Staying on Track on Those Tricky Trails

Some people think that the best preparation for a hike is having the right pair of boots - or the right physical conditioning, dried-fruit-and-carob trail mix, or strap-on-the-forehead flashlight.

In fact, the only essential skill for weekend hikers is the ability to answer a simple question: "How is the trail?"

Trail maps - even if you manage to read them - can't answer that question for you. The trail may be calf-deep in mud, washed out, grown-over, iced over, or just plain treacherous.

For example, when those contour lines on the map suddenly converge, it means that the trail is steep. But there are many kinds of steep. Some steep trails have steps notched into granite, handholds, footholds, railings, ladders, clear and frequent trail markers, and gorgeous vistas.

Then there is the steep you can find in New Hampshire's White Mountains in early spring or after a heavy rainstorm - trails that seem to be just one big, slippery rock after another, all heading up.

This is not an argument for primped and pampered trails. Poet Robert Frost, who once lived on a farm not far from Franconia, N.H., wrote that roads "less traveled" make all the difference.

The issue is: How much of a difference? Some trails less traveled can mean the difference between getting out of the woods before dark or not. Maps are most useful when you are not lost.

Here, advice from other hikers can be a great help. Most hikers want to give good advice. The trouble is that one hiker's idea of an exhilarating climb is another's cliffhanger - literally.

You can ask a hiker you've met along the way, "How is the trail?" but answers such as "not too bad" or (worse) "piece of cake," need careful interpretation.

Here are a few simple guidelines:

Rule No. 1: Trust no one whose boots cost more than $200. It's not that people wearing designer sportswear mean to deceive. It's just hard to say, "Turn back now; that trail was just too tough for me," when you are decked out like the cover of an alpine-sports catalog.

Rule No. 2: Make no assumptions based on age. We once headed down a trail deep into the Chisos Mountains of Texas on the advice of two ladies in cardigans. They seemed to be at least four decades beyond the age of actors doing high-intensity sports in soda commercials. They told us that the trail marked "7 miles" was no problem.

"We did that trail this morning. It was lovely, just a few steep places," they said.

Our first mistake was not realizing that 7 miles referred to the distance to the outer rim of the canyon. If you wanted to get back to the car, you would need to multiply 7 by 2. The second mistake was assuming that ladies in cardigans can't scramble up a wall of rock.

By the end of that hike, we looked like extras in a French Foreign Legion film classic, dragging our feet in the dust and mumbling the motto "March or die!" Afterward, we looked for the ladies in the cardigans, but they must have already left for their day-hike up Mt. Everest.

This hike was the first of many to rattle the assumption that age must be associated with infirmity. A historic photo of Alpine guides on the wall of our hotel during a recent visit to Chamonix, France, was another reminder. These were not Pepsi poster-boys. These guides had seen many winters and looked as rock solid as the peaks around them.

In today's Chamonix, the ski industry has transformed the relationship between man and mountain. For most hikers, the valley's 14 ski lifts banish the three-hour trudge to the vistas above the tree line. With the right combination of lifts, hiking can be downhill all the way.

Early the next morning - after a shameless jump-start from a ski lift - we set off along a ridge across the valley from Mont-Blanc. At the top of the lift, dozens of parachutists waited their turn to fill gloriously colored chutes with an Alpine gust and leap off a cliff. Our hike suddenly seemed very tame.

The trail was well marked, heavily frequented, and had its own restaurant. We began to yearn for the quirkiness of a White Mountain trail. Soon we abandoned that trail in favor of a steeper one to mountain lakes about 900 meters higher up. At the top, we met two hikers who recommended another trail down. It was not on the map, but very well marked, they said. "A few tricky points, but basically no problem."

OUR informants were both wearing designer hikewear, so their assessment of the difficulty factor clearly had to be adjusted upward. What threw us this time was their dog, a silver husky that apparently had no problems with this trail. If that dog could get up the rocks, how hard could it be?

Rule No. 3: Dogs are much better at climbing rocks than you think.

What I remember most about the trail that the dog recommended was the point at which a 30-foot handrail along a three-inch-wide ledge disappeared into a wall of ice and snow (the result of a freak summer snowstorm). We thought the snow might cushion the 500-foot drop to the rocks below, but we weren't sure.

We also thought a lot about that dog. How had he managed to keep four paws on that ledge?

I should add that we were encouraged all along this trail by another hiker who could have been the father of the two ladies in cardigans. He passed us and kept shouting back encouragement when he reached yet another ledge before us.

We were not fooled. His father would probably have told us that this trail was no problem. Never again.

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