Mattapoisett native Eric Todd Sweet lives up to his last name, greeting the world and everyone in it with the rare, effusive cheer that seems to make the sun shine a little brighter. A mountaineer by choice, Sweet has spent every weekend for the past eight years hiking the White Mountains in New Hampshire. And he has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
A self-reported outdoorsy kid, Sweet recalled growing up exploring the woods. Whether it was following trails, climbing trees, or building forts, he stated that it was “always for the love of nature.”
The White Mountains name is thought to have come from the oceanside glimpses of their snow-capped tips, though the exact origin is unknown. They are crossed by the Appalachian Trail and include several different ranges, including the 48 peaks known as the “four-thousand footers,” named quite bluntly for peaking at more than 4,000 feet above sea level.
These peaks include Mount Washington, alternately known by various indigenous peoples as Kodaak Wadjo, which translates to “summit of the highest mountain,” or Agiochook, which translates as “home of the Great Spirit.” The Algonquians called the summit Waumbik, which translates slightly less poetically to “white rocks.”
Mount Washington boasts the highest peak of the White Mountains and indeed the entire Northeastern United States, clocking in at 6,288.2 feet above sea level. Its peak is known for its high winds and tundra climate. As of August 11, Eric Sweet has climbed it 81 times.
“I started driving up on Saturday and getting the love for it, and then I started staying Saturday and Sunday. And then I started (going up) on Friday, and it went from there. So every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I’m hiking.”
In addition to his trailblazing, Sweet is known for his headstands, a quick and fun way to get a new perspective that started in the early days of his mountaineering and has endured over the years as an expression of spontaneous joy.
For Tri-Town residents looking to stay a little closer to shore, Sweet recommends Nasketucket Trail, a 4.2-kilometer loop that the website AllTrails.com lists as “easy” and provides a time estimate of 47 minutes to complete. But Sweet has loftier goals, upping the ante with a trip to Tanzania in 2018, his sights set on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Not just the subject of a great Toto song, Mount Kilimanjaro is actually a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in Africa. It tops out at 19,341 ft above sea level, over three times the height of Mount Washington, which meant a big adjustment for Sweet.
“You’ve got to go real slow,” he advised, recalling feeling less than stellar when he first arrived at the base camp and started the trek upward. “If you’re rushing around at 15,000 feet or more, you’re gonna feel sick.”
Symptoms of altitude sickness include headache and nausea, but that plight can be combated by a gradual ascent, as well as certain medications. Taking things slow and steady ended up winning the race, and after a midnight start time and a sick-hour climb, Sweet crested the summit as the sun rose over the national park and the Montane forest.
As a seasoned mountaineer, Sweet has seen more than his fair share of hiking faux pas, mostly a matter of wearing the wrong outfit or packing the wrong gear.
“Some people over pack. Most do. They’ll have a lot of tools and things they don’t need,” he noted. You can probably ditch the night vision goggles, the latrine trowel, and the kitchen sink. Sweet recommends a first-aid kit, headlamp with extra batteries, a waterproof jacket, and emphasized warm clothing and gloves even in the summer. It is important to remember that even if it’s warm at the base of the mountain, things can get quite chilly at the top. Mount Washington has recorded air speeds of 231 miles per hour and is known for its sporadic storms, which can leave an unprepared hiker soaked to the bone and shivering. In addition to a raincoat, Sweet recommends wool over cotton, as it will still keep you warm even when wet.
Rainstorms and chilly winds aren’t the only thing to look out for on the trails. Sweet has spotted deer, usually from a distance, as well as a moose, and on two occasions, bears, who ran off as soon as they caught sight of him. To him, the most dangerous creature on the trails are the ticks you can pick up from the long grass. He recommended all hikers do a thorough check as soon as they can.
In addition to ticks, mosquitos pose a problem for hikers facing the great outdoors. Sweet noted that they can be particularly bad right after it rains.
“They’ll carry you away,” he laughed. His solution? 100 percent Deet and covering up as much as possible.
Other insider tips include websites and apps like Gaia GPS and AllTrails.com. Sweet recommends a paper map above all else, but many apps have an airplane/offline mode, allowing hikers to retrace their steps if they get lost, even if there is no service.
But after eight years, getting lost is the last thing on Sweet’s mind. In fact, he has found hiking helps him center himself, “like meditation.” Whether he is guiding new friends up the trails or listening to music on his own, he’s in it for the clarity and calm it brings him.
“It’s a place to just shut down; you think about life and things. But mainly … I don’t watch the news; I don’t watch sports, so this is my personal time.”
He hopes to tackle a mountain over 20,000 feet. In the meantime, he’s more than happy to stay a bit closer to home, keep making new friends on the trails and find that special silence brought on by being above the clouds.
So if you’re trekking up the White Mountains on the weekend, don’t be surprised if you find a head-standing man from Mattapoisett at the top. He is just enjoying the view.
Editor’s Note: Eric Todd Sweet is the brother-in-law of Wanderer Social Media Manager Shawn Sweet.
By Jack MC Staier