We’ve all heard of prodigal athletes—the seven-year-old ripping free skier, the two-year-old boulderer, teen mountaineers, the baby who starts skiing before she can walk, and the 12-year-old skateboarder who becomes the first athlete ever to land a 1080. Some of these wunderkinds stumble into their adventure prowess by chance, while others develop it through years of dogged determination.
In the case of Alex Herr, a New Hampshire–based girl who hiked all 48 of the White Mountains’ 4,000-foot peaks by the time she was six—before she lost her first baby tooth—it was a little bit of both.
Alex had only been hiking a couple of times when her mother, Patricia Ellis Herr, asked her on a whim if she wanted to climb a “grown up mountain.” What followed was a 15-month quest to tick off every peak over 4,000 feet in elevation—in summer and winter. “The drive to get out there every week, or every other week, came from Alex,” writes Patricia Herr in her new book, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure. That’s pretty impressive, considering that five-year-old Alex climbed each mountain without once being carried. It’s even more mind-blowing when her mother tells you, somewhat emphatically, that she never whined.
I've logged more than a few miles lugging small toddlers to the tops of various peaks, only to have them fuss when it was their turn to walk, so I was, to put it mildly, a little in awe. How did a mother with minimal hiking experience and her daughter pull it off? So I called Trish Herr at their home in New Hampshire, where Alex and her seven-year-old sister, Sage (also a hiker, with all 48 of NH’s highest peaks to her credit, too) live and are home schooled, to find out. Turns out the girls come by their backcountry obsession naturally: Their father, Hugh, was a teen climbing sensation in the 1980s until, at age 17, he got lost on Mount Washington for three days during a snowstorm and lost both legs to frostbite. Yeah, wow.
No wonder, then, that Herr is a stickler for preparation (the list of what’s in her pack is enough to give you a hernia). She’s also unapologetically candid about why and how we should do things outdoors with our kids, and just whose lead we should be following. It's a heartwarming mother-daughter story (just in time for Mother's Day!) that even the most hardcore, experienced adventure parents will find a little humbling. And as for the skeptics who've accused her of putting her kids at risk for her own goals, consider this her ultimate rebuttal.
I’m dying to know your secret for getting your kids to hike such long distances all by themselves.
I can’t take credit for that because that came from Alex. I suggested it to her on a whim just from reading a placard off a scenic highway because she was so full of energy and we all like to be outside, so I thought it might be an interesting thing to try. She just kind of went with it—I didn’t have to encourage her. People often ask me how to get your kids to hike. And my answer is that I don’t. I’m not a fan of trying to get a kid to climb a mountain. If they want to do it, then do it. And if they don’t, then find something they want to do. I’m not sure that making a kid do something like that is going to have any positive effect.
Before girls were old enough to walk on their own, did you hike a lot of peaks carrying them in baby backpacks?
One time we were in Italy and I was pregnant with Sage and I had Alex, who was one and a half, in a backpack. We hiked maybe five miles. Apart from that, we just walked everywhere and when she didn’t want to walk, I would carry her. That was day-to-day walking down the street kind of stuff. So when we started hiking the 4Ks, it was really our first time, and as the book will tell you, I botched the first attempt. But after that, once I got the hang of being prepared, Alex just took off. It was just something she enjoyed doing right off the bat.
Do you think that carrying kids in backpacks makes them less likely to want to walk on their own for longer distances?
When Sage was three, to make sure I gave both kids mom time. I would take her out on her own on smaller hikes. I had a rule that we would have our goal for the day, and if she wanted to do it, great. And if she didn’t want to do it, that’s fine. We could turn around. I didn’t want to have to carry her any particular distance. If we were going to hike a mile, then we were going to hike a mile, and if she didn’t want to hike a mile we were going to home, but I didn’t want to carry her for a mile.
Wow, was that hard to do?
She never asked, so it wasn’t a big struggle. My attitude was clear from the get go. We could turn around at any time. For the most part that wasn’t the case. I tried to choose goals that I thought she would want to do. As she got older, she naturally started going longer distances and steeper trails, and eventually she was ready for the NH48 peaks, too. With Sage it was more gradual. Alex took to it immediately. She just jumped in with both feet and hit the ground running.
In the book you write that you thought it would take until Alex was a teenager to complete the 4Ks. Did it surprise you she climbed them all in, what, less than two years?
It was 15 consecutive months. We just kept going. She’s my firstborn. Whatever your firstborn does is normal because you don’t have other kids to compare them to. So it didn’t surprise me that much. She is who she is. Other peoples’ reactions always seemed odd—that they were so surprised or thought she was too young. But then I realized it was odd for them but not for me, because I live with her. She’s just her.
When people ask you if you’re pushing her, do you ever for a moment wonder if maybe you were?
Alex was very clear about what she wanted. And I went overboard making sure Sage knew she didn’t have to do what Alex was doing, probably annoyingly so, and I’ve always told both of them, if you want to, fine, but you don’t have to. To the point when they roll their eyes at me when I say that. No, it’s definitely not a pushing scenario. Alex was so clearly driven, and I didn’t want Sage to feel pressured. And I don’t think she ever did.
What’s in your pack?
