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A mountain hike: No view, no problem

Nearly a century ago, George Mallory may have given the most famous reason for climbing Everest — “Because it’s there” — but let’s face it, most people today scale a mountain simply for the view and photo-op.

Having gazed euphorically from all 67 of New England’s summits that rise above 4,000 feet, I can attest that one of the Northeast’s most rewarding panoramic vistas extends in every direction from Saddleback Mountain’s 4,121-foot peak in Western Maine.

Due north, a vast, undulating expanse of forest and lakes spreads all the way to the Canadian border; a similarly verdant swath reaches beyond Sandy River to the south. Sugarloaf Mountain and the Carrabassett Valley rise and dip to the east, while Rangeley Lake lies to the west. On a clear day, you can see New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, including Mount Washington, more than 50 miles away.

So why climb a socked-in Saddleback with visibility barely reaching 50 feet?

My best answer is superstition.

During decades of vacationing at nearby Rangeley Lake, our family has made tramping up Saddleback an annual tradition, to the extent that it’s considered bad juju to skip a year.

Unfortunately, it poured just about every day when my wife, Lisa, and I visited last week, leaving only one short window on a foggy morning for a Saddleback excursion.

We could have driven nearly 20 miles to the Appalachian Trail crossing and then hiked more than four miles past Piazza Rock to the summit (and four miles back to the car), but opted for the shorter but steeper route that ascends two miles of Saddleback’s ski trails to the AT intersection, and then continues less than a mile to the rocky summit.

“You sure you want to do this?” Lisa asked, peering at thick clouds while we strapped on daypacks. She is the family voice of reason.

“Carpe diem,” I replied, a mantra that sometimes has led me, and others, astray.

Bulldozers and backhoes rumbled near the base of the ski area, which reopened last year after a five-year hiatus. An hour later, passing a hut near Saddleback’s highest chairlift tower, we stepped onto a hikers-only trail through a dense grove of spruce and firs.

The rush of wind that swept through evergreen boughs replaced the din of construction equipment; balsam’s heady fragrance overpowered the odor of diesel exhaust. Swirling wisps enveloped us as we followed cairns that marked a route above treeline that led to a mossy, rock-strewn plateau.

Were the skies clear, the horizons would have seemed limitless, almost daunting; instead, enclosing fog wrapped us in a comforting blanket.

No point in constantly staring ahead, hoping to view the summit marker. We would get there when we got there.

Step, breathe, step, breathe, step, breathe … Wooden marker — Appalachian Trail. Not much farther.

Every year, hordes of hikers trudge all or part of this fabled, 2,180-mile footpath between Maine and Georgia. This day on Saddleback, Lisa and I had the mountain and section of trail to ourselves.

The wind picked up, but neither of us wanted to stop to don extra layers.

At that moment, I found myself thinking about poor Mallory.

On June 4, 1924, he and fellow mountaineer Andrew Irvine vanished on Everest’s northeast ridge, about 800 vertical feet from the 29,031-foot summit. Their bodies weren’t discovered until 1999.

Were they still on their way up, or on their way down after becoming the first to conquer the world’s tallest mountain? No one knows.

Either way, it doesn’t count unless you make it back.

Lisa, the voice of reason, did not want to linger once we tagged Saddleback’s peak.

And so we gobbled energy bars, swigged water, and immediately began our descent.

“OK, we’re good until next year,” I said. “We did it.”

“Don’t say that until we’re down,” Lisa replied. 

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