"One of the enduring legacies I think of is that whenever I look at my Facebook stream I see people hiking together that first met on a Random hike. Maybe they would have always hiked and maybe they would have met other ways, but we’ll never know."--Michael Blair
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So you just "retired" as organizer (along with your wife Monica Trust), of Random Group of Hikers, a Meetup hiking group. How did you become involved with Random?
MICHAEL BLAIR: One day in February 2007 we were skiing at Killington and shared the gondola with a couple of guys from the Philadelphia area that were on a ski trip with a Meetup group. We had never heard of meet up before so we went home and investigated. What we found looked interesting so in March 2007 we each joined a bunch of different groups. Most of the groups we joined focused on outdoor activities like skiing, hiking, and kayaking, but we also joined a few that focused on things like getting together to go to the movies. Our first few activities with various meet up groups didn’t go well – there wasn’t anything wrong but there also wasn’t anything right. Our first event was almost our last - we went with a group for ski trip to Waterville Valley. It ended up being an excuse for most of the participants to just get out and drink - they spent more time at the bar getting drunk and trying to hook up than out on the slopes. There were a few more meet ups with different groups but nothing overwhelmed us. Then in July 2007 Monica found the Random Group of Hikers and signed up for a hike to Jennings Peak and Sandwich Dome. I was actually her guest on that hike. We had a blast - the event organizers made it fun . . We were hooked. The next weekend I went on a hike to my first 4K peak (Mt. Jefferson) with a different group, and then the weekend after that Monica and I went with that same group to Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. There weren’t a lot of events on the Random calendar because the group founder had gotten injured on one of the first hikes that she led. Most of our early hikes were with this other group just because they had events on the calendar but we liked our time with Random more. So in order to get more events on the calendar with the people that we enjoyed, we started organizing our own events.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: Did you and Monica do much hiking before that? What inspired you to join a group hike?
MICHAEL BLAIR: Not really. I had done quite a bit when I was in the Boy Scouts but not much after that. There were a few field trips with the kids to Monadnock but not much else. Monica had done a few family hikes as well but not much else. We each have kids from previous marriages (six combined) and they were with us on the same weekend, so on the “off” weekend we were looking for things to do. The ski meetup didn’t work. The movie meetup didn’t work. We figured we’d try a hiking meetup. We ended up on a group hike because the planning had been done for us - we had no guidebooks or maps. There weren’t a lot of options back then. . .the Random Group seemed like the more interesting option. While we have been totally focused on Random for the past 14 years we each both climbed our first 4K on hikes organized by Diane Mancino of the [former] New England hiking Meetup group. I did Jefferson the week after our first Random hike, and then two weeks after that first hike we did Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. In fact, my first backpack trip was also with Diane a month or so later, and then I led my first ever trip (Tecumseh) with the New England group two months after that first Random hike. We learned about the [4,000 Footers] “list” on Sandwich during that first hike (“this one won’t count for your list” … what is this list that you speak of?) and it intrigued us. . .
Above, a gallery of Random hikes
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And you grew up in the shadow of Mount Greylock, highest peak in Massachusetts--and just about on top of the Appalachian Trail. Is it strange for you to now think about growing up there, not knowing at the time that you'd become a pretty serious hiker later in life?
MICHAEL BLAIR: Guess I never really thought about it. I hiked it a few times growing up - they used to have an event called the Mount Greylock Ramble. It was a big deal and everyone did it. They still have it each year but now it climbs up from Cheshire - when I did it we climbed up from Adams. Other than remembering doing it I don’t remember much else. I’m sure I was going up in jeans and sneakers. My best friend Brad and I were active in Boy Scouts because we liked the camping, hiking, backpacking, and rock climbing/rappelling. A little too much it turns out. We were asked to “leave” unless we started earning merit badges. We would do all of the “field activities” but we never finished any of the “book learning”. That was kind of the end of our outdoor adventures because none of our other friends were into that type of stuff - most focused on the usual stuff like baseball, basketball, and football. I was aware that the AT passed close by but had little knowledge or understanding about what it was. We’d see hikers in town or hitching a ride but didn’t know what they were doing.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: So what initially drew you to hiking was the social aspect of it-- you and Monica looking for things to do with other people in your weekends without the kids. And then also the goal/achievement aspect of it--the challenge of completing peak bagging lists. Were there other motivations that kept you returning to hiking or are those the two primary ones?
