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Holt's Ledge

So here at Dartmouth as you may well know, we have a rather large and amazing amount of opportunities geared around experiencing the outdoors. The DOC (Dartmouth Outing Club) runs regular hikes every week (I try to go once per week), and is really well funded so you can borrow equipment and do tonnes of cool stuff!

The DOC also runs one of the best, least well known (from outside of campus), and biggest tradition challenges Dartmouth has to offer: The Fifty. This is a point-to-point 53.5 mile hike from Mousilauke Ravine Lodge all the way back to Robinson Hall (Robo) back on campus in Hanover; it's all hiked in one go, over 24-32 HOURS of straight hiking. Naturally as a thrill seeker and lover of physical challenges - I signed up. You have to sign up in groups of four, and at the info meeting about it, I found a group of three others who were interested that I knew meaning we had a team! The trouble was, the 50 is always criminally oversubscribed and works on a weighted lottery system in which you earn points by helping out or being a senior - thereby making getting it on your Freshman Fall virtually impossible. Somehow though we got selected, and boy were we in for a ride…

It's 8:00 AM, I wake up to my alarm blaring, and I feel ready. I packed everything and picked my rental gear up the previous night, and I'd been getting 8 hours of sleep every night all week. In other words, I was as prepared as I possibly could be. I had packed 3L of water bottles, my large coat, a fleece, a headlamp, spare batteries, and some snacks for along the way. As I get myself ready, I arrange to meet my teammates at Foco ('53 commons) for breakfast at 9:00 AM (we had to be at Robo for 9:30). As we get to breakfast the air is electric with nerves and excitement - we had all been waiting for weeks for this moment and it seemed surreal that it was here at last!

Getting our gear together!
Collecting our stuff on the day of the hike was just the start...

At Robo they gave us our hiker kits and medkits, and we piled onto a minibus. The hiker kits contained: a six-page map, specific instructions for hard-to-understand portions of the AT (Appalachian Trail - which is what the 50 uses); and the medkit contained: bandages, tape for wrapping joints or sealing bandages, a supply of advil, bandaids, moleskin, and other drugs to heal specific common ailments. These were to be our only guides for the next 24-32 hours, and beyond these resources? We were on our own.

At exactly 11:22, we were released as the first team to start from Mousilauke Lodge - we were released in 15 minute intervals - and set off towards our first of 6 mountains: Mount Mousilauke. This was one of the biggest on our hike; it stands at above 4000ft, and has two main peaks which we had to hike to. We left in really good spirits: singing Don't Stop Me Now by Queen, and marching triumphantly up towards the mountain. Overall, this mountain and section of the 50 went amazingly, we kept great pace, had good morale, and it was just like a short DOC hike; it was only 6.7 miles before another rest station - the shortest distance on the 50 without a station - and we reached Great Bear station in a great state! We sat down, had our water refilled, had our feet and joints checked by the safety dork (medical specialist), and got PB&J sandwiches as snacks! Overall, great experience and we had a good time there. 

A lovely picture of us hiking Mousilauke!
Morale was high as we tackled our first mountain!

From there we continued as we had started, we kept good pace still and were ready to tackle the much longer distance before the next station - Atwell Hill. We had a brief scare when just after Great Bear one of our team members who injured their foot a week before fell on their previously injured foot, but the only thing standing between us and Atwell was Mount Mist: a rather anticlimactic mountain with a not-insane incline and a long walk through a valley. It was here, however, that nightfall fell. With the mountains around and the treeline high, it gets dark fast. Around 6:30 PM we had to put our headlamps on, and I must say that hiking by headlamp is less than ideal. At first we were super stoked for nightfall; we had a separate playlist with rave tunes, and we wanted to see the stars! Once we were in the valley however, we really started to struggle. The AT is marked by white 'blazes' (white rectangles periodically painted onto trees), but both looking down at the ground and up at the blazes with a headlamp in the dark is practically impossible. The ground for this entire hike was chaotically sporadic, you quickly moved from uneven roots and easy-to-trip-on wood, to rocks or even calf-deep mud. At the same time, there are a tonne of 'side-trails' along this section that take you up the many mountains in the area.

Nighttime selfie!
The visibility was terrible, but we began the night with excitement!

We were right behind another group, but at some point in the dark as we stumbled around, I looked up and felt my heart drop - I saw a blue blaze on the tree. This meant we were on the wrong trail. "Um, when did you guys last see a white blaze?" I asked? Nobody knew, and we all began to feel a little uneasy. We kept our cool though and hiked back down Blueberry mountain, and as it turned out we had been on the wrong trail for about a mile. When we finally found ourselves back at the white blazes, I felt an immediate sense of relief; we hadn't lost a criminal amount of time, and we could still make it to the next station on time.

