When to Say When: A Chilly Hike with an Important Lesson on Mt. Waumbek
Stepping out of the car the cold air hit my face like a ton of bricks. "I'm from New Hampshire, I don't get cold," I told myself as we geared up to go. The car temperature read -1 degrees, making this Lucy's coldest hike to date.
One of the most valuable and challenging hiking skills is knowing when to turn around. Bailing is so difficult because one of the major reasons we hike is to tackle the summit. Anyone can go for a quick jaunt in the backyard, but hikers yearn for that feeling of accomplishment when you reach the top of the mountain. It's so addicting that it's led me to chase summits for lists all around New England. Conquering the summit makes you feel so powerful, and turning around when you're just short of that can be incredibly disappointing.
When hiking with dogs, knowing when to turn back is especially important. They can't tell you when they're hurting or tired, so it's your job as their owner to recognize their cues and realize when it's time to turn back. This morning Lucy and I set out to hike Mt. Waumbek, one of the most northern 4,000 footers in NH. Waumbek is one of the easiest 4Ks, so I figured it would be a good option since the weather had been especially chilly the past few days. The forecast said it would be around 20 degrees today, but it was much colder than that when we arrived at the trailhead.
After putting on Lucy's baselayer, hard shell, and boots, we started up the trail with a fresh dusting of snow. There was one set of tracks from a man we saw in the parking lot, but other than that the fluffy white blanket was untouched. I wore snowshoes because even though I easily could have gotten by in microspikes, I wanted to pack down the new four inches of powder to help form the trail for the rest of the winter. It's important to have a good foundation early in the winter so that the trails form a beautiful monorail lasting until May.
We were both excited, Lucy bounding up the trail with endless energy. Yesterday never made it above five degrees at our house in Sugar Hill, so she had been cooped up for much of the day staying nice and warm on the couch. Lucy has recently been trained with an e-collar, so her recall has been nearly perfect on the trail. Not even the little birds hopping around in the woods stole her concentration when I called her. As we ascended, I admired the frost covered trees glimmering in the sun.
Hidden underneath the light, fluffy powder were patches of slippery ice making the footing a bit tricky. I had an easy time in my snowshoes, the spikes gripping into the ice with no problems. Lucy had a little bit of trouble at times with her feet sliding out from under her unexpectedly. She was doing a great job balancing her enthusiasm for the trail and energy conservation as we climbed gradually. We passed the man in front of us letting us have fresh tracks in the snow. There were a few bunny trails, but the rest of the woods were untouched. It was so silent, a true gift with the popularity of hiking the 4,000 footers growing every day.
Lucy was having a great time snuffling through the fresh snow looking for sticks as we meandered up towards the summit. But then I noticed her limping which ended up the beginning of the end of the day. Luckily Lucy wasn't hurt, just dramatic in the wake of losing a boot. I backtracked for about 100 feet, finding it quickly and placing it back on her delicate foot. This was challenging because the boot had frozen to the point where it was hard to get on. I warmed it up and smooshed it in my gloves, but I knew even after I put it on her that this was a short term solution.
We were still having a great time, so we kept ascending for a few minutes until Lucy stopped to lick her paw. The boot had re-frozen and attached itself onto her fur. I took some time to fish out the ice and snow and re-fasten the velcro, but when we started on our way again I realized a change in Lucy's demeanor. My previously peppy little puppy was now slogging along and sitting every chance she got. She would take a few steps, and then sit and wait for me to coax her along. After a minute or two of this I realized that we were only about halfway up the mountain and had a long way to go.
I looked at her staring up at me and realized that she didn't want to ascend anymore. She was doing it because I was asking her to, but she just wasn't feeling it. So I cleaned out her boots again, gave her a treat, turned around, and started descending. It was then that I got my happy little hiker dog back. She started bounding down the trail again eagerly sniffing out twigs to munch on. I thought about turning back around to try to ascend, but I knew that it wasn't in her best interest so we kept on her way.
All of Lucy's boots were frozen at that point, and although her body was warm I wasn't going to force her to keep going if she didn't want to. She made it clear that she no longer wanted to ascend, and not in a stubborn way. She let me know that she wanted to go down because her feet were too cold, and when I listened we had a great hike back down to the car. For the last ten minutes before we reached the parking lot, it was very clear that she was not having fun anymore. She was stopping to lick her paws every minute or so and limping a bit with her frozen feet dragging in the snow. When we got to the car she happily jumped in to warm up and curled up to lick the ice off.
In the end I'm really glad we turned around. Had we gone any further, the hike down would have been miserable. It was not for lack of conditioning or gear, it was simply too cold for Lucy and I to tackle even a small 4,000 footer. Had I been by myself I would have kept going, but it wasn't worth it to put Lucy through a hike that would be uncomfortable or potentially dangerous.
Although it's hard, we have to remember that the mountains will always be there and there's no shame in turning around. Lucy and I hiked Waumbek last year, so that made it even easier to bail today. We had been up there once before and I'm sure we'll get there again in the future, but today was not the day. I'm proud of us for going out and hiking today at all, and I have no regrets. It was a beautiful day in the forest and we both had a great time playing in the snow.
A year ago I probably would have been embarrassed to bail on such a seemingly easy hike, but I've learned that there's a lot more to hiking than the summit. We needed to turn around when we did. Had we kept going we would have been survived, but Lucy wouldn't have had much fun and I would have felt bad. So today's lesson is that there's no shame in bailing. We did what was best for us, and we are both happier because of it. And luckily we have some pretty nice views in the backyard to make up for our lack of views on this hike!
Starr King Trail [2.1 mi, 940 ft, 1:30].