Outside magazine, March 1998
If you were looking for that Papa Hemingway, man-against-the-mountain gestalt, chances are you wouldn't zero in on New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock, the peak that monopolizes Larry Davis's attention. It's pretty humble as icons go. The very word monadnock has entered the geological lexicon, meaning "a hill of resistant rock, standing in the midst of a peneplain," an area worn nearly flat by erosion. At just over 3,000 feet, the mountain's silhouette suggests an overturned saucer. Its main boast is that the 125,000 or so people who hike the two miles to its top each year make it a solid contender for world's most climbed mountain. The rangers at Monadnock State Park, not wanting to step on anyone's toes, settle for calling it the United States' most climbed. "We try to be modest with the lesser claim," one of them told me.
Without a doubt, though, Monadnock holds the world title for Mountain Most Climbed by Larry Davis. A machinist by trade, Larry enjoys a life of curious renown in Jaffrey, the town that would lie in Monadnock's shadow if its shadow were a bit longer. In keeping with its humble mountain, Jaffrey is Frank Capra modest, all clapboard houses, stately evergreens, and snowy hillocks. Most everyone in town knows of Larry, if not by name then at least as "the guy who climbs the mountain every day." This winter, I joined him for what would become, barring disaster, his 2,065th daily summiting in a row-a new world record for Consecutive Daily Hikes of Mount Monadnock, breaking Larry's previous mark of 2,06 4. In fact, every day for almost six years, Larry has blazed a new benchmark in this category. It's hard to imagine anyone ever breaking his record. Or even considering it.
Morning dawned under a gray pall of frigid sleet — a fine day not to take a walk, it seemed, but Larry would have none of it. He is an amiable man with an easy laugh, a ponytail, and a grizzled beard that ages him beyond his 39 years. If there is some inner torment that has called him to this compulsive hobby, it's well camouflaged. "I always looked up to people who were achievers, the first to do something," he explained. "I wanted to find something where I could be number one." Any smoking guns that might suggest the bug-eyed zealotry of a Kaczynski manquë all turn up cold. En route to the trailhead where we would meet up with two of his hiking partners, I noticed garbage of an alarming depth on the floor of Larry's '84 Chrysler Laser. Aha, I thought, the telltale detritus of the clinically unbalanced! Alas, it was merely trash he had plucked off the mountain but not yet dropped at the dump.
"Attention Hikers," read the sign at the foot of the White Dot Trail when we arrived at Larry's proving ground. "Mount Monadnock is 3,165 feet above sea level. The summit rises 300 feet above timber line, the final quarter mile of trail over exposed bare rock." More dire reminders followed: mentions of severe weather, warnings not to hike alone. The freezing rain threatened to cover Monadnock with glare ice, a layer of slick laminating the granite.
We've lost sight of what's important in life, I thought. Liquor and central heating.
We began to climb.
"Some people think I'm crazy," Larry says. "I've always been an extremist."Yes! I think, eagerly scanning his forearms for cigarette burns. No dice. Instead, he tells me of the time he and a friend got it in their heads to try every variety of beer they could find and managed to sample 250 bottles in a day. He has hiked Monadnock carrying a 15-foot wooden plank, so he could ford gullies swollen with runoff. Every so often, he shoehorns other mountains into his schedule — no easy task. When Larry visits Mount Washington, New England's highest peak, 150 miles away, he first completes his daily Jaffrey climb at three or four in the morning with a flashlight and then drives north. He used to compete in time trials on Monadnock, but no one will even try to race Larry downhill anymore. He has made it to the bottom, 1,900 vertical feet, in 14 minutes. You could get down faster, probably, but only in a barrel.
Raised in nearby Dublin, Larry grew up looking at Monadnock but never setting foot on it. He spent the last seven years of his schooling in Florida. ("Where it's flat," his father, Norman, will later remark to me. "I never realized he detested it so much.") When Larry moved to Jaffrey at age 19, Monadnock, like the girl next door suddenly all grown up over the summer, turned his head. The courtship progressed in fits and starts: first, one hike per season; then a year with 50 round-trips; then a year of hiking only during storms. In 1984, Larry resolved to make 84 ascents and reached that mark, he recalls without hesitation, on October 7.
"So I kept on going," he says, "pulling in 106 climbs that year. When you set a goal and beat it, it's a good feeling. A lot of people don't set goals, and if they do, it's a financial one. 'My goal is to hit the lottery.' Give me a break." Setting his own ambitions higher, Larry launched his current streak early in 1992. Usually he can complete the journey in about an hour; times 2,065, that works out to three months of uninterrupted, round-the-clock hiking on Monadnock.
As we near timberline, rime thickens on the rocks. A two-inch coating of ice has rendered the usually foursquare dimensions of evergreens, all staunch angles, needles, and propriety, Mae West voluptuous. The landscape is ghostly pale, lunar, glamorous.
Even this modest mountain poses risks. On one steamy spring afternoon, heatstroke and dehydration felled Larry just after he summited. Today an enormous bruise covers much of his right side, a mass of purple fading to green and yellow around the edges. On a full-moon hike with his headlamp turned off 12 days ago, Larry explains, he slipped, somersaulted, and slammed his kidney into a rock. Despite cracking a few ribs, he returned the next day, though it hurt him just to put on a shirt.
But this afternoon, miserable weather or no, the higher we go, the more Larry seems in his element. He sips V8 out of a plastic bottle that once contained Citgo Supergard 10W-40; he peppers his sentences with talk of "10-28s," Monadnock code for babes; he quickens his stride as the trail steepens. He seems well acquainted with Monadnock's every square inch, having photographed the mountain with the devotion of Monet at Chartres. Later, he shows me snapshots he took of a deer's remains after coyotes had eaten it. The pictures reveal images of carcass, skull, and demolished tufts of fur, the surrounding snow spattered with blood, the whole scene dynamic with violence and velocity. Larry had placed two signs by the now-sightless animal's head. One reads, "No Idea." The other reads, "No Eye Deer."
At a depression near timberline, we meet a man coming down, a middle-aged veterinarian who has just moved to Jaffrey. He turned back before reaching the summit because of ice, but Larry shows no inclination of following suit. As they chat, it dawns on the vet that he is not talking to an ordinary hiker.
"Oh," he says. "You're that guy?"
The rocks above timberline are like greased glass, but we make it to the summit intact: number 2,065, in the bag. The top of Monadnock is bare, icy rock, and we can see no farther than 30 feet. Happily, after pausing to gloat and shiver, we don ancient, Gothic-looking crampons for the descent, Larry and friends looking arachnid as they scamper down the rocks. We complete the circuit in a less-than-scorching four hours, bone-cold, smelly, and soaking.
The streak won't last forever, Larry confides after dinner. He'd like to dabble in other things: join the 4,000 Footers Club, for those who've bagged all of New Hampshire's high peaks, maybe take a stab at the Appalachian Trail. Should a day arrive when he no longer feels like hiking Monadnock, he'll simply stop. Or so he says.
There is something almost poetic about Larry's obsession, with its modesty of elevation and aspiration. There is a certain poignant symmetry about it. He is a bit of a monadnock himself, really, a moderately looming presence on a moderately looming hill.
"So," he had said to me when we reached the top, sleet frosting his beard, "what do you think of my mountain?" The personal pronoun seemed entirely appropriate.
David Rakoff predicted all sorts of unlikely outdoor trends in the January issue.
Illustration by Zohar Lazar