That Mother’s Day rolls around just as spring kicks into high gear in New England is a happy coincidence of timing — not only are there fresh flowers for Mom, but there’s ample warm weather to bring families outdoors. I know I spent a lot of Mother’s Days as a kid gardening, hiking, or just playing outdoors with my Mom.
However, my outside time with my mother pales in comparison to Patricia Ellis Herr’s commitment to exploring the outdoors with her children. In her new memoir, “Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure,” Herr recounts the experience of hiking 48 peaks in New Hampshire with her young daughter Alex.
In 2008, Herr ran across information on “peakbagging” while traveling along the Kancamagus Highway. The idea is for hikers to tackle mountains that fulfill specific criteria — for example, all the mountains in a specific region that exceed a particular height.
In New Hampshire, the Four Thousand Footer Club (sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club) awards a patch and certificate to hikers who tackle all the New Hampshire peaks over 4,000 feet.
Herr and her then 5-year-old daughter Alex, a precocious ball of energy, decided to tackle Mount Tecumseh. They didn’t quite make it up — in April, the trail was still covered in snow — but they returned in the summer. Alex conquered the peak, and mother and daughter went on to summit all the 4,000-footers in just under 15 months.
The inspiring and enjoyable “Up” chronicles the climbs and the lessons that both mother and daughter learned from their experiences. It’s a bit more than “be prepared” or “hiking can be dangerous.”
In the White Mountains, Alex learned not to let her size, age or gender limit what she can accomplish.
Both learned to ignore naysayers who thought they were attempting something that couldn’t — or shouldn’t — be done by a mother and her young daughter. Both learned to enjoy the journey, thrilling not just at the mountain peaks but at the journeys to and from them.
Though Herr homeschools both daughters, she insists that she never set out on a hike planning to teach a specific lesson.
In her words: “There are lessons out there that will make themselves apparent to you. When we set out to hike, it was just to hike. If I set out just to teach something, I don’t think it would work.”
The exploits of Herr and Alex (and Alex’s younger sister, Sage), have become the stuff of legend among New Hampshire hiking forums. Herr tracked their hikes online and posted trail updates, and Alex became a minor celebrity — the 5-year-old hiking adult mountains during all four seasons. Though Alex and Herr gained supporters as their quest continued, there were some that questioned the appropriateness of taking a child on the trail.
Herr stresses that joining the Four Thousand Footer Club wasn’t something she forced on her daughter. In the book (and in subsequent interviews and videos), it’s obvious that the energetic Alex has the drive and desire to hike and explore.
She also won’t suffer naysayers gladly. In one memorable scene in the book, the girl is so frustrated by a condescending adult on Mount Eisenhower that she summits and then traverses to the neighboring 4,312-foot Mount Pierce for good measure.
Along with ensuring that Alex indeed wanted to take on the 4,000-footers, Herr took care to properly prepare for their hikes.
After that failed first attempt at Tecumseh, she participated in Mount Washington Observatory forums, inquired at sporting goods stores about layering and what to pack for day and through-hikes, and picked up (and absorbed) the hiking guides “The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains” and the AMC “White Mountain Guide.”
Herr stressed the importance of recognizing and mitigating risk, starting with a cautionary opening chapter about getting stuck in a lightning storm on Mount Tom. Her daughter obviously learned the lesson, opting to duck out on a later hike before summiting because the weather was terrible. It’s a lesson many adult hikers could stand to learn.
“Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure” is an empowing story for hikers young and old. It’s a paean to the ageless love of the outdoors, and a strong counterpoint to the endless stories of kids (and adults) sitting inside when they could be out exploring. And, on Mother’s Day, it’s a reminder to thank Mom for all the adventures she’s taken you on, whether to a 6,289-foot peak or just around the block.
Alex has gone on to bag winter summits of all 48 peaks in New Hampshire, and her younger sister Sage joined the Four Thousand Footer Club in November. The trio also climbed Katahdin last fall in a quest to “highpoint” every state.
If you run across Herr, Sage and Alex on a trail, don’t be surprised if the dynamo team speeds past you in their quest for another peak.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer and lifetime outdoors enthusiast. He shares column space in Outdoors with his father, John Christie. Josh can be reached at: