Matt Vaudo is the...
Mountain goat explorer
What inspired you to start hiking?
I think that most people probably have a defined answer for what inspired them and how they started hiking. For me, my story is a little more gradual and harder to sum up in a few sentences. The definition of hiking that I have for myself has also changed so much that it’s difficult to go back and trace the beginnings of my love for the outdoors and the mountains. As a kid, I think I grew up in a typical new england family, one that recreated in the outdoors often. When I was little, I think it was always pretty basic in terms of adventures. My dad has always told me that he used to carry me in his child-carrying pack all the time. But at some point, like in most cases, I became of the age where I started being interested in the typical sports and activities. Fast forward many years, to a few years into high school. I went on a family vacation to 3 National Parks in Utah and Arizona: Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. If there is anything to point to in terms of my biggest inspiration from day one, I think it would have to be this trip. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I was kind of blown away by the beauty and openness of some of these wild places that I’d only seen in movies and photographs. There are a million things that inspire me to hike and to get outside every day, and there were a million different things that inspired me along the way to get to where I am now. But that trip is probably where it all started. That’s what planted the seed.
Do you have to be fit or athletic to hike?
Not at all. There is nothing you have to or need to be in order to go out and experience the outdoors! One of my absolute favorite things about outdoor recreation is that it is totally up to you how you want to enjoy it. Whether I want to go out and crush a 20 mile hike or walk 2 miles with good friends, both are amazing and totally worthwhile. And totally accepted. I love that my passion heavily involves exercise so even when I don’t do it for exercise, I still benefit from a healthy passion and healthy activities. But no, you can be whatever and whoever you are, and still enjoy the trail and the great outdoors. But I will warn you that it may take over your life and make you athletic and fit whether you asked for it or not :)
How did you feel when you first set out on your first hike?
I’m not quite sure what to consider my first hike but I’ll say that it was Mount Monadnock, my first real hike that I wanted to do because I was getting into the mountains and hiking. I met a friend in senior year of high school that was also amazed by the mountains and big, grand adventures. Looking back on it knowing what I know now, I’d say we both didn’t really know anything about hiking or the mountains.We showed up to the crowded parking lot at 8 AM and started up the mountain. The most memorable part of this experience for me was our descent. We decided to descend using a creative route. It turns out, said creative route was quite steep and primarily used for ascending. It was such an awesome adventure and I was pretty excited after that. I liked the feeling of being creative in the mountains and exposing myself to adventure, something that we often have a hard time finding in our daily lives these days. The same friend that I did this hike with accompanied me on my first two 4000 footers in the White Mountains. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, there are 48 mountains above 4000 feet in the White Mountain National Forest and they are widely known as the 4000 footers of New Hampshire.
What do you enjoy most about hiking and the outdoors?
There are so many different ways that I could answer this question as there are so many things about the outdoors that I love and that have a huge impact on my life and who I am. This is a question that often finds its way into my mind during down time when I’m thinking about what makes me gravitate towards the passions that I have in my life. There’s one thing that comes to mind above all else right now as I’m thinking about this topic that I’d like to share. If I had to pick one thing, what I love the most about hiking, the outdoors, and capturing it, is the way it makes me feel. There’s something incredible that happens when you’re doing the thing that makes you feel the most you. Or that makes you feel the most grateful for being exactly where you are. It’s a hard thing to explain with words. It’s that thing in your life that makes you so excited that you can’t think about anything else. That thing that’s the reason why you can’t shut up, or the reason that you can’t go to sleep at 3 in the morning. And it’s not always seen in such displays of happiness and excitement. Sometimes it’s that thing in the back of your mind that keeps you grounded and keeps you moving forward when you’re facing hard times. The outdoors is what makes me feel the most like I belong and that makes me feel the happiest about who I am and what I bring to the world around me. I have become very passionate about capturing the moments that I have experienced, and the places that amaze me in the outdoors and in the wild places we are lucky to call home. I have a passion for trying to make those places look as amazing as they were when I was being moved by them, in hopes that maybe they will inspire others to explore and be moved themselves.
Do you hike alone or with others?
A lot of both. As is usually the case, I started out only hiking with others. I think that this is a great place to start because when you start, you often don’t have a lot of knowledge of big mountains and different situations so it’s always good to be with others. Once I started to really get excited by the mountains, I wanted to go all the time and I quickly realized that it was going to require me being willing to go it alone. Everyone leads busy lives and it’s difficult to consistently organize hikes with others. The first hike that I ever did alone was a magical experience. There is something very special about being in the mountains on your own. For me, I find it to be a spiritual experience and it helps me build my confidence. But I also love enjoying and exploring mountains with friends. As much as I love personal growth and being spiritually moved by mountains, there aren’t too many things better than seeing and feeling people close to you being moved by the things that move you. The outdoors truly brings people together and it can be a pretty special feeling.
How much research do you do before a hike?
It depends. Sometimes I’ll research a specific hike, climb, or shoot for months. And other times, I’ll decide what mountain or trail to hike the night before with friends. If I have a project that I’m working on or a specific plan that I’ve been eyeing, that plan will be made and thought about pretty far in advance. Sometimes it’s a few weeks and other times it’s a few months. I also do a fair amount of planning for the majority of my adventures because it’s important to be confident and to know your plan, but also because I enjoy doing things differently. I don’t usually do basic research on hikes or adventures but I do specific research a lot, such as weather planning, route mapping, and photo/video research. Other times, I will pick a hike to do with a friend that we’ve never done before or one I’ve done a lot. For those ones, there’s hardly any planning and research involved.
Is it more mentally or physically challenging?
