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In Praise of Mountain Monogamy

By returning to the same place again and again, the old slowly becomes new again.

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Peakbagging is the equivalent of filling up your social calendar with first dates. It’s interesting to play the field, as it were, but relationships only deepen with sustained attention. Otherwise, you’re just dabbling, passing through.

I only realized this a couple years ago, after decades of hiking, when I found myself caught in a crisis of commitment: By hopping around the map like a playboy, what had I missed? New treks, alas, were getting old. It was time for some immersion therapy to recapture the spark. I vowed to become a one-mountain man, dedicating myself to hiking Southern New Hampshire’s 3,166-foot Mt. Monadnock once a month for a year.

Monadnock might seem like an odd choice. It is, after all, one of the most popular summits in the world, a day romp enjoyed by some 125,000 people annually. But that, plus its proximity to my house, is what drew me to it. There is no other mountain in the country that has been bagged as thoroughly as Monadnock. It is the king of the one-and-done.

I, too, had climbed it several times, but always during the warm months. The more I thought about that, the less I liked it. What had I—and everyone else—missed? Was there anything new to be seen on a mountain that hadn’t lacked for footsteps in more than a century?

I set out to answer that question in early winter on the well-worn White Cross and White Dot Trails—only, now they were transformed by ribbons of marbled ice draped helter-skelter across streams and slopes. Soon enough, these broad trails narrowed or even disappeared beneath the snow and I found myself making first tracks. Absent the birdy chatter of families and youth groups, my ears tuned to random ice crackles, subtle wind shifts, and the long draws of cold silence.

The math of getting to know a mountain can be dizzying. On Monadnock, for instance, start with 20-odd trails branching from six trailheads around its perimeter. Multiply by number of seasons, weather events, companions, personal moods, bodily aches, wildlife and hiker encounters, and you’ve got thousands of possible experiences—all in one place.

Always I happened upon treasures: blazing-white birch groves, stone formations like the ruins of Mayan temples, a fairy’s spring embossed in emerald moss. Stumbling around, of course, is an inefficient form of discovery, but I was freed from the goal of reaching the top and open to what the mountain might show me.

But each month, I did top out, marking the occasion by tapping my hiking pole on a bronze U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey reference mark and tying my hikes together.

When I climbed down this cragged place for the final time, I realized that beloved places reveal their strata of secrets slowly, in direct response to the hiker’s ardor. The lesson is not to avoid going far and wide in search of adventure, but also to engage the near and narrow, to cultivate a personal backyard on the trail,
to never settle for acquaintances.

As if in barter for devotion, my year of mountain monogamy had revived my hiker’s spirit. I’d come back, soon enough. Monadnock would be waiting. But in the meantime I was ready again to explore the vast world.

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