Day 136: Lake of the Clouds

Boondocking in the White Mountain Boondocks

We’d been warned about trying to camp at the trailheads near Crawford Notch, so we drove north looking for a legal spot with cell coverage. We struck out. For grins, Northstar checked out the room rates of the palatial Mount Washington Hotel (a.k.a. Louis XIV’s summer home) when we drove past. With rates starting at only $450 per night (before tax and fees), we weren’t surprised they were already 100% booked. But they didn’t allow dogs, so we turned around and headed south again.

The Mount Crawford Campground looked promising, but they too were full and make it a point of pride to offer neither cell service nor Wi-Fi. After nearly an hour of hunting, we gave up, drove to North Conway, and booked a motel. I needed a shower and a washing machine anyway, and it had started to rain.

REI to the Rescue. Not.

The trail let us know we’d made the right decision when our motel turned out to be right next to an REI and a Starbucks. Northstar took the laundry and Gus. I emptied out my damaged pack and headed over to the REI to see if they could work a miracle.

REI’s service desk guy saw my thru hiker tag and tried to work out a replacement, but his manager quashed that idea. If I’d bought the pack at REI within a year, they’d exchange it with no questions. But my little lime green 38L is more than 10 years old and had been with me for thousands of trail miles before I got to Springer.

I briefly thought about just buying another pack, but since Osprey would probably send me a new one rather than a check, I didn’t want to own two small packs. I’ll make do with my Osprey Aether. Plus, I couldn’t get the attention of a sales associate in the backpack aisle, so I walked back to the van and dug my 70L behemoth out of storage.

Rain Delay

It rained through the night and hadn’t stopped when I took Gus out for his morning constitutional. A quick check of the forecast indicated continued rain all morning, possibly ending around 1:00 pm. Since I only had 11.1 miles today, I could sit out most of the weather and leave after lunch if I could sustain a 2-mph pace.

Two miles per hour seemed a little optimistic for the Whites, so we pulled up to the trailhead about 11:30 a.m., leaving me 6.5 hours (1.7 mph) to get to Lake of the Clouds Hut. I headed out into a drizzle, too light to pull out my rain gear.

A Big Climb

The climb out of Crawford Notch starts with a steep 2,700-foot, 3.5-mile ascent (800 ft/mi), then crosses a four-mile plateau, before steadily climbing another 1,600 feet over five miles to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. Despite an intermittent drizzle, steep terrain, wet rocks, and low clouds, I loved the climb up from the trailhead.

I caught a few soggy, but excellent views of the misty valley from under the low cloud ceiling every time the trail passed one of the many glacially polished cliffy granitic outcrops. Despite the rain and clouds, it was a great hike and I arrived at the plateau grinning ear to ear.

But I’d only managed a paltry 1.4 mph on the ascent, leaving me about four hours to finish the remaining nine miles. I’d need to pick up the pace to make the hut’s 6:00 p.m. dinner bell. I could save some time by cutting out photo breaks, as the clouds had rolled in, leaving me in a misty forest with about 100 feet of visibility.

Say, That’s Not a Tiny Pack. Are You Thru Hiking?

The danger of using a bigger backpack is that you tend to fill the space with gear (and weight) you don’t really need. I don’t think I brought any extras, but I certainly hadn’t bothered to compress anything I carried, so my 70-liter pack looked full.

Sure enough, about half the hikers I passed asked if I was thru hiking. I hadn’t reattached my purple thru hikers’ tag, was freshly showered, I’d shaved, and my clothes had been laundered that morning. I guess it was the pack after all, not me. Ironically, I was carrying less weight and gear than when I used my 38L pack on the hike to Galehead Hut earlier in the week when no one mistook for a thru hiker.

Trail Signage

As I picked my way though the rocks and ever-increasing puddles on the plateau section of the hike, I kept thinking I heard voices yelling somewhere just ahead me. In fact, I had. Literally.

I crested a little bedrock knob and saw Voices standing on the edge of the outcrop, talking to himself and cursing like the crazy old trapper in Jeremiah Johnson. Or like me on the descent off Kinsman Peak. He saw me behind him and let loose with a sailor-worthy stream of invective about the lack of trail signage. Specifically, the dearth of white blazes and the plethora of false trails.

Seeing his soaking wet shoes and shin-level muddy pant legs, I asked how he felt about the puddles and mud pits on the trail, but he said he’d given up being mad about that. At that particular moment, he couldn’t figure out where the trail went and had reached his limit. After agreeing to chip in and buy New Hampshire a can of white paint and a shovel, I pointed him toward the Mizpah Hut, his destination for the night.

