Climbing as a way of life: An interview with White Mountain hikers and girl power adventurers, the Herr ladies

Extreme girl power: Alex on Mt. Adams

On April 3, Patricia Ellis Herr opened her book reading at the Harvard Coop by reading the title of the first chapter of her book, “Are You Out of Your Mind?”

It got a good laugh out of the standing-room-only crowd who had come out to celebrate the publication of “Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure.” But it also touched on an important narrative strand that runs through her very fine memoir: how little is too little?

In the case of her daughters, Alex, 9, and Sage, 7, there appears to be no limit to what “little” can accomplish.

Her daughters currently sit at the number 2 and number 3 spots for youngest girl hikers to summit all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot-or-higher mountains. Alex recently completed that cycle a second time, during the winter, and is the youngest female hiker to do so. Both girls are currently chasing the state highpoint record, both of them having touched 39 state highpoints.

In short, small does not mean weak.

Patricia, Alex and Sage all agreed to a series of interviews with EKP over the course of a couple of weeks leading up to the publication of their book. We decided to print that interview, more or less verbatim, as a special feature here on EKP.

Also, last week, a feature story on the ladies appeared in The Hippo, southern New Hampshire’s arts and entertainment magazine. The story is based on the series of interviews and we are running that story, as it appeared in The Hippo, after the interview.

The interview is long, but we felt the Herrs’ story is important enough to be given a full and lengthy voice. Whether you have children or not, whether you hike or not, Patricia’s book can serve as a life lesson for anyone wishing to accomplish great things. Their story can be an inspiration in whatever goal, for whatever age or gender, and in whatever passion you choose in life.

So, take your time. Print a copy to look through later. Many thanks to the three ladies for taking the time to speak at length and so honestly about their lives and adventures.

EKP is proud to present their story, in their own words.

First, here are the girls’ peakbagging numbers:

Age when they climbed their first 4,000-foot mountain
Alex – 5 years, 5 months, 9 days (Tecumseh)
Sage – 4 years, 10 months, 20 days (Tecumseh)

Age when they completed the 48 4,000 footers
Alex – 6 years, 8 months, 2 days (Moosilauke)
Sage – 6 years, 7 months, 13 days (Middle Tripyramid)

Which summit was your favorite?
Trish: Mt. Tecumseh, for sentimental reasons.  Tecumseh was the first 4K for all three of us.
Alex: I like a lot of them.  I’m not sure if I have a favorite, but I really like all the Presidentials.  In the winter, they’re so beautiful on a clear day.
Sage:  I have lots of favorites.  One of them is Flume.  I really like the ladders and it’s just a fun hike.  I also like Mt. Washington.  You can see the summit buildings as you climb and it’s like, ‘You’re almost there!’

Which is your least favorite?
Trish: I’m not a fan of Mt. Isolation.  The Rocky Branch Trail is a nightmare to hike in the summer because of the constantly muddy and flooded trail.  It’s better in the winter…IF the trail is already broken out.  This is a mountain that will feel like sufferfest if the conditions aren’t absolutely perfect.
Alex: East Osceola.  When you hike it in the winter, you have to go up a really steep trail, and when you get to the summit, there are no views.
Sage: Cannon.  The trail we took was too steep.  It was really, really cold that day and we couldn’t stop to rest without getting chilled.

Why do you hike?
Alex: Hiking is fun and gives you energy.  It’s very pretty up there when you get to the top (well, usually).  I like seeing the views, especially in the winter, when the mountains have snow on them.  It’s fun to sled down the trails.  The mountains are also pretty in the fall, when the leaves are all different colors.
Sage: It’s pretty and it’s fun.  The trees and the birds are really pretty.  I really like being out there and seeing everything.  It’s my kind of thing.

Trish Ellis Herr
Photo courtesy of Mark Truman

Trish
Raising two young girls and hiking and writing seems like an epic task! Please talk a little about organization. How do you manage to do it all, and what type of situation are you in that allows you the time and ability to manage?
We are a homeschooling family, so most of my daytime hours are spent focused on the girls’ education and running them around to various extracurriculars and playdates.  The bulk of my writing occurs after everyone has gone to sleep.  I usually stay up until 2 a.m. writing and get about five hours of sleep each night.  I take breaks from writing here and there when I feel like I absolutely must get some rest.  Sometimes I’m able to write in bits and pieces throughout the day, whenever I can grab 15 minutes at a time.  We dedicate one full day a week to hiking.  This lifestyle requires strict budgeting (no fancy clothes, no cable TV, making do with what we have, etc.), but it’s what works for us.  If, in the future, this lifestyle is no longer what all of us want, then we’ll find a way to change it.

