I Came, I Saw, I Didn’t Conquer
I’ve got to hand it to the White Mountains. In the battle of the mountains v. my knees, the score is White Mountains: one; my knees: zero. At least at the moment. I’m too stubborn to surrender yet. But I have to admit that these mountains have got me cowed.
To be honest, my knees have been hurting for miles. But it’s been a general pain that creeps up after several days of heavy hiking, then recedes after a rest in town. I figured it was just the normal result of thru-hiking and nothing to worry about. It certainly wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle — or so I thought.
And then we hit the White Mountains. I made it up 4,802 ft. Mt. Moosilauke without a problem. I found the ascent pretty daunting; I never dreamed I would have to climb big slabs of near-vertical rocks hand over hand for miles. But we were slackpacking, which helped, and my climbing skills have improved in the past 800 miles.
The descent was something else. All I can say is thank goodness the rocks were dry! It was hard on my knees and seemed endless, but I survived — which was seriously no small feat. And we’d planned to rest the following day, so I’d be fine.
Until we saw the weather report. We had one more day of sunshine before it rained. And since our next hike was a 16 mile trek from Kinsman to Franconia Notch — which entailed ascending Mt. Wolf (3,478 ft.), followed by South and North Kinsman Mountains (both over 4,000 ft.) — I did not want to attempt it when the rocks were slick.
So instead of resting, we got up at 5 am and headed out. We were slackpacking again, and had twelve hours to complete the hike before our shuttle picked us up.
I wish I had pictures of our day. But to be frank, I was too traumatized to take out my camera. The day was a blur of ups and downs, of grueling ascents and knee-jolting climbs down, of scurrying across perilous rocks and trying not to fall. I got slower as the day progressed. I became exhausted as the hours wore on. And I was mentally wrung out. (In reality distraught.)
My salvation came in the form of two other thru-hikers, Skyman and Smitty, who were going to take the shuttle with us. Even though they could have finished hours earlier, they intentionally slowed down to make the driver wait for us. (And when we had to cross a river they even carried my pack! Thank you both!!!)
We rested the following day. My knees felt marginally better, but my confidence was shot. So we reworked our plan for the rest of the Whites to cover fewer miles per day. We mailed home more items to reduce our weight. Then we set out the following day with our loaded packs.
I made it successfully up the mountains: Little Haystack (4,800 ft), Mt. Lincoln (5,089 ft.), and Mt. Lafayette (5,263 ft.). Then we veered off the AT as planned, taking a steep downhill trail to the Greenleaf hut to spend the night. But I was in serious trouble by then. My pace was nearly a crawl. I felt like a wooden marionette, my range of motion restricted, my knees aching with every step.
And I no longer felt safe. That night I wrestled with the reality that I might have to abort my hike. And when we heard the weekly weather report the following day — heavy rains, wind and hail right when we’d reach an even more treacherous part of the AT — we had a decision to make: bail now while we had a chance (and wait out the weather somewhere safe) or plod on, risking getting stranded in the storms.
We decided to take a 2.9 mile path to a trailhead where we could catch a shuttle to a lodge. But the rocks were steep and wet, my progress so slow it was ridiculous. We missed the shuttle, of course. And it was clear that I couldn’t go on. I needed to see a doctor and have my knees assessed. Because the bald truth was that the trail wasn’t going to get easier. We still had the rest of the Whites to do — and the Wildcats after that. And my slowness was endangering us both.
So there we were in the trailhead parking lot with no car, no ride, and no idea how to get home. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this journey it’s that trail magic is real. There was a park ranger in the parking lot. He’d seen the shuttle waiting further down the route. We ran over and flagged it down — and here’s where the magic kicked in. The driver was a former thru-hiker. He promised to take us someplace where we could get help, and refused to charge me for the ride. More incredibly, there was only one other passenger on the bus, a hiker from Boston who was heading home that day as soon as she got her car — and volunteered to deposit us anywhere along the way.
And so she did. She dropped us off at a hotel in Concord, NH. We picked up a rental car the next day. Now we’re on our way home, waiting to see what the future holds.
I hope this setback is only temporary. I hope I just need a little rest and we’ll be able to complete the trail. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime keep your fingers crossed that our battle with the mountains isn’t over yet!
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