From left to right: Notch owner Serena Ryan, Fireside Chat director Philip “Low” Carcia, speaker Scott “Aquaman” Benerofe, Class of 2023 AT hiker Jessica Lang Wright (anticipated; starting in Georgia this March), and Notch manager/Class of 2020 AT thru-hiker Tricia “Pearl” Case.
Calm skies and six inches of fresh powder covered the lawn of The Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, New Hampshire on the Lunar New Year. It was a mere dusting compared to the fierce conditions that Scott “Aquaman” Benerofe experienced as he broke ice-covered trails during his 2021-2022 Sobo thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Inside the warm and inviting mansion, Benerofe gave his lecture to a packed living room at the sold-out Notch on January 21st; another installment of the Zoom-accessible “Fireside Chats” that owner Serena Ryan has been hosting since 2018. The panel and lecture series is a great excuse (The White Mountains notwithstanding) to trudge to northern New Hampshire in the dead of winter, get frozen on the mountains by day, then cozy up by the fire in the evening with a glass of wine or an Oolong Tea and listen to riveting tales of triumphs and tribulations in the wild. Over the course of his journey, Aquaman’s popular YouTube channel grew to thousands of views and his post-hike lecture did not disappoint.
The 27-year-old Benerofe’s intimate and brutally honest account of personal hardship and achievement was packed full of adventure, humor and humanness. Speaking on his pre-trail depression, the avid outdoorsman spent the better part of his pre-hike training slumped in a cycle of self-deprecation that he had never known. After the tough process of mental healing had begun, so then did his attempt of a rare challenge: To complete a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in winter.
Not many have achieved this impressive feat. Even fewer of those had to carve through extreme blizzards and waist-deep snow, furl against gale-force wind conditions (sometimes in excess of 100mph at altitude) and endure temperatures that often dipped well below zero. At a particular ford in Maine, he crossed the same frozen river three times: Once without his pack to test the ice, a second time with half of his pack’s contents, and the third time was the charm at full pack-weight. The selfie-video of that crossing ends with a close-up of his wide-eyed facial expression opening to a child-like laugh of relief.
With that kind of creative yet tactful decision-making, it’s no wonder that he found success. But again, why winter? “I think if you ask someone why they thru-hike the A.T.,” says Aquaman, “you could get a different answer from the same hiker depending on the day you ask. Or the hiker knows exactly why they do it. I hike it because I love it.”
Scott had overcome much to get to that moment at the podium. His willingness to speak on his vulnerability to depression invited the blanket-wrapped audience in close as we clung to his every word, never doubting a single one of them. He’s kinder to himself and he knows he is a better man for the experience. That kind of authenticity is hard to come by these days, with our attention to social media often taking priority over genuine human connection.
When the lecture and slide presentation was over, the lights came up, I took the opportunity to ask Serena Ryan why she believes the “Fireside Chats” have struck such a chord with mountain sports enthusiasts in New England: “Community,” she said without hesitation, “Everyone wants to feel a part of a community. If we can help foster a homely and safe outdoor-adventure community, we have done our job. And we just love it,” says Ryan. “Aquaman’s journey is a case-and-point of doing what you love.”
Now a graduate student at the University of Vermont pursuing an advanced teaching degree, Scott Benerofe says has no plans for a thru-hike any time soon: “No, I’m good on the big treks for now. I’ll hang on the climbing walls instead. Besides, I have a new passion for teaching.” Well, Aquaman, you have made a fine beginning.