Day 133: In Which I Learn an Important Lesson About the Whites

Boondocking in the White Mountains

The Kinsman Trailhead parking area has plenty of room, a clean(ish) restroom, lots of shade, and a great location. But the Granite, Glory, and Paddington, the local hikers who put on yesterday’s trail magic, told us that the White Mountain USFS Rangers aggressively enforce their no overnight parking regulations. They also said the Rangers prefer the loud midnight knock over a gentle sunset suggestion to move along.

So, we drove off the mountain and found a decent private campground on the outskirts of North Woodstock, our van looking hopelessly out of place in a row of huge, big boy RV’s and 5th wheels.

Red Sky in the Morning…

I woke to a red sky and a cool, dewy morning. The mountains had their heads in dark ominous clouds and the forecast called for mid-day rain. But it wasn’t raining yet when we drove back up to the trailhead, so we still had hope that the Whites would deliver on our high expectations.

Granite and Glory were setting up for Day 2 of their trail magic when we arrived at Kinsman Notch. They’d section hiked most of the AT through New England and live nearby, so I asked them how the rest of the White Mountains compared to yesterday’s Moosilauke hike. I’d read that the Whites were tough but had the impression that Moosilauke was one of the hardest hikes.

They said Moosilauke was pretty typical of the rest of the Whites and that its nasty descent wasn’t really an outlier. Also, they thought much of southern Maine was about the same level of difficulty as the Whites. But then they said, “We’re only section hikers, so we’ve never hiked these mountains with the kind of trail conditioning you thru-hikers have.”

So That Means…What?

I guess I learned that today’s hike over the Kinsmans and the rest of the Whites would either be better, worse, or the same than Moosilauke. From the map, I knew that I had twice as many miles (16.4) as yesterday, twice as many significant climbs (2), and 1,300 more feet of total climbing. But 1,300 feet spread over twice the distance should mean that the climbs and descents would be less steep, and I had less mileage than I’d averaged for the last four months. I’d be fine, right?

There’s Only One Way to Find Out for Sure

Gus and I set out alone into a dark, mossy forest swirling with storybook mists. I expected an endurance test, but in a good way. It wasn’t hot or humid, and it wasn’t raining yet. We might catch some views from the ridges, or we might get drenched and blown off them. Either way, it’d be an adventure. I’m young, strong, and healthy. What could go wrong?

Mount Wolf

The five mile, 1,300-foot, saw-toothed ascent of Mount Wolf went slower than I’d expected, mostly due to the rocky, root- and puddle-covered trail conditions. It takes time and concentration to find safe footing on the rocks and roots, and even more time to pick my way around the long mud bogs and puddles that covered long stretches of the trail.

Mt. Wolf’s tree-covered summit offered no views, so we immediately started down the three-mile, 1,000-foot descent to the foot of the Kinsman Peaks, arriving just before 11:00. So far, I’d only managed two miles per hour, despite taking no breaks and having no significant climbs or descents. And I was unusually tired. I’d have to pick up the pace or I’d need to find a pocket of cell coverage and let Northstar know I’d be late.

We stopped for an early lunch at the Eliza Brook Shelter, one of the official camping areas in the Whites run by New England’s Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), before starting the climb up the Kinsmans. AT thru-hikers have a love/hate relationship with the AMC, often referring to it as the Appalachian Money Club because they charge for camping in their shelters and tent sites and have worked with the USFS to disallow (free) stealth camping in the Whites.

Maybe it’s more like a hate/hate relationship. Both “donation” boxes at the Eliza Brook Shelter had been vandalized.

Climbing South Kinsman

The climb up South Kinsman peak was brutal. I’ve climbed longer (2.5 mi.), higher (2,000 ft.), and steeper (800 ft/mi) mountains along the AT, but I don’t think I’ve climbed anything as nasty as South Kinsman. As I climbed, I thought back to Amicolola State Park’s 600 stairs in Georgia. That was child’s play compared to this.

When I finally reached the summit, almost two hours later, my feet were hammered from the near constant rocks and roots. I don’t think I put my soles on solid dirt more than one in fifty steps. My knees and quads ached from climbing up and over miles of irregular boulders that ranged from knee to waist high. My arms and torso had been jabbed and scratched by the broken branches and sharp rocks that bordered and hung over the trail. I was soaked with sweat.