Did you set about to develop a love of the outdoors in your children, or was it more that you recognized something already there? How does a parent foster that?
I think children are born loving nature.  All a parent has to do is keep babies and young kids outside as much as possible.  The way to kill the love of the outdoors in a growing child is to allow frequent and unlimited access to television and electronic games.  That’s just my opinion, of course.  I’m not a childhood development expert.

But given the accomplishments of your girls, many people will turn to you for advice. Does that make you uncomfortable or do you embrace that role?
I’d be happy to embrace it as long as people understand that it’s based on my own experiences and they take what’s helpful to and leave the rest. It doesn’t mean one approach will work for every single family. I see the girls as being an example of what can be done, and they are not the only kid hikers out there. I’m happy to get message out to people who find inspiration in it.
What I’m not trying to say is that every single kid should be hiking mountains. It’s more like if you have something you are passionate about, even if it seems big, you’ve got to listen to yourself and ignore the naysayers. It may not be hiking.

At what point did you think Alex could actually accomplish hiking all the 48 at so young an age?
During our second 4K hike.  Alex was so impressed by the views above treeline on Mt. Eisenhower that she spontaneously decided to hike to neighboring Mt. Pierce before descending into the trees.  She was ecstatically happy that day and she never seemed to tire.  I realized then that if she chose to keep going with this, then she could do it.  I was willing to take her out there whenever she wanted to go because I knew she could handle it.

The future of climbing: Little mountaineers, Sage left, Alex right, and a friend, begin their journey up Mt. Flume.

What were your initial fears when you set about this quest with Alex?
In the very beginning, I worried about bear encounters.  That fear went away with time.  Apart from that, I never had any fears.  Once we began this quest in earnest, I carried all proper layers and gear, everything we’d need for an accidental night out, and a PLB [Personal Locator Beacon].  Also, I was careful about when we ventured out there.  I paid attention to the summit forecasts and we turned around whenever we weren’t comfortable with the trail conditions.

Do you have any regrets looking back, things you would have done differently?
There was one winter hike with Alex where I made a huge mistake.  It was the only time during our now four years of constant and serious hiking when I exhibited bad judgment.  Alex uses a sled in the winter when we descend mountains.  I hike in front of her, to make certain the trail isn’t too steep and to make certain there are no dangerous obstacles.  One day, I let her go ahead of me.  To this day, I’ve no idea why…perhaps I was fatigued and therefore not on my usual guard.  She went in front and promptly sailed over a section of trail that was far too steep for sledding.  Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt, but it was a lesson I’ll never forget — don’t let your guard down when it comes to safety!  All it takes is one moment of bad judgment to turn your hike into a catastrophe.

You write of a couple scary moments in UP, getting caught in lightning for example. Was there ever a time when you considered the quest too dangerous to pursue?
No.  Anything is possible.  It’s just a matter of constantly being on guard in terms of safety and of preparing yourself as best you can for the unexpected.

In your book, you write about other adults disbelieving that such young girls could accomplish these hikes. Do you have a strategy for handling the criticism? Are you worried that once the book is released that criticism will grow? Does that even matter?
My strategy is the same one I’ve used my entire life — ignore the naysayers and carry on.  As a woman, I’ve experienced my share of sexism and discrimination.  I’ve found the best thing to do is to proceed regardless.  Actions speak louder than words.  As far as criticism growing when the book comes out — maybe it will, maybe it won’t…I won’t mind one way or the other.  Those who are sexist and/or ageist will criticize; those who are serious about equal rights and child empowerment won’t.  To me, it’s as simple as that.

