Bennington to Crawford Notch Scorecard
The Whites are hard, guys. For 1,750 miles, all I heard about was how hard the Whites were. Nary a complaint could exit my mouth without the White Mountains one-up.
“Oh, you think this is steep? Wait for the Whites.”
“Oh, you think this weather is bad? Wait for the Whites”
“You thought that rock scramble was tricky? Well just wait for the Whites, my friend”
I knew. I knew it was coming. And it is a testament to the Whites that they still took me by surprise. If a northbound AT thru-hike was a video game, and the 100 mile wilderness and Katahdin were your final boss, the Whites and Southern Maine would be the final level, where all the things you’ve been fighting before come back bigger and stronger and more unpredictable. A thousand feet of elevation gain per mile becomes something you think back on nostalgically. Kiss those 20 mile days goodbye and try your damnedest just to get into double digits. Enjoy the sun, because it’s gone until after you descend a good couple thousand feet on exploding knees. Thank your trekking poles for all their hard work and then stow them away; you’re gonna need every limb you’ve got for these climbs. And that 20 pill Advil bottle? Better up it to 100. The Whites are hard. But let’s look at what got me here.
Currently at 1844.4, which means I’ve hiked 233.8 miles since last check in. I have 345.9 miles until the top of Katahdin. I’m also throwing a new stat in here: the magic number. In baseball, the magic number is how many games a team needs to win before qualifying for the postseason. For me, the magic number is how many miles I need to average a day to summit Katahdin by October 14th, or the day before Baxter State Park’s rules on summiting Katahdin get complicated. My magic number is currently 9.9. That may look pretty safe, but it’s worth noting that before starting the Whites, I could average about the same with two zero days thrown in there. I didn’t really think I would use any of those since in the 700+ miles between Harper’s Ferry and the Vermont-New Hampshire border I’d taken one zero. But I’ve had to take two in just the last 100 miles, mostly due to the Whites’ unpredictable weather and frequent long, exposed ridgelines. It was a stroke of bad luck which will hopefully be turning soon.
I passed the 500 miles left to Katahdin sign and, a couple days later, I crossed from Vermont to New Hampshire, my second to last state. Maine sits just 60 miles away, which is, frankly, pretty baffling.
The Quick Recap
My parents dropped me off at the trailhead near Bennington and I began climbing Mt. Glastenbury. I hadn’t even summitted by the time my dad texted me suggesting he come back and do it again. For weeks leading up to them visiting, everyone had been asking me why I hadn’t had them slackpack me in the Whites, to which I pointed out that my parents have lives and can come when they come and don’t revolve their lives around me. Apparently I was wrong, because my dad was fully prepared to drop everything and come back to meet me in Hanover, New Hampshire. I was close enough to correctly guess when I’d get to Hanover, which is like really hard unless you’re basically almost there.
I liked Vermont a lot. It was green and rolling, with actual mountains you planned your day around. Most of the summits had ski lodges at the tops and you could eat your lunch on a ski lift.
The weather was also amazing. It finally cooled down enough for me to remember how nice it is to hike out of the heat, but the sun was still out and I got clear views at the top of every summit. It only rained once overnight, so only one day did I feel like I experienced true Vermud.
About halfway through Vermont, I spent over 24 hours out of cell range. I was frustrated because it happened to be my mom’s birthday and I agonized over not being able to call her. When I finally got service the next day, rather than making the apologetic call to my mom I thought I would be making, I learned my grandmother had died. I don’t feel like including this event in my traditional scorecard format, so consider it separate from my low point or fudge stripe cookie rating. But I think it goes without saying that it was hard.
California felt so far away. I struggled with the idea of not being able to go to the funeral, but my parents both encouraged me to continue hiking. For the first time ever, I wasn’t positive North was the right direction to be going. When I hung up the phone, I felt more alone than I have ever felt in my thru-hike, which has included some moments of serious loneliness. I stood there bewildered and upset for awhile but I was on the trail, and there’s really only two directions to pick when you’re on the trail. So I continued walking forward. Almost immediately I came across a south-bounder who glanced at me, dropped her trekking poles and wrapped me in a hug. Despite hating crying in front of other humans and, to be frank, hugs, I cried on her shoulder for a good five minutes until I wiped my tears and we each continued on in our separate directions. I never learned her name, trail or otherwise, and I’ll never see her again, but it did feel deeply symbolic of the immediate and deep but temporary connections you form on this trail. I do sort of regret not asking her name.
