Maine’s high-mountain hikers feel on top of the world

Nicole Mailhot has always loved the outdoors and enjoyed walking on local trails. The Auburn native frequently trekked up 407-foot Bradbury Mountain, for instance, the glorified hill the state park in Pownal is named for, and Mount Apatite, a popular network of trails around a 512-foot hill in Auburn.

So when a friend of hers mentioned she hiked, Mailhot enthusiastically replied that she hiked, too.

It wasn’t until after she’d accepted that friend’s invitation to hike up Mount Moriah, a 4,049-foot peak near Gorham, N.H., one cold February day seven years ago, that Mailhot realized she had not actually been a hiker.

The trip was a trial by fire — or rather, ice. Because she hadn’t known what to expect, she hadn’t properly insulated her water bottle or prepared appropriate snacks. The bananas she brought along for trail food froze solid; so did her water.

“I literally thought I would die on that hike,” Mailhot recalls.

“But I didn’t die, and then I thought, ‘Oh, this is awesome.’”

That was it. After that she was hooked.

Now Mailhot goes on a long hike at least once a month. She works a desk job at a credit union during the week, and says that by the time the weekend comes, she’s ready to push herself physically. It’s the challenge she enjoys above all else.

“I love the feeling of the pain you endure on a tough hike that is only offset by the overwhelming feeling you get when you get to the summit. When I summit a 4,000-foot mountain, especially in winter, it makes me happy to realize how few people could do it,” she says.

Mailhot is among the growing number of “peak baggers,” people whose hobby is checking off mountains they’ve summited from a list of challenging climbs.

Some lists include the 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the 14 in Maine. Together with five peaks in Vermont, these mountains make up the 67 New England 4,000-footers.

A popular expanded version of that list, the Hundred Highest, includes an additional 33 peaks that come in just under 4,000 feet, including 13 in Maine.

So far, she has climbed about a third of the New Hampshire 48, and she hopes to do them all someday.

From overweight smoker to the AMC’s ’25 Most Terrifying’

Like Mailhot, Jim Radmore of Mexico has always enjoyed the outdoors — hunting, fishing and camping — but he’s only been a hiker for the last 11 years.

“For a lot of my life, I was very overweight and a heavy smoker. I liked to be outside, but I preferred doing things that didn’t require me to move myself over long distances,” he says.

After he lost some weight, though, he thought about taking up hiking as a way to get more exercise. So one August day, Radmore and his daughter decided to climb Old Speck, a 4,170-foot peak located in Grafton Notch State Park.

The following summer, Radmore eased his way into his new hobby by climbing Mount Washington. At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest mountain in the Northeast, the most prominent east of the Mississippi, and widely agreed to be one of the most grueling hikes around.

It wasn’t until a woman he knew invited him on an Appalachian Mountain Club group hike up Sugarloaf in winter that Radmore began to make hiking a more regular fixture in his life.

“I met a lot of great people, so I started signing up for more AMC hikes whenever I could,” he says.

Radmore has climbed all the 4,000-footers in New England, the Hundred Highest mountains in New England and is working on re-climbing all New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers in the wintertime. Yes, the wintertime. He has 14 left.

He’s also hiked all of the mountains on the AMC’s 25 Most Terrifying list, but says none of them were that scary.

“I don’t think anything is terrifying because I’m always pretty well prepared. You’ve just got to be more careful. I wouldn’t go up most of them when they’re wet,” Radmore says.

Radmore credits the people he met through the AMC with giving him the knowledge he needed to avoid misadventures.

“I was lucky. I was taught well. I have always hiked with people who were experienced and prepared, and taught me to be the same,” says Radmore.

For Mailhot, the learning process involved more trial and error.

“Every time I’ve had a bad experience, it’s made me add something to my backpack. You learn and you become more prepared,” she says.

Rookie mistakes: Surprise! Four feet of snow in April

For instance, after getting caught in the dark on the Table Rock loop in Grafton Notch State Park one night without a light source, Mailhot now not only makes certain to bring her headlamp at all times, but also a lightweight sleeping bag in case she ever finds herself stranded on a mountain after sundown.