What advice would you have for parents who do understand and believe as you do that kids can accomplish great goals, but don’t feel like they have the same time or energy or resources to help them accomplish that?
Alex was young when she started. She was 5. From an early age I spent a lot of time with them, listening to them, getting them outside and then following their lead. For God’s sake get them dirty!
I’ve always tried to keep them outside with no agenda, just for the sake of being outside. I wasn’t planning on any of this with Alex, but once we started, then I was supporting her.
Once you figure out what your kid likes to do, support them and spot them, but try not to hover too much.
With Sage, she saw what her sister was doing and wanted to do it. But we’d start with smaller hikes. That was a little more intentional.

At what point in your quest did you decide to write a book about the adventure?
About three quarters of the way through our quest.  Alex and I have a long-standing tradition of making up fictional stories on the trail.  She asked one day if I could write a long version of one of our fictional stories.  After I began to do so, Alex asked if I could also write down an account of our real-life adventures.  I took a break from the fiction and began working on the memoir.  I’d already written a detailed account of each and every one of our hikes in my private journal, and it didn’t take long for me to turn parts of that journal into a manuscript.  (I’m still working on the fiction, plus, now, another nonfiction manuscript).

Do you see the book as a memoir, a moral tale, a self-help book? All of the above? How do you hope it’s taken?
It’s a memoir, and it’s an example of how anything can be done, regardless of age, regardless of gender.  In this world, there are young girls being told they cannot do this, that, or the other simply because they’re girls.  There are women being told they’re not strong enough because of their gender.  There are girls being treated as property, there are girls being laughed at because of their dreams, and there are girls being told there are “girl activities” and “boy activities.”  My hope is that this book gives such girls an example of the truth.  That all those messages they’re receiving are big, fat lies.  You can do anything, it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy.  Anyone who tries to tell you differently is insecure or has a very unhealthy agenda.  Ignore the naysayers.  Believe in yourself.

How has this quest, and writing this book, enhanced your life?
Hiking with my daughters is a wonderful experience — there’s nothing like reaching the top of a mountain with your children after hours of hard hiking.  We’d do exactly what we do regardless of the existence of my blog or my forthcoming memoir.  That being said, it has been extremely gratifying to read the messages and emails from people who find Alex and Sage inspirational.  I know there are young women out there who feel empowered by Alex and Sage’s stories.  That makes me feel that what we’re doing is having a positive impact on people besides our own family.  That’s a very good thing, that’s something to be proud of.

Alex Herr

Alex
Was there ever one hike, or one moment that you can point to where you decided that you could do the whole list?
That’s too long ago for me to remember for sure, but I think I always thought I could do it.

Were you aware of the fact that hiking this list was something not normally done by girls your age?
Yes.

Did that matter to you?
It made me feel proud of myself.

You seem very brave. Is that part of hiking?
I don’t think you have to be brave to hike unless you’re doing an icy, above-treeline mountain like Mt. Washington.  Icy, above-treeline hikes can be dangerous in the winter.

Were you ever scared on a hike, how did you handle your fear?
I was scared on Mt. Tom the first time we tried it because there was a scary thunderstorm and we got separated.  I heard Mom’s whistle and I found her.  I was also afraid when I slipped on Mt. Washington in the winter, but Mom helped me up and I continued on.

Why did you decide to set out to climb the 48 in the winter?  
I like how the mountains look above treeline in the winter, and there are no bugs.  It’s also fun to sled down the trails.

Has it been easier or harder than the first round?
I’m not sure.  Depends on the mountain and the trail.  For example, the Rocky Branch Trail is easier in the winter because there’s no boggy water, the snow covers it up.  However, the Glen Boulder Trail is probably easier in the summer because in the winter there’s probably too much ice on it.

Sage Herr

Sage
When you were little, how did you feel watching your sister tackle those mountains?
I felt kind of jealous because she was hiking and I knew I wanted to do that one day too.

How did it feel to finish the 48 highest at an even younger age than your sister?
Good!

Did she inspire you to hike as well?
No, I just wanted to hike in general.

Did you feel competitive with her?
No.  I just happen to do this too.

What other goals would you like to pursue?
I want to finish highpointing the 50 states and I want to do the New Hampshire list we made up, The Terrifying 25.  That’s a list of rock scrambles and stuff like that.

