Over the last two years I have had the pleasure of hiking and hosting with Hudson Valley Hikers. Among my friends at HVH are some of the kindest, most helpful, ambitious, knowledgeable and exciting people I have ever met. Powered by HVH, I climbed dozens of the Northeasts toughest mountains, hiked more than 500 miles of the Appalachian trail, tubed down raging rivers, drank beer I’d never heard of, and been introduced to thoughts and ideas that are totally new to me. This is the story about how a group of hikers has changed my life and how it might change yours.
What is Hudson Valley Hikers?
Hudson Valley Hikers is a Meetup Group for adults looking for friends to hike with. It was founded by Chris Baker on December 15th, 2008 and strongly promotes the “Hike your own Hike” philosophy. Most events take place within New York’s Hudson Valley or Catskills region, but the club has many offerings throughout the Northeastern United States. Events are posted by the club’s organizers on Meetup.com and anyone can attend.
With over 25,000 members and 37 organizers, HVH is the largest outdoor Meetup group in the United States. To date, the club has completed over 6000 events. That’s an average of 14 events per week to choose from! Typical events include social gatherings, trail maintenance, educational seminars, weekly Breakneck Ridge hikes, and ambitious one-day traverses.
Hudson Valley Hikers operates under the principle of “Hiker your own Hike.” It is the organization’s core philosophy that most experienced adult hikers don’t need to be supervised while enjoying the outdoors. It is the club’s goal to host fun events where hikers can challenge themselves and each other. Events vary by how much hand holding can be expected. On intro-level events, the host will keep group sizes to an easily managed level so that he or she can supervise activities. These events often offer instructions or demonstrations. For more advanced events, the host only sets the starting time and place and might help to organize car spots. Participants on these events are encouraged to find one or two partners and stick together for the remainder of the hike.
Joining Hudson Valley Hikers
I joined Hudson Valley Hikers in May of 2015. Many of my friends were getting busier with work, families, and homeownership but I wasn’t ready to settle down. Instead, I wanted to live a challenging, adventurous life. It was one of my dreams to eventually section hike the Appalachian Trail, but I just couldn’t find partners to do it with. At the encouragement of a friend, I started trying Meetup groups. My first two Meetups were with the Appalachian Mountain Club and Adirondack Mountain Club. Although I had some fun, I was frustrated that most members of these groups were way outside my age range. Further, it wasn’t fun hiking with groups that constantly stopped to pee and wait for stragglers. Just like Goldie Locks, the third group I found was just right.
At first I thought they were crazy. We met in a parking lot, carpooled to another parking lot, and then shot off into the woods. The pace was pretty intense, but it was exhilarating. With our hearts pounding, we never stopped chatting while we barreled up and down hills, tromped across streams, and picked our way among boulders. When I stopped to tie my shoe, my hiking companions barely slowed down; forcing me to run to catch up. I wasn’t sure how long I could go at this breakneck rate, but I forced myself on because I enjoyed the conversations and I didn’t want to be last.
Later that day while enjoying dinner and beer at a local bar, I realized I was home. As the nearly 200 people packed into the tiny pub stared intently at some sporting event on the TV, my cohorts and I continued to talk about hiking, science, philosophy, technology…. oblivious to our surroundings. Meetup’s motto had come true: I had found my people.
Over the next 6 months, I attended over 50 HVH events. Before I joined Hudson Valley Hikers, my hikes were limited to short ventures into nearby Harriman State Park. Now I was bagging peaks in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and White Mountains. As I stood atop Mt Lafayette, my first 5000 footer, I realized how far I had come. The last time I had summited in the White Mountains, it was by car and I was nearly 100 lbs heavier. With every event I went on I was stronger, faster, and smarter. Even better, I was making some of the best friends I have ever known.
