Barefoot on Welch/Dickey Mountain

Shirley Landry climbing ledges on Welch/Dickey Mountain. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)

Rarely a day goes by that the 4.4 mile Welch/Dickey loop in Waterville Valley isn't hiked. Its low twin summits of granite offer fun scrambling and fantastic views.

Writing about this traverse of the low Mount Welch (2,605 feet) and Mount Dickey (2,734 feet) has allowed me the unique opportunity to write about both the mountain and human experience in general. It's as if the mountain rises up above the world enough for a fresh perspective, but is low enough to remain part of it.

For example, a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I hiked the loop and interviewed all the hikers I met about their take and experience of the event. The variety was striking. It ranged from a Boston fireman who knew well some of his New York coworkers who didn't make it, to a sociology professor who blamed the United States, to a British tourist who was in a state of mild shock about how his trip had unfolded in unexpected ways, to a group of college students who had typical unfazed optimism.

For the past couple of years, I've climbed Welch/Dickey early on a spring morning and then gone directly to the annual new exhibit at the Museum of the White Mountains in Plymouth. In writing about this duel experience, I've hoped to give others inspiration to go to the new exhibit and combine it with a hike, especially if they live a distance away. After all, the museum exhibits are about the mountains, and meant to supplement one's own experience in them.

I've seen some interesting human activity on the Welch/Dickey loop. A few winters ago, on my way down Dickey Mountain, I passed a Sierra Club mountaineering class on their way up, including people from all over the United States. They had full camping gear, ice axes and crampons, and were going to camp on top of Dickey and practice winter skills. Despite the low height of the peak, they would be entering a winter alpine environment there. After their stay they were headed north to higher peaks.


Last week, I had my latest unique experience on Welch/Dickey. Four of us, Bob Gordon and Shirley Landry from Conway, Buck Hogan from Woodstock, and myself, headed there to hike the loop. We were joined by Gordon's Tibetan terrier named Champney, who is well known in Conway and elsewhere for his hiking adventures and misadventures in the mountains through this hiking column.

Shirley Landry was hiking the loop barefoot. An avid hiker, she has been hiking barefoot in the warmer months for four years. This would be my first time seeing her hike barefoot. As you have likely gathered so far, Welch/Dickey was the perfect place to see something new.

As we started up the trail to Welch Mountain, I noticed that she walked with both awareness and relaxation. This suggested experience.

After almost a mile, the trail transitioned from roots, dirt, and rocks to a narrow corridor of smooth ledge between moss. Soon we reached the first great lookout ledge.

The trail from there to the top of Mount Welch had a lot of steep ledge, some with wet strips from recent rain. The three of us with boots took great care to distinguish dry rock from slippery wet rock. For Landry, the steep ledge was fairly easy, and she could feel the wetness on the rock as well as see it.

On top of Welch, we sat and looked about. I took a photo of Landry, barefoot and relaxed.

Later after the hike, I asked for her thoughts on hiking barefoot, and why she did it.

"It's fun, and adds a whole new dimension to hiking," she said. "It adds texture to the hike."

She said that there can be a spiritual aspect to it.

"You feel more connected to the earth. It makes me happy, and is almost child-like."

Landry grew up barefoot on a farm in Indiana.

For the past 13 years, she has taught yoga two times a week at Cranmore Fitness Center. She is aware of the importance and complexity of feet.

"One quarter of your body's separate muscles, tendrils and joints are in your feet."

She ventured into barefoot hiking gradually. First she did a hike down the southern Presidentials with "Five Fingered Shoes," often used for yoga. She enjoyed that. The transition to barefoot hiking was gradual after that.

"You can't just start hiking barefoot," she said. "Shoes are like casts, that protect and restrict movement. Once removed, it takes work to regain strength. It took me two years to get used to hiking all types of terrain."

She said that the Presidentials, where there are a lot of flat stone steps, are not that hard, whereas the trail up South Moat is challenging because of a profusion of sharp shale-like rock.

I asked her the obvious question: do you ever stub your toe?

"Never on a hike," she said. "That would happen to me working in the yard."

Landry wears boots hiking in the winter. In the spring, she has no trouble transitioning to barefoot. There is no transition really, just a change of "footwear." As far as tolerating the cold, experience has shown that 40 degrees Fahrenheit is her bottom comfort limit. She has crossed snow patches barefoot without a problem.

From the summit of Welch Mountain, we descended into the saddle and climbed up to the summit of Dickey Mountain, where we paused for lunch. The true summit ledge was visible a couple hundred feet away across stunted trees. I knew that a dance group from Franconia occasionally does circle dances there, and I wondered about their footwear while dancing. Some probably went barefoot.

The long walk down Dickey Mountain over smooth ledge and through the woods was both a physical and metaphorical descent back to civilization. The mountain had revealed another truth about people.

We reached the car. Landry showed me her feet. No scratches, no calluses, no thick cracked soles, like the porters of the Himalaya.

We slipped in the car and were gone.


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