Skyline Sketches are short stories from Appalachia, AMC’s journal of mountaineering and conservation. Each captures a unique perspective about what we feel and the ways we connect in the mountains.
My husband, Tom, and I were backpacking the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We were behind schedule. Our plan was to make it to Mount Washington in time to meet my mother, Madelyn, and her fiancé, Herve, at the summit. They were taking the Cog Railway to the top. At our arranged meeting time, Tom and I were three miles short of Washington.
I stood on the minefield of boulders that is Mount Jefferson. My eyes were drawn to the towering mass of the tallest peak in the Northeast, where I knew Mom and Herve were waiting. It was my birthday, and I wanted nothing more than to be by my mom’s side on the mountain where my love affair with the White Mountains had begun.
Tom and I couldn’t make it to Washington before they must board the train for the trip back down. I decided to call her. She picked up on the third ring.
“Happy birthday, Julie!” she cried out. “Are you here on the summit?” I explained that we were delayed by poor weather the previous day, and that we were just north of Mount Washington. I asked her to see if the train conductor could point out Mount Jefferson. She came back on the line a moment later and said, “I’m looking at Mount Jefferson now!”
Cell reception was cutting in and out. I yelled, “Can you see me, Mom? I’m waving at you from the summit!”
And I was waving. Oh, how I was waving! I was waving so hard that it felt as though my arm would fall off. I was waving even though I was pretty sure there was no way my mom could make out my figure from where she stood. Tearfully, I waved, nonetheless. She and I, on two mountains amid a vast wilderness, were still connected. As I gazed at the summit of Mount Washington, my heart was bursting with love for my mother, who had never been on a mountain before but always encouraged me to try whatever I set my mind to.
Two years after that birthday wave, I would have the opportunity to help her accomplish a dream.
As a child, she had loved exploring the woods behind her house. As a mother, she had instilled in her four children a love of wild places, but hiking up a mountain had never been on her radar—at least, not until she stood on the summit of Mount Washington. We were having lunch one day, when Mom casually mentioned that if she could turn back the clock, she would climb a mountain. Her words simmered below the surface of my mind for the next several weeks. I realized that at 75 years old, she could not wait very long for a mountain.
So on a beautiful late September day, my mom, 83-year-old Herve, Tom, and I stood at the trailhead of Mount Willard in Crawford Notch. Willard rises 2,865 feet above sea level, and its trail gains 900 feet over 1.6 miles to the ledges. They strapped on backpacks. I was giddy but nervous. My mind raced with questions. Are they strong enough? Will they make it? Is this a crazy idea? I knew that there was just one way to find out.
The first challenge came within ten minutes. My mom and Herve paused at the brook crossing, unsure of how to make it safely to the other side. I took the lead, showing them how to use their trekking poles to maintain their balance while stepping cautiously from rock to rock. My heart skipped a beat when Herve’s foot slipped on a wet boulder, but he managed to regain his balance.
As the trail climbed more steeply, the couple’s breathing became labored, so I suggested that we stop for a break. Tom and I unclipped two camp stools from our backpacks. Mom and Herve sank into the seats, happy to rest and drink water. They said hello to everyone who walked past them.
Hiker after hiker—young and old alike—paused to offer a kind word. “You’ve got this!” cheered a teenaged boy.
“I want to be you when I grow up,” said a middle-aged woman who was breathing heavily herself.
“Great job, you two!” called a woman who looked to be in her twenties.
It was clear these words were bolstering their confidence. Fifteen minutes later, we continued up.
When we turned onto the part of the trail that follows an old carriage road, I worried how they would navigate the maze of loose rocks underfoot. But Mom and Herve handled the eroded and unstable terrain just fine. Their determination seemed to rise with the elevation.
The trail leveled out, and the path became smooth underfoot. The foliage above and beside us gave the illusion of walking through a darkened tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, sunlight beckoned, igniting the shadows. Suddenly, we stepped out of the trees and onto the open ledges of Mount Willard.
Although the vibrant hues of autumn’s flaming foliage begged to be admired, my eyes were drawn to my mother. I saw the same look of awe on her face that I’ve seen in pictures of myself after I’ve reached a summit and gazed in wonder at the beauty.
I hugged my mom tightly and exclaimed, “You did it! Your very first mountain!” We looked at each other and smiled—a mother, age 75, and daughter, 53, connected by this 2,865-foot mountain. I knew that she understood why the mountains have become a part of me.
I cried and looked out at the triumphant heralding of fall on the Mount Webster ridge. I knew that I would hold this moment close to my heart for the rest of my life.
Based on their ages, I guessed there would be no more mountains in Mom and Herve’s future. But on the way down, Herve asked, “So do you think there’s a 4,000-footer that we could do?”