NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Every Friday morning at a white church with a short, neat steeple near the New Hampshire border, a hiking group gathers. They arrive promptly, one to two dozen on most weeks, and come together in greeting. Then they leave the Denmark Congregational Church for the day’s featured mountain, to climb to a higher place.

Many of the Denmark Mountain Hikers do not belong to the church that is their gathering spot. But it was the inspiration for their group.

In 2009 the church’s pastor, John Patrick, found himself meeting regularly with member of his congregation in the basement of the small country church. He listened to fears of the future, individual worries over finances and jobs. And this reverend and youth group leader felt he needed to give his parishioners something more than a willing listener and words of hope.

So he formed a hiking group.

“During the Great Recession people were coming to me for counseling. And I thought, ‘Why not start a hiking group and bring them to the beautiful ridges around Denmark?’ ” Patrick said. “I’ve seen how it benefits youth. I thought it might help Denmark’s older congregation.”

Patrick, 54, and Alan Crabtree, an avid 73-year-old Sebago hiker, founded the Denmark Mountain Hikers in January 2010. And since then they’ve amassed an email list of 300 interested hikers, and put 717 mountain miles under their collective boots.


“A number of the hikers regularly attend church with us, but most do not,” Crabtree said. “There is no requirement to attend either the Denmark church, nor any church. It is up to each individual. For most of us just getting into God’s great outdoors in the company of like-minded individuals is worship in its own right.”

The Denmark Mountain Hikers go hiking in the rain. They hike in the fog. They share snacks at the summit and take a group photo at the start of each trek, which Crabtree shares in the church’s weekly bulletin on Sunday.

The reverend leads each hike, with a sizable smile and a wealth of wilderness survival know-how. An avid rock climber and mountaineer, Patrick communed with the White Mountains for years, searching for rock edges and flat ledges, as well as inspiration.

“I’ve spent my life climbing, hiking and mountaineering,” Patrick said. “I’ve guided rock and ice climbing. I know when people push their limits, when they discover something new in themselves, it helps. And they learn to work together. I see it happen out here.”

Susan Gassett of Sebago had it happen. After a trip to England’s Lake District where she first tried hiking, she found the rugged outing across English fields was more of a challenge than she expected. And it gave her the confidence to return home and join the Denmark group.

Now she’s a regular.


“I didn’t even know about hiking poles. Now I hike in the winter with snowshoes. Now I have the gear,” Gassett said.

Crabtree picks and lists the hikes on the group’s email list, denoting the level of difficulty. And the group camps a few times a year, even in winter.

The oldest hiker in the group is 90, and the average age is 70, he said.

The benefits, the hikers say, are unimaginable, like learning to hike after having a stroke.

Quint Wilson of Bridgton, Massachusetts, learned of the group at the senior center near his Sebago Lake summer home. He joined hoping it would improve his fitness and overall well-being.

He said it did both.


“I had a stroke in 2007 after my wife died. I couldn’t do anything,” Wilson said as he hiked 2,369-foot Black Cap Mountain carefully with two poles to enhance stability and support.

“I was a master-level ski racer 10 years ago. I heard about the hiking group so I came out. I go slow on the easier hikes. But I’m hoping to be able to go skiing again.”

Two weeks ago the group hiked Black Cap Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire, which was far from the 3,000-footer they explored the following week, or the 4,100-footer they planned to tackle later. But more hikers show on the easier hikes, so Crabtree said they do more of those.

On these treks there is no talk of sermons or blessings. The inspiration for the Denmark Mountain Hikers comes from the mountain views, the pink lady slippers and the group’s collective spirit.

Although, in truth, the weekly hikes are like a church service in some ways.

The group gathers at the same time each week at a place of worship, they make a pilgrimage together as one and they most definitely give thanks.

“I learned about it in The Bridgton News. I’ve hiked all my life, but it’s nice to have a group so I joined. And I’ve been doing it ever since,” said Nancy Sosman of Sebago.

“For me to go to a summit and look out across the expanse of terrain helps put my life in perspective, it shows me how vast the world is. It’s comforting. Whatever issues I have going on in my life suddenly seem small.”

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