Are we there yet? The Case of the Signless Summit

By Nancy, September 4, 2006

Are we there yet? I ask myself, sweat dripping down my face, and sucking pretty hefty wind after a steady two-hour climb. The trees are getting shorter and Pat and I are anticipating a wildly hopeful moment when the shrubs disappear, the breeze stiffens, and the world greets us in a panorama of beauty below our feet. Then we see it -- the summit sign! We give each other a high-five, and whoop a heart-felt whooo hooo. We set the camera on timer and take a picture of us next to the sign - proof positive of the peak being bagged. It's a ritual. But most often it doesn't work like that because there is no sign and we don't know we've arrived!

Part of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Mission is to promote the enjoyment of the mountains in the Appalachian Region. A large part of the joy of hiking is making it to the summit and, call me crazy here, but I like to know when I get there. Help me out, will ya? A summit sign is a signal to celebrate. It says: "You made it; congrats!" Wondering if you're there takes some of the fun out of being there.

Hiking to the summit of East Osceola we arrive at a small cairn in a wooded area, with an older couple standing there looking a bit befuddled.
"Is this it?" I ask them, fingers mentally crossed.
"We think so," they say, shrugging their shoulders. "There doesn't seem to be anything further down the trail. We checked."
We look at each other a bit perplexed, shrug off our packs, take pictures of the ho-hum we're-not-sure-we-did-it moment and head back.

Hiking the Kinsmans is similarly unrewarding summit-wise. On the pinnacle of North Kinsman there is nothing - no cairn, no summit sign. There is a sign that points to a view and the map puts the summit close to the view - but there is no designated highest point, therefore no specific moment to celebrate. So we don't, we continue on to South Kinsman, where we face a similar problem. From a distance, you can't tell where the summit is because the mountaintop looks so wide, wooded and gentle. But surely, there will be a sign. Nope, no sign. There's a cairn, and we assume it marks the summit, but we could have walked another 100 yards or so and found another cairn, and then another. We guess we're there, have a half-hearted hope-this-is-it high-five, take our pictures and head back. Peak bagging should not be guesswork!

Now there are some peaks where the summit is easier to identify, like Flume and Liberty, where everything around you plummets and you are clearly on the highest point. Being the smart girls we are, we assume we're on top, and our celebrations take on a more exciting tone. But with no sign, you can't be 100 percent certain. How about a little affirmation? Huh?

It's such a gift when we actually find a signed summit. There are no questions, no doubt, no wondering, no guesswork. Just a clear message - you have arrived! Not only does our whooo hooo have way more passion but our high-fives become high-tens. Our cameras record the momentous moment for posterity and years later, when looking at photos of Pat and I next to the summit signs on Moosilauke or Baxter Peak on Katahin we will know for sure we made it. Knowing is always better than not knowing.

In the AMC 4,000 Footers Club, the goal is to climb all 48 New Hampshire summits over 4,000 feet. Awesome challenge. But how do you know for sure when you've summitted all 48 if you aren't sure you were on the summits? Now c'mon! It seems the AMC would want to make sure 4,000 Footer Club members accomplish the challenge before being presented with their patch.

So I have an idea: let's sign all the summits! Doing so would focus much-deserved attention on the AMC and the 4,000 Footer Club, entice people to start hiking, re-engage and re-energize current members of the AMC, and garner some press all at the same time! Here's what I'm thinking. How about if the AMC run a brief but exciting fund raising campaign asking members for donations for summit signs - I'll put in the first fifty bucks. I bet every 4,000-foot-peak-bagger who wished there was a sign where there wasn't would make a donation! Have the signs made, complete with the AMC logo, and donate them to the State parks, which are the homes to the 4,000 footers in New Hampshire. Hey! What if AMC and Park volunteers and local hikers agree to erect the summit signs all on the same day -- maybe to begin the hiking season in the spring. Call it the AMC Summit*!

Now, a summit sign is by no means the only answer - there are lots of other exciting summit-signing alternatives to consider. You don't have to go with my idea - let's brainstorm! Okay, wouldn't it be cool if Good Humor men were on the summits greeting hikers with a tinkling bell and an ice-cream-filled truck? Or, how about free over-the-top barbeques - ribs, corn-on-the-cob, potato salad, strawberry shortcake - wow! Just the aroma would get me and Pat to the summit faster and we wouldn't have to pack lunches. Or, wait a minute, how about masseuses waiting for us on the summits to massage our backs and feet - ahhhhh. I'm sure you're brainstorming along with me on your end and you must have come up with at least one idea - great job! If not...c'mon now...think! Perhaps groups of AMC volunteers could surprise hikers at the summits with a standing ovation, in recognition of their outstanding feet - whoops feat. Or how about Sweethearts of the Rodeo and 47 other like bands setting up on the summits and welcoming everyone with a chorus of "Uphill All The Way."

All these possibilities would effectively mark the summit, no guesswork required. Wow - what choices. Now I realize some are more difficult than others, especially in winter. The Good Humor guy might have a hard time getting the ice cream truck up there -- but maybe he could use an ATV. Course, he'd have to figure out how to keep the ice cream frozen in the summer, but winter would be no prob. Now, given there are 48 peaks and 365 hiking days in a year, some of these ideas could require a gargantuan effort, not to mention a lot of corn to husk.

Looking at your choices so far without the benefit of hearing your winner ideas, perhaps the first idea is my fave. I'd go for the signs!

I hope this project moves from the back woods to top priority on the AMC "To Do" list - every peak bagged on a signless summit is a missed opportunity.

We're off to hike the Hancocks. Are we there yet?

*Now, I do have some event organizing skills - I started and ran Keene's Pumpkin Festival for years - and I'd be glad to help!