Monadnock: the peak that became a paradigm

Though it lies a scant two-and-half hours east of Albany via Route 7 in New York State and routes 9 and 101 in Vermont and New Hampshire, Mount Monadnock is probably not well known to anyone locally who is not a hiker.  Though its presence looms in the dialogue of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town — set in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, modeled on the New Hampshire town of Jaffrey — it is hardly a household name such as iconic Northeastern peaks like mounts Marcy or Washington.

But, over the last century or so, Mount Monadnock has lured millions of hikers to its summit; according to various websites, it may be the second-most-frequently climbed mountain in the world. The first is Mount Fuji in Japan with sacred slopes that draw pilgrims and outdoor enthusiasts from all parts of the globe.  But, since cities such as Albany, Boston, Worcester, Hartford, and Providence as well as a great many colleges with outing clubs, are located within a couple of hours’ drive from the mountain, on a nice day almost any time of the year there may be upwards of a hundred people on the peak at mid-day.

It may be crowded, but at least climbers will not be approached by visitors who have driven up and will look at them with a mixture of awe and condescension and ask, “Did you walk up here?  Didn’t you know there was a road?”  Because there isn’t one!

The name “Monadnock” — “Mon-ADD-nock” seems to be the preferred  pronunciation — is derived from the Native American Indian Abenaki language: menonadenak, meaning "smooth mountain," or menadena, meaning “isolated mountain.”

This latter translation is the one that has been adopted by geologists to refer to any prominent mountain or erosional remnant that rises in lonely isolation from a much flatter landscape.  In Schoharie County, the volcanic-looking hill known as “Barrock Zourie” — easily visible from Route I-88 — is another example of a monadnock — with a lower-case “m.”

Despite its appearance, Barrock Zourie is not a volcano; it is a lone remnant of what was once a much higher, more extensive part of the Cobleskill Plateau, composed of alternating layers of shale and sandstone laid down during the Devonian time, some 400 million years ago.

New Hampshire’s eponymous Monadnock, however, does contain intrusions of granite — an igneous rock — but it is not volcanic either.  The bedrock of Mount Monadnock began to form 400 million years ago when that part of the United States and the Helderberg area were under a warm shallow sea, undoubtedly resembling today’s Bahamas as can be determined by its fossils:  corals, sea stars, sea “lilies” (actually animals), and various shellfish.

But great changes were on the way.  To the east was an ancient continent known as “Avalonia,” which comprises today’s western Europe and parts of the Atlantic coast of North America. Through the relentless forces of plate tectonics, Avalonia and the landmass that would some day be North America were being driven together, headed eventually for a massive, bedrock-scrunching collision known as the Acadian Orogeny, or “mountain building episode.”

To understand what resulted, think what would happen if the fronts of two cars were to collide at something of an angle in a parking lot.  Their hoods would be crushed and distorted and probably forced upwards at jagged angles.  This is a very simplified analogy to events during the Acadian Orogeny.

As Avalonia and proto-North America collided, the bedrock along their margins was subjected to massive earthquakes and distortions such as folding.  The sediments that had once lain under the sea were subjected to heat and pressure, forcing massive amounts of materials to undergo metamorphism; hence the layers of shale and sandstone were compressed and cooked over millions of years into the metamorphic rock known as schist, sometimes laced with veins of quartz and graphite and more exotic minerals such as garnet.

The great subterranean heat also brought upwards injections of magma that cooled over long periods of time into the common igneous rock granite, which in places metamorphosed into gneiss.  And so the materials of Mount Monadnock were formed and pushed skyward — perhaps to lofty Himalayan heights.

But the in the millions of years since their birth, the once towering Acadian Mountains have been reduced in elevation and mass by the agents of weathering and erosion; however, rugged summits such as Mount Washington and some other of the White Mountains farther north in New Hampshire and craggy Mount Katahdin in Maine — all of them approaching or exceeding a mile in height — offer daunting challenges to climbers.

Still, these peaks are part of massifs — a French term referring to extensive regions of high mountains.  Mount Monadnock, on the other hand, is but a remnant of what was also once an extensive massif, much of which still exists in the form of the White Mountains

Monadnock towers above a domestic landscape of low, rolling hills, placid ponds and lakes, meandering streams and the long, narrow glacially deposited hills called “drumlins.” As such, it seems exceptionally prominent, especially given its bare, windy summit with its massively fractured cliffs, towering above its tree-clad lower slopes.

There are a number of routes to that summit, all of which wander in and out of lush forests of hardwoods and fragrant firs, from time to time breaking out onto rocky, glacially polished ledges offering stunning views of the summit and of the surrounding countryside, which inspired Thornton Wilder to write Our Town.

It is an area of relatively flat topography and productive farmland dominated by Mount Monadnock, which is placed prominently within the consciousness of the play’s characters. The trails range in difficulty from the relatively gentle ascent from the north to the classic Cliff Trail that requires scrambles up a number of exposed escarpments and traverses one bare sub-peak before joining the White Arrow trail that heads steeply up the south face of Monadnock.

The mountain also exhibits the characteristics of the glacially sculpted hills and mountains known as “roches moutonees.”  This somewhat obscure geologic term (which translates as “sheepback rock”) refers to a massive rock outcrop with a gentle slope on the side from which the glaciers approached and a steep side in the direction in which the glaciers were advancing.

This “peak that became a paradigm” is a captivating sight at any time of year, whether cloaked in its summer greenery, capped with gleaming ice and snow, or decked out in glowing autumn colors.  But whether one appreciates its grandeur from a car window or having ascended one of the challenging pathways to its summit, its splendid isolation makes it dominate the view for many miles around it in this quintessential New England landscape.