23 May 2001
By: Erik Siering
Each year, Japan's Mt Fujiyama receives more visitors than any other mountain. While neither as lofty nor as ceremonial, Mount Monadnock (elev. 3,165 ft) is the most popular peak in America and the most-climbed mountain in the world not accessible by a road. Fully 130,000 people reached the summit annually. At least fourteen trails crisscross its southern flanks. Fit hikers can get to the barren, rocky top in less than an hour. It is situated in southwest New Hampshire, near the town of Jaffrey.
The first recorded ascent of the mountain was in 1725. Current Jaffrey resident Larry Davis is renowned for climbing Monadnock daily, in all conditions, for over eight years. His amazing streak of 2,850 consecutive days through February 2000 was broken only by a bout with pneumonia. In total he has made it to the top over 3,999 times! By comparison, Sid Davis hiked up San Jacinto Peak 639 times. Both Larry and Sid share the record of most calendar days, 366 in a leap year, of consecutively scaling their respective highpoints.
Recently I squeezed in a scramble up Mt Monadnock on a business trip. After little shuteye on a redeye to Logan Airport in Boston, I drove to the trailhead under gray sky and rain. Maybe I figured the weather would make the climb interesting. More so as I had left my maps behind at home. Nonetheless, I found the signed trailhead. The most popular trails, the White Dot and White Cross, approach from Monadnock State Park to the south. I opted for the Marlboro Trail, which ascends the west face of the mountain from outside of the park. It is out of the way, less crowded, narrower and steeper. It starts from a dirt roadhead, off the Shaker Road from Hwy 124. My rental SUV had a chance to flex itself.
I looped the Marlboro to the summit, descending the Smith Summit Trail to Monte Rosa, then the Great Pasture and Marian Trails back to the Marlboro. I saw no one else out in the rain. The Marlboro Trail is quite straight... it only goes up. There is no respite until you reach the top of the mountain. Two thousand feet of elevation gain in two miles. But the terrain of uneven talus and broad rock outcroppings and slabs never exceeds class 2 in difficulty. New England paths don't switchback - so they double as waterfalls during rainstorms. The Marlboro ascends through the woods, then on lichen-covered schist and granite. With running water, this meant treacherously slick footing on the downhill. Blackflys and mosquitoes, the scourge of the season, were absent. The little buggers were probably blown into Vermont by the winds.
This forest has many species of trees, including hemlock, pine, spruce and oak. But the top of Monadnock is bare, even though the elevation is too low for this to occur naturally. Much of the forest on the mountain was once farmland. This is seen in the stone walls that cross areas that used to be fields, now reclaimed by the dense forest. I've read that the farmers burned the trees at the summit because wolves were killing their pastured sheep. Years of wind and rain erosion then washed away the summit soil. Mt Monadnock also has a unique shape. One side is gradually sloping, the other quite steep, a feature that is indicative of glacial activity. Along the trail, many of the rock ledges are marked with stirations, scratched in prehistoric times by the bottom of a moving glacier.
A painted white "M" or dot on rock marks the trail, along with large cairns. The summit rises 300 feet above timberline, the final quarter mile of trail over bare solid rock. By this point I was in the clouds and being hammered by the storm. Splashing through the rain-filled pools near the summit, I strained to remain upright in the violent wind. I slapped the USGS benchmark and peered about. I was quite alone. I'm told that Mt Washington can be seen to the northeast on a clear day. And that the top is a very crowded place in good weather. Neither was the case today!
I could see no further than 30 feet in the whiteout. So I appreciated the cairns while descending the fairly steep south face. The low clouds lifted midway, near the trail junction at a subsidiary bump named Monte Rosa. They revealed the landscape of lakes and rolling hills below. A pretty green sea, of dark pines amid the light new Spring foliage.
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