BY DEB BROWN
My mother is afraid of heights. Climbing up to paint the second story of her house is not an option. And, until recently, neither was hiking, as any steep or rocky section would shake her confidence. We hadn’t been hiking together since I was 16, when some rocks half a mile up the Sunset Ridge Trail stopped her progress. But from time to time she’d mention that it might be nice to climb Camel’s Hump or Mt. Mansfield again someday.
So, several years ago, my Christmas present to my mother was a gift certificate for “A Guided Hike.” I provided advance consultation about clothing and footwear, and we hiked to Taylor Lodge on the Nebraska Notch Trail on a lovely, late summer afternoon (after bug season). My mother loved seeing the beautiful pattern of sunlight dappled on a forest floor. She was cautious about her footing but when I loaned her my hiking poles on the way down, she took off like a horse out of the gate! That fall, we also hiked up Stowe Pinnacle. Mom carefully negotiated the steep ascent and rocky summit, testing the reliability of her Vibram-soled boots. Though the hike took four hours, I was truly impressed by her increasing confidence.
Next year’s Christmas present was a set of adjustable trekking poles, plus “Three Guided Hikes.” Our plan was for several training hikes culminating with a trip up Camel’s Hump. We began with Mt. Moosilamoo in June. It was humid and rainy and the black flies were out, but despite wet boots and some slippery spots, Mom remained in good spirits. We even crossed a small stream! We did Laraway Mountain next, a great training hike for its vertical gain and occasionally rocky footing.
Finally, the big day arrived. It was a chilly October day when we headed up Camel’s Hump via the Burrows Trail. Mom said her backpack felt noticeably heavier with all the extra layers. I carried the special amenities a bottle of hot tea and a foam pad for sitting on during breaks.
About halfway up, we began to notice small patches of ice. Mom proceeded cautiously. We kept getting passed by other hikers, families with young children, and even old dogs. After a while, we began hearing from descending hikers that the ice on the summit was even worse, so we stopped for lunch before attempting the last 0.3 mi to the summit. Out came the butt pad and the hot tea! On went the warm layers! The reports from descending hikers varied, so we decided to give it a try and then turn around if the footing became too risky.
If we’d had crampons, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. And if you placed your foot carefully on a flat spot, you could easily proceed. But this requires great trust in your boots and your own balance which is not so easy when your legs are tired. Finally I knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top. Mom was 10 feet below me on the trail, looking dubiously at the partially ice-covered rocks between us. I could see her confidence waver. “We can turn back any time, Mom, but I think you can push yourself a little further.” And she did - for another 300 feet. We turned around approximately 0.15 miles from the summit, slightly disappointed but not at all ashamed.
I told her, “You aren’t missing anything. We can come back on a nice summer day when you can enjoy the view. Think of how easy the hike will seem then!” Not only had my mother hiked a rocky, steep trail, but she had persisted despite ice and cold and had increased her own sense of how much she could handle. I could not have been more proud. It was even better than going to the top.
But just you watch out, Camel’s Hump. We’ll be back next year!