It is definitely both. Physically, because it’s difficult climbing mountains. It’s hard work. It’s not always quick either, it’s often a sustained effort and an understanding that it might take 3,4, however many hours to reach that summit. This is where the mental part of the equation comes into play. Often when I’m putting in work to get to the top of that summit, or whatever the destination may be, I think to myself how important it is to have a sense of drive and motivation. What makes you keep going? For me, I’m often motivated by capturing the wild places I explore and this propels me to keep going. I can’t even begin to explain how capable I am when I need to rush to a summit to catch a sunrise before I miss it. There’s a whole other level that I can reach when I’m motivated that wouldn’t have been possible without the motivation. Something else that helps the mental game is hiking with friends and just enjoying your time out in the mountains. The enjoyment makes hiking a lot easier both physically and mentally.
How many miles do you think you have hiked to date?
Oh man, way too many to have any idea of an estimate! But I don’t measure hiking and the outdoors in miles, I measure them in smiles!
How does the trip match up to your plans and expectations before setting out?
Trips for which I have in depth plans usually go according to them for the most part. But that plan is never the extent of it. There’s always aspects of the trip that will stay with us for years to come. And often, those things aren’t the ones that have been planned out. These include things like the conversations had with friends and the sunrises that turned out differently or way better than you could have ever imagined. But from a safety standpoint, I do my best to stick to my adventure plans, at least in terms of the big picture. But there’s no doubt that sometimes the safe and smart thing to do is to deviate from the plan. There has certainly been a few adventures that I had to make the call to audible and think on my feet, and figure it out from there.
Do you have a favorite place, moment, or memory?
My favorite place is the White Mountains, hands down. I grew up in Northern Massachusetts and started hiking a lot in the White Mountains. At that point I was just doing basic hikes and basic adventures. Eventually, I started to get into photography as a hobby and began exploring these Mountains in different ways. I really fell in love with that. A few months ago I moved up to the Northern New Hampshire and have fallen in love with these Mountains in every moment, every season, every light, and all weather.
There’s one moment, or memory, that always comes to mind when telling stories with friends. Last year, for New Years Eve 2018, I wanted to do something different. I’ve always been a little different and more introverted than most, and over the years I have become less interested in going to Parties to welcome in the new year. It didn’t really align with my personality and what I’m about. Last year, I climbed into a backcountry hut and spent New Years Eve sleeping in 30 degrees with good friends, some old and some new. We climbed Wildcat A at midnight on New Years Eve, which sounds relatively normal, until you factor in the snow storm that took place on that night. See the next question for the continuation of this story.
Can you tell us any particularly crazy or scary stories from the trip, or from a different trip?
Nobody really expressed interest in cancelling our ascent, and being someone who rarely says no to adventure, was happy to commit to the climb. The ascent started out calm and ordinary, minus the fact that we were about to climb a steep mountain at night. About a half hour into the ascent, the snow started. And pretty quickly, it was coming down hard. The snow accumulated about 4-5 inches an hour. We all had snowshoes and crampons. I led the climb, stomping out footholds for others that came behind me. It was a sketchy trail that snaked its way along the side of a slope, which would have been fine without snow or with packed down snow. However we were dealing with 5 inches of fresh snow that had accumulated just minutes before. The hairiest moment of this climb was when one person in our crew slipped off the trail and if it weren’t for a tree branch, I’m not sure we would have left those mountains with her. We eventually submitted a few minutes after midnight, with snow still coming down hard, perhaps harder. It doesn’t sound possible, but the descent was even more sketchy. There’s a thing in winter hiking called breaking trail, which is when you are hiking in fresh snow and the trail is hard to follow because the markers are covered in snow, and the trail has not been hiked on yet since the fresh snow. We had a very difficult time following that trail back down to the hut, going off trail a few times and almost sliding directly off the mountain. With good team cooperation, we made it down the mountain and I have never been more satisfied, sleeping outside in the cold. I felt very accomplished after that climb. These days I am more confident and better at assessing risk. I would not do that climb again in those conditions. But that’s the thing with adventure, you usually learn the most and gain the most confidence from adventures and situations that test your limits. My mantra is everybody that goes into the mountains, comes out together. If I was in charge of an adventure like that I wouldn’t go through with it this time around, but I couldn’t be happier that I did it. And I’m looking forward to whatever I draw up this year for New Years Eve!
Lastly, what advice would you give to young people who want to hike but are feeling uncertain or scared?
Just go for it. There are so many options for hikes and adventures that are very forgiving and options that have a high effort/difficult to fun ration, as I like to say. There’s also no shortage of research out there to find good adventures and good resources to help gain knowledge about the outdoors, and safely exploring it. Also, I would encourage people to reach out to each other anywhere they can think of. One of the great things about this day and age with social media, is how easy it is to connect and to gain information. I will always be happy to help people out, and am always grateful when others do the same for me. And lastly, I would encourage people to not be afraid to have a hard time or to fail. If I didn’t do something because I was afraid it would go poorly or I wouldn’t do a good job, I wouldn't step outside my house or onto the trail. It’s all about gaining experience and knowledge and understanding that everyone starts somewhere. Finding friends to enjoy the outdoors with is another great idea!
What is your favorite Tuck Life product?
Definitely the hats. I love them because they’re really simple and have a lot of style. And they’re durable for exercising in. They hold up as good as any hats out there, and you get to rock an awesome outdoors-inspired logo. I constantly get complimented on the hats that I wear.
Any final words of wisdom?
Just don’t be afraid to try new things. For me that was taking my first hike and continuing to go. And exploring the outdoors voluntarily for the first time. There’s nothing more amazing than finding the one thing or the set of things that makes you happy and gives you a reason to keep doing you everyday, and not apologizing to anybody about it. And I’m sure you’ll find that if you treat the outdoors with respect and with the love that it deserves, it will change your life in a million different ways.