There are loads of hiking groups in New Hampshire—groups for women, families with young kids, birders...a quick search on Facebook will turn up one or more that fits your style. The Over the Hill Hikers club has been climbing New Hampshire’s mountains since 1979. Back then, the group's schedule was mailed out by hand.
Word of Mouth's Virginia Prescott recently took a hike with the club, and came back with plenty of stories to tell.
Tracy Ripkey is one of the the group’s unofficial leaders. We met up early on a Thursday morning at the town library in Sandwich, where we and three other carloads carpooled to the Guinea Pond Trailhead, just off Sandwich Notch Road.
I asked her if there was a fitness requirement to be in the group.
“Just be able to hike your own hike, and return on feet. That’s the best advice,” she said.
Tracy had us walk two and a half miles to Black Mountain Pond, and another two and a half back.
Eighteen Over the Hillers (and three dogs) showed up for the hike. Among them was 81-year old Milan McNall.
“I am not a conqueror of mountains,” she told me. “ I like the process.”
Henry Metzger used to be a marathoner, and has hiked all of NH’s 4,000 footers. But now, at a spry 85-years-old, he picks hikes for pleasure, not endurance.
“There are some 4,000 footers where you don’t have a view at all,” he said. “And I had no interest in doing it over and over again, but there are some people who just like the challenge. They have the feeling it keeps them younger.”
Like the pun of its title, this hiking club doesn't take itself too seriously. There are no dues, cabinet positions or even leaders among the 100-odd people on its email list. The Over the Hill Hikers is actually split up into three separate groups, based on pace and level of difficulty.
I set out with the "B group," which tackles tough mountains, but tends to stay off the more formidable Presidentials. They’ve got a list they call “the 52 with a view," which includes mountains like the Moats, Welch and Dickey, and Monadnock. It’s an alternative to the 48 four-thousand footers that peak-baggers itch for.
But back when the club got its start in 1979, peak-bagging was a big part of the thrill.
Lib MacGregor Bates, known as the “Den Mother” of the group, would organize parties for members who managed to climb each of the state’s four-thousand footers.
They even had a club song, set to “Oh My Darling Clementine”.
Crazy hikers, crazy hikers!
Every Tuesday they do climb,
Knocking off 4,000 footers,
Marching always in a line!
Lib died peacefully in 2011 at her home in Center Sandwich. It was a bit of small-town coincidence that her home would later be purchased by none other than Tracy Ripkey, who in addition to buying a home, has since inherited the “den mother" mantle.
Everyone I talked to pointed out the camaraderie and support the club provides. Jean and her husband Dick moved to Sandwich after 34 years in Boston.
“If you move to Boston, that’s fine. But nobody gets excited, because everybody moves to Boston… When you decide to move your entire life to a place like Sandwich… people realize that is really special and welcome you.”
Of course, anybody who’s heard stories of dramatic rescues and fatalities knows hiking Mt Washington can be serious business. And while the B group steers clear of the most treacherous climbs, the A group is still routinely bagging the biggest and baddest peaks of New Hampshire.
Jean says age isn't something club members ignore.
“There are various medical conditions and most of us take medications of one sort or another. It’s something to be very aware of.”
Early in Over the Hill's history, the group suffered its one and only fatality.
In 1983, Fritz Ransom, a 79-year old retiree from Texas, collapsed and died halfway through a 17-mile hike. Another member, Jean Common - who would later say she had never hiked a day in her life until she turned 65 - sat with him while others went to find help.
There have been other scrapes and emergencies over the years, but given their extensive record of climbs, the Over the Hill hikers remain remarkably injury-free. That's because members tend to recalibrate as their bodies - and their ambitions - change over the years.
The A group hits mountains from the AMC’s list of 4,000 footers. The B group pursue climbs from the “52 with a view” list. And the C group, which some joke stands for “contemplative,” take shorter hikes and walks around the Sandwich area.
88-year old Sue Speers has done them all.
“I was with the As, I was with the Bs, and now I’m part of the Cs,” she told me. “Only we didn’t like being called Cs so we call ourselves the turtles. And we keep reminding people: remember who won the race. It was not the hare.”