hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 21, 2013

A memorable birthday hike on Mt. Chocorua

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — I celebrated my 73rd birthday in a most unconventional manner — on top of a steep mountain in New Hampshire eating a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich on rye.

No crowd. No cake. No tacky gifts. Just my daughter Sonya, herself a birthday girl, and her husband Pat, who tagged along.

This very same trio hiked Mount Kearsage a year ago. No sooner did we reach the top and then return to the bottom that they mentioned another hike. As first-time mountaineers, they were bitten by the hiking bug.

We chose Mount Chocorua for its noted beauty and majestic view from the summit. It took us 3.6 miles over rugged terrain to get there, but was well worth the exertion. The weather was perfect and not a bug in sight.

Had it not been for a late start (just after noontime), we wouldn’t have trudged the last 15 minutes in virtual darkness. The light from a cell phone prevented me from spending another night in the wilderness.

(If you recall in a previous column, I survived some pretty horrid conditions on Mount Katahdin a couple years ago in my quest to ascend each of the tallest mountains in New England. My hiking partner Paul Tennant and I never made it to the bottom that day, hugging the trail and surviving the elements. Fortunately, the temperature was comfortable and no harm was done, except maybe a tongue-lashing from the rangers and some ill words from the wife. She didn’t have a clue until she read the headline, “Survival on Mount Katahdin.”)

The day hiking Chocorua with my daughter and her husband started out on two bum feet. With the federal shutdown, there wasn’t a ranger in sight, or a restroom. All facilities along the Kancamagus Highway were closed. They didn’t just lock the doors, but nailed 2-by-4s across the entrances.

Tour buses stopped in vain and many a car was seen pulled over to the side for nature’s call. Just the foliage alone made the trip worthwhile.

We opted for the Champney Falls Trail 10 miles into the highway, connecting onto the Piper Trail. On this day, the trail was replete with hikers, many of whom were accompanied by canines. Recommended time was 3½ hours to the peak and three hours down, with stops along the way.

Like any hike, I’m not in it for the foot race to the top, leaving that to the extremists. One shirtless guy on the trail was in such a rush, he may have bypassed the pleasures along the way.

The summit is a picturesque rocky cone, greeting us with hurricane-force winds. No surprise there. Others reported the wrenching elements on their way down. The mountain is purported to be one of the most photographed in the world.

All my children have photographs of Chocorua hanging in their homes taken during previous junkets to the site, embraced by colorful foliage. Admiring its beauty is one thing. I recommend the view from Fowler’s Mill Road. Hiking it is another matter, however.

The 360-degree views of the Presidentials were instant euphoria at an elevation of 3,500 feet. Once above the tree line, you feel on top of your world.

I’ve known that Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) was among the more prolific composers of his time, Armenian or otherwise. I grew up around the corner from his home in Somerville. My dad graduated Somerville High with him and introduced me to the musical stalwart at a very young age.

What I didn’t know was his penchant for hiking. Hovhaness often climbed the White Mountains and listed Chocorua among his favorites. He often went there to escape the hubbub of the frantic world, which is why most of us hike anyway.

In 1982, he composed a piano sonata named after Mount Chocorua ("Mt. Chocorua, Opus 335'') which is spiritual as much as it is melodic.

There’s another connection to my city of Haverhill. Most of the events in Haverhill author John Bellairs’ novel “The Mummy, the Will and the Crypt” occurred near this mountain. Bellairs happened to be my son Raffi's favorite author as a child. I don’t believe he ever climbed Chocorua, but may have admired its beauty.

Later that evening, we chowed down on pasta and meatballs at a place called the Poor People’s Pub in Sanbornville, N.H. It’s a misnomer to say the least.

If anything, we were enriched by the experience.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.