Fifty

It’s the ultimate solution to all of your college-kid angst. Take that weekend you could have spent drinking and screwing around and go wander through the woods.

They call it “The Fifty.” But really it should be called “The Fifty-four,” or “The Ultimate Test of Your Ability to Not Kill Your Friends in the Woods.” It’s a non-stop trek along the Appalachian Trail for fifty-four miles (apparently rounding down is okay once you reach a certain distance) from Robinson Hall on the Dartmouth College campus northeast to the College’s Moosilauke Ravine Lodge in Warren, New Hampshire. Eight teams of four students attempt to finish it each term, with varying levels of success. No sleeping, no stopping for more than ten minutes or so at each of five support stations, and definitely no way you can turn back once you start.

Three friends and I decided that we were up for the challenge about two weeks out; we went to the information meeting thinking that we would never make it through the lottery process to actually hike the event. The email came at midnight that night: we were hiking The Fifty. The next two weeks consisted of nervous smiles when we saw each other, amassing enough socks to clothe a small army, and scrambling to find daypacks, hiking poles, and, for two of my teammates, hiking boots. You would think that we would have taken our lack of preparedness as a sign that perhaps we should wait until a later time to hike, but then it was the morning of, and we were still on the list of teams.

Koryn, a varsity swimmer, had the least hiking experience but definitely more enthusiasm about the whole ordeal than any of us could muster. Olivia, whom we affectionately call Teddy, is a varsity hockey player who proved insistently positive in the face of some really chafing (ha) situations. Leda, an avid climber, was the most outdoorsy of all of us. Then there was me—I’ve done some distance running but was the least physically prepared of the group for what was to come. (I have the knees of a sixty-year-old woman.) All I had to my advantage was the knowledge that I am unnaturally stubborn; it served me pretty well.

We anxiously tried to force ourselves to eat something before heading over to Robinson Hall at noon to leave. We planned on being one of the first teams to leave because we knew that, in all likelihood, we would be the slowest team (some good foresight on our part). We got our maps, our hiking poles, and our “this might be the last time you ever see us” picture on the front steps, and we were off.

The first mile was through campus over to the entrance to the AT (what the cool kids are calling the Appalachian Trail these days) and a hike known as Velvet Rocks. It was hot, but spirits were high and we miraculously found the trailhead at the back of the College’s athletic complex. The ascent began quickly.

We wandered along an upward trail for a mile or so and then crossed some rolling hills. Some of the team was already lagging, but adrenaline pushed us onward. Somewhere about two miles out from the first support station, we got off of the AT. We weren’t entirely sure how all four of us missed the sign pointing to the right at a fork (we went left), but we quickly realized our error when we found ourselves in someone’s back yard. After a lovely chat with the father watching his kids jump on their trampoline, we were off again in the direction from whence we came. We rejoined with the AT, got our bearings again, and continued onward. Upon arriving at the support station, we realized that the group behind us had passed us as we took our little detour. We took the world’s shortest break to down some PB&J sandwiches, I used my Dartmouth ID to take a hornet stinger out of my leg (which shockingly did not send me into an allergic reaction in the woods; thanks, meiosis, for not passing along that gene from my mother), and we headed on out.

The portion of the hike between the first and second support stations was relatively unremarkable. We managed to stay on the trail, took our very first summit (Moose Mountain, which is more like a little mound of earth than a mountain), and arrived at the Dartmouth Skiway support station around the same time as three other groups. At this point, we were solidly in the back half of the crew but still in high spirits, despite the fact that we had been passed by just about every team.  

Night fell as we left the Skiway. We were the second to last team at this point, and we wound our way up Dorchester Road to the entrance to the trail up Smarts Mountain. The uphill ascent was a constant battle to stay on the trail, our headlamps dancing from tree to tree in search of the white blazes that mark the AT. At the top, though we didn’t really know that we had hit the top until we were over it, we found a series of bog bridges to cross.

