AT Day 92 – The Frozen Leg-Blender
Madison Spring Hut to Mount Hight
Frozen Nose Camp to Early Spruce Camp
AT miles: 15.7
Total miles: 1891
Elevation change: 6847ft gain, 6860ft loss
Today was the steepest. Today was the slushiest. After one final summit, I exited the Presidential Range, leaving behind one of the most glorious stretch of the AT so far, and ran straight into the leg-blender of the Wildcats and Carter Dome. Those names meant nothing to me this morning, but I will remember them for the rest of my life as those ridiculously steep mountains that I climbed in the freezing rain. As miserable as that sounds, it actually wasn’t that bad. I was full up on mind-boggling vistas from the constant visual bombardment of yesterday, so I didn’t mind keeping my head down and powering through the dreary weather and ladder-like ascents. With the stiff climbs and careful descents, I had no trouble staying warm, which was my top priority in such conditions. Echoes of the miserable end to my PCT thru-hike followed me for most of the day, but ultimately remained distant memories. It was certainly a hard day, but nothing worth moaning about.
I made it through the frigid night at Madison Spring just barely warm enough. It was one of those nights where I was never actually cold, but could feel it all around me. If I poked my face too far from the collar of my quilt, then it froze. Every time I shifted positions, I came in contact with a new patch of icy gear that needed thawing. For these reasons, I spent most of the night curled in a tight ball, moving as little as possible. And it worked. I slept through the dark hours until the sky brightened and my day began.
The sky was still clear when I started the morning routine, but by the time I hoisted my pack, the cirrus clouds of a weather shift covered half of the sky with obvious plans to conquer the second half as well. It was cold, somewhere just below freezing, and blustery with the wild winds of the alpine as textured and irregular as the jumbled rocks that passed for trail around here. However, I started with just my wind jacket for warmth. It was inadequate for lounging, but I wasn’t planning on hanging around. Mount Madison loomed ahead and would provide all the warmth that I needed.
The half-mile to the jagged summit was a steep scramble rather than a hike up a trail. The route from cairn to cairn was almost invisible, and only the subtle hints of human passage, scratches from trekking pole tips and lichen bald spots, were marked on the stones. Still, the game was an easy one, climb up until you have to go down. On top, I struggled to keep my balance in the irregular gusts, and drank in the view from the final summit of the Presidentials. Above Mount Washington levitated a smooth cap of lenticular cloud that betrayed the presence of high winds aloft. As windy as it was on Madison, I had no doubt that the higher summit was being pummeled. I was glad for the final view, and so grateful to be returning to the treeline shortly. Amazingly, I’d nailed the single day of clear weather in between two of scorching wind and snow.
The long descent to Pinkham Notch was plainly visible below me. A single titanic ridge would take me there as long as I could keep my balance on the jagged talus in the blowing wind. My knees creaked with cold as I picked my way down, keeping my focus honed on every single step, each one uncertain, each one promising horrendous consequences for carelessness. However, it was fun too, engaging and satisfying as I attempted to move with as much grace as a mountain goat.
Before I knew it, I was back below treeline, where the challenging footing only got more difficult. The steepness remained, but the smoothness, wetness, and slipperyness of the footing all drastically increased. The payoff was less too, with no awesome views by which I could gauge my progress. Nope, for that I had to monitor the increasing fatigue in my quads, which rose steadily until I finally reached the trail junction at the Osgood Campsite. From there, it was not quite as easy as the flat elevation profile made it look to the Pinkham visitor center. Rocks, roots, and puddles kept reminding me that easy miles in these mountains are rare. Until I joined an old dirt road for the final mile and a half, at least. When I finally made it, I checked out the awesome 3D map of the Presidentials and filled my bottles with the most disgusting water I’d ever trusted enough to drink. Then I found Blackbird for a short visit with SpiceRack. We’d planned on meeting here for the night, but I was ahead of schedule and had plenty of bad-weather-food to get me to the next road, so I popped my head in for just long enough to satisfy my hug quota for the day and get down on some tomato and hummus toast that she made me. My stay was too short, and I walked away under spitting skies wishing that I hadn’t been so fast through the Presidentials, yet knowing that it had all worked out perfectly. I would have stayed for lunch at least, but with nasty weather impending, I wanted to make it up Wildcat Mountain before the “wintery mix” made the rocks super slick.