MICHAEL BLAIR: If I had to rank things at the start it would be (1) get out of the house to get some exercise, (2) challenge myself mentally and physically, (3) meet some new people, and (4) achieve some goals. I have never really cared about the “views” … seen one tree you’ve seen them all. It was always more about seeing what I could do, and then doing more - one peak on a hike led to two, 10 miles led to 15, summer led to winter, one hike in a day led to two or three in a day, etc. We enjoyed the social aspect and remain friends with many of those who ventured out with us during those early years. While achieving goals was always there and it was part of the initial lure, it wasn’t the driving force. In fact, I never set out to finish the 48 Grid or even contemplated the 67 or 115 Grid. It just kind of happened - I kept track of what I’d done but didn’t even acknowledge the 48 Grid until I reached 50% and then I set the physical and mental challenge of finishing it. This led to climbing more than 350 peaks in a two year span. Over the past few years I’d say the order has changed - (1) and (2) are still there but (3) and (4) have switched places. Over the past few years I’ve become less interested in hiking with other people - I’ve come to enjoy the freedoms of being solo and listening to music or podcasts. There is also less pressure to keep up or slow down and I can go at my own pace - some of this may also be the result of the concussion*. I guess (2) and (4) are almost the same thing. My current project is finishing the 67 Grid (only 4 have done it) and if everything lines up I could finish in November. . . I’ve been thinking about what the goals for the summer and beyond will be. I’d like to get back out to Colorado (I’ve done 1/2 of the 14ers) and visit the 14ers in California (have not done any). We have the van so we’ll likely visit some national parks and things like that.
*[I think Michael is joking here, but he did sustain a serious concussion while hiking in the Adirondacks in 2021].
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: In taking over leadership Random Group of Hikers What year was that?) you and Monica organized a heck of a lot of hikes how many?). You didn't have to do it that-- but you did-- and the result is that you introduced a lot of people to hiking the high peaks of New England--or to winter hiking those same peaks. Even for experienced hikers, you facilitated an enjoyable social hiking experience for those people. When you look back on all of that organizing, all the time you put into it, all the people you met, what thoughts come to mind?
MICHAEL BLAIR: The first hike I organized was in 2007 after going on a hike where the person who organized it was clueless - they didn’t know where we were meeting or the route we were taking. They were just looking for someone to go with them I guess. I figured I could do a better job so I asked if I could organize a trip and things took off from there. For a while I was organizing 4-6 trips a month all year long. At one point I added up all of the trips I led for the Random Group of Hikers and the Boston Chapter of the AMC and it was over 500 trips. I’m guessing the current number is likely 600-650. The average number of people on each trip is probably 8-10 so that’s about 4,000 - 6,500 “people”. That’s a a lot. Obviously there were many repeat customers along the way. I know of four marriages that came about after people met on a Random hike. One of the enduring legacies I think of is that whenever I look at my Facebook stream I see people hiking together that first met on a Random hike. Maybe they would have always hiked and maybe they would have met other ways, but we’ll never know.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: And with regard to Random, it's the hikes that you and Monica organized that really set the tone and standard for the group. Random quickly developed a reputation for being a professionally run, responsible hiking Meetup group for "serious" hikers. What is it that you think set Random apart and/or made it unique among other hiking groups? Did your own professional background in insurance/ risk management inform the standards you set for Random?
MICHAEL BLAIR: I took, and still take, a lot of pride in the reputation of the group. . . . I tend to be no-nonsense about my activities - kind of an “act like you’ve been there before” approach. I do my own research, I’m prepared for whatever I might encounter, and I factor in risk when I make my decisions (I’m sure that comes from being an insurance risk manager since graduating college). When you get to the top, look around, take a picture, and then skedaddle. I wanted to associate with people like that, so my vision for the group was to be a no nonsense group that met at the bottom, climbed to the top, and got back to the bottom without incident. No silly group poses. No pole canopies. No costumes. There were other groups out there that took a different approach - and while I’m not saying one is better than the other, what I am saying is the way the Random Group operated felt right to me. I tried to blend the structured organization I learned from the outdoor leadership training that I got from the AMC, with a slightly less rigid approach. We didn’t do a lot of basic beginner hikes because I wanted people to organize the type of trips that they liked to do, and most of the people that were organizing trips were more at the intermediate and advanced level. So those are the types of hikes that were on the calendar. It was good because it filled a void where people who may have been doing basic to intermediate hikes with the AMC or other meetup groups could work their way up to participating in our events. As I mentioned previously, my Facebook stream is filled with stories and pictures from people that were active with Random at one time or another, so perhaps we helped them get the confidence to explore things even bigger and badder than they would have been comfort doing had we not been there to help in their development. I think another thing that helped with the way I tried to run the group is that I was the only lead organizer of any of the Meetup hiking groups that was a also field instructor with the AMC’s Mountain Leadership School, and later the ADK’s Winter Mountaineering School.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: How did you become involved with the AMC Mountain Leadership School?