And my shoes, socks, and pants legs were soaked and slimy from stepping or falling into the hundreds of puddles and mud pits that seemed to fill every crevice and depression on the trail. How is that even possible? How can that much water accumulate on a 15% slope? In civil engineering, slope is the solution to poor drainage. How can so much mud form and collect on a steep granite mountain? Granite weathers to sand and gravel, not mud and clay.

The Summits

A thick cloud cover had blown in just before I summited South Kinsman Peak, blocking out any chance of a view between the gaps in the trees. I had no time to wait for a break in the weather, so I headed across the mile-long, spruce covered ridge toward North Kinsman Peak, where the weather broke just long enough to give me some dramatic views of sunlit clouds rushing over the forested landscape.

A Metaphorical Descent

The climb down from North Kinsman Peak was stupidly steep. In the first mile, it dropped almost 1,000 feet over slick rock outcrops, wood block steps, rain-soaked slippery wooden ladders, and waist-high boulders. Most of the trail flowed with a trickle of water, having eroded over time to become its own drainage channel. At several points, Gus balked, stopping and staring at me like I’d lost my mind, sure that he could find a better route off this mountain.

I hadn’t eaten enough and probably was a little dehydrated, so with each cartilage-busting, ankle-twisting, mud-bathed step, my mood sunk lower and lower. By the time I’d finished the worst of the descent, I’d decided that this trail was awful. Badly built, eroded, and poorly maintained. Gus was right, there had to be a better route up and down this mountain.

Stupid Stinking AMC

The signage and trail blazing were even worse. The AMC prefers using its own local trail names, even for the trails that comprise the AT. Most signs have a faded “(AT)” in parentheses next to one of the local trail names, though some don’t mention that AT at all unless a hiker has graffitied it on.

Even worse, the AMC seems to have some kind of jag about using white blazes, especially at trail junctions. At one point, I stopped at a junction, facing four possible options. The wooden AMC trail sign listed five different trail names and another four possible destinations, none of which was the “(AT).” There were no white blazes in sight.

I pulled out FarOut, but it was drizzling, and my hands were too sweaty to use my iPhone touchscreen, so I couldn’t open the app. I tried walking a hundred feet down each trail, but still couldn’t see any white blazes. No one was around to help, and I hadn’t seen anyone for hours.

Finally, in frustration (and at low blood sugar levels), I yelled out something along the lines of “Notching stupid notching AMC. Notch, notch, NOTCH!” Not one of my prouder moments, obviously. But I was tired and frustrated. Surprisingly, that didn’t help and it only made me feel stupid.

I’m From the AMC and I’m Here to Help

Just then, I heard a sweet female voice call out through the dense fir trees to my right, “Uh, do you need some help?” Apparently, I was within 50 feet of a hosted AMC campsite. They graciously pointed me in the right direction, and I hiked off, grateful for their timely help. What a lovely moment of reconciliation.

Or, in an alternate reality, I yelled back, “Buy a notching can of notching white paint and paint some notching trees!” The lovely voice went silent.

It’s hard now to remember which reality I lived in. But I clearly remember thinking that irrational anger is one of my warning signs of dehydration and hunger, so I downed some Propel and a couple of protein bars as I stomped down what seemed like the best possible trail choice, with Gus warily following along a safe distance behind me.

Sure enough, we found a white blaze 250 feet later, completely out of sight of the junction and along a section of trail where no partially sentient human would have any level of confusion about where the trail went next. Thanks, AMC. You’re super helpful.

Lonesome Lake Hut

A short time later, we hiked past the AMC’s Lonesome Lake Hut, the first of several forest lodges where paying guests get a bunk, dinner, and breakfast. It looked inviting to me, but Gus wasn’t allowed in, so we hiked on to the lake where Gus grabbed a much-needed bath and a large stick to bring along for the rest of the hike.

Unfortunately, we missed another unsigned junction by the lake and added an extra half-mile of hiking to our day. But by this time, my mood (and the trail) had leveled out and hiking was fun again, so we took the miscue in stride. Two miles later, we reached I-93 and the ¾-mile blue blaze trail to the parking area where Northstar would be waiting.

One More Miscue

Except that FarOut’s map had the meetup location in the wrong place, so Northstar was doing laps between exits on the Interstate, trying to figure out where I might be. I was sitting in the wet grass by freeway access road, glad to not be hiking, with my wet shoes off and my socks wrung out and drying in the breeze. Gus curled up on my lap and went to sleep. We both were knackered.