My friends make fun of me because they say I carry a portable helicopter, I bring so much stuff. For me to feel comfortable taking kids into the Whites on all-day, 10-mile hikes, I need to be prepared to stay overnight, by accident, and be warm, dry and safe. I carry a couple emergency bivvies that are five bucks and can fit in the palm of your hand. But I also carry a real bivvy sack [Black Diamond] that an adult and child can fit into. Sometimes, depending on the weather, I’ll carry a summer sleeping bag if the temperatures are going to be below freezing over night, just in case. Other times I’ll just carry a space blanket and a whole bunch of chemical hand warmers. We carry and wear layers: base layers, fleece, waterproof shell. Headlamps, lots of extra pairs of socks—we go through water crossings, so inevitably someone’s feet get wet; plus they’re good for your hands if something happens to your gloves. Gloves and a hat. Reflective vests in case it gets foggy above tree line with no warming. They weigh nothing and take up no space. Water, iodine tablets, wide-mouth Nalgenes, map and compass, of course. Emergency whistles, and the girls’ are clipped to their backpack straps so they don’t have to take off the backpack to use them. First aid kit. Bug spray, sunblock, a few bandanas. Splints. Sometimes an extra insulating layer. A bunch of plastic bags, a hiker towel or two. One time Alex’s foot got soaked in a spring. I took out the lining of the boot and wrapped her foot in a hiker towel and a plastic bag and put her foot back into the boot, and that worked for the last eight miles. Also a personal locator beacon. I’m sure I’m forgetting something.... Oh, also sleeping pads. Because if someone gets injured, you want them to be off the ground.
How much does your pack weigh?
I have no idea. I don’t want to weigh it because I just don’t want to know. I’m carrying at least as much as the AT thru-hikers. In winter, it’s even more. But I don’t feel safe unless I have that stuff with me. If you’re going to go up with kids, I want to be able to spend the night out if we have to.
Have you ever come close to having to?
Yes, it was coming down off Isolation. Well, we should have. I’ll put it that way. We made one mountain a day hike when we should have spent the night at a three-walled shelter, but we were trying to make it out in one night. We were all exhausted. There was a winter hike that Alex and I did and I had my winter bag. It was a very remote hike, and you have to cross through above-tree line in spots, and there are cliffs on either side of you. We’d made it across to this one spot, and the weather was iffy and then we caught a perfect break, and the sun came out the clouds broke. But if it hadn’t been fine, we would have had to spend the night. It was iffy.
What’s in Alex’s pack?
She has a smaller pack. She carries an extra pair of base layers, her hat, gloves, balaclava. Chemical hand warmers, food, her own water, emergency whistle, compass, head lamp. I never wanted to overburden the girls with too much stuff because I was worried that would hurt their backs somehow. As they grow, they’re carrying more.
In one chapter you describe teaching Alex how to set up the bivvy sack by herself, in case you got knocked unconscious. Did you ever have second thoughts about climbing in winter, considering Hugh’s traumatic experience?
Not really. The 4Ks are hiked so frequently, even during the winter, that the chances of not running into someone else are pretty slight. The chances of me being knocked unconscious are very unlikely. It’s far more likely that we’re going to get hit by a car on the way to the trailhead. Even if I fell and broke my leg, as long as I could speak, I could help her with the process. I still felt obligated to walk her through the process because she should know. I explained to her that it was like a fire drill, and she wasn’t scared.
Do you find time to hike by yourself?
I usually get a day off a week, and I’ll go off and do a mountain by myself or with friends, and then I don’t bring massive amounts of stuff. Without all that gear on my back, I feel like a superperson. It’s fun, but I prefer it when I’m with the girls because they’re such good company.
Do your girls ever whine?
No, they don’t. Because the deal is, we don’t do it unless they want to do it. It’s never a case when I try to get them to do something. We do what they want to do, so there’s no whining.
Wow, even when they get tired?
Well, tired is fine. But you don’t have to whine if you’re tired, right? If they’re tired, they know they need to take a break. There were maybe two times with each of them, out of four years, that they asked to turn around because they just weren’t into it. I’m not a patient person. If somebody doesn’t want to hike, then we’re not going to hike. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Still, that’s impressive. I know you write that people would criticize you for being selfish and pushing your daughters, but what you’re doing seems the opposite of selfish. Selfish would be, "I want to hike this mountain today and you’re here with me, so we’re going to the top." But it sounds like you’re pretty detached about your goals.
I just can’t imagine that would be very much fun for anyone. What’s the point? There’s really no point. That’s a great way to make your kid hate the outdoors. Everybody gets tired, so for God’s sake, rest. But if they don’t want to be there, go bike riding or take them swimming.
It sounds like the key thing is to pick age-appropriate trails and distances, right?
I don’t think it’s age-appropriate. Because Alex is young and people didn’t think it was appropriate. There are 40-year-olds who shouldn’t be on the top of Tecumseh. You have to make it appropriate for the individual. Maybe you don’t discover it until you’re on the trail. You thought it was appropriate, and then you get out there and every body’s miserable. So sit down and look at the ants and play in the dirt and make it fun and then turn around. No biggie.
Do you have any other tips for encouraging kids to love hiking?
Start with something that your kid finds interesting. If they like big rocks, find a trail with big rocks, or a waterfall, or a pond to skip rocks across. Take your time and hike at the kids’ pace. Don’t try to make them hurry up. If they want to stop a million times, then let them. The journey is as important as the destination. And bring a headlamp. Always. You don’t want to be the person who had to call 911 because it got dark and now you don’t know where you are. I always feel sorry for those people. Also, emergency whistles. They cost nothing. They’re useful even if you’re not a hiker. You can bring them to a crowded museum or an amusement park. It doesn’t take much to get lost in he woods. They’re cheap, light, and easy.
OK, one last question, for Alex: What do you love about hiking?
Alex Herr: I like the views on top, especially from Isolation. I like the ladders. It always feels great to hike a mountain when you get to the top. It’s good to get exercise and it’s fun.