MICHAEL BLAIR: . . . I figured getting guidance from an organization that does this type of stuff all of the time couldn’t hurt. I went online and looked for outdoor leadership programs and found two opportunities - NOLS and AMC. While I would love to do a NOLS program, at that time the duration and cost was not feasible so I opted for the AMC. First I did the local chapter leadership class, and while I got some information out of it, it was pretty basic stuff. I learned about AMC’s flagship outdoor leadership program Mountain Leadership School and it seemed like a great blend of topics. It was run out of the Highland Center but was similar to NOLS in that you went out into the wilderness for five days and that was your classroom. I applied and also got a scholarship so it was like NOLS but fewer days and less money. During the program you would take turn being leader of the day and then have to handle various scenarios and role plays. The best part about the the program was that these role plays happened in the actual environment instead of being case studies discussed at a table or while walking around a grassy field. I handled mine well enough, and exhibited enough team-work, that at the end of the program I was one of only a few (there were about 40 participants) who were invited back to be an instructor and the only one from that year that ended up becoming an instructor. I did that for more than ten years - my group was even chosen/featured in the AMC Outdoors Magazine a while back. We had an “embedded” reporter who wrote about his experience. I also would help with training programs run by the local chapter (Introduction to Leadership, Introduction to Summer, Introduction to Winter, etc) but MLS was always my first love. A couple of years ago I was recruited to help with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Winter Mountaineering School. It’s a program similar in design to MLS but focused more on personal skills than leadership. We were working on a leadership track since very few groups teach outdoor leaders how to deal with the unique challenges of winter hiking and backpacking, but our efforts to put something together ran into the same delays other programs experienced during Covid. While there is a program this year (we did virtual last year) we didn’t try to put anything together since we had no idea what to expect. I am hoping we can resume these efforts next year.
MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: With regard to the trips you organized with Random, what are some of the more memorable?
MICHAEL BLAIR: There are too many good memories to recount - I’ll forget something for sure. Let’s just say the best memories are the people we met along the way. One example from the beginning. We did a weekend backpack trip to Owl’s Head (47) and Galehead (48) and dubbed it “Two Heads are Better than One” as a tip of the cap to both the peaks and the partnership that Monica and I had on the trail. It rained pretty much all day both days. Eight other people camped at 13 Falls with us in the rain and another 10-15 joined us on Galehead in the rain for the final peak of our first round. There was only one time in the 650 or so trips where I “called in sick” and cancelled a trip at the last minute. Even though there were other times when I wasn’t feeling it, I knew that someone was waiting for me at the trailhead so I’d use them as my motivation when I couldn’t generate any on my own. I’m sure there were plenty of hikes that would have never happened because if I was going on my own I might just turn the alarm off and roll over and go back to sleep. When I look back at the hardest and most challenging hikes that I have ever done, all of the ones here in the northeast we’re done with Randomites - either as an official trip open to anyone in the larger group, or an unadvertised trip that was just for the core members. There are a handful of people that I would go anywhere with that I met through the group. When I look back at the pictures there are a bunch of people that are there but there are a few faces that show up in nearly every one of those challenging hikes. While I never minded being the “sweep” to hang back with someone who might be having an off day I also know of a few instances where it was me who was off and people in the group stepped up to drag my sorry ass through the planned itinerary. A few specific trips come to mind: - I tweaked my knee on the Twins and had to hobble out while the others kept me motivated and moving. We made it out but it was slow. Same thing with a trip into Baxter State Park in winter - I smashed my hip on a pre-hike fall and we had to change plans and just head out instead of trying to summit Katahdin and Hamlin (I guess technically my “second” called in sick hike). Again the group was there to keep me motivated and moving. There were also three trips to the ER - all done with other Randomites. We were on a Random trail work trip when I learned that a dull blade is still stronger than soft tissue. I was preparing to leave for a winter hike with some Randomites when I ended up in the ER/OR to have emergency surgery to deal with an obstructed intestine. The concussion in the Adirondacks was done while on a Great Range Traverse with a couple of Randomites.
I also need to mention the obvious - the best hiking partner that I have ever had is Monica. We met before we did our first hike with the group so it wasn’t the Random Group of Hikers that “put” us together, I have no doubt in my mind it’s one of the primary reasons that we “stayed” together. We were just starting our relationship when we started hiking with the group and the events gave us a common activity to build off of. I could not have asked for anyone to make a better match - we have hiked in some of the worst conditions and came out stronger. Who else would be excited about spending their honeymoon hiking in Colorado while sleeping in the back of an SUV so we could travel to where the weather conditions were best. Seriously. Our honeymoon. Sleeping in the back of an SUV. No bathroom. No showers. No laundry. Just hiking.
