As I approached the summit of the peak I’ve dubbed Weathertop for the 180th month in a row, I reflected on the goal I set for myself 15 years before: to climb this mountain at least once each month for as long as I am able. I took in the expansive view, as I always do, and realized this peak that I now know so well had not changed at all. The same, though, could not be said for me.
My wife and I bought our small cabin in Garden Valley, Idaho, in 1996. A couple years later, I first stood on the summit of my mountain, a 4,510-foot high point along the trail that leaves from just outside the cabin door. I was winded but elated, surrounded by distant snow-capped peaks. I rushed from one side of the grassy summit to the other trying to take it all in. I loved the day, loved the mountain, and I wanted to hold onto that feeling forever.
To most experienced hikers, the climb is nothing to write home about. It is a little more than 2 miles up, with just over 1,200 feet of elevation gain. Weathertop is just the first small peak along an unmarked trail that goes for many miles. But the granite knob is clear of most trees, exposing a grand view. Though I’ve seen it hundreds of times, I never grow tired of it.
To reach my mountain, all I have to do is go outside and start walking north. When I first hiked it, I was in the middle of reading The Fellowship of the Ring, from which I got the name Weathertop (the peak where the Fellowship first fights the ringwraiths). The hike has three distinct parts. The first cuts across the hillside, winding through pine forest. Next the trail reaches a narrow ridge and mellows, before steepening for the final climb to Weathertop. In the spring, the forest is filled with wildflowers. In the winter, animal tracks traverse the path, providing a roadmap of their daily travels.
In the summers after moving to the cabin, I began to hike it more frequently, but the deep snow of winter always put my exploration on hold. The thought of setting a monthly climbing goal never entered my mind. Then for Christmas in 2005, my wife Pauline gave me a pair of snowshoes. On January 16th, I made it to the summit in winter for the first time. The snow was 3 feet deep and wolf tracks crisscrossed the hill. That day I wrote in my journal, “I am as happy as I could be at this moment.” Flushed with confidence, I thought: If I can make it in January, I can make it any time. Why not set a New Year’s Resolution to hike to Weathertop at least once per month?
“Hiking has been my sanctuary.”
But the climb can now be difficult even on mellow days. A lot can happen from month to month. Conditions change, injuries and illnesses come and go, and unimagined obstacles interfere.
I was 44 years old when I made my official “Month 1” climb and 59 for month 180. I’ve always been considered a “big” man, over 200 pounds even at my lightest (and many pounds more than that often enough). I have high blood pressure and a cardiac condition that can cause my heart to race without warning. But I’ve never let that stop me. I’ve made the climb while sick, with a bum ankle, and even with a torn meniscus. Hiking has been my sanctuary since my adolescence; some physical discomfort wouldn’t drive me away.
There were times when I felt youthful and strong, basking in perfect weather for every minute of my hike. On those days, I made the climb in less than an hour. I came up with dreamy quotes in my journal such as, “Your world is as big and as beautiful as your heart will allow.”
On some hikes, though, I’ve felt old, every step painful. Sometimes the snow was so deep that even with my snowshoes it was nearly impossible and it took me three and a half hours to reach the summit. On one of those days my journal read: “I’m under a cloud. A failure.” Yet through every setback, I still kept up my monthly hikes.
As I age, the hard winter months seem to be getting harder. A few times I’ve snowshoed a little more than halfway, realized I couldn’t make it, and returned to the cabin. So far, I’ve been lucky enough to complete the full hike the next day. But each winter I worry: Will I have the energy and stamina to continue?
During the past 180 months, I’ve come to know and love this mountain. There used to be an old stump at the top that I called my throne. For years I sat there and surveyed the view, jokingly calling myself king. The stump has now rotted away, and now that I’m older and less naive, I know the mountain will be here long after I’m gone. I am not a king, just a visitor.
After 15 years, I know where the bull elk spend the winter and where the wolves prefer to hunt by following their tracks in the snow and hearing their frequent howls. I’ve become a self-taught flora expert and know what flowers bloom when and where to find them. I know the birds’ calls and where they nest. On the first Father’s Day after my dad passed away in 2011 (hike number 66), I found a chickadee nest and spent the morning watching the father chickadee make trip after trip to his nest to feed his young. I felt my father’s love envelop me, and I cried.
For most of my monthly hikes I’ve been alone on the trail, just nature and me with my thoughts. But occasionally, my wife, kids, and friends have hiked with me. I planned my month 100 hike on my daughter Kerynn’s 26th birthday. She surprised me and showed up at the cabin with her now-husband Jim. We hiked up with drinks and shared two toasts on the mountain; one for my 100th month in a row and one for Kerynn . Hike number 177 was another of my favorites: My son Tony, his wife Meara, and my 6-month-old grandson Kellan were visiting and they wanted to join me on my monthly hike. Tony placed Kellan in a sling and carried him all the way. On the summit of Weathertop, we laid out a blanket in the shade, three generations together on my mountain.
Read More: Why I Go on the Same Trip Every Year
Weather, age, and health have all threatened to end my streak, but the biggest obstacle has turned out to be access. The first part of the trail passes through land owned by a timber company. I never had any problems, though, until April 2019, when someone yelled at me from the road below that I was trespassing. I went down to set the record straight and discovered that the land had been sold to a new owner, one who doesn’t let hikers through the half-mile of trail to the Forest Service lands just beyond.
I was devastated. My wife suggested we look for new property where I could have access to another peak, but I couldn’t let go of the connection I have with my mountain. Between topographic and land ownership challenges, my only option to approach Weathertop was now from the east side, about a mile away. Once there, the climb would be very much the same. I knew of private property in the area that was adjacent to the USFS. I talked to the land owners who were willing to grant me access; my streak continued.
When I reached the summit for hike number 180 on December 6, 2020, I was incredibly proud of my 15-year accomplishment. As hard as these hikes can be, I still love the climb. I still love the mountain. However, I’m worried about the future. This past year, each hike has seemed more difficult than it used to. My 50-minute hike now stretches to 80 minutes. Five or 10 years ago, my stop at Weathertop was often just the beginning of a longer hike. Once there I’d rest, snack, write in my journal and then head further into the mountains. Or I’d take my backpack and set up camp for a day or two. Now, more often than not, Weathertop is my only destination.
As winter closes in, I worry about the snow. Will it be too much? Am I getting too old and out of shape to make it up?
I very much wish to make it to hike number 200 in August of 2022. I dream of Kerynn surprising me at the cabin again and a group summit with her, Jim, Pauline, and maybe even my two sons Tim and Tony, daughter-in-law Meara, and my grandson Kellan. Once there, we will toast to number 200 and to family and to my dad watching us from above. I never want this to end, though I know someday it will. When the month comes, whatever the reason, I will grieve, because this resolution has become part of me. And when it ends, that part of me ends as well.
I have told my wife and kids that when my life on this planet is over, I want part of my ashes to be spread near my old throne on Weathertop, where each spring the chokecherries bloom. I want my atoms to become part of the mountain. Together, we will weather storms and earthquakes, blizzards and drought, fire and flood. Together we’ll know the wolves and elk, the flowers and the trees, the birds and the bugs. And I will start my streak anew, month after month until the mountain turns to dust, and together we are washed into the sea.