It seemed like a good idea at the time is a beginning statement that might indicate more adventure than bargained for. And so it was that I hiked solo up Mount Tecumseh at 6:30 PM on a random Thursday, with noble intent to meet the Comet Neowise halfway by climbing a relatively easy mountain and looking at the stars. Except that the stars were hidden in overcast, and the stakes of a solo hike ratchet up when it gets dark on a steep and wet trail. But I had a plan B for the descent all the while, which turned out to be an epic adventure of its own.
Mount Tecumseh is a relatively small mountain that was recently demoted from an official 4000 footer to a just short of greatness 3997 foot. The mountain is named for the Shawnee Chief who unified tribes against settlement in the Great Lakes region and fought against America in the War of 1812. There’s no logical connection between Tecumseh and New Hampshire that I’ve seen, but I can respect his name more than some others I’ve come across hiking. I’ve hiked it before and remembered it as a relatively easy hike save for a steep mile of the trail known as the staircase. This made hiking the trail as it was getting dark less concerning for me. But the last time was in winter when Tecumseh’s famous staircase is softened by a heavy snow blanket.
The ascent was easier than I thought it would be, which bodes well for the trend in my overall fitness level I suppose. I arrived at the summit at 8 PM with plenty of light to see the view, if the clouds hadn’t dropped down to start blanketing the mountain anyway. I changed into a long sleeve shirt and began my descent quickly after arriving. I knew I had a challenging descent to deal with if I chose to hike down the Tecumseh Trail, though I had the gear necessary for a hike in the dark. But there was that fog to consider, which makes a headlamp beam about as effective as your high beams in your car in fog. I decided to hike as long as it was safe to do so without using the headlamp. And after considering the Tecumseh Trail made the decision to hike the Sosman Trail on the descent. I’ve hiked this one before and knew it was relatively easy for a descent, partially following the ski trail for Waterville Valley.
But here’s where the story takes a twist. The fog and darkness made it very difficult to mark the trail, and I lost it in the swirling mist at the summit of the ski lift. And so I said my first WTF of the night, looked at the ski trail sloping down and decided to just walk down that instead. I kept to the green trails, which are a combination of gravel road and grassy meadow in the summer. Skiing down a slope and hiking down are very different things, and I found it slow going. At one point I spooked a couple of large birds roosting in a tree – likely those turkey I’d been wondering about earlier in the week, and it startled me enough that I thought I might just expire right then and there. But that would’ve been too easy. I uttered another WTF and kept descending.
After walking for what seemed like hours I reached the middle chair lifts at the ski area and looked down to see the lights of the ski lodge depressingly far away. I said another WTF and made the fateful decision to follow the chair lifts down instead of the gravel access road that would add a lot of time to the hike. And I discovered just how tall the meadow becomes on the walk down. By now it was completely dark and I used the beam to illuminate every step and the hiking poles to probe for gopher holes and other hazards. Eventually I made it down to the base and glanced around at just how lonely a ski area looks at 9:30 on a foggy summer night. I arrived at my car, used the beam to check for ticks and headed home. Not your average Thursday night.
Lessons learned on this one. Hiking solo in the dark wasn’t the best idea I ever had. Even though I knew the trails I was hiking, they always look different in the dark, and especially when there’s fog. I would’ve been better off descending the Tecumseh Trail. Even if it was slow going its clearly defined and I would have arrived at roughly the same time as taking the Sosman Trail. The point of this hike was to see the night sky, and I might have been better off just bagging the hike when I saw the overcast at the summit. But I don’t panic when I hit WTF moments, I assess. There were things that could have gone wrong but I took it slow and easy and got back safely. I’m glad I hiked it, and all the extra drama of darkness and fog and overgrown ski trails made it memorable, if slightly reckless (but calculated reckless). Another 4000 footer completed, and a story to tell.