1000 Miles: Goodbye New Hampshire. Hello Maine.
2016 Flip Flop: SNP to ME/SNP to GA
I’m not the fastest hiker, but still, I was prepared to lower my daily mileages once I hit New Hampshire and the White Mountains. I was prepared for numerous elevation changes and the challenges associated with summiting Mt. Washington. I was prepared not to expect to depend upon the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut work-for-stays. What I wasn’t prepared for was miles of rock hopping and what I’d even consider some almost, but not quite, technical rock-climbing. I wasn’t prepared to be slowed down so much that I was left with few camping options. I wasn’t prepared to feel this anxious.
For many folks growing up in the Northeast, hiking in the Whites is normal. Children learn how to navigate knee buckling and ankle twisting terrain and that translates to nimble adult hikers. I get that. But not every hiker has been weaned on those kinds of conditions. And not every hiker is nimble. And by every, I mean me.
I am so over New Hampshire.
The Whites took a toll—on my body and in my head. With almost 1000 miles under my feet, Mt. Madison almost broke me. I may be one of a few people who hated the “trail” if that is what it could even be called through the Presidentials. In fog and wind gusts, it took me five hours to hike the three miles between the Madison Hut and Osgood Tent Site. I can honestly say that I have couldn’t have cared less about any of the magnificent views the Mt. Madison area offers. First, it was all I could do to worry about following the cairns through the summit cloud cover. Second, it was all I could do not to place abused feet on wobbly rock slabs with knees that refused to easily bend. Third, it was all I could do to keep from continuously swearing as the trail seemed to take forever to descend. I. Hated. Every. Minute.
My introduction to the Whites began, as it does with all NOBOs, with 4,802’ Mt. Moosilauke, the first summit above tree line. Cloud tendrils whipped across the bare rocks and alpine meadows and I found the cairns compelling. The 1.5 mile trail down Beaver Brook to Kinsman Notch was extremely steep, but rebar and the occasional wooden stair step aided otherwise precarious footing.
The Kinsman Peaks and Webster Cliffs featured hand over hand climbing situations nearing the summits and the trail leading to the Guyot tent site included Krummholz (stunningly beautiful subalpine trees), Felzenmeer (exceedingly awkward “sea of rocks”) and sparkling cascades.
I would even venture to go as far to say I thoroughly enjoyed hiking the Franconia Ridge. It was sunny. It was novel and I experienced epic trail magic on the summit of Mt. Lincoln. Two men had hiked up with a battery operated blender, ice and margarita mix. And that was only the start. A handful of us were treated to fresh cut tomatoes antipasto, pepper and sausage hero sandwiches and peach cobbler dessert complete with cold whipped cream. So yeah, life was good. That day.
But then there were the days above tree line. My daily mileage average had fallen from 12 to 15 to single digits. I was concerned about where to camp. I was concerned about weather. I was concerned about summiting the notoriously unpredictable Mt. Washington.
I had been visiting the AMC huts, sometimes buying soup and cookies, sometimes just filling my water bottles. Each of the Huts were interesting and I was surprised to find them smaller and more intimate than I had envisioned. Lake of the Clouds was the first hut where I asked—and received—a work-for-stay assignment. I was grateful to be able to stay at the closest overnight point to Mt. Washington, positioning me for a mid-morning arrival time after my blanket folding Hut chores were completed. And, the day dawned sunny and perfect. I arrived at the summit along with carloads of tourists arriving via the road or the Cog Railway. I got in line along with well-groomed couples out for the day, families dragging along reluctant teens and we thru-hikers, and took the requisite photo by the summit sign.
Then I headed toward Mt. Madison. This is where the boulder hopping began in earnest and where any love for New Hampshire was lost. By mid-afternoon the threat of an afternoon rainstorm materialized on the horizon. By late afternoon it started raining, and raining hard while looking at my AWOL and AMC maps while attempting to determine which of the myriad trail signs correctly indicated the direction in the blaze-less landscape. My original goal had been to get to the Osgood Tentsite that day, a distance of ten miles. Now I was struggling to make it a mere seven miles to the Madison Hut.