Koryn was traversing the bog bridges at the front of the pack when, suddenly, one of them collapsed. She slid off, up to her thigh in thick, oozing mud. After about twenty seconds of sheer panic, we finally got her to pull her leg up. Her limb made a sickening squelching noise as she extracted it from the depths of the swamp and dragged herself over to where the bog bridges met solid trail again. The remainder of our group left the trail and bushwhacked over to her so as to avoid a similar fate; our triage included using a sweaty t-shirt that Teddy had in her pack to wipe off some of the mud, attempting to change both socks but only succeeding with one, and deciding that wet shoes were better than no shoes.

In the time it took us to clean her off, the somewhat-disheveled team of fraternity boys behind us came up along the bog bridges. They heeded our warnings to avoid the bridge and go through the woods, but not without adding it to their list of official complaints to the Dartmouth Outing Club about the poor maintenance of the AT. We continued on about a mile to our next support station, at which point we cleaned off Koryn’s legs, attempted to dry her hiking boots as best as we could, and let the team of boys pass up before we summited the next mountain.

The climb up Mount Cube consisted of some indie pop music blaring from Koryn’s phone to keep us awake, several Shot Blocks (I think we owe our lives to you, Clif Bar), and some confusion about which trail we came up and thus in which direction we should proceed down once we reached the summit. I have never seen as many stars as I saw at the top of Mount Cube (then again, I was delirious and entirely unreliable and had almost fallen asleep several times on the way up, so I’m not to be trusted).

The descent was when things started to get weird. I was tired, my right knee sent shooting pain up through my leg with every downhill step we took, and I could feel my mental capacities slipping away. That was when the hallucinations started. When I originally told people that I hallucinated, they were pretty freaked out (to say the least). But these weren’t unrealistic hallucinations, like giant, talking bunnies or Technicolor oases, shimmering in the gloom of the nighttime. They were signs of civilization: trees that looked like roads, fallen logs that somewhat resembled houses through the foliage, imagined sounds of vehicles speeding along nearby (imaginary) highways, or voices in the distance that may or may not have actually been there. We all had points when we saw things that maybe, just maybe, were entirely in our heads. Day was breaking by the time we were halfway through the descent, and my teammates decided that they needed a change in music to keep us going, a decision that would come back to haunt me.

I should preface this: I’m not exactly a Disney music fanatic. Despite my friends’ best efforts, I couldn’t even sit through all of Frozen. But as dawn was breaking, we turned to the “Circle of Life,” courtesy of The Lion King, for some motivation. That, though, turned into a shuffle of every single Disney song that Leda had on her iPod (the vast majority of which was the Frozen soundtrack, it all of its glory). That hour of hiking is perhaps the most mentally unstable that I have ever been in my life. I was falling asleep, but I was simultaneously agonizingly tormented by the peppy musical stylings of Kristoff the handsome iceman and Sven the reindeer (don’t you know that reindeer are better than people? You’re the worst, Disney). We arrived at the next support station a couple of hours after dawn, thankfully before I could murder my entire team. Before we had the chance to give up and ask for a ride back to campus, we bandaged our blisters, ate some eggs on English muffins, and trudged off toward the penultimate support station.

I have blacked a large part of the last two sections of the hike out of my memory. Still, I remember a few moments of the uphill of Mist Mountain vividly: turning around to see Leda hiking with her eyes entirely closed (she will deny that she was asleep), Teddy stopping to rub Vaseline all over her chafing (such a champ for pushing through that one), and that truly disheartening moment when the team of Nordic skiers (who had left campus no less than thirteen hours after we had) passed us, having run the entire distance yet still in much better shape than we were. I’m pretty sure I saw one of them on a bike ride the next day, too (I couldn’t walk). We summited (again a misnomer for what can barely be considered a mountain) Mist, and proceeded through a long stretch of rolling hills until we crossed a road. That was when the trouble started, again.