I received a round of applause from a school group when the adult in charge recognized what I was doing, then had my photo taken by some visiting Brits. With all this attention, you’d think I was doing something besides walking everyday, and I tried to brush of the congratulations before they went to my head. Close to the end? as they had reminded me. It didn’t feel that way. I’d been spinning my wheels, stuck in The Whites, getting my butt kicked for days now. Katahdin was feeling more distant with every short scramble and mud pit. The AT would never let me go.
The climb up the first Wildcat subpeak was as steep as the rumors had led me to believe. The trail builders had done an admirable job of turning a veritable cliff into a ladder of a rock staircase, but years had eroded it so that some parts required all my arm strength to boost me up a waist-high step. Some other short sections required legitimate scrambling that made me glad that I was going up and not down. Meanwhile, the rain came in lightly, just enough to wet the rock, but not enough to make me put on a jacket. The cloud descended. I ascended. Soon, I was in the cloud, hearing the rising wind rush through the pine, feeling the fat drops that shook loose.
I was ravenous by the time I reached the top, and took shelter in the perfectly placed ski patrol cabin next to a superspeed quad-chair lift that looked like a spaceship in the mist. The heater was running and kept the chill at bay while I ate with abandon, throwing nuts, seeds, chips, fruit, and chocolate into my black hole of a stomach. Nothing seemed to satisfy me, though. My body was still desperately trying to build back after yesterday’s mammoth effort, and it gladly accepted everything I would provide. When three loud, but friendly bros showed up and offered me weed, I got out of there to brave the elements once more.
I hiked in my rain jacket now, mostly for the warmth, but it came in handy when the rain picked up and turned to frozen slush. The temperature hovered just above freezing, the perfect spot to cause hypothermia. When faced with four days straight of this on the PCT in Washington, I had dubbed it ‘hypothermia rain’, warm enough to get you wet, cold enough to kill you. That had sucked big time, but I knew that it wouldn’t last past this evening, so I handled it with good humor. And there was no doubt about me staying warm. The trail took care of that. The long ridge to the tallest Wildcat was a leg-burner, and even the clomp down the other side to Carter Notch was physically demanding. That said, I was also cognizant that if the trees weren’t there to block the wind then I would need to adjust my strategy, but they were, and I didn’t.
I visited the seemingly abandoned Carter Notch Hut just long enough to fill up my bottles and catch a chill. I had hoped to sit by the fire, which was supposed to start everyday at 4pm, but there was no one around to light one. That was for the best really. It would have been a mighty challenge to leave the dry heat for the damp cold, and I supposed that there were probably miles that I should be hiking. I left without seeing a soul, and disappeared back into the mist.
One more massive climb up Carter Dome was similar to that up Wildcat. Steep stairs, a few scrambles, and lots of mist. I ate one bar, then two in rapid succession. My body was still in desperate need of calories to sustain this effort and this warmth. There were no views on the Dome, and wouldn’t have been for all the trees anyway, so I scooted along, soon hitting a long stretch of ice and snow. Fortunately, it was cold enough so that postholing wasn’t a thing, and I managed to stay on my feet despite a few slips on slippery rocks poking above the slipperier ice.
Even though it was only 6:30pm, I called a halt to the day near the summit of Mount Hight. I hoped for an epic view tomorrow morning, and I just didn’t feel like bouncing down and up again one more time in this weather. There was a perfect campsite tucked in the dwarf forest of spruce and moss, and I set up quickly, anxious to maintain my warmth until I could get under my quilt. It was below freezing now, and I knew that my dampness would be difficult to dry out if I let myself get chilled. Under the covers, wearing most of my layers, I scooped great globs of peanut butter while my couscous soaked, delighting in each hit of the fatty calorie bomb. And even though it was early, I had no trouble falling asleep when dinner was done. That is, once my Oreos ran dry. What a cold, miserable, and awesome day it had been.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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