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Escaping the Harvard Bubble, One Peak at a Time

Mt. Washington
Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

The Kinsmans were my favorite, and they were the first two peaks I hiked alone. I can still remember standing at the edge of Lonesome Lake, looking across the placid water at Cannon Mountain and Franconia Ridge and feeling utterly at peace amid the gentle breeze and swaying trees.

If the Harvard bubble feels claustrophobic at times and its pressures are overwhelming, adventure awaits up north.

New Hampshire has 48 4,000-foot peaks, dotting the White Mountains, and the Kinsmans are two of them. The 4,000-footers, as they are affectionately known, range from the 4,003-foot Mt. Tecumseh, with its short and direct trail scraping alongside a local ski area to the 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, famous for its pernicious weather and howling winds.

Thousands of hikers tackle the 48 in an effort to join the official Four Thousand Footer Club, reserved only for those who have “bagged” them all. The group recently surpassed 14,000 members and is now growing by 800 a year. Recent book releases — Following Atticus is my personal favorite — and social media attention have given the club a boost. Harvard students would do well to join these ranks.

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The membership application is simple — a form cataloguing the date and participants of each hike, an essay recounting a favorite peak or lesson learned, and a $15 fee. Each new member receives a patch, a certificate, and a pizza dinner at an annual Appalachian Mountain Club celebration in New Hampshire.

Eric L. Savage, the Four Thousand Footer Club’s corresponding secretary, has read most of the essays over the past 15 years. Peak baggers’ reasons vary for embarking on the journey. Savage has recounted to me hikers reluctantly dragged along by friends on their first trek, only to fall in love with the White Mountains and finish the entire list. Some climbed to honor loved ones who passed away. Many suffered tragic life events and fled to the mountains for reflection and healing.

And others, like me, simply adore New Hampshire, love hiking, and view the mountains as an escape from Harvard’s daily stresses. My own experiences offer a guideline for Harvard students seeking reprieve from work, grades, and careers.

I grew up in the southern part of the state, spent my summers in the Lakes Region, and went to college up north. I started hiking the 48 with my dad, but he’s since surpassed me and finished them all. The quest has forced me to explore new contours of the White Mountains — its unexpected views, untouched wilderness, and dozens of tiny towns scattered between trailheads. No such wonders exist in Cambridge, but they can be found within a few hours of driving.

My most cherished memories have taken place on 4,000-footers. One summer evening, my boyfriend and I hiked up Mt. Moosilauke in the pitch black to see the July 4 fireworks. Upon reaching the summit, we were caught in a torrential downpour and were forced to flee, eventually recovering with chocolate chip pancakes at 2:00 a.m. in a 24-hour truck stop. We didn’t see any fireworks.

Or take my hike up the Tripyramids with four friends and their two dogs. While climbing the peak’s infamous rock slide, an unexpected flurry left behind an icy frost. We proceeded to slip and slide up the entire mountain, and we were so weak from laughing that we could barely make it to the top. Once we did, the snow-covered landscape was so breathtaking we never wanted to descend.

I met one of my best friends, Kara L. Hedges, while hiking down from the summit of a 4,000-footer. While chatting away, I realized we’d be in each others’ lives for quite a while. Kara has completed 42 of 48, her progress temporarily derailed by a cross-country move to Seattle. The unclimbed six peaks are how I know she’ll eventually return home to New Hampshire.

I’m a bit behind her. I climbed my 37th peak, Mt. Moriah, this summer. Each subsequent summit has become increasingly bittersweet. I’m eager to claim my patch but sad at the thought of this journey nearing its end.

Amid our hectic lives here in Cambridge, we often forget to take advantage of the natural beauty in our own backyard. And worse, we lose sight of the absolute joy of a simple adventure. The 48 isn’t graded, and there’s no time limit. You can hike them slowly or quickly, with friends or alone. They take you to corners of the earth you might not have otherwise explored. I’ve found that these moments of escape provide me with new energy and mental clarity, and the lost homework and meeting hours are worth every second.

I’m hopeful the 48 are catching on. A Harvard classmate hiked her first two peaks a few weekends ago. She became so enamored with the White Mountains, she immediately downloaded the official Four Thousand Footer Club list.

Forty-six to go, she said.

Amy P. Couture is a first-year masters in public policy student at the Kennedy School.

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