Trail Tale: Seventy people hike the 53 mile, 24 hour Trailwalk to Moosilauke this weekend. Is the event too popular?

by Charles Davant | 10/7/97 5:00am

Imagine hiking 27 miles on the Appalachian Trail without stopping. Imagine being cold and wet, blistered and bruised. Now imagine that you can't stop for another 30 miles.

"Despair" is the only word that describes the feeling. Late Friday night, when many students were drinking beer in fraternity basements, a handful of us were putting "despair" back in the Dartmouth lexicon.

Every October since 1967, students have hiked the entire 53 miles between Hanover and Mount Moosilauke in less than a day. For decades, the event attracted a tiny lunatic fringe who aspired to make themselves miserable -- if only for a few hours.

This year was different: The lunatic fringe was a lot bigger.

Despite a cold drizzle and a forecast for snow in the mountains, 70 people left Robinson Hall Friday afternoon with their sights set on Moosilauke. Three years ago, only 13 people made the trek.

A tradition that started when a van load of friends decided it would be fun to walk 50 miles has become a full-scale "event," complete with a hefty registration fee, a team of EMTs and an official T-shirt.

Dartmouth Outing Club organizers always encouraged people to sign up for the Trailwalk. Is it possible that the event has become too popular?

Hanover to the Dartmouth Skiway

Mile 0 -- Mile 20

For the first 10 miles north of Hanover, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a civilized affair. The trail winds through sunny meadows and open glades, and the closest thing to a mountain -- Velvet Rocks -- is as smooth as its name.

The following 10 miles are more challenging. First there is the climb up Moose Mountain, which takes the better part of an hour. The sun sets as hikers descend its gentle northern slope.

During the 1,000 foot climb up Holt's Ledge -- the southern summit of the Dartmouth Skiway -- most hikers put on head lamps for the first time. They will spend the night stumbling northward like lost coal miners, looking for the tiny blotches of paint that mark the trail. Drunk with their own lunacy, hikers don't feel fatigue until late in the night.

"The first 15 or 20 miles were awesome and euphoric, running through all those glorious golden leaves, and everything was just so beautiful and exciting," Louisa Gilder '00 said.

But when Gilder arrived at the 20-mile mark, she was excluded from one of the event's most awesome and euphoric traditions: a warm dinner.

Gilder was one of dozens of students who were turned away when she tried to sign up for the hike last Monday. While Gilder drank from streams and carried her own food during the hike, the students who registered were given support by outing club volunteers: food, water and the option to quit at aid stations every 10 miles.

Interest in the Trailwalk had been only slight for more than 25 years. The outing club last week decided to provide support for 42 people -- why would 1997 be different from any other year?

But when the Outdoor Programs office opened its doors Monday afternoon, 80 people were waiting to sign up. Fifteen minutes later, the 42 slots were filled.

Most of the students who were turned away made other plans for the weekend. But at least 30 of them -- including Gilder -- decided to go "unofficial," to support themselves on the trail despite objections from the event's organizers.

When hikers arrived at the second aid station for dinner Friday evening, they were greeted not with a "congratulations," but with the question: "Are you official?"

The first time I completed the Trailwalk in 1995, everyone was "official," and everyone was equal. This year, there were the haves and the have-nots. While the official hikers ate piping-hot outing club macaroni and cheese, Gilder and her friends ate cold bagels and a block of cheddar.

Dartmouth Skiway to Atwell Hill

Mile 20 to Mile 37

Smart's Mountain is the first serious obstacle between Hanover and Moosilauke. A stomach full of dinner, whether hot or cold, will get you only so far up its steep slope.

For the first three miles, the ascent is gradual yet grueling. Close to the summit, the pitch is so steep that it chews up fresh legs in moments.

It is on Smart's that hikers begin to understand how many things can go wrong with the human body. Our legs were tired from walking 30 miles. We were sleepy because it was 1 a.m. Our feet were blistered, our armpits were chafing and our legs were bruised from falling. We were cold and wet. Some of us were sad, or, even worse, delirious.

"One girl that was passing me thought I was a tree," said Michael Foote '01, who completed the hike despite being sick with strep throat. "She leaned on me for balance and flipped out when she realized I wasn't."

At the aid station on the far side of Smart's Mountain, a few hikers threw in the towel. An unhappy thought loomed large in every mind: Mount Cube.

If Smart's was the appetizer, Cube was the main course. Although slightly smaller than Smarts, Cube is twice as vicious. Climbing the mountain is like climbing a ladder -- except the rungs are made of wet granite.

