Patricia Ellis Herr began climbing mountains with her daughters when her oldest, Alex, was 5. Her new book, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure tells how they began and where their decision to hike led them. She presents the story of their quest to summit New Hampshire’s 48 tallest mountains as a series of life lessons they learn along the way. She tells of exhilarating highs and lows, scary moments and dangerous weather, mistakes and victories. They have crazy wildlife encounters and unsettling human encounters. Herr is honest about their struggles and mistakes, and gives good advice for other hiking parents and kids.
I read this book almost straight through, with only a few breaks, to process what I was thinking and to feed my hungry children. Herr is descriptive of the trails they hike, the vistas, the weather, their emotions. As a hiker mama, I can truly picture the scenes she describes, but anyone will be able to relate to their journey. But that’s enough from me; let’s hear from the author herself, Patricia Ellis Herr.
Q: In the book, your first hike seemed like it was kind of on a whim. Had you hiked with your kids before this point? Did you hike much before they were born?
A: Before embarking on the 4K quest, the girls and I had not hiked in terms of backpacks and boots. We had, however, taken numerous long walks in the fields and paths of Concord, MA. Two of our favorites places were Drumlin Farm and Walden Pond. We’d spend hours in these two locations wandering about and examining plants, ants, bees, water, etc.
I didn’t officially hike before the girls were born, but I did take insanely long walks from time to time. So, though I didn’t don a backpack until I started hiking 4Ks with Alex, I’ve always been a long-distance walker.
Q: One of the big challenges I face as a hiking mama is finding other people to come with me and the kids on our adventures. How do you find hiking partners on those occasions when you want other folks with you? Do you have any advice for parents wanting to find a network of partners?
A: The girls and I are usually on our own when we hike 4Ks. Sometimes we’re with other adult hiking friends who consider the girls their peers, but we’re almost never with other kids. We know of only two other families whose kids enthusiastically hike 4Ks. We’ve been fortunate to share trail time with these two families on a few occasions, but busy schedules prevent us from hiking together as often as we’d like.
Finding partners can be difficult, and you have to be careful how you advertise for them. It can be dangerous to tell the world what your plans are when your hiking partner is a very young child. I got to know the few people we hike with by attending a few publicized hiker gatherings. Therefore, I’d say look for family camping meet-ups and search your local Yahoo Groups, etc. Find folks who either hike with their kids or who don’t mind hiking with other people’s kids. The process might take some time, but rest assured, there are people out there who will want to hike with you and your family. It might take some time to find them, but they’re out there.
Q: I was keenly interested in your descriptions of what went in your bulging pack, as I have spent some time under the weight of a large pack, too. Can you tell me what you and the girls like to wear while hiking?
A: We wear layers. First, base layers — nothing cotton, usually synthetic fibers, designed to wick sweat and water away from the body. Next, fleece. On top of that, waterproof/windproof shells. We wear or carry these layers on every single hike during every single season, and we always pack changes of base layers and fleece. The Whites have some of the fiercest and most unpredictable weather in the United States. There have been many times when we’ve had to wear full winter gear (minus facemasks) while hiking above treeline in the middle of the summer.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece of gear? Do Alex and Sage have favorite gear they wouldn’t do without?
A: My favorite piece of gear — emergency whistles. Those small, orange, plastic ones that can be heard over gale-force winds. If you read Lesson One of Up, you’ll understand why. The girls’ favorite gear is headlamps. They each like having their own.
Q: Your husband Hugh seems so supportive in the book. How does he feel when you and the girls go off on big adventures?
A: He’s admitted to being worried once or twice. He doesn’t know the trails, since he rarely hikes with us, so there are times when his imagination takes over in a negative way. He usually doesn’t fret, though. He knows I’ll activate my Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) if I run into serious trouble, and he knows I carry camping gear in case we have to spend an accidental night out.
Q: I am often out adventuring while my husband stays home, and am curious what you do to keep yourself and your girls safe on the trail. Can you describe what measures you take to mitigate risk? What do you bring with you for safety?
A: I carry enough gear to keep me and my daughter(s) warm, dry, and fed for at least one accidental night out. This means I have a bivy, tarp, sleeping bag (or two), ground mat(s), extra food, chemical hand and body warmers, and multiple layers of clothing on each and every hike, no matter what the season. I also carry a cell Aone and a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). As far as safety against animals and people, I carry pepper spray and a few other things I can (legally) use as weapons. That being said, I’ve never felt at risk from another human being while hiking in the Whites.
Q: In your book, you describe a few trips where you had to turn around before reaching the summit. Can you elaborate on how you make decisions about whether to turn around or continue on?
A: We’ve only had to turn back three times. Once, the wind speeds became excessive. Another time, Sage felt sick and wanted to go home. Alex once asked to turn back because the trail conditions were making the hike extremely difficult that day.
Q: One of the things I couldn’t relate to is the lack of whining from your children! I know that some of that is their personality and their personal drive to achieve their goals, but I also know there were times where you mentioned how you needed to help them gain perspective or work through disappointments or fatigue on the trail. Can you tell me more about the games you and your girls play while hiking to pass the time and miles and keep their spirits up?
A: The girls made up these games. Just wanted to put that out there so credit is given where it is due. :)
The Name Game — each person lists all the things she can think of that start with each letter of her first name.
Making Sentences — each person says one word, then everyone makes sentences using all the words given.
Riddles and Jokes — each person tells a riddle or a joke (does not have to make sense).
Q: What do you bring to eat on the trail? What are your lunches and snacks? What do you bring when you are doing overnight hikes?
A: Goldfish crackers, cheese, pepperoni, Lara Bars or Balance Bars, mixed nuts, chocolate. During winter, we also bring eggnog, yogurt shakes, and hot chocolate. On overnights, we bring all of the above, plus a JetBoil and some instant food (oatmeal, mashed potatoes, soup, etc.)
Q: How do you handle the competing demands of motherhood, housework, homeschooling, writing, and all the work (and joy!) of publishing a book?
A: Caffeine! I drink way too much caffeine. As a homeschooling mom, my daytime hours are dedicated to working with my kids and taking them to playdates, extracurricular classes, museums, etc. I’m able to keep up with emails and social media here and there throughout the day, but the bulk of my writing is done at night, after everyone’s asleep. I’m usually up until 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. As for housework…that doesn’t get done as often as it should, but everything’s “clean enough.” My house will never win awards, but the dishes and clothes are clean, everyone’s fed, and most of the stuff is where it’s supposed to be. That’s as good as it’s going to get.
Q: Do you plan to come out to Washington State? We’d love to show you around!
A: We definitely plan to visit Washington! Rainier’s on the high-pointing list…though it’ll be a few years before we’re ready for that peak. :)
Jennifer Johnson looks for any excuse to escape into nature with her children. This post was excerpted from a longer piece she published on her blog about hiking with children at thehikermama.com. The author photo is by Clay Dingman.
You can follow Herr's adventures by going to her website, trishalexsage.com, as well as finding her on Facebook and Twitter.