One of the biggest rookie mistakes she’s ever made was dressing for the weather conditions at the base of the mountain. On one sunny 65-degree April day, she and a companion wore Spandex and T-shirts without realizing there were still four feet of snow on the mountain they were climbing.

“It was up to our waists. We tried to keep going, but we didn’t summit that day. We didn’t want frostbite,” she recalls.

Radmore, too, isn’t afraid to turn back if the conditions aren’t right.

“The mountain is always going to be there,” he says.

Though he hikes year-round, he has retreated when the snow turned out to be deeper than expected, including one trip when he and a companion both ended up buried to their armpits in powder.

His most memorable hike was along Scar Ridge, a very rugged, officially trail-less, 3,774-foot mountain in New Hampshire that requires a lot of bushwhacking to navigate. On this particular trip, it rained the whole way. Radmore’s group also encountered a large number of blowdowns from a storm, causing the trek to be much slower-going than anticipated.

“We’d originally said we would be back in plenty of time to watch the Bruins game, then we said maybe we’d be back shortly after the game began. Then we said we’d be back to catch the end of the game,” Radmore recalls.

By the time the group reached the summit, it was 6 p.m. They had been hiking for 11 hours, it was dark, the game had begun and there was no turning back to retrace their steps over the treacherous ground they’d already covered. The group decided to press on, ending their hike at the Loon Mountain Ski area at 1 a.m.

“We were never lost, though. The hike had just taken much longer than anticipated,” says Radmore.

And as exhausting as the trip was, Radmore’s group had been prepared with headlamps, a map and compass, food and enough gear to stay comfortably on the mountain if needed.

Dale Nelson of North Lovell says there is no such thing as being too prepared for a hike. “I bring overnight equipment, because if you twist an ankle out on the trail, you’re not getting out that day. So you’d better be prepared.”

Nelson can’t remember a time when he didn’t enjoy spending time in the woods, and hiking was always his activity of choice. He enjoys both the exercise and the solitude.

“I just like being in the woods. I’ve always been kind of a hayseed. I didn’t like hunting because I’m not very good at stalking. I don’t like tiptoeing through the woods. I make kind of a lot of noise,” he says.

On a tear: Climbing New England’s highest mountains, fast

Nelson has been climbing mountains for most of his 59 years. He was only 20 when he first climbed Mount Washington with his sister in the winter of 1976. That same year, he summited Old Speck with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Kitty.

He had already been hiking for years, and had summited most of the 4,000-footers in Maine and New Hampshire, before he became aware of the concept of peak bagging. One day, he opened up his AMC Mountain Guide and noticed the pages in the back.

“I thought, ‘Wait, there’s a list here, and I’m getting pretty close to completing it,’” he recalls.

After that, he made it a point to visit those he hadn’t hiked. He finished the last, 4,150-foot North Brother Mountain located north of Katahdin in Baxter State Park, with his Boy Scout troop in 2007. Nelson deliberately saved the mountain for last, wanting to complete the New England 4,000-footers in his home state.

While it took Nelson more than 30 years to tick off all the 4,000-footers in New England, some people do it in much less time, or aspire to.

Donna Levesque Racine of Lewiston only started hiking seriously a few years ago, when her boss at Taylor Brook Dental was looking for people to go hiking with. She went along and instantly fell in love with it.

Her first 4,000-footer was Mount Eisenhower, one of the famed Presidentials, in September of 2013, but her full-on obsession didn’t begin until a year later.

Inspired by the book “Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship” by Tom Ryan, Racine decided in September of 2014 that she wanted to bag all 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire.

She completed the task less than a year later, on Aug. 7 of this year, at the summit of Mount Moosilauke, 4,802-foot peak in Benton, N.H.

As part of her quest, Racine and a group of friends hiked the Presidential Traverse in 13 hours on June 27 of this year. The group summited seven peaks that day, ascending a total of 9,000 vertical feet over a distance of about 20 miles.

Though Racine had already hiked all of the Presidentials individually — some more than once — the previous summer, completing the Presidential Traverse is a feat all its own.

“The Presidential Mountains were the most challenging for me, but also so rewarding with how beautiful they are,” she says.