Hiking down its back side is like falling down a well. The trail is steep and treacherous, and almost no one was able to stay on his feet during the wee hours Saturday morning.

Many of the hikers were badly bruised, but none suffered as much as the trail. The foot traffic of approximately 70 hikers caused damage that will take days of labor to repair.

"The trail was soup, and I think having so many people on it made it much worse," said Gabrielle Miller-Messner '01, who signed up for the Trailwalk after only three weeks at Dartmouth. "I think the DOC should definitely not accept more official hikers."

Trail damage is a major concern for the outing club, which tends 75 miles of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire and Vermont. It was one reason the club discouraged the "unofficials" from hiking. And some outing club administrators see the event's popularity as a threat to Dartmouth's stewardship.

"Having that many people does have an impact on the trail," said David Hooke '84, the facilities manager for Outdoor Programs. "If some other group decided they'd run 70 people on the Appalachian Trail in a weekend, we'd feel kind of upset."

Hooke, who hiked the entire distance when he was a freshman at the College in 1980, said students in the outing club should plan alternative "hard-core" activities, so the 53-mile hike will be less popular.

"It is great to see the interest," he said. "But I urge the students to think about what they might do in a future year to spread people out."

The 70 students also left a huge amount of litter in their wake, particularly at the aid stations, according to Ted Yuo '98, who organized support for the official hikers.

But at the Atwell Hill aid station Saturday morning, litter and trail damage were far from hikers' minds. After walking 37 miles, they seemed more concerned with eating pancakes or, for the "unofficials," more cold bagels. Other unofficials had organized their own support team, recruiting friends to bring them food and supplies at the aid stations.

Among the hikers, at least, the distinction between the "officials" and "unofficials" had faded. The groups hiked together, shared food and, at Atwell Hill, collapsed in a pile of sleeping bags for a cat-nap.

Atwell Hill to Mount Moosilauke

Mile 37 to Mile 53

There is only one mountain between Atwell Hill and Mount Moosilauke, and it barely merits the name. "Mount Mist" is more of a pimple than a mountain, but after walking 40 miles it can feel like Everest.

On Mount Mist "our feet transcended any agony we had ever felt before in our lives. We were comparing the pain to broken bones," Gilder said. There were "six or so of us all limping in different ways and grimacing. It would have been funny had the pain not been so extreme."

It was near Mount Mist that one officialy registered hiker injured his knee -- a situation event organizers believed they were prepared to face. One of the prime reasons the outing club set the limit at 42 hikers was to make evacuating the injured less complicated.

But a greater number of hikers makes the trip safer for everyone, some hikers who weren't allowed to register contend. In fact, the injured hiker was rescued by "unofficials" who found him limping, using a tree limb as a crutch. Because there was no car or telephone at the Great Bear aid station, students went for help in a car carrying supplies for "unofficial" hikers.

For most hikers, however, the Trailwalk passed without incident. It was an adventure story with very little adventure -- just a lot of walking.

When they reached the southern ridge of Mount Moosilauke early Saturday afternoon, hikers could take one of two paths to the Ravine Lodge: the five-mile Hurricane Ridge trail or the eight-mile ascent to the summit of Moosilauke. About half the hikers went each way.

Not surprisingly, the summit was the peak experience for many. But few moments could surpass arriving at the Ravine Lodge in time for dinner.

"The best part of the hike was the very end," said Jonathan Waldman '00, who finished the Trailwalk for the second time this weekend. "I sat down for dinner at the lodge with a bowl of chili in front of me. I ate about half of it, and then, with fork grasped in my fingers, leaned onto my hand and fell asleep."

More than two-thirds of the hikers made it all the way to the lodge. Most years, about half give up early.

For at least the last decade, the Trailwalk has been the first event of the outing club's Moosilauke Fall Weekend, when dozens of students travel to Moosilauke for trail work, hiking and square dancing. This year, so many people participated in the hike that some non-hikers had to be denied lodging.

"The Trailwalk overshadowed the Moosilauke Fall Weekend," Yuo said. "If there's going to be this kind of interest, we'll probably divorce the events next year."

The future of the Trailwalk is uncertain. No one knows whether 100 people will show up next year, or only a dozen. Next year's organizers won't even be named until 1998.

Will the outing club take steps to reduce the event's popularity? "All that will have to be hashed out," Yuo said.

But some hikers say it is too late -- the outing club has let the genie out of the bottle. Whatever sick mania causes students to drop everything and walk 53 miles through the mountains has spread through the student body, and organizers will be hard-pressed to suppress it.

"They don't realize that this hike is beyond the DOC," said Matthew Holmes '00. "This journey is about the spirit of the people."