Perhaps the highlight of that first 6 months came on Columbus Day Weekend when I drove almost 20 hours to meet Chris Baker and a mixed group of hikers at Mt. Katahdin. This was a mountain that truly scared me. Its craggy peaks and steep cliffs were daunting. Leaving the trailhead at 5:00 AM, we had already hiked three miles before dawn. As we started the real climb, I found myself passing my friends as I went higher and higher into the clouds. Reaching the ridgeline, I was greeted by 50 mile per hour winds and rock hard hail. After helping a few others gear up, I marched on through the blinding storm across icy rocks. There was nothing visible through the fog and nothing audible over the screaming wind. I found a partner to hike with and continued on, inching closer and closer to the summit. Finally arriving at my destination and standing with the famous sign that indicates the end (or start) of the Appalachian Trail, I realized that I had arrived. I was a Hudson Valley Hiker.
Hosting with Hudson Valley Hikers
During my first few months at HVH I made a lot of friends. One in particular was Steven Yansick, an organizer known for hosting fun social events like tubing, wine tasting, and moonlit mountain hikes. As Steven and I got to known each other, he was impressed with my gear knowledge and experiences. He invited me to come on a private event with some of the other younger organizers. We were to visit Devil’s Kitchen (Platte Clove) in the Catskills. The clove is a narrow ravine descending from the Catskill Plateau and featuring a series of waterfalls, the highest dropping over 90 feet. It is a famous destination for waterfall rappelers, but we planned to descend the route with no gear. This was the day I met most of the people I now call my closest friends, and perhaps my first step towards becoming an HVH Organizer.
In the late summer, I attended Chris Baker’s massive encampment at Barnes Field in the White Mountains. Chris has planned an ambitious day hike of the Franconia Ridge. His route went up the Flume Slide and then traversed the entire ridge. Many hikers were looking for an easier day, so Chris asked for volunteers to host other events. I came up with an abridged Franconia Route up the Falling Waters Trail. My way covered most of the highlights Franconia had to offer, without the long mileage or the hazards of the slide. About 20 people signed up to “follow” me and it was official: I was hosting my first event.
During the hike, I found that I had a tremendous amount of patience. I wanted to make sure everyone made it safely around the route, so I spent a lot of time waiting. More than once, I sat down and napped on the side of the trail while two of my beginners crept along the trail. Over and over again, I encouraged them on, assuring them that they could make it and giving them advice on how to handle rocks and other obstacles. In the end, watching some of these folks carry out something they’d never thought they could do was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Soon after that, I was allowed to start guest hosting. Among my first events were a handful of Intro to Backpacking Seminars in which I demonstrated various gear and talked about ultralight philosophy to novices while on a day hike. These events were extremely popular and well received. With great reviews, I was invited to become a permanent organizer with Hudson Valley Hikers during our 2015 Holiday Party.
Appalachian Trail Section Hiking
During the winter of 2016, I concentrated my efforts on hosting short winter backpacking trips in Harriman State Park, winter campouts, and peak bagging adventures in the Catskills. By spring, however, I realized that I had been distracted for too long from my personal goal of section hiking the Appalachian Trail. Almost a year earlier, I was frustrated at not having the hiking partners and logistical support necessary to achieve this goal. Now I had what I needed: a Meetup group! In late winter, I posted backpacking trips for the Connecticut Section: one in April and one in March. Both of these events quickly filled up and had waiting lists. They were also both huge successes! On these two events I gained a small group of friends and followers who would form the core of my future expeditions.
For the rest of 2016, we section hiked the entire AT through the state of Vermont and half of Pennsylvania. These events were tremendously fun and rewarding as we toppled mile after mile, peak after peak. Growing in ambitious, we kept backpacking right through the winter with the aim of completing PA before Summer. A few setbacks have gotten in the way, but these are learning experiences and we continue to push on. With only a few cold weather months left in 2017, I already have my eyes set on the big prize: New Hampshire. At this point I have planned 6 and posted 4 events in the Granite State. The goal is to complete all of its miles and 4000 footers by the end of September of this year.
Will we make it? Join us and find out!