Wilderness Heals

Thank you for visiting the Wilderness Heals blog. Wilderness Heals is an all-women, three-day annual pledge hike that benefits the Elizabeth Stone House (ESH), a Boston-based emergency shelter, transitional housing program, and therapeutic community that provides services to women and children who are escaping violence and overcoming trauma. By encouraging hikers to set challenging physical, emotional, and financial goals, Wilderness Heals mirrors the experiences of hundreds of women who have sought help from the Stone House. Committing to hike is a way to grow personally while simultaneously standing in solidarity with women of the Stone House and women everywhere who are working to overcome the effects of violence in their lives.
Wilderness Heals 2011 will take place July 15-17, 2011. Registration materials may be downloaded here.
Go here to view the 2011 routes, and visit our Who's Who page to meet this year's team leaders and Recruitment Committee members.
Want to learn more? Visit our list of Frequently Asked Questions.
Still have questions? Contact Erika Whyte, Wilderness Heals event coordinator, at 781-726-0551 or ewhyte@elizabethstone.org.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

White Out, or How I Survived My First Training Hike

When I was a child, I begged my parents to take me camping. We lived in a small farming community in Northeastern Ohio, and the closest I ever came to exploring the backcountry was bushwacking through the cornfield behind my grandparent’s house. I was 23 years old when I climbed my first mountain, and 24 the first time I slept under the stars.

At the time I registered for Wilderness Heals, I had little outdoor experience. Although I had backpacked once with a friend in Mount Hood National Forest, we had hiked only two easy miles along the riverbed before setting up camp. And while I spent quite a bit of time in Shenandoah National Park during the two years I lived in Virginia, those meandering hikes along Skyline Drive did nothing to prepare me for the rugged trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

My first training hike took place on May 1, 2005, on the 4,186-foot Cannon Mountain. Located right off of Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch State Park, it is the former site of the Old Man of the Mountain—a series of five granite cliff ledges that, when viewed from the correct angle, appeared to be the jagged profile of a face. The formation, which appears on New Hampshire license plates and the New Hampshire Statehood Quarter, collapsed on May 3, 2003.

A few days before the hike, Liza, one of the team leaders, called to report that there was snow still on the mountain, and she suggested that I bring snowshoes. I told her I’d never even worn snowshoes, let alone owned any. She assured me she’d find me an extra pair.

I awoke the morning of the hike to cloudy skies. After loading my brand new pack and boots into the car, I drove downtown to pick up Sue, a second-year hiker. By the time we arrived at the trailhead, a steady rain was falling, and Cannon and the surrounding mountains were hidden by fog. “Sue, are you sure it’s really there?” I jokingly asked. “You’ll find out when we start climbing,” she replied.

We joined team leaders Liza and Susan and hikers Jenn and Chris in the parking lot for a quick introduction. After I slipped into my new raincoat and awkwardly hefted my pack onto my shoulders, I noticed Jenn giving me a bemused glance. “You’ve never worn that pack, have you?” she asked, chuckling. I winced. “It’s that obvious?” Jenn grinned and reached for the straps of my pack. “May I?” I nodded, and she yanked and cinched until my pack rested closely against my back and atop my hips.

The six of us headed up Hi-Cannon Trail, casually chatting as our boots sloshed through the mud. It was a little less than three miles to the summit, and while the first forty minutes was pretty easy climbing, I was shocked at the rocky terrain. But the hiking poles Jenn loaned me greatly aided in my ascent, my legs felt strong, and in spite of the rain, I was grateful to be in the woods. However, upon reaching higher elevation, the temperature dropped and we hit snow. Between the rain and my sweat, I was drenched, and despite three layers of clothing, I began to shiver. Twice, I sank into the snow, burying my leg up to my mid-thigh. By the time we stopped for lunch, about half a mile from the summit, I was cold and exhausted.

Taking the trail and weather conditions into account, we decided not to summit, and although I was a little disappointed, I was also relieved. Liza warned that Kinsman Ridge Trail, our way of descent, would be steep and likely icy in some parts, and she encouraged us to wear our snowshoes. Slipping on the snowshoes I’d borrowed from Susan, I stood up, took a few steps, and immediately fell. Jenn hauled me up, and I took a few more steps, only to fall again. Not only was the trail steeper than any trail I’d ever attempted, it was covered in partially melted snow and ice, and the streams of frigid water that rushed over the exposed rocks and roots made the conditions even more treacherous. “Dig the blades into the ice to stop yourself from falling,” Liza instructed after I fell a third time. “Push down hard with your quads.” I tried, but my knees were wobbling so badly that I only tumbled down the trail again. Every piece of my clothing was soaked, and I couldn’t decide if I was shaking more from the cold or the terror that was swelling in my chest. I glanced helplessly at Liza, who offered her hand and an encouraging smile. Behind us, Susan and Jenn were coaxing a struggling Sue down the trail.

After falling ten more times, Liza told me to remove the snowshoes. “Slide down on your butt,” she instructed. “Go as slowly as you need. And don’t panic. You’re going to be fine.” I didn’t feel fine. I felt cold and wet and stupid and ashamed. But I nodded, took a deep breath, and began to ease my bruised body down the trail. Every few seconds, I would hit a patch of ice and slide, my arms and legs flailing wildly as I frantically clutched at nearby tree trunks and branches. I don’t know how far I continued this way; I’m sure it was only about half a mile, if that, but during that time, my world narrowed to only the mountain and myself. Every thought—every muscle and tendon and fiber of my body—focused on one thing: getting off Cannon without killing myself.

When we finally reached lower elevation, the trail leveled out and the sun began to peek from behind the clouds. The trail, while still snowy, was manageable on foot. We stopped for a few moments, exhausted but smiling. Jenn put her arm around me. “Vicky, you are a trooper,” she said. “Welcome to the Whites.” I closed my eyes, tilted my face toward the sky, and laughed, amazed that the terror I’d felt only a few hours earlier had turned to complete joy.

It was dark when we arrived at the parking lot. In total, we’d spent ten hours on the mountain. Since that Sunday nearly two years ago, I have climbed sixteen New Hampshire peaks, most of them in the Whites. That day on Cannon remains a vivid memory, in part because I was so afraid, but more so because of the five incredible women who helped me through the experience. Thanks to them, and thanks to the dozens of other women I have met through Wilderness Heals, I now have the knowledge, skills, and confidence to safely navigate New England’s mountains.

I haven’t gone back to Cannon yet. Even though it is not as high or as steep as some of the other peaks I’ve climbed, it looms in my mind as this impenetrable force, this unconquerable demon. But we’ll meet again soon, and this time, I will be the victor.

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