Sunday, August 10, 2014

Peak #30, Mount Garfield: Can an aging canine
defy the odds and bag another 4,000-footer?

We got this far, or else the picture wouldn't have been taken. But did we make it to the top?

Hey, there's life in the old blog yet! Resuming posts as I work to get ready to trek Mount Kilimanjaro this coming January.

On Saturday, Aug. 9, drove two hours north to attempt Mount Garfield. Two support dogs along: Zahnna and Inca. Not sure if they understood the mountain was named not for a cat, but an assassinated president. Either way, they didn't seem to mind.

Note from later: as a marketing idea, maybe all N.H. peaks can be renamed after popular cartoon characters. We've already got Garfield. How about Mount Spongebob Squarepants? Okay, back to reality.

I say "attempt" because Zahnna, our German Shepherd, is now 11 years old and subject to hip and joint problems.

A few years ago, I had her on trails pretty regularly, with the idea that she might summit all 48 of the peaks that rise above 4,000 feet in New Hampshire.

I would tell people it was Zahnna's desire to accomplish this goal on her own, and I was just along as chaperone, and to drive her to the trailheads.

We got up to 29 peaks by 2011. But then the climbing stopped while our family began the very different adventure of taking care of my mother in her declining health.

So when Zahnna hit 10 years old in March 2013 and was having trouble getting up the stairs at home, we figured her mountain-climbing days were over.

But this summer I've been taking her on short hikes with Inca, our much-younger "back-up" dog, and Zahnna hasn't had much trouble at all.

So early Saturday morning, I threw caution to the wind, and threw Zahnna and Inca into the car. Off we went to attempt what would be Zahnna's 30th summit out of the 48. She might not be done after all!

Mount Garfield from a distance, with its pointy, barren summit. Image from

I thought Garfield was a reasonable target because the trail is a fairly steady climb with only one really steep pitch right at the top. Total distance up and back: 10 miles.

For Inca, age 4, it would be only her second high peak. But I wasn't worried as this is a dog that can leap from a standing position right onto a kitchen countertop.

We found the parking area for the Garfield Trail already crowded before 8 a.m.—vehicles would later overflow up and down the road for about a quarter-mile.

The going was fine: a half-mile on a path carved to link the parking area with the old trail, which follows the remains of an access road for most of the way up the mountain's fairly gentle northern slope.

The ground was wetter than I expected, but then this trail is close to water for almost its entire length, which helped keep the dogs happy.

Along the way, we met a guy named Ralph from Londonderry. I later found out we have several mutual acquaintances, and have probably been on hikes together in years past. We saw him on top, and on the way down. Hi Ralph! Sorry I didn't recognize you on the trail.

(And geez, later I found out that I scaled nearby Mount Lafayette with Ralph as part of a wedding celebration in 2010. What a clod I am to have spaced that. It wasn't that big a wedding, so you'd think I'd remember.)

As we ascended, I was watching Zahnna for shaking in her hindquarters, a tell-tale sign of fatigue that would have been the signal to turn back.

But it never came. Up we went, gradually, and entirely in the cool morning shade and with virtually no bugs harassing us.

I keep both dogs leashed, but Zahnna is obedient enough to be allowed to wander slightly ahead of us if no one's around, which simplifies things for everyone. As soon as I hear people ahead, though, I signal for her to get back, and she does.

But once in awhile Zahnna gets a little farther ahead than she should. And because she's an all-black German Shepherd, it's not uncommon for people who spot her on the trail to think they've come across a bear.

"Oh my God!" I heard more than once, knowing exactly what was going on ahead of me.

"It's not a bear, it's just my dog," I'd call ahead, just to put everyone at ease.

And sooner than I expected, we found ourselves in the back-and-forth switchbacks that bring the path up the Garfield Ridge Trail.

Would Zahnna make it? Looking good...

Soon the trees were getting smaller, a sure sign we were getting up there. After 4.8 miles, we gained the Garfield Ridge Trail, meaning we were nearly there: less than a quarter mile to the rocky bare summit.

But, right ahead of us, the last pitch was virtually all vertical scrambling. After applying sunscreen (me, not the dogs), we moved out—and up.

And you know, even though we scrambled up a veritable wall of rock, there was always a way for Zahnna to hop up, over, or around to keep gaining altitude.

One by one, obstacles were conquered. And before long, we broke onto the bare rocky area of the summit to find blue sky, virtually no wind, and views to the horizon in all directions.

Chalk up Peak #30 for Zahnna!

But before she could truly claim to have summitted Mount Garfield, the poor dog faced one final barrier. Weirdly, the very top of the mountain is a large flat slab that rises about four feet above the surrounding rock. And there really wasn't any way for a dog like Zahnna to get up unaided. So, for the only time that day, I had to give her a boost.

The official Summit Photo: Mount Garfield; Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014; peak #30 for Zahnna, at right.

We arrived at 11:15 a.m., so it took only about 3½ hours. We camped out on top with a bunch of friendly people. Inca, who has resisted attempts at socialization, surprised me by openly and attentively begging for food from total strangers. For her efforts, she scored part of a peanut butter sandwich and some salami.

On the summit: Inca (above) gets distracted by food, while Zahnna relaxes and wonders how the heck she's going to get down.

The trip down? It took just as long, as I need to be careful about foot placement when I'm solo hiking and responsible for two dogs.

Also, we were slowed down some by a near-constant stream of climbers heading up who got a later start than us. Honestly, we encountered at least 100 people on the return. Clearly, we weren't the only ones who decided the day was perfect to get into the woods and above treeline.

As expected, Zahnna slowed somewhat on the way down, but never got to the "vibrating leg" state I was concerned about. Nice!

Reached the car at 2:45 p.m. Once underway, my pooped canine companions settled in for the ride back home.

What's next? These adventures seem to come in cycles, so with this momentum, we'll probably try tackling a few more before the weather changes. The only truly tough peaks on Zahnna's list are the three northern Presidentials (Madison, Jefferson, and Adams) and maybe a few oddballs such as Cannon, where trails were laid out by sadists.

Will she get all 48 after all? We shall see, but we're not pushing it.

P.S. Update from Monday, Aug. 11: Zahnna was a little sore the next day, but seems fine otherwise.

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