AT Day 89 – Soft Snow, Hard Hiking

Galehead Hut to Ripley Falls Trailhead
Food Mover Camp
to Purple Rain White Mountains Camp
AT miles:
Total miles: 1856.8
Elevation change: 2467ft gain, 4793ft loss

The decision to spend the night at Galehead Hut could not have yielded better results. Having a dry night under a large roof while the rain poured down yesterday evening was an obvious benefit, along with a comfy bunk and convenient bathroom. Then, as I had hoped they would, the clouds dissipated, and the new morning dawned fresh and clear. A perfect day for walking in The Whites. And although the trail was far from easy, the fine weather washed away my frustration, as all I had to do was take a look around me to appreciate the gifts of the day. That wouldn’t have worked last night in the rain, that’s for sure. So, battered and bruised, stiff and aching, satisfied and invigorated, I exited the first major section of The Whites. It was awesome. The next sub-range is as intimidating as the first, but first, I have a night of vanlife to help me rest and recharge. Goodness knows that I need it.

Smells dank.

My room was steamy with a humid stench of damp socks and onion farts when I awoke sweaty and hot in the predawn gloom. I ripped off my jacket then padded in bare feet down dark halls to the bathroom. The cool air in the rest of the hut was refreshing, and I slept more easily after my excursion. When I next opened my eyes at the buzzing of my alarm, the bright light of a clear day was pouring through the windows. By the time I started making moves back to the trail, stretching on damp leggings and socks, this tender illumination was replaced with the brash fire of direct sunshine. I said farewell and thank you to the cartaker, and sat on the front porch, soaking in the dry heat while lacing up my soaked shoes. The weather could not have been more perfect, and I was filled with hope and gratitude for the day ahead.

Beams caught in the steam.

The trail climbed steeply immediately upon leaving the hut. Despite the cool shade of the miniature pine and my measured pace, I was soon dripping with sweat. Although there were no clouds overhead, the localized humidity was off the charts, and I watched in wonder as vapor billowed from the snowly ground, the solid water sublimating rather than melting to liquid. Shafts of sunshine lodged in this ground cloud, giving body to the warming rays. My own cloud drifted from my damp shirt whenever I stopped for breath in the sun.

The view of pretty much everything that I hiked yesterday, from Franconia to Garfield.

The snow melted away to expose large slabs of dry granite on the summit of South Twin. I hopped to the tippy top, and slowly twirled in place, absorbing the full panorama in all its glory. I finally got a complete look at Franconia Ridge, Garfield, and Galehead, the terrain that I had struggled over yesterday, and between drifting clouds, I caught glimpses of the Presidential Range. Those high summits would be my next major test, and they looked intimidating. With the weather on my side, I expected them to be a highlight of the AT. If the weather was not kind, then I was in for a tough fight.

By this time, the clouds that had previously filled the lower valleys, were climbing upslope, using the summits as ramps to launch into the sky. Scruffy tufts of white swirled and floated, vanishing and growing in a dance that was too complex for me to understand. Peaks came and went, rocks in the clouds, both in slow motion and hyperspeed. It was subtle and easy to miss, but the change minute-to-minute was drastic.

This is the worst.

I could have sat up there all day, except for the miles to hike and potential afternoon thunderstorms to avoid, so I plunged down the other side of the mountain. Or so I wished. Instead, the trail stayed up high on a forested ridge that had protected the snow from the lowland heat. Up here, it was still deep and unstable. I tried to follow the narrow sidewalk of icy monorail to avoid postholing in the gutters, but it was a tough task. Each footstep was unsure, and I often punched through the crust, sinking to the full height of my inseam. The ice, while not always strong enough to support my weight, was always hard enough to scratch and bruise my poor shins, or my palms, whenever I lost both feet and crashed forward. Progress was slow and nerve wracking. As careful as I was with each step, my feet were constantly redirected to places they didn’t want to go. And I wasn’t the only one who’d had this problem. I could see deep holes in the snow where others had punched through to the rocky trail below.

A stretch of easy hiking between posthole-o-ramas.

This continued for miles, and I was fried mentally and physically from the intense and irregular effort to keep my face off of the ice and nearby stumps. It took hours longer to cover the few miles over Mount Guyot and Zealand Mountain. When the bare ground did poke through I was chagrined to see that it was sometimes a smooth sidewalk of coarse granite. This would almost have been easy hiking without the snow. Instead, it was physically demanding and unsettling. However, whenever I found myself laughing hysterically after a particularly unflattering fall to my knees, I would take a sip of water and look around me. Even when there were no mountain views through the trees, the forest was replete with the hopeful anticipation of spring. The season was caught in an awkward middleground now, dirty and crusty after a long winter, but in just a week or two, this forest would feel welcoming and confident.

The Zeacliff panorama. Life affirming.

The snow finally began to lose mass before the epic overlook at Zeacliff. I wished that I could have visited for sunrise or sunset, but the massing clouds and gusting breeze were consolation prize enough to refill my cup. Then, before the dark cloud above could give me reason to regret my lounging, I plunged down the steep trail to the warm, snowless world of the boreal.

Introducing Zealand Falls Hut, today’s sponsor of lunch.

I took my lunch break at Zealand Falls Hut, taking advantage of the composting toilet, hand-pumped water, and sunny steps to recuperate after the challenging morning. My legs ached in new ways, but my grumbling stomach took precedence. I finished off my chips and trail mix, while watching the clouds darken overhead.

Water has no business being this red.

While the first seven miles of the day took me five hours, the final seven only took me two and a half. The trail was almost totally flat, and the biggest challenge was keeping the spiders out of my face. It was clear that I was the first hiker to pass this way in a day or two, and the webs were thick. I waggled a pole ahead of me, but still ended up with a face full of silk and arachnids. Wide creeks of rushing rooibos crisscrossed the flatlands, and I sped, swift as the water towards home, through a warm, sun-drenched forest. Whatever storm might have been brewing had blown on.

On the final mile to the trailhead, I saw that familiar puppy face bounding up the trail. SpiceRack was right behind, carrying a smile and a hug along with her small daypack. I turned them around, and we sauntered back to the van through a warm forest of adolescent beech leaves quaking in the wind.

Wow, the forest has changed so much in the past week.

After a quick shower, I sat back and counted my bruises while Spice whipped up some kind of curried lentils for dinner. And by the time we were nomming down, all hell broke loose above us. Spurts of torrential rain and flashes of blue lighting electrified the night. Thunder boomed and tingled my scalp. We enjoyed the show with the lights dimmed, feeling cozy amidst the wildness. For the third night in a row, I had dodged the worst of the weather in The Whites. I had Spice to thank this time, and I fell asleep grateful to have her back in my corner of the wilderness.

This post was originally published on my blog Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.

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