Sixteen miles is a long day in the Whites. Twenty-mile days aren’t a realistic option. We need a Plan B for the rest of the Whites.

Lessons Learned

Lesson #1:  Hiking the Whites is hard. Notching hard.

I’d been warned on this point but had dismissed the warning as just more AT fearmongering. My mistake. If you plan to hike the White Mountains, I’d recommend cutting your expected miles to 50 to 75 percent of your pre-Whites daily average, adding in zero or nearo days for every three to four hiking days, and leaving some schedule flexibility to account for bad weather.  Even then, plan on being more tired and footsore than usual.

Lesson #2: The AT in the Whites is not well marked. Make sure you know your route well, have route finding maps or apps, and some kind of emergency transponder like a Garmin In-Reach Mini. It’s just too easy to get off trail, lost, or hurt in the Whites.

Lesson #3: Consider a different hobby. I hear gardening is nice.

Odds and Ends

  • I saw Skitch from the walk into Hanover on the steep descent from Kinsman. He was beat and no happier about trail conditions than he had been in Vermont.
  • Northstar ran into Fearless and Masters at the campground store. I may catch them tomorrow.
  • I saw No Name, Lucky McShorts, Voices, Black Dog’s names on the trail magic register at Kinsman Notch. They’re just ahead me, but I doubt I’ll see them again.
  • A really tiny snake, so small I initially thought it was a piece of white string (1 mm thick, 10 inches long).
  • I finished Book 9 of Cradle series, but accidentally downloaded Book 11, and didn’t have enough cell service to get Book 10 during my hike. I really needed the distraction on the climbs.


Daily Stats:

  • Start: Kinsman Notch (Mile 1808.8)
  • End: Liberty Springs Trailhead (Mile 1825.2)
  • Weather: Cloudy, chilly in the morning; mid-day rain
  • Earworm: Always Look on the Bright Side of the Life (my subconscious is mocking me)
  • Meditation: Jn 6:68
  • Plant of the Day: Spruce
  • Best Thing: Moments of sunshine
  • Worst Thing: Trail conditions, especially poor blazing

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Comments 12

  • thetentman : Sep 5th

    For an old guy, you are pretty funny.

    Great post.

    • Jon : Sep 5th

      Thx! To a fellow old guy.

  • Harry Poppins : Sep 5th

    Gardening is way more frustrating. Stick to backpacking.

    • Jon : Sep 6th

      Lol. Will do.

  • Cynthia : Sep 5th

    The Whites ARE notching hard!! I could only average 1 MPH, with a fairly light pack. In one mile I counted only 18 times one of my feet actually touched dirt, instead of rocks. I was warned in advance that I’d feel the hike in my feet – quite true.
    How does Gus do on the rocks? Any issues with his pads getting sore or torn?

    • Jon : Sep 6th

      18!? Wow. I believe it.
      Gus does great on the rocks – all that Arizona training. I keep checking his paws but no problems or sensitivity so far. Mine hurt though.

  • Dottie Rust : Sep 6th

    So the Whites are hard for you? Not enough blazing, too many rocks & roots? And those hideous boulders?

    Consider the volunteers who actually do maintain these trails. . .consider your privilege as a NOBO hiker now in NH.

    Consider giving back to the Trail when you finish.

    Good luck.

    • Jon : Sep 6th

      Yes, yes.
      I’d say nasty, not hideous.
      I do. Volunteers are great! The problem with the trail is its original design, not maintenance. Maintenance is so much harder because of the poor design.
      Will do. Good point.
      Of course!

      Thx for reading and commenting!

  • Alison : Sep 6th

    Hope this great stretch of weather is seeing you through the Presidentials.
    Too much Littleton etc out there, lol–loving to weather to clay. NH rx are jealous of Vt’s Vermudness.

    • Jon : Sep 7th

      Lol. Thx!

  • Mike Nixon : Sep 9th

    I said this many miles and weeks ago, but I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through! Your last couple of posts have been good descriptions though. Having turned 60 yesterday and just a moderate hiker (or less), I think I’ll take what’s behind Lesson #3.

    If the hiking stays this hard, I do hope that the weather breaks so you can at least enjoy some views.

    Stay safe and strong, my brother.

    • Jon : Sep 9th

      Happy birthday!


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