I decided to end my hike for the day at the next shelter, even though it meant not making it very far. Since I had stopped in the early afternoon, I was the first one there. Slowly the shelter began filling up with a hobnob of hikers I had walked hundreds of miles with. I generally hike alone but I’m always surrounded by many of the same hikers. Sometimes they’ll be a day or two in front of me, or a day or two behind, and I can go for weeks without seeing any one particular person. Sometimes you can go through a weird stretch where you’re in a different bubble filled with people you don’t know. I always think of myself as having two bubbles, the pre- and post-foot injury bubble. Most of my post-foot injury bubble just happened to end up at the same shelter that night, and for the first time some of my pre-foot injury bubble was there too. It feels pretty cheesy to say, but the trail really does always provide.
They surrounded me all the way into Hanover where I met my dad and prepped to tackle the Whites.
The fifteen near heart attacks my dad has had watching me hike this week. Slackpacking in the Whites has been, uh, interesting. Since you’re not carrying your gear, you HAVE to make it to a road crossing, which is not a problem if the predetermined mileage is well within your capabilities. But I’d never hiked in the Whites before, as I think will become apparent by the array of bad choices I’m about to explain myself making.
The day before my scheduled summit of Mt. Moosilauke, the first 4,000 footer of the Whites, I got a notification on my phone. (To my obnoxious Californian friends who are going to point out that 4,000 feet is nothing compared most California mountains, yes that’s true. For science reasons, the weather in the Whites is extra unpredictable and bad, making the tree line lower than it would be in other places. For Appalachian trail reasons, the trail is extra steep and rocky. I would gander a lot of the Whites’ smaller mountains are harder to summit than some of California’s biggest ones.) The notification told me that tropical rainstorm Harvey was going to hit the next day. ANYBODY familiar with the Whites would have told me summiting Moosilauke that day was dumb idea, but filled with hubris I didn’t know I had, I just assumed I could handle it. I wasn’t camping out.
Thinking I was a big ol’ smarty pants, I took the advice of some southbounders and decided to summit the mountain backwards. I’d been told the north-facing side of the mountain included a steep and rocky stretch down a waterfall, something the Whites really enjoy making you do. (Yes, literally climbing down a waterfall. Like, ice water running down your hands and feet and splashing all over you. These stretches have been extra wet due to the one million inches of rain New Hampshire has gotten since I’ve been here.) These kinds of things are much safer to climb up than to descend, so I really thought I was removing most of the danger of this scenario by going southbound for the day. And sure enough, I wrapped up that two mile stretch before the rain hit and gave myself a pat on the back as I continued the climb. “I’m so smart and good at this thru-hiking thing,” I thought to myself. “I really know what I’m doing.” Of course, as I continued upward, the rain turned to sleet. “Why didn’t I bring gloves?” I thought as the ice melted on my hands. “Maybe that wasn’t smart…”
Soon I began running into people who had started before me coming back down the mountain. All of them informed me the mountain wasn’t summitable but, again filled with a hubris I didn’t know I had, I ignored them. Day hikers, I scoffed. Section hikers, I rolled my eyes. I’m a thru-hiker. I’ve been through worse. It really should have occurred to me that no thru-hikers were on this mountain. I had walked southbound for a couple of miles. I really should have passed a northbounder by then.
Finally, I got to the end of the tree line and walked out into the open. “Wow,” I thought, “that sleet really hurts when it’s being hurtled at your face at a million miles an hour.” I lifted a trekking pole so I could bring a hand up to protect my eyes and was immediately shoved to the ground. “Wow, this is pretty breezy,” I thought as I slowly stood back up. You’re supposed to walk into the wind when wind speeds are that high, and I had mastered the weird walk-crooked-to-walk-straight tactic on some of the balds in the south. But I was worried the sleet would do damage to my eyes if I faced it head on. After being knocked to the ground again and being pinned until the gust let up enough for me to get up, I began crawling. It just felt safer. I didn’t know how long Moosilauke continued out of treeline and I wished I’d had my regular pack to weigh me down. I felt really light.