We entered the woods, unsure of where we were really going, and wandered up what we thought was the AT. There were logs across the trail that we had to climb over, and we ended up climbing the steepest incline that we had seen all hike. When we reached the top, we found a man with a thick South African accent on his way down. He looked at us, disheveled, covered in mud, falling asleep as we stood there, and clearly lost, and asked that fateful question: “Are you looking for bearadise?” At this point, I knew that I had officially lost it. He tried to direct us toward what we described as our final support station, but ended up sending us back up toward Jeffer’s Brook, a shelter we should have passed long ago.

We ended up back on the side of a road, wandering under some power lines past a cemetery. There was a man sitting on a bench next to the cemetery, and we decided that our desperation warranted asking him for help. At first, he said he didn’t understand where we were trying to go, and we went on our way. After about two hundred feet, the trail we were following disappeared; we returned to the man, re-worded our question, and he pointed us up the road. I nearly sprinted up that road toward the parking lot at the top, Koryn right at my heels, until I found a white van with the Dartmouth logo on the side. We had to be close, but where was the entrance to the trail? We were all delirious, pissed at the world, and ready to give up. Koryn and I swore that this was the entrance, though, and that we should give it a try. We headed into the woods once more (after two failed attempts to call people back on campus for directions). About half a mile in, we heard cheering in the woods to our left. We started screaming. Someone yelled back our team name. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life—we were given plastic leis and ushered into the support station to pop our blisters, assess our trench foot (I didn’t have blisters but I had some pretty fantastic trench foot after giving Koryn my dry pair of socks after the swamp incident), and eat grilled cheeses. We had found it: bearadise. The man with the South African accent was trying to get us to our paradise-themed support station at Great Bear lodge, if only we had allowed him to help us.

At this point, we were a mess. The support station told us that we seemed the most put together of any of the teams that had come through, but we were just really good at pretending. Leda had horrific blisters all over her feet, I managed to spray some incredibly DEET-y bug spray in my eyes before we even got 100 feet from the station, Koryn’s hiking boots were still wet from her swamp adventure, and Teddy was fighting the good fight against her chafing (which is hands down, no question, the worst and most painful thing to have happen to you on a hike). We just had one summit left, though, and there was no giving up now. Up Moosilauke we went.

We were slow on the ascent, a trail called Glencliff that can only be described as a Stairmaster, and we kept thinking that we were close only to find that we still had a mile or so to go. Again, large portions of that uphill climb have been redacted. We found the two teams in front of us near the top, but decided to do the optional summit of Moosilauke (which wasn’t necessary, but hey, we had gotten this far). An hour and several soon-to-be-profile pictures later, we were back at the trail junction and ready to head down.

The downhill of Moosilauke was the most pain that I have been in my entire life. Well, I guess that isn’t true. It was for the first half; every single step made my knees quiver as if they might just fall apart. About halfway down, though, they went numb. In retrospect, I probably should have seen that as disturbing, but at the time I was just grateful for the relief. My knees will likely never be the same. We stumbled down at full speed, determined to beat the sunset. When we crossed the river that runs just beneath the lodge, I almost ran.

We were the last team, as we had predicted, but we made it intact (and were the only all-girls team to do so). We collapsed onto the grassy field in front of the lodge, removed our hiking boots to air out our trench foot (I still can’t feel some of my toes entirely, if that gives you any idea as to how gnarly mine was), and tried to be hungry. Then we piled into a van and were bussed back to campus to take the best showers of our lives and pass out. Thirty-two hours later, we were headed home.

You only get one shot at The Fifty. If you start it, that’s your chance. You can’t enter the lottery again, can’t ask for a do-over, a restart. College-kid angst is real. It’s ugly and stupid and a part of our lives from the day we set foot on campus to the day we throw our caps in the air and leave this weird, small life in the middle of nowhere. Maybe hiking fifty miles in the dark isn’t the best way to escape that, but it certainly did the trick, at least for a weekend. Sophomore summer, it’s been real.