By Paul Denoncourt
In 1923, while touring the U.S. to raise money for an expedition to the yet unclimbed Mt. Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wished to climb it. His iconic reply was, “Because it’s there.”
I am Paul Denoncourt, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Maine Guide. My wife and I moved to Cedarville in 2020. I am a member of HPWA and recently joined its Board of Directors.
I have guided, canoed, hiked and/or backpacked in several U.S. National Parks, Maine’s Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters, Quebec, Nunavut (formerly the Eastern half of Canada’s Northwest Territories), Mexico and above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Greenland.
My surgical practice limited how much time I could spend in the wilderness, but once I retired my wanderlust only increased. Last year I backpacked Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness: a rugged section of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Afterwards, I wondered whether, at the age of 66, I could do the entire Trail.
The A.T. is 2194 miles long traversing 14 states from Georgia to Maine. It’s the most difficult and most famous hiking trail in the nation. There is 500,000 feet of elevation change. Of those who attempt a thru-hike, the overall completion rate is 25%; of hikers over 60, it is only 3%. Most hikers require six months to do it; I’d need seven. You endure cold, rain, heat, humidity, mosquitos, ticks and bears. You risk injury, Lyme disease and loneliness. You climb innumerable mountains carrying a 25-35 lb. pack. You sleep on the ground in a tent or on the floor of lean-to shelters.
So, why do it?
Because it is the apex American wilderness adventure. It is something I have considered doing since I was an Eagle Scout. It is, every thru hiker agrees, a life changing experience. It’ll allow me to test myself; “Only those who risk going far can possibly find out how far they can go” said T.S. Eliot. Like Thoreau at Walden, it’ll force me “to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out of life and not, when I come to die, discover I had not lived.” Because “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” wrote Robert Browning. There are many sights to see and fellow hikers to meet. Because it is there.
If I am unable to complete the trek, I’ll not consider myself a failure. I’ll have tested myself and learned where my boundaries lie. Graceful ageing requires accepting limitations. Mallory never did summit Everest.
My wife is fully supportive of me tackling this challenge – in fact, she was the first to bring it up. Every three weeks or so, she plans to meet me at a town or road crossing to resupply and encourage me.
I will start the hike on April 24. I’ll do the Northern half first, followed by the Southern half. I’ll periodically send a photo and progress report to HPWA for the newsletter and/or the Facebook page. I hope to have Thanksgiving dinner at home. Wish me luck!