The three peaks of Weeks Mountain, 3,901', 3,885', and 3,684', named in honor of John Wingate Weeks (progenitor of the Migratory Bird Act and the Weeks Act, which enabled the creation of our National Forests), are located in The Kilkenny--the remote, northernmost part of the White Mountain National Forest. The three peaks aren't particularly interesting or unique: they are crowned by common spruce-fir forests and are viewless, generic, settings among so many similar 3,000+ foot summits in the northeast United States. But North Weeks and South Weeks are also members of the New England 100 Highest peaks list, for which there is a winter-season only patch--thus our reason for visiting South Weeks this winter.
The easiest way to visit South Weeks is OAB via the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, first passing over higher Mt. Starr King, 3,907', and Mt. Waumbek, 4,006' (52 With A View list and New Hampshire 4,000-Footer list, respectively), 12.2 miles round trip. The only real views on the hike are from Starr King, where there is a small clearing at the former site of a cabin, and from a relatively recent blowdown patch a few hundred feet north of Waumbek summit. Although the route up Starr King and Waumbek is relatively easy and usually well trodden out and maintained, beyond Waumbek things get wooly pretty fast. Because Kilkenny Ridge is infrequently hiked, it is low priority on the trail maintenance schedule. Blazes are fading and infrequent, "fir wave" blowdowns are common, and the fast-growing branches of evergreen saplings and hobblebush threaten to squeeze the trail out of existence. We had about a foot of unbroken powder on the ground, which made it harder to find our way. Thankfully the route sticks mostly to the ridgeline, so getting truly lost is only for the cartographically challenged. Where we did get brief views, we were blessed with an unusual day-long cloud undercast over which the Presidential Range to the south floated like a volcanic island chain.
Beyond the simple pleasure of checking a peak off a list, the hike has its charm: on the whole, The Kilkenny has a wonderfully remote aura. It's the kind of place where the forest feels more dominant than the trail and the wildlife are more plentiful than human beings. We crossed at least sixty fresh moose tracks (some of which had re-crossed our snowshoes prints prior to our return) along with countless prints of smaller critters. The moose themselves were typically elusive--large as they are, they do blend and were likely able to see us well enough. The last time I had visited South Weeks was during a Kilkenny Ridge solo backpack in the early 1990s--as far as I can tell, not much has changed out there. Trees fall and grow back, moose make their rounds. The trail is as wooly was it was back then: it was like seeing an old friend who hadn't changed one bit in twenty-five years. --Paul-William
Thanks to: White Mountain National Forest (land conservation, trails), Randolph Mountain Club (trails).
There are several ways to approach it: as a diversion during a long distance hike of the Long Trail, as a long loop using part of the Long Trail and Green Mountain Trail, or as an OAB approach starting on the Homer Stone Trail in Wallingford. Since it was winter, we opted for the shorter Homer Stone approach (about 7.0 miles RT, 1950' EG). The Homer Stone Trail ascends to the Long Trail at Little Rock Pond, starting out as a wide woods road and narrowing to a trail halfway up at an unbridged wet crossing of cascading Homer Stone Brook (tricky in winter or high water). From there, the Green Mountain Trail ascends steeply up a series of ledges which give way to some open viewpoints overlooking the pond 600 feet below (we had none on account of socked-in conditions). Had it been summer, we could have combined it with a dip in the pond or brook, or an overnight sleepover to the sound of water lapping stones (there are several primitive campsites on the pond). Although the trail skirts the true summit of the mountain, one can bushwhack 0.2 or so to the top where there is a little register jar tied to a tree, and a secret view ledge.
I'll be adding Green Mountain to my rarified "pretty mountains with swimmable alpine ponds-list", among such excellent destinations as Tumbledown Mountain/Tumbledown Pond (ME), Sargent Mountain/Sargent Pond (Acadia National Park, ME), Old Speck Mountain/Speck Pond (ME), and Lonesome Lake/Cannon & Kinsman Mountain (NH). That'll be a topic for a 2022 summer post. Stay tuned. --Paul-William
Thanks to: Green Mountain National Forest (land conservation & trails); Green Mountain Club (trails).
The OAB trail starts at the campground and ascends 1,080 feet in 1.7 miles, passing scenic cascades (with a few stepping-stone water crossings) and through a big-tree hemlock forest. Presumably the summit used to be bald back in the day. It no longer is, but there are two modest cleared window viewpoints at the top--one facing Stratton Mountain and another Mount Monadnock (in NH). Conditions were a bit icy during our ascent; our spikes made for good footing but the beagle had to fishtail his way up and down the mountain.
Although our hike this day was intentionally short, one could easily make a longer day of it by also hiking the nearby Ledges Overlook Trail by Townshend Dam which loops over some cliffs on a hill to the northeast of Bald Mountain, and the trail to the impressive 125-foot Hamilton Falls just to the north in Jamaica, Vermont. --Paul-William
Humor (The Parsnip)