Racine is now working on completing the remaining 19 4,000-footers in New England

It’s an impulse Radmore completely understands: “I’m a peak bagger. It doesn’t matter if there’s a view or not. If it’s on a list, I’ve got to do it.”

Views don’t matter when you have the heart of a ninja

An admitted peak bagger himself, Denis Bergeron of Auburn isn’t sure the term offers a fair representation of what the lifestyle is about.

“Though ‘peak bagging’ sounds more like the getting than the going, it is really about the process,” he says.

He and his wife, Sharon, have been hiking together for 37 years, but it wasn’t until two years ago, when they met a fellow hiker who had just completed all of Maine’s 4,000-footers, that they actually thought about “the list.”

“When we did, we discovered that of the 14 in Maine, we had not experienced seven of them, so we spent the rest of the summer hiking the rest of them. It was so much fun, that the next summer we set our sights to New Hampshire,” says Bergeron.

“Although we have hiked the high peaks often for many years, the pursuit of the 4,000-footers gets us out to some amazingly beautiful places that we would have missed if we had not started down this path.”

Many hikers cite the views as the main reason they enjoy summiting mountains, but Radmore says it can be just as breathtaking to be on top of a peak when visibility is at a minimum.

“I do love views, but I love all kinds of different conditions. Hiking up a mountain when it’s socked in with fog is not a bad experience, it’s just different.”

He recalls leading a trip up Whitecap, a 3,655-foot peak in Rumford he’s hiked at least 40 times, with a group of kids from a local karate dojo. It was a foggy day, and Radmore was concerned the group would be disappointed.

“The kids thought it was really cool. It was ninja,” he recalls.

Although Radmore is reluctant to choose a favorite, he calls Katahdin, which he has hiked in both summer and winter, “a jewel.”

“It’s a rugged climb and there are beautiful views from every direction. It’s just a special place,” he says.

Mount Carrigain in Grafton County, N.H., also holds a special place in his heart because it was the last of the New England 4,000-footers he climbed.

Finding perspective, peace and freedom at the top

Although Radmore does plenty of hiking in the summer, like most peak baggers he’s also an avid winter hiker. “I try to get at least one hike in every weekend.”

For safety reasons, Radmore says he’s more careful during wintertime and either goes with a friend or only attempts hikes in higher traffic areas.

Despite having a smaller margin for mistakes in the winter, those who love it say it can be more pleasant than summer hiking. For one thing, because the snow is soft, it’s easier on the knees. And a thick layer of snow over the top of roots and rocks makes for a smoother hike.

“Hiking in winter is not necessarily harder. You’ve just got to be prepared to take care of yourself and take care of the people you’re with,” says Radmore.

Mailhot, too, loves getting out in the winter, despite her rough introduction.

For winter hiking, she recommends spending the extra money to invest in good gear, especially a decent backpack, a sturdy water bottle, and a lightweight blanket for protection in case of an emergency. Mostly, though, she recommends bringing along some good old-fashioned determination.

“You can’t stop for more than 10 minutes or you’ll freeze. So you have to just keep going and push past your desire to stop,” she says.

Much as she loves the challenge, for Mailhot the rewards are more intangible.

She’s spent every Christmas morning for the last seven years on top of a mountain. The tradition began shortly after her marriage ended. For the first time in more than a decade, Mailhot didn’t have any kids on Christmas, and she was feeling depressed and disoriented and didn’t know what to do with herself.

Looking out over a crisp, cold winter morning from thousands of feet above turned out to be just the right medicine for her heartsickness.

“I once was on a hike, and at the top was a Mason jar that had a quote that said ‘Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.’ That sums up how I feel when I reach the summit. That there is something out there that is greater, that makes me feel like my problems are the tiniest insignificant things in a world, is so great,” says Mailhot.

“I guess what motivates me to hike up 4,000-foot summits is it is one of the only things that makes me feel freedom. I had my son at age 17, was married by 21 and had a daughter at 24. I gave up living for myself before I had a chance to live for myself. I live for my kids. The top of a mountain is the furthest I get to freedom and peace, and I truly love it.”

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