I led an Appalachian Mountain Club Beginner Hiking Trip and Leave No Trace Awareness Workshop on Mount Pemigewasset (also called ‘Indian Head’) in Franconia Notch on Saturday that was a lot of fun. We had great weather and clear views from the open ledges on the Mount Pemigewasset summit. This is a fairly short 3 to 4 mile hike that provides an excellent snapshot of the White Mountain experience with modest effort.
We took our time hiking up to the summit, slowing down on the steep parts and taking frequent water and snack breaks. Many of the participants had never hiked in the White Mountains before, so I wanted them to have an enjoyable experience, but also feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the hike without overly taxing them physically.
Along the way, I stopped to give Leave No Trace lessons on the seven principles including:
- Plan ahead and prepare
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces
- Dispose of waste properly
- Minimizing campfire impacts
- Leave what you find
- Respecting wildlife
- Being considerate to others
We ate a nice lunch together on the open ledges with gorgeous views of Franconia Ridge, the Kinsmans, Mt Wolf, Mount Moosilauke, and the lush green White Mountain forest that surrounds the peak.
Teaching is the Hardest Thing I do
I think teaching beginner hikers on a trip like this is one of the hardest teaching contexts there is. Unlike the AMC Spring Hiking Program, where students attend 4-5 weeks of evening lectures, there’s no pre-established teacher-student relationship or baseline hiking knowledge that you can count on participants having when they show up for hike. While I do some pre-trip screening and send out a suggested gear list ahead of time, participants show up with a wide range of previous experience, physical conditioning levels, and expectations.
For me, the most important thing on a hike like this is to get everyone thinking about the other people on the hike as companions rather than individuals, for safety reasons, as well as making trip a fun social experience. Trip leaders have a few tricks for doing this – my favorites are to have a group introduction activity- where everyone introduces themselves in a memorable, if not silly way, that puts everyone on the level – handing out group safety gear for members of the group to carry – and keeping the group together on the hike even if there are people who are faster and slower hikers.
Learning how to rely on others and ‘how’ to hike with other people is one of the best lessons we can teach people who are new to hiking, especially in the White Mountains. Until you acquire the skills and experience for solo hiking, you have to rely on others to increase your odds in the Whites. Even then, there are many hikes that I never do alone.
Leave No Trace Teachable Moments
That’s the easy part. The hard part is to recognize teachable moments on the fly where you can introduce Leave No Trace concepts if you are unfamiliar with a trail or have never been on it before. It can be really challenging to do this on a shorter hike and still keep the activity as fun and interactive as possible.
I’ve hiked Mount Pemigawasset before, so I had a vague recollection of what to expect, but I also know it’s a popular day hiking destination. As a rule of thumb, you can usually expect to find bootleg trails, illegal campfire pits, camp sites, ad hoc rock cairns, trash, and some sort of unsavory visitor behavior at highly traveled destinations like this. As expected, “the trail provided” and there were more than enough teaching moments available.
All in, I was really impressed with the hikers in this group, their desire to learn more about hiking, and their openness to thinking about the ethical challenges of using a heavily used resource like the White Mountains for outdoor recreation. I learn as much on these hikes as I teach, which motivates me to teach them even more.