Editor’s note: What follows is an exclusive excerpt from Chasing Summits: In Pursuit of High Places and an Unconventional Life, available now from AMC Books.
By sheer coincidence, January 1, 2000—the first day of the new millennium—was the day my life changed forever. My second wife, Debbie, sat on the couch looking at photo albums with some of the kids—one of hers and two of mine. I walked past, glancing at the upside-down album and noticed a picture of her and an overweight man standing on the deck of a ship.
“Who’s that fat guy you’re with?” I remarked half jokingly.
She raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, and gave me that look that said I should have already known the answer. She slowly spun the album around and my eyes bulged as I recognized the picture from our recent cruise to the Bahamas. The face I was staring at was my own.
What had happened to me? In five years of marriage, I had transformed from an active, fit, everyday competitive runner into a puffy-cheeked doughboy. The scales—and that photo—did not lie.
“My God,” I thought, “I look like the Michelin Man!”
In my college days, I ran every day and, blessed with high metabolism, I ate anything I wanted. I never gained an ounce. While attending college close to Burlington, Vermont, I climbed nearby Mount Mansfield often, watching the sun shimmering on Lake Champlain, flanked by the Adirondacks behind. But nearly twenty years had passed since those carefree days.
Upon graduation in the spring of 1982, my life changed in record time. That same year I got married, became a father, and began my career as a sportswriter. Hiking and climbing took a backseat, and those memories were put away as completely as the old external-frame backpack that I found in storage at my dad’s house many years later. I had forgotten I ever owned it.
Ten years, three kids, and one divorce later, I was a single dad raising my children by myself in the small town of Hinsdale, New Hampshire, still working as the sports editor of the newspaper in nearby Brattleboro, Vermont.
In 1995, though, I met Debbie. She was also a single parent, raising two teenagers. After several months of dating, we decided to blend our families.
But life never stopped. I lost my job as sports editor at the Brattleboro paper after an ownership change, and for the first time in my life I struggled with depression, second-guessing my competence as a journalist. My faith in myself was restored soon after when I landed the same job at the Keene Sentinel and we made the 20-mile move to a new town for a fresh start.
At some point during all the tumult, running no longer was a daily priority. In my 20s and early 30s, this hadn’t been a problem. Playing softball kept me from being entirely sedentary, but hadn’t prevented me from packing on 40 unwanted pounds, and I was putting on weight faster than a sumo wrestler eating chankonabe stew. The weight stuck to my 6-foot-1 frame as if I were wearing Velcro. It took seeing myself in that photo to realize that something had to change.
“The streak’s over” came the words on the other end of the phone one morning on deadline at the Sentinel, where I’d been sports editor for the previous two years.
“Who is this?” I asked the caller.
“This is Larry Davis from Jaffrey,” the voice said. “My streak of climbing Mount Monadnock every day is over. I got pneumonia last week and it put me in the hospital. My streak ended at 2,850 consecutive days.”
Now I remembered. Larry Davis was sort of a local legend, by his own account having climbed the 3,165-foot sentinel that stands over Cheshire County in southwestern New Hampshire every day for nearly the past eight years. Larry had pretty much become synonymous with Monadnock—the most regular climber on what is recognized by many as the most-climbed mountain in the United States.
I quickly wrote the story, located a file photo of Larry, and ran the article on the front page of the Sports section under the headline, “Climber’s Streak Ends.”
After we went to press, one of my co-workers, who had been at the paper much long than I, pulled me aside. “You know, this Larry Davis guy is not considered very credible,” he said. “No one knows if he’s really up there every day and a lot of people don’t believe him. I wouldn’t have trusted him like that.”
“Have you ever met him?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
Well, I thought, maybe I should go meet this guy and find out for myself.
The next day—coincidentally just a few days shy of my fortieth birthday—I packed a lunch and drove the 20 miles to Monadnock State Park. I climbed the White Dot Trail, which ascends about 1,800 feet in less than 2 miles over rocky granite slabs. Monadnock was far from my first mountain—I had climbed it a handful of times previously—but it was the first one I had hiked in quite some time. I’d forgotten how much I had enjoyed hiking and climbing in my younger days. I had forgotten the anticipation of a day above treeline that you get when you pull into the parking lot at the trailhead, your heart racing as you lace up your boots to begin a climb.
Out of breath on the mountain’s open, barren summit, I could see snowcapped Mount Washington—the highest peak in the Northeast—far to the north, as well as the entire Boston skyline silhouetted against the eastern horizon. Though it hasn’t been possible for decades because of air pollution and haze, hikers could once see all six New England states and the Atlantic Ocean from this perch. But it wasn’t always that way.
Legend has it that, in the early 1800s, local ranchers set fire to Monadnock’s upper flanks, hoping to drive out the wolves preying on their flocks. The wolves never returned, but neither did the summit’s trees. The resulting view has attracted millions of climbers ever since, including the likes of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom were inspired by the solitude they found on the craggy slopes of what Thoreau called his “temple.”
I had barely recovered when Larry appeared out of nowhere, almost like the gray ghosts of the mountain’s lost wolves. I recognized him instantly, not from the picture we’d run in the paper, but from the description I had gotten: “He looks like Willie Nelson’s grandfather,” I’d been told. Well, not quite. Larry was a bit ragged, with his red gym shorts over his sweatpants, crusty T-shirt, and trademark bandanna holding back his long, graying hair. Maybe Willie Nelson’s brother. Though he was in outstanding physical shape from climbing every day, his face certainly looked well beyond his 39 years.
Introducing myself, I was immediately convinced of Larry’s sincerity. He had a firm, matter-of-fact handshake and a straight-shooting demeanor. As I would soon learn, Larry had what many would call “faults.” He smoked too much pot, had a considerable drinking problem, was usually in need of a shower, and was always in need of social graces. But I found his word to be as solid as the granite on which we stood. I had no doubt his streak was legitimate.
Larry and I quickly became hiking buddies, and I soon established myself as the newest “regular” on Monadnock.
The mountain was my salvation. I gained its lofty summit often enough that my extra pounds began to melt away as fast as the snow on its precipitous slopes during spring thaw. I reached Monadnock’s summit an estimated sixty times in 2000—before I started keeping track. I started looking—and feeling—like my old self again.
The more I climbed Monadnock, the more I wanted to tackle more serious peaks.