We summited the disappointing summit of Mount Mist, and began our descent. It was just before here we got off trail again, this time up Webster Slide mountain, but we realised early on and rejoined the AT quickly. After this was when the dramatic stories of the fifty began to ring true, and we really started to feel the pain. We still had a long hike to go before the next station, and it was all downhill which sounds nice, but is very rough on your legs and takes a lot of focus to complete carefully. We began soon to really misjudge distance, and as it was taking a lot longer than we thought, we got the beginnings of the grumps appearing in our midst. We were all a little frustrated - partially probably because of being lost a couple of times - and it was at this point my right knee began to hurt. It turned out I had a muscular injury that was causing me searing pain every time I moved my knee. The vibes overall were off, and people weren't talking quite as much - honestly I think we all questioned our place on the fifty at that point in time - it was rough. 
We made it to Atwell though, and though we were ratty we were given rice and beans and a tortilla and cheese! We had our feet checked and dried, changed socks, and after 20 minutes or so we got back up with a renewed sense of determination. 

On our way to Atwell
On our way to Atwell things got worse, but we worked through it and got there in the end

The next section included us at our worst, so be warned, it's rough. We had next to hike up Mt Cube (Hexacube as it is officially called). The hike up was going great, until it wasn't. My right knee really became bad here, to the point where it was excruciating to take every upwards step with it and I had to try only use my left leg. This resulted in my left knee developing a similar affliction, and both my quads began to cramp here. We stopped at one point for me to stretch out, but it really didn't do much. I began drinking electrolytes and hoped that I would be okay. Somewhere along this trail, our team began to succumb to sleep deprivation. One team member fell into a river, meaning their body - and most importantly their feet - was soaked and cold. We now had a real time constraint and pressure as we needed to get them to the next station as soon as possible so hypothermia didn't kick in. As we approached the peak, they began to get so tired that they were concerned about passing out and became a little incoherent, and so we engaged them in simple conversation to keep them awake and alert. At the top of the mountain we took some necessary and disgusting cold instant coffee for the caffeine, along with some sports beans we had been eating along the way that had 50mg of caffeine per bean. After this, we began our descent feeling much better with caffeine in our systems.

The next concern however, was another team member who seemed to keep falling (most likely due to a lack of sleep and wear and tear on the body). This was worrying as there were areas where if you fell, you could very easily break something on a rock or fall far enough to sustain a very dangerous or even life-threatening injury. It was at this point that we focused on getting down the mountain safely, and getting to the next station. This was also where my first round of hallucinations began; I began seeing things in the shadows that weren't there. These weren't anything as dramatic or coherent as people or animals, but smaller movements that didn't actually happen; maybe even the sense that something was watching me. The good thing was that I was way too tired at this point to be worried or scared of such things - I just wanted to be at the next checkpoint.

The downhill section here seemed to take absolutely forever too, as we walked it felt like we made zero progress, and it was here we reached our worst in terms of mental wellbeing. We all began having doubtful and negative thoughts, and nobody spoke nor played music the whole way back, it was painful and oppressive and honestly I felt at my lowest. When we did eventually reach Jacob's Brook, however, they uplifted our spirits with cheering and hugs and soup and grilled cheese! We began to rejuvenate and we felt pride in the fact that we had cleared the longest distance between stations. We sat there for a long while, getting ourselves checked and socks changed again, and we set out once again for the next station.

A beautiful photo of the views from an earlier mountain
The views along the way certainly made things easier to handle

This next section was another of demoralization and pain, but not quite as eventful as the one before. We hiked Mt Smarts, a 3230ft mountain which honestly was probably the least fun to hike in the dark when working to a time limit, because it involved a lot of up and down without much indication of proximity to the summit - a fact that lead to a lot of confusion and disappointment at times. I am sure it is beautiful in the daytime when hiked at a leisurely pace, but we were all physically broken and many of us were mentally doing pretty bad too. It was here I decided to take the lead, and to keep people engaged I shouted whenever I saw a white blaze on a tree so we knew we were on the right track. The ascent was particularly exhausting near the bottom, because the woods weren't very dense and so everywhere looked like a trail, whereas the blazes were super far apart and so we didn't see any for 20 minutes at a time sometimes. Not to mention a lot of the trees had white moss on them that looked like blazes. When we finally were making our descent here, we were a lot better off mentally than we had been, and though physically broken pain was less of a barrier at this point. I think we had all begun to become numb to it by now. It was however at this point where my ankles began to hurt.