Cutting it Close

I’d made better time along the plateau than on the initial climb, but I was still running late. Missing dinner would be bad, but I had emergency food I could use in a pinch. Plus, the hut usually keeps leftovers for stragglers.

The big problem would be getting stuck out here after dark. Trying to navigate the poorly marked trail in the rocky, treeless, fogged-in terrain could be deadly. A red-lettered warning sign appeared in front of me saying exactly that, just as the rain and wind intensified.

I’d put on my rain jacket two hours earlier, but now I zipped it up to my chin, trying to keep the sideways blowing rain from soaking my torso. The nasty weather, poor visibility, and potential for getting lost in the rocks above tree line gave the rest of the day’s hike an epic feel. I made my peace with my Maker and soldiered on.

Lake of the Clouds Hut

When I finally burst through the door of the Lake of the Clouds Hut, just minutes before the dinner bell, I felt like the moment demanded that everyone inside stop and stare in amazement, anticipating the wild tales of survival I’d no doubt be telling. But no, I was just another soggy hiker, one of many who’d walked in wet and cold that day. The ones coming in after dark would have better stories.

The hut only had 24 guests, about a quarter of its capacity, but the room I’d been assigned was nearly full, with almost every peg occupied by dripping gear and wet clothes. Two ladies who’d registered just ahead of me, took one look, and went back out to request another room. I peeked into the room across the hall and discovered it was empty, so I went and asked if I could move too. Just like that, I had a private room, at least for an hour or two.

My roommates rolled in about 8:00, well after dinner had been cleaned up, though the kitchen managed to feed them something. One of them had been blown over by the wind on a peak, hurting her head and bruising her arms. She was clearly shaken and had decided they’d hike off the mountain tomorrow morning, abandoning their longer planned hike.

A Thru Hiker Talk

Four lucky 20-something thru hikers gave a presentation about the AT after dinner as their work for stay assignment. Their presentation consisted of introducing themselves and asking if we had any questions.

We did. Lots of them. At least an hour’s worth. As they started to wind down and began looking longingly at the dinner leftovers, I asked which was their least favorite state. Without a moment’s hesitation, they all said, “Vermont. The mud and weather were atrocious.”

That led to another series of questions about the difficulties of hiking the AT. Someone asked if they ever thought about quitting. At first, all of them choked on the answer, looking awkwardly at each other, and not responding. Then, one of them said, “No. Never. I’m committed to finishing. It’s been great.” But it sounded flat and rehearsed, and she looked down and to the left as she said it.

The next two hikers repeated the same mantra with about the same (lack of) intensity. Finally, the last guy said, “Yes. I’m homesick all the time. I had to get off the trail for three weeks in Maryland after injuring my foot, and it was really hard to come back. But I’m glad I did.”

I believed that guy. Everybody has at least one day where they think about quitting. And about 75 percent of those who start a thru hike do more than think about quitting. Most wannabe thru hikers quit.

Hiker Chatter

Talk in the hut centered around the difficulty of hiking the Whites. Everyone warned me that southern Maine was just as hard, if not harder, than the Whites. They also said my 14.9-mile hike tomorrow would be a beast, especially if the weather didn’t break.

So, I went to bed early, pulled out my FarOut app, and started re-thinking my itinerary for southern Maine.

Daily Stats:

  • Start: Crawford Notch (Mile 1852.8)
  • End: Lake of the Clouds Hut (Mile 1863.9)
  • Weather: Rainy, windy, overcast, chilly
  • Earworm: I Need Somebody to Love
  • Meditation: Jn 10:14
  • Plant of the Day: Lichens
  • Best Thing: Getting indoors for the night
  • Worst Thing: Rain, wind, and puddles

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Comments 4

  • thetentman : Sep 8th

    To be absolutely correct you are a prospective thru-hiker. Hopefully, you will make it.

    Check out the Cowboy Junkies – Miles From Our Home. I think you will like it, especially when you are getting a great view.

    Oh, and that was a nice post.


    • Jon : Sep 9th

      Thx for the music tip!

  • Mike Nixon : Sep 17th

    “and she looked down and to the left as she said it.”

    Interview & Interrogation 101

    Stay safe & strong! You’re getting closer, my friend.

    • Jon : Sep 17th

      Yup. Figured you’d catch that.
      Counting the days.


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