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Henningsen: Racing the dark

10/07/09 7:55AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) For many people, the hiking season ends with Labor Day.  But commentator Vic Henningsen thinks that the best is just beginning.

(HENNINGSEN) During the good days of high summer, my hikes depend on my companions and my mood.  More often than not, I'll simply grab the rucksack and decide where I'm going as I drive down the hill.  Birdwatching up Camel's Hump?  Strolling to the Stratton fire tower?  It all depends.

But as we move into fall I focus on a very specific trip - climbing an open west-facing ridge.  Because of the prevailing winds, treeline on our major summits begins significantly lower on the western side.  Following a west ridge trail gets you out of the woods early, so you get great views of the advancing season as you work your way up.  And since the weather usually blows in from that direction, you can see what's coming and, if you have any sense, head down if it looks bad:  it'll be much worse at the summit and who wants to descend into a gale?

But there's more to it than that - something almost mystical in the urge that puts us up on those ridges in the fall.  Living in the woods as so many of us do, we seem driven to absorb all the light we can before the onset of winter's dark.

Three fall favorites speak to the wonderful variety of hiking experiences our region offers. The West Ridge Trail on New Hampshire's Mount Cardigan is the classic example of a relatively easy hike with a big payoff when you hit ledges leading to the bald summit.  Mount Jefferson's Caps Ridge in the Presidential Range is a steep, tough, walk with rock scrambling that makes it inadvisable for the inexperienced. The Goldilocks of the three is the Sunset Ridge Trail ascending the prominent west ridge of Mount Mansfield: significantly longer than Cardigan; challenging, but nowhere near as stiff a push as the Caps Ridge.

Each of these trips requires preparation and consulting the relevant guidebooks is crucial.  Particularly in the fall, warm clothes - lots of layers - are a must, as is a flashlight with extra batteries in case you miscalculate your time.  And they should only be attempted in the best weather.

That's because the real treat of such walks is the trip down.  Few experiences compare with descending an open west-facing ridge as the sun drops low on the horizon, nearby trees ablaze with color, far hills looming deep blue.  There's a sense of walking into the view, which envelops and at times overpowers you.  "I feel like Moses!" a zealous companion once proclaimed as we came down from a mountaintop.  

Whatever your sense of the return from a high peak - from the extraordinary to the everyday; from the abstract to the concrete; or from the sublime to the ridiculous - if the weather's good and you're properly equipped, experienced, and in shape, racing darkness descending a west ridge is one of New England's premier fall experiences.
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