognizing unexpected opportunities may be a useful worldview. The same will be true in the months ahead. Ordinarily, autumn weekends at Highland Center Lodge are booked solid many months in advance. But this year, as of early September, the lodge still had rooms available every night in October. And with so many travel options presently closed, New Englanders are blessed that the White Mountains remain open.
Daniel McGinn is executive editor of Harvard Business Review and cohost of the Dear HBR podcast. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org