There were probably 500 moments before this that should have made me realize I needed to turn back. I felt relatively safe because the wind was pushing me towards an incline that caught me when I fell. Then the terrain shifted so if I fell again, I’d go down a decline and would just roll straight down the mountain. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me in any direction. I didn’t know how far I was from tree line. I didn’t know if there were cliffs or sharp drops nearby. Finally, common sense got the better of me. I will say I felt very calm and level-headed the whole time, until the moment I got back into the tree line, called my dad to inform him of the change of pick-up location and realized my whole southbound slackpack strategy had backfired because I was going to have to do the hard side of the mountain twice, both up and down, and in a downpour.
My poor father waited for me for hours in the rain. Someone showed him a video of what it looked like on the summit, which I assume really relieved his anxieties.
(I should say that, at least for the time being, I’m counting that as having completed the Moosilauke section of the trail. I know the purists out there reading this are already getting their panties in a bunch, fully prepared to inform me that this means I’ll never truly have thru-hiked, but the south side is the same mileage as the north side so I won’t be short miles, and in my mind I summitted the stupid thing and did the hard side twice. I’d venture to say I worked harder on Moosilauke than 99% of thru-hikers and to be honest, I’m kind of glad for the chance to stick it to the purist philosophy on thru-hiking. At some point, I kind of want to write a blog post about how I started this hike as a purist and have become totally disillusioned with the idea, but the short version is that there’s a strong correlation between the people that consider themselves to be purists and the people I consider to be assholes. But someday I’ll climb that stupid mountain and get a picture with the stupid summit sign, which I couldn’t do that day without risking my phone being yanked from my hands. I can’t promise what gestures I’ll be making to said sign when I do.)
That was my first full day in the Whites.
The next day I underestimated how long it would take me to slackpack 16 miles. It should be noted I have hiked 26 miles in a day and finished before sunset, but the Whites are just different. Again with all the hubris, I didn’t bring a headlamp. My phone’s flashlight actually worked great, I had my battery pack and it’s not like I haven’t night-hiked before. But again my poor father had to sit at the end and panic. About a mile away from the parking lot I was supposed to meet my dad at, I was hiking with another hiker when I saw a little beam of light bouncing towards us, yelling my name. Hysterical fathers really make you look like a badass in front of your friends. My dad night-hiked in the Whites, which he was very proud of once he calmed down.
That was my second full day in the Whites.
This week has probably been an interesting one for my dad, who was very nervous about this thru-hike at the start of it, calmed down and came around to the idea, and now has a lot of evidence to be nervous about the idea again. Poor guy. I hope he had fun regardless.
My third full day in the Whites was spent not actually in the Whites, but in Vermont at the Ben and Jerry’s factory. To be honest, I’ve been scheming to somehow spend a day there since Georgia and there were no words for how happy I was when my dad, possibly wanting a break from the stress or just feeling sorry for me, suggested I take a day off from hiking and go there.
It’s worth mentioning that my dad is lactose intolerant and had never had Ben and Jerry’s before so there wasn’t much in it for him, although he did try their new dairy free flavors and asked the tour guide more questions than everyone else combined, so again I’m hoping he had fun.
It’s rained for most of the days I’ve hiked in the Whites. On September 1st, it snowed at some of the higher elevations. The trail has become like one long waterfall and the parts where you climb up or down actual waterfalls are so swollen with water you have to get your footing on slick rocks with ankle deep water gushing around your feet.
Some people have made the choice to zero the whole mess out, a decision I sometimes wondered if I should have taken. The whole point of the Whites is that they are spectacularly hard but you’re rewarded with spectacular views. I’d spend hours climbing a mountain and then be rewarded with a big ol’ sheet of cloud right in front of my face. I’ve spent a lot of time regretting that I didn’t have time to do the Whites properly. That said, I climbed up to Franconia Ridge in the rain and sleet only to have it clear up by the time I got to Mt. Lincoln. I could see the whole stretch of trail above the tree line, with Little Haystack on one side of me and Mt. Lafayette on the other, without seeing another human being along the whole exposed ridgeline. Three huge mountains, all to myself. If I had a choice between that and a nice sunny day with the whole mountain dotted by other hikers, I’d chose my day every time.
This section has been so all over the place for me, I don’t even know how it compares to my other sections, so I’m just going to give it 5 out of 8 Oreos.
One Last Thing
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