There are 48 mountains in New Hampshire with an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, as defined by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Meighan Matthews of Bedford has seen the view from every one of those summits.
The state offers a special patch for that distinction. But that’s not a priority for Matthews; “You have to be able to date each climb and whom you were with. It can be a paperwork nightmare.”
Her benefits are at another dimension. “It does feel like prayer,” she explained. “When I arrive at the summit it is a peak experience – literally — and I feel elated through the exertion and full of gratitude.”
Matthews, 53, didn’t rush the process – most of the climbs took place over the past five years. “Some people hike them in a year or even a couple of months. Somebody once took a few days. When I first decided to see if I could so all of the 48, I started counting in 2015,” she said.
The project flowered from years of experience.
“I grew up in Connecticut, but my dad used to go up to the White Mountains with his brothers and stay in the shelters. He was an inspiration to me,” Matthews said. She went to camp in New Hampshire and started backpacking. “It was a beautiful thing for me to do as a kid.”
As an undergraduate, Matthews spent a semester in Kenya and as part of the National Outdoors Leadership School went backpacking for three weeks on and around Mount Kenya, where “we never used trails.”
“So I really felt like I learned to be in the wilderness,” she asserted.
Matthews’s introduction to the Granite State’s 48 was in 1996, when she climbed 4,800-foot Mount Mousilauke to attend a friend’s wedding. And over the ensuing years, she added a few more in the White Mountains.
An injury several years ago while Matthews ran a gardening business actually was instrumental in her decision to reach more heights. Because of issues with tendinitis and discs, “I couldn’t bike or rock climb or swim.” So she turned to walking, “and it has become the love of my life. I love walking and hiking and being outside. It healed my back, and it is very meditative and prayerful for me — plus being excellent exercise.”
“New England trails are known to be some of the hardest trails to hike anywhere,” Matthews commented, recalling her 2016 trek along California’s John Muir Trail that was built originally to accommodate livestock and was “like a sidewalk.” In New Hampshire, on the other hand, “they put the blazes anywhere and they say, ‘This way up.’ Sometimes you feel like you’re walking in a river. It’s really challenging.”
About five years ago, she related, a friend mentioned that he had just finished his 48th White Mountains 4,000-plus-foot peak. “I thought, ‘Hey, I could do that.” So between April and November, on weekends or “whenever I had the time,” she climbed, checking them off, finishing in September. Her boss at Family Law Software, Wendell Smith, also loves hiking the mountains, she noted.
Most of the hikes were completed in one day’s time, but some required an overnight stay. At Zealand Mountain, there was a campground at the base which helped her get an early start. “A bunch of them I did as overnight backpacks,” including the Presidential Traverse, which took three days.
Sometimes one or both of Matthews’s children Phineas, 20, and Willa, 17, would accompany her. “They are both rock climbers, very deft in the woods and on these rocky hikes,” she said. “Our favorite hikes are almost like technical rock climbing. You need both hands and feet, though no ropes are involved.”
Still, Matthews commented, “I have really grown to love hiking solo. I love the quiet and being able to set my own pace and follow my body’s cues, getting your blood moving in just the right way.” As a high-endurance athlete, she appreciates the all-day hikes.
“I spend the time going up the mountain sloughing off frustrations and doubts while pushing myself physically. I offer thanks for my health and privilege and to my ancestors, relatives, and friends,” Matthews said. “On the way down the mountain I spend time in prayer for the brokenness in the world and our planet, and for friends and family who could benefit from some divine intervention, and I make plans.”
So what will she do for an encore? There are a lot of possibilities. “There is something called ‘52 with a View,’ all less than 40,000 feet in New Hampshire. There’s another list called the ‘Terrifying 25,’ the most challenging White Mountains. I will go back and redo my favorites. As often as I can I’ll go hiking…I hope I can hike for a long time.”
“This fall I have a little challenge for myself: the six routes to the summit of Monadnock, including three new ones.” Monadnock is not one of the 48 over 4,000, but there are still interesting ways to address it. Earlier this month Matthews and her daughter scheduled a night climb so they could watch the sunrise from the summit.
She is also becoming more involved with an experience called “pilgrimage — a journey with a destination that is meaningful in some way and presents some kind of challenge.” They can be “transformational experiences, and I have an intention to spend pilgrimage learning about myself. I’m very drawn to Ireland; my family is from there. I know there are traditional pilgrim paths in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.”
Matthews said she has noticed “a big increase in hiking. People started sharing on social media, and the virus is pushing people looking for outdoor activities.” She is distressed by littering and worse – “the mountains got very trashed this summer. Now rangers doing some public education at the trailheads.”
“People should not take doing these hikes lightly. People get disoriented, lost, hypothermic, injured, and even die hiking these mountains every year,” she advised. “I have actually carried a sleeping bag and extra food and water on some solo day hikes that are known to be challenging just in case I injure myself and need to spend the night out.”
“Everyone doing these hikes should watch the weather carefully, have a map, and know how to use it, carry enough food and water and warm clothes, and a first aid kit. If you are very experienced and considering hiking solo, make sure someone knows your intended route and when you are going.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
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