Alex and Sage
You are both chasing the state’s highpoints. So, mandatory question, how high do you want to go?
Alex: Part of me wants to do all of the highpoints, but I’m not good at being on a rope when I climb and I get scared when I’m on belay.  So I’m not sure if I’ll want to do the highpoints that involve being on a rope for long periods of time.
Sage: I want to do all of them, including Denali.  Definitely!

_________________________

No other way but Up

Girl power drives White Mountain adventures

In the shadow of her father: At the summit of Mt. Washington, Alex Herr holds up a scarf given to her by her dad.

(The following feature appeared in the April 5 edition of The Hippo.)

On March 10 of this year, nine-year-old Alexandra Herr of Campton faced down the blowing snow at the summit of Mt. Washington and unfurled a scarf given to her by her dad, Hugh Herr. Thirty years early, Hugh had lost his legs, and a rescuer had lost his life, in a mishap on that same mountain.

The winter Washington summit was just another day in the amazing journey of Alex and her mom, Patricia. A week later, atop Mt. Flume, Alex finished the state Winter 4,000-foot mountain list, becoming the youngest hiker to do so.

The ladies won’t have much time to celebrate, as Patricia’s new memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure (Broadway Books) hits the shelves this week and Patricia and Alex will embark on another kind of journey, a book tour.

The book tells the story of Alex’s first round of mountain climbing. She tackled her first 4,000-foot mountain, Mt. Tecumseh in Waterville Valley, when she was 5 years old. There are 48 mountains in New Hampshire over the height of 4,000 feet, and she finished that first list one year and three months later, becoming the second-youngest female hiker ever to do so. Alex was recently bumped down to third place on that list. By her sister, Sage.

For the sake of full disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of the Herr ladies. Though they will have none of it, their exploits (through their own website and hiking forums) have become the stuff of living legend in the New England hiking community. I’ve seen them on the trail myself, roaring like tiny Gore-Tex locomotives up terrain steep enough to confound even seasoned hikers.

The book itself is a personal reflection on what’s good and empowering about kids. As you’d expect from two girls who are able to accomplish the kind of complex goals Alex and Sage have, as characters in the book, they aren’t cute or treated as subjects in America’s Funniest Home Videos. Patricia Herr’s remarkable strength as a writer is to offer her family to readers as fully formed and developed human beings. Kids, yes, but kids with as much strength and will and ability as any adult has. And according to Patricia, that’s the point.

“There are girls being laughed at because of their dreams, and there are girls being told there are ‘girl activities’ and ‘boy activities’,” Patricia said in a series of interviews with The Hippo. “My hope is that this book gives such girls an example of the truth. That all those messages they’re receiving are big, fat lies. You can do anything.”

Doing anything has not necessarily been an easy road to hike, as the girls have faced all manner of obstacles along the way. On a hike up Mt. Tom in Crawford Notch, 5-year-old Alex and 3-year-old Sage found themselves caught in a vicious and scary lightning storm. Patricia told Alex to run ahead, to get under the cover of trees and wait for her and Sage at a trail junction. But Alex missed the junction and kept running, alone at nearly 4,000 feet in a storm. In Up, Patricia writes about retrieving an emergency whistle in a desperate attempt to call her daughter back: “Alex’s safety now depends on this one small piece of plastic. Standing tall I blow that whistle over and over and over again… I blow that whistle with all my heart and soul, sending out a message to my beautiful, strong child who is running the wrong way through the White Mountain wilderness. Come back, Alex. Come back.

I asked Alex if she had ever been afraid on her quest, and she referred to that incident.

“I was scared on Mt. Tom, the first time we tried it, because there was a scary thunderstorm and we got separated,” she said. “I heard mom’s whistle and I found her.”

That sort of matter-of-fact pragmatic approach has served the trio well, particularly when confronted with other adults who didn’t look highly on a 5-year-old hiking adult-sized mountains. In a chapter titled “Ignore the naysayers,” Patricia writes about being stopped by a stranger on the way up Mt. Eisenhower who told Alex that a “little girl like you shouldn’t be trying to climb such a big, grown-up mountain.”

So furious was Alex at being condescended to that she not only hiked to the summit of Mt. Eisenhower but continued to Mt. Pierce that day as well.

“As a woman, I’ve experienced my share of sexism and discrimination,” Patricia said of the incident. “I’ve found the best thing to do is to proceed regardless…. Those who are sexist and/or ageist will criticize, and those who are serious about equal rights and child empowerment won’t. To me, it’s as simple as that.”