Inadequate camping options exist for thru-hikers above tree line.
So here’s the thing: I understand the purpose and operational objectives of the AMC huts (see also this article explaining the hows and whys) and I empathize with the pressures placed upon the “Croo” by expectant and in worse case scenarios, entitled-acting thru-hikers. Thru-hikers cannot (and should not) rely on Huts, but there are few options when designated sites cannot be reached, in general the area above tree line between the Mitzpah Hut and the Osgood tent site; and in particular around the Mt. Madison environ. There is a reason why Lake of the Clouds Hut is more receptive to housing thru-hikers than any other Hut—there is literally no other camping option within this area.
I would argue that the Mt. Madison area is in need of an additional thru-hiker accommodation. The nearest campsite is located more than half a mile off trail below tree line. On any other part of the Appalachian Trail, a distance of this length or an elevation change of this scale constitutes an option, not a mandate. Couldn’t a simple bunkhouse, similar in scope to the role the dungeon performs for Lake of the Clouds, and perhaps, like the tent sites, staffed with a caretaker, be established within this vicinity? Or—even more blasphemous thinking—look at rerouting the trail in order for it to dip down into the trees, such as into the Great Gulf Wilderness?
I understand that thru-hikers make up a small percentage of overall White Mountain users. According to the AMC’s website, only 5% of all visitors to the Whites in 2014, were thru-hikers. Yet, the ATC has seen annual increases of 25%. To ignore the impact or demand thru-hikers have for services is short-sighted, especially when existing services are limited and restricted.
The trail through the Whites are fraught with unforeseen circumstances that can result in injury, be it weather or rocks.
Within days of my descent from Mt. Madison, the Berlin Daily Sun reported that a “very experienced Appalachian Trail section hiker carrying enough gear” had to be “assisted” off the mountain. The article continues: “As is so often the case, Fish and Game said the hiker was involved in a set of circumstances that were unforeseen and lead to injury despite great experience and good preparation.”
The cavalier reporting suggests this incident is neither isolated nor unusual. Another hiker I spent a few days with is currently rehiking the trail with hopes to finish after a broken ankle in the Whites prematurely ended last year’s trip.
Coming down from Mt. Madison stressed me out so much that I ended up skipping the next twenty-one miles through the Wildcat peaks. I was done with following a clearly sadistic interpretation of what constitutes a trail knowing that this is not the same route that earlier pioneers, like Gramma Gatewood, followed.
And things don’t have to be—nor have they always been—this way. The trail changed noticeably upon crossing into Maine. Rebar handholds, log ladders and stone steps were back in vogue reducing threat to life and limb as well as lessening impact on fragile alpine environments. There has been far less erosion alongside the established route because hikers need not grab trail side tree trunks or seek footing among roots just to keep themselves from slipping down a rock face. I’m not the only hiker who wondered where the heck the trail had disappeared north of the Garfield campsite, only to realize that the wet, steep and frankly, dangerous, waterfall was the trail. Destroyed vegetation, stripped trees and even a second path is evidence that others had resorted to bushwhacking around the designated trail when faced with the same safety concerns.
I’m not suggesting that mountains become ADA-compliant or be lined with handrails, but some of these features were once present in the Whites—old bore holes are still evident in boulder faces where rebar or wooden stairs were previously installed. Original rock footings and hand holds are still in use.
Lack of blazes.
I also understand that AMC supersedes the history of the AT. But don’t get me started on the lack of white blazes. While some states seem to emblazon just about every tree with a white 2×6” rectangle, New Hampshire seems to pride itself on purposely omitting them. But it is frustrating and pointless to thru-hikers who have become accustomed to reasonable directional standards.
Maybe I just had a few rough days, but as I hike further into Maine, the more I feel that those last hundred miles through New Hampshire were unnecessarily difficult.
Now excuse me while I down a few ibuprofen. My feet and head still hurt.
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