I celebrated my 60th birthday last month by hiking New Hampshire’s famed Presidential Range in one day. It was one of my toughest day hikes—one I am not so sure I could have done in my 20s—and all the more satisfying to do at age 60. Why the Prezies for this birthday milestone? For my 50th birthday I ran the White River 50 Mile Trail Race near Mount Rainier. For my 60th I initially had my heart set on doing my first 100K run—62 miles—close enough to 60! But life has a way of usurping our plans.
Last fall I started developing some symptoms of fatigue, chronic pain and decreased mobility that only grew worse. By February I was in pain in both arms, shoulders, upper thighs in the groin area and I couldn’t turn my neck. Sleeping was painful as I could only sleep on my back. I couldn’t push myself up and it was a challenge putting on my clothes. Getting in and out of a car was a struggle. I was miserable and scared. Wow, 59 years old and always have been in top shape and now I felt like I was well into my 90s.
After seeing my physician and having several tests I was diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR), an auto immune inflammatory disease. More than likely a lifetime full of bouts of depression and anxiety led me there. Life during the Pandemic only exacerbated my stress coupled with the loss of a pet and other challenges that finally triggered my immune system to do what it did. The disease is for life—there is no cure—but there are good chances of putting it into remission. I was immediately put on prednisone and within a day I was feeling better. Within a few days I was pain free and felt born again. I took off for 4 days of hiking in the Columbia River Gorge and never felt so good to be on the trail.
Being on prednisone of course comes with all kinds of challenges and I fear its possible side effects. The plan is to gradually keep reducing dosages to eventually get off of it and put the PMR into transmission. If I am lucky it can take a year and a half. If not, it can take years. One of my biggest fears of the medication is the possibility of weight gain. But since I am determined to kick my PMR and get healthy again, I radically changed my diet eliminating excess sugar and salt and shying processed foods as much as I can. I reduced my alcohol content too (not that I drank much—but more sugar to eliminate) and cut my carb intake replaced with more protein and lots of salads. I have actually lost 8 pounds since last year and feel great.
A month ago I ran a marathon (26 mile) trail run with friend Grady Olson, and never felt better. I could have run farther, but Grady talked some sense into me. I do not want to overdo it as while exercise is good for my recovery (and it is my life) I need to allow my body to heal and not put too much stress on it. I opted to postpone my 100K run—perhaps in a year or two-hey birthday 62 would be perfect. But I still wanted to do something special for my birthday—especially one as momentous as turning 60.
I decided I wanted to spend that time with my family back in New Hampshire, the state I grew up in and was responsible for shaping me into the person I am today—a lover of the outdoors and the natural world. What could I do back there that would be momentous and memorable? Certainly a hike in my beloved White Mountains—the mountains that got me into hiking 40 years ago. I have a long history with the Whites and during my time studying forestry at the White Mountains Community College (then New Hampshire Vocational Technical College) in Berlin I spent a summer as a backcountry ranger in the Whites. The crazy thought of doing the entire Presidential Traverse in a day came to me. I decided to go for it!
The wildcard would be the snow levels and the weather. In late May when I planned to do this hike, snow can still be deep and weather can be treacherous. It turned out to be a low snow pack this year and on the day we made the traverse, the weather could not have been better. It was sunny and in the 70s (80s in the valley) with very little wind. Not bad for a place that touts being home to the world’s worst weather! My extra gear I packed, I never needed. I hiked in shorts and short sleeves the entire way and went through quite a bit of sunscreen on the near entirely above tree line route.
My two brothers Doug and Jeff (who also writes guidebooks) accompanied me as did Jeff’s son Anthony and his college roommate Ben. We started from the Appalachia Trailhead at 5:40 in the morning. Up the Valley Way to Mount Madison—then the Gulfside Trail with summit trips to Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson—sub summit Mount Clay (Reagan) and on to Mount Washington. The first half of this trek was brutal. The elevation is one thing, more than 7,600 feet to that point. But it’s the nonstop clambering over rock, talus and ledge that tires you and beats you up.
From New Hampshire’s highest summit (I was hoping to meet the new Mount Washington Weather Observatory kitty Nimbus—but he is still being acclimated to his new environment and was not out and about) we headed down the Crawford Path to the Lakes of the Clouds where we spent a leisurely break refilling water bottles from the mostly frozen lakes. The usually mobbed lakes were quiet. The AMC huts were still closed. In fact the entire way was quiet. Other than the summit of Washington which entertained visitors arriving via the historic Cog Railway; and a few other summit hikers—our route was pretty empty. We passed a total of a dozen people along the way outside of Washington. I have never seen so few people on the Prezies. The early season weekday timing and the still copious snow on the approaches evidently kept many a hiker away.
We continued on up and over Mount Monroe—then to sub peak Franklin. Next was Eisenhower and then finally Pierce. Initially we had contemplated going all the way to Jackson (which is not named for a president but for a geologist) and Webster, but time was not on our side—nor was the necessary energy warranted among a few of us. So we headed down a snow covered Crawford Path, content on doing all of the actual Presidential Peaks. We finished at Crawford Notch at 7:40 pm after hiking 19.5 miles and 8,600 vertical feet over 7 summits and 2 sub-summits all above treeline and all on rock, ledge and talus. It was one my hardest hikes ever!
Back in October before my PMR symptoms were really kicking in, I ran 55K (34 miles) on a rail trail in a little over 7 hours. This hike a fraction of that distance took me 14 hours! We were thrilled and happy with our accomplishment joining a handful of crazies every year who can lay claim to doing the famed and brutal Presidential Traverse in one day. And all of this—as I fight my PMR and enter my 7th decade made this birthday one of my best ever. I have no idea where I will be in a year or how I will feel. The pandemic, turning 60—and developing an auto immune disease has all led me to reassess my life and to accelerate my timeline to do as much as I possibly can now, because the future has never been so uncertain. Live on and seize every day!