For Alex, the incident served to propel her even more fiercely toward her quest. When asked how it made her feel to be able to accomplish goals not normally associated with kids her age, she was practical as ever.

“It made me feel proud of myself,” she said.

Patricia is quick to play down any notion that her experiences with her daughters has made her any sort of expert on child development, but with the publication of the book this week, she’s sure to be asked for advice.

“Based on my own experiences, take what’s helpful and leave the rest,” she said. “It doesn’t mean this approach will work for every single family, but I see the girls as an example of what can be done. If people find inspiration in that, I’m happy to embrace that.”

And how does one inspire such a love for the outdoors in kids that young? Patricia said children are born loving nature.

“I’ve always tried to keep them outside, not with an agenda but for the sake of being outside,” she said. “And for God’s sake, get them dirty!”

The strategy seems to be working. The girls are currently pursuing another mountain goal, summiting each of the state’s high points. They already have 39 of 50 under their belts and it looks like the littlest hiker of the Herr family may end up taking the lead on this record.

“I want to do all of them, including Denali,” seven-year-old Sage said. “Definitely!”

The ladies Herr, Patricia, Sage and Alex

Patricia, Alex and Sage will embark on a book-signing tour this month. On Wednesday, April 25, at 7 p.m. they will be at Water Street Books in Exeter. On April 28 at 7 p.m., they will be at the Father Roger Bilodeau Community Center in Lincoln. You can follow their adventures and more information about Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure at www.trishalexsage.com.

For the story in Flash form at the Hippo site, go to page 54-55 here: Hippo Issue

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11 Responses to Climbing as a way of life: An interview with White Mountain hikers and girl power adventurers, the Herr ladies

  1. Gary Hunter says:

    Father Hugh Herr has contributed to prosthetic engineering in inventive ways that anticipated needs of our returning veterans, changing forever the status of disability. A towering force on rock and ice, Hugh and his famous misstep proved an inspiring turning point in his life and in thousands of lives to follow. And while we will always bemoan the loss of rescuer Al Dow, it remains powerful testimony to silver linings to also read of his daughters’ feats at such young ages. The young continue to inspire. Well done, Ladies!

  2. Rick says:

    I have hiked with Trish, Alex and Sage on a number of occasions and have witnessed firsthand Trish’s gentle teaching style and I have no doubt both Alex and Sage will achieve whatever goals or aspirations they set out to conquer in life and this will be accomplished by no small measure due to their childhood filled with wonder and adventures guided by the loving hand of their mother.

  3. Wendy says:

    Awesome blog, great reading. Love the Herr ladies and followed them on VFTT and have bought the book. Thanks so much. I have climed 12 4K’s, and am looking to add more this year on our vacations to New Hampshire.

  4. SDR106 says:

    I agree with Gary (first comment) about their father Hugh, I was following this adventure on Facebook and I had read a trip report where Hugh was on a hike to summit with his family and was having trouble with the snow he continued on. This is when I learned Hugh lost his legs in a climbing accident, having a walking disability myself I was even more inspired by this families adventure and they showed me I can reach a 4K summit to! Thanx.

    • Excellent insight SDR. The hike you are referring to was a climb to M. Flume, I remember reading it myself. In fact, the pic of the three little ones from behind is from that hike. Which summit(s) did you attain, and congratulations. Thanks for reading!

      • SDR106 says:

        My family and I have been to the summit of Mt Greylock, Ma (Hiking) and Mt Monadnock. We recently revisited Mt Monadnock for a second time and are currently researching & planning a trip to Mount Tecumseh as our first 4K. We also will be taking part in the Seek the Peak event on Mt Washington this July.

  5. We’ve yet to tackle Mt. Greylock, so congrats on that one! Mt. Tecumseh is a good 4,000 footer for a first effort, we’d suggest hiking the extra half mile down the Susman Trail to get some great views from the top of the ski area. Good luck on Seek the Peak, it’s a great cause!

    • SDR106 says:

      Thanx! We just planned a Memorial Day weekend trip to Waterville Valley Campground. Will attempt Osceola, East Osceola and Tecumseh.

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