2020: An Unexpected Year on the Trails

Article by Theresa Conn

2020: An Unexpected Year on the Trails

The sun was setting, but the heat was still scorching. I was dead tired. In the Roy’s Peak parking lot in Wanaka, I tried to do some mental math to pump myself up.

“Okay, 4 hours to hike, 2 hours to pack, 4 hours to sleep, 3 hours to the airport, 26 hours home…”

From a time/stress management perspective, it didn’t make sense for me to be lacing up my boots and strapping on my headlamp. But it was my last night at the bottom of the world in New Zealand, and 26 hours on a plane sounded like plenty of time to get caught up on rest.

One of the beautiful reasons for exhaustion: 14 incredible miles on the Routeburn Track the previous day.

Switchback after switchback, I made my way up the mountain. The trail had none of the treacherous roots and slippery granite that we’re used to in New Hampshire; instead, packed dirt gradually cut its way across fields of sheep. But even if the grade is easy, 4 miles and 3000 feet add up. Luckily, with every minute I slogged uphill, the sunset stained the sky deeper… and with every step, the views became more spectacular.

Along the Roy's Peak Track, racing the sun.

When I crested the ridge, I was giddy with joy. I was completely alone at the peak, and the view was incredible. Soft blue lakes spread at the feet of sweeping mountains bathed in alpenglow. The insane vista below overwhelmed me with gratitude. It was January 24th, 2020, and it was already shaping up to be an incredible year.

Pure joy in Wanaka.

Reflecting on my mental math countdown, I now add the hours I had left at that moment of blissful pandemic ignorance (in the parking lot: 30). We nervously chattered about the new virus in the halls of the Outdoor Retailer January show, but it didn’t feel real until I was back at my desk in Dover, New Hampshire. Most of our NEMO gear is made with our vendor partners in Asia, and part of my job is helping with inbound logistics. February is usually crazy busy for our operations team, but it was nothing compared to what was coming.

March 16th was my last day in the office before going fully remote. The following weeks and months were surreal; everything felt upended, both at home and at work. By the time I settled into any semblance of a routine, the snow was starting to melt and I was getting restless. My time on Roy's Peak, just weeks before, felt like a fever dream.

After a year-long break, I started to run again. Normally, I stick to roads and sidewalks, but I felt drawn to trails, chasing the joy I had found pre-pandemic. Staying close to home, I was excited to learn that there were plentiful trails within running distance of my Amesbury apartment complex. Throughout that spring, I logged miles exploring new-to-me trails, winding through woods, fields, and rivers. There was so much adventure to be had in my backyard; the extended time at home gave me time to explore.

Whittier Hill in Amesbury, MA, a new favorite.

As summer descended on New England, more trails were reopened. I set my sights north and dusted off my NH 48 tracker: a bucket list of 48 mountains over 4000 feet in New Hampshire that I had been chipping away at since 2011. In July of 2020, I had 16 mountains to go. I usually hiked around 3 mountains a year. Jumping from 3 to 16 in one season seemed ridiculous, but I figured that with a completely clear calendar, I could make some headway during the summer and fall.

Heading to South Carter, #33.

My first hike of the season, the Carters, was almost my last. It was hot, muggy, and hard. It reminded me why hiking can suck. I could barely walk for days prior. However, when I was invited to do the Tripyramids soon after, I didn’t say no. I had been putting off those two peaks for years after reading some scary trip reports and was emboldened by hiking partners.

After I finished the Tripyramids, a switch flipped. It was still hot, and it was still hard, but completing two mountains that I had been nervous about gave me a rush that I hadn’t felt in months. (A refreshing dip in the Kanc after followed by some Cheese Louise also didn’t hurt). When I got home, I printed out a calendar, looked at the remaining 12 peaks on my list, and made a game plan.

Breakfast at Guyot Campsite during a September backpacking trip of Zealand, Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff.

Almost every weekend for the rest of the summer, I hit the trails. Most of my hikes I did solo, with a mask at the ready. I had always felt vaguely guilty for hiking alone — Shouldn’t I have someone to share this experience with? Am I out of my element here??

But in 2020, I let those feelings go.

I like hiking with friends, and I like hiking alone. I find it restorative, I have time to think, and I’m fully capable of taking care of myself on the trail. Time by myself in the woods was how I processed living through a pandemic, digested political chaos, and came to terms with postponing my wedding. It also gave me space to prioritize what’s really important, and to dream about the future.

Bondcliff, #42.

On September 26th, I was lacing up my boots again in a parking lot, ready to tackle my #48, Mount Isolation. The mountain was an apt metaphor for the year. It was one of my toughest hikes yet — a brutal staircase up to Glen Boulder, hot sun for the exposed climb to Davis Path, and a rollercoaster ride “down” to Isolation. Finishing my list after 9 years, with a record 16 peaks in 2020, I was ready to hang up my trekking poles and retire for the season.

Isolation for #48!

That lasted about 2 days, and the next weekend I was embarking on a new quest: the Belknap Ridge Patch. 12 smaller, closer-to-home mountains felt like a treat after the serious grinding I had done all summer in the Whites. I loved spending my Saturday mornings in the Lakes region as the temperature dropped and the leaves fell.

Mt. Piper, #4- my favorite peak in the Belknaps.

November 29th marked my final hike of 2020 and Belknaps #12. I woke at an ungodly hour (if Dunkin’ is not yet open, it’s too early to be up) for my drive up to Alton in the dark. Once on the trail, I barely needed a headlamp with the moon and stars lighting my way.

As I pushed my pace to catch the sunrise, Mt. Major had me winded, reminding me that even after all the miles of hiking this year, a mountain is still a mountain.

Nestled on a ledge below the summit, I watched nature’s big show over a thermos of coffee. I reflected on one simple fact: if 2020 went as planned, I would not be watching that sunrise. Again, I was flooded with gratitude, not just for the view, but for my family, my health, and my job. I felt gratitude for a safe place to live, the privilege to have the time and means to adventure, and the opportunity to be in the mountains.

Closing out my hiking season with some caffeine on Mt. Major.

It was hard once I put my boots in storage for the winter. The pandemic accelerated, and we were more isolated than ever before — it was a tough few months. But sitting here, over a year out from my peak experience in Wanaka and now seeing the waning days of the pandemic, I am feeling hopeful for the future, and incredibly grateful for my 2020 silver lining: an unexpected year on the trails.

Theresa Conn is NEMO's Global Distribution and Sustainability Manager. Along with hiking, she loves playing piano and the fiddle.