The worst part of this section was the final stretch to the Skiway station. It was supposed to be fairly flat, but this when compared to the mountains meant there was an unexpected amount of elevation gain. We had to climb 10 or so mini-hills, and at this point I was hallucinating again. We were headed for a road, and I kept thinking I could see it through the trees, only for it to be a stack of rocks. I thought a log was a pickup truck from a distance, and when we had passed the road, I kept seeing the Ski Lodge through the trees when it wasn't remotely near. This was super demoralizing, and as if to make matters worse, I ended up falling into a river! I got muddy water in one of my boots, sparking concern over medical issues like trench foot or even frostbite since it was extremely cold. I knew at the next station it would be essential to dry my foot and shoe, and to change socks. One team mate also began to fall asleep standing up when we stopped for rests here which was kind of scary as this is an extreme symptom of lack of sleep.

Us looking happy hiking!
We looked a lot happier here than in reality, but my team were such an awesome vibe!

We did eventually make the Skiway though, and from there we got warm sandwiches with turkey egg and cheese, and witnessed a dance routine from the supporters who were all dressed very brightly! We continued still exhausted, but with a determination to finish the hike once and for all. We only had one last stop to get to then we were on the home stretch! The next section was Holt's Ledge, and Moose Mountain. We began our ascent up Holt's Ledge, but as we were moving up we noticed one of our members was lagging a little, and we reached a point where they blacked out pretty much completely and couldn't see. This was a super scary moment, but we all kept clear heads and decided it was time to take a little longer break to make sure they were alright, as even if we didn't make the time for the next station, our team's health ultimately comes first. We then started off again at a slower pace, and the adrenaline from the night time as the sun rose began to wear off and I started to notice myself drifting in and out of consciousness. I walked at the back with our member who had been struggling a little as my injuries meant I really couldn't race up the mountain, and we eventually made it up to Holt's Ledge!

Holt's Ledge selfie
The views from Holt's Ledge were incredible

This is the final and most terrifying section of our hike. We were headed towards Moose Mountain on the AT, but I wasn't particularly lucid enough to notice where we were going and just followed the group. We reached a point however where I finally snapped back into it, and noticed a distinct lack of white blazes and a look of panic on the person we had been following's face. I asked when the last time we had saw one was, and they said it had been quite some time. This was worrying as it meant we potentially were off trail, and could be anywhere as our maps didn't have a lot of the side-trails on. Not knowing how far from the trail we were, or even if we were off trail for that matter, I read the map and decided a direction to go in. This just took us deeper into unfamiliar terrain, and eventually we decided to call the hike director because we found cell service. They suggested a few directions, but navigating was hard as most of the trails we were on weren't on online maps! This is where panic began to set in, but we regained our composure and I suggested we backtrack. We decided this was a good idea and so we backtracked for about 2 miles or so, eventually reaching the comfort of white blazes again. From here we had no cell service, but were able to make it to a road which was right before Moose Mountain, and managed to get a message to the hike director to pick us up as we didn't have time to hike the mountain before sundown (which would have been a terrible and dangerous decision).

We arrived back in Hanover by car, but not defeated in the slightest. It turns out we had actually hiked 55 miles with all of our bumbling about, and we had completed the 50 in our own way (even if it were unconventional). We touched the DOC sign to finish the hike, and set off to get our final checks for medical reasons, before grabbing food and going to sleep.

Finishing the hike!
Here is us just after touching the DOC sign! So proud!

As an overview, this hike may have seemed like an insane choice and a terrible idea to do due to all of the horror stories and terrible memoirs, but in reality though hard and awful and scary, it is the best thing I have done to date. Yes we faced trauma, adversity, and indescribable pain, but we faced those alone as a team and walked through them quite literally. We showed ourselves values and skills we didn't know we had, and we proved we could do it. We rose to the challenge, helped each other, and we climbed 5 or so mountains and walked 55 miles in 26 hours and 37 minutes. That is an insane accomplishment that I will never forget nor stop being proud of, and I love my team in ways I feel I cannot possibly love another group of people purely because of the stuff we faced together and the support we gave one another.

I feel pride, I feel elation, and I feel how much my legs hurt. That was the Dartmouth 50, and boy was it awesome. Even if it isn't generally your thing and you don't want to do the 50, I seriously suggest you partake in some DOC stuff if you come to Dartmouth, they run awesome activities every week, and I have made some awesome friends and memories through them. Try a sunrike or sunsike, hike a small mountain, go to timber team practice, it's all there for you to try! In NH, the outdoors is your oyster.

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