Day 141: The AT’s Toughest Ten Miles
I woke to light rain and cloud cover. Check that, I woke to pitch-black darkness. At 3:15, to a chorus of snoring startled me awake, so I stared at the bottom of the platform above me for two and a half hours until the first alarm went off. Then, I noticed the thick cloud cover and light rain, which was not what the meteorologist promised for this morning.
Stoves started firing up almost immediately, so I got up and followed suit and was hiking by 6:40. I’m a machine for getting ready in the morning. All business. Almost everyone in last night’s shelter said they were heading for the Full Goose Shelter, so it’ll be a full one, and it wouldn’t hurt to be the first one on the trail.
I fell three times yesterday. Each time, it was wet slanted rocks that got me. I couldn’t count the number of times I stumbled and could have fallen on roots or impossibly steep descents. On one of the falls, I must have scratched my arm on some branches or rocks, but I didn’t notice until I saw someone staring at my forearm. It was smeared with mostly dried blood from my wrist to my elbow from two inch-long abrasions on the back of my arm. It looked gnarly, but I didn’t even remember it happening. Getting poked and scratched is just part of hiking the AT.
Five miles from the shelter, I rounded a bend and saw the sign marking the Maine state line. I did it. I hiked to Maine. State #14. I’ve had the rain and pain. Now, I’ve got Maine.
I actually got a little choked up.
I never thought I’d get here. I knew I could, but so many thru hikers don’t. It’s too easy to end a thru hike. There are too many reasons to quit. I said a little prayer of thanks, took a picture, and moved on. I’m not done yet.
Gentian Pond to Full Goose Shelter
That section heading should strike fear into your heart. But it probably doesn’t because you’ve probably never heard of it. Everyone knows about the stairs at Amicolola, Blood Mountain, Albert Mountain, the Rollercoaster, the Virginia Blues, Pennsylvania’s rocks, Mount Moosilauke, the White Mountains, and Katahdin.
The hike between the shelters at Gentian Pond and Full Goose should be on that list. It was brutal. And dangerous. Especially in the rain.
The hike is only 9.6 miles long, with only 3,800 feet of climbing and 3,000 feet of descents. On paper, it looked like an easy day. But the Warren Doyle group only did the 9.6-mile section in a day, and lots of the comments on FarOut call out its difficulty, saying they only managed one mile per hour. But not all of them. A few responses call those FarOut comments as fear mongering and say they knocked out the hike in four hours.
So, I didn’t know what to expect. I did notice that FarOut listed the trail’s average grade at 715 feet per mile, meaning that the entire hike would be steep, whether descending or climbing. Steep terrain can be slow going.
Why So Slow?
Why would a 10-mile hike with only 3,800 feet of climbing take 10 hours? For the first 1,800 miles of my AT hike, I averaged 2.5 to 2.8 miles per hour, and that included some noteworthy climbs and descents. Some days, I’d finished above 3 mph. But I haven’t made even 2 mph since hitting the Whites. The difference is the trail conditions.
The really steep climbs slow you down for obvious reasons. It’s hard work fighting gravity. But on the climbs, you have better balance, and you can stop yourself from falling with your hands.
The steep descents slow you down the most, especially when they’re wet. This summer, they’ve all been wet. Even when it’s not raining, the trail design has turned long stretches of trail into little streams that flow for days after a rain. When descending a steep, rocky, muddy, wet trail, you have to stop and figure out where you can safely place each foot, assess whether your foot is likely to slip out from under you, and evaluate where you’ll land if you fall.
Imagine how long it would take to walk just one lap around your high school track if you had to stop, look at your feet, and think for just one second with each step.
And that’s not all. Picking your way around deep puddles and mud pits, deciphering confusing or absent trail blazing, ducking under overgrown vegetation, and climbing over fallen logs slows your pace too.
You Gotta Be Kidding Me
But when the trail gets really crazy, like it did today, I’d just stop and say, “You gotta be kidding me. That can’t be the trail.” It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen any of this stuff before, but I’d never seen all of it so tightly packed together.
What stuff, you ask?
Steep climbs are old hat by now. A thousand feet per mile? So what. Fifteen hundred feet per mile? Sure. Vertical, hand-over-hand climbs. Well, that’s a new one. Several times I had to throw my poles onto a ledge above my head, look for hand and foot holds, and start climbing. Too frequently, I’d climb up only to discover the trail dropped right back down just as steeply only a few steps later.
It was a rock gym. With a backpack. In the rain. And no padded floor, belay rope, spotter, or helmet.
Today’s hike offered two types of ladders – iron rungs and wooden steps.
The iron rung ladders consist of u-shaped pieces of rebar anchored in vertical bedrock faces. They’re a little unnerving in the best of weather, but when they’re wet, the metal is as slick as a greased pig. Once you put your weight on them and look down on the bedrock and pointy tree stumps you’d fall on, especially for big guys like me, you start thinking about who built these things. And how long ago?
I’d guess they probably weren’t installed by licensed engineers, geologists, or metal workers. I’d imagine a first-time volunteer saying, “I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that. Hold my beer, I’ll give it a try.” Or maybe they were put in by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. What’s the design life on rebar exposed to New England weather?
Sometimes, the iron rungs had several flights, requiring a lateral move along a narrow rock ledge to reach the next one. Some of the rungs were bent or angled. But I felt better about the iron rung ladders when I reached the wooden ones.
Whatever the design life of iron is, it’s longer than wood. And none of the wooden ladders today looked new. Some of the wooden rungs were pretty punky and others had completely rotted through. I’d skip those rungs and always put my feet close to the edges to maximize the strength of the nails holding them in place.
Honestly, climbing these ladders was kind of fun, in a jumping-out-of-perfectly-good-airplanes sort of way. Which is quite fun, by the way. Until its not.
In places, I had to remind myself, the Mahoosic Notch is tomorrow, not today. As I perched at the top of one 10-foot drop, which required a rock-climbing chimney move to descend, I started to slide off the edge as I tried to find a hold. I muttered a quick prayer, “Oh Lord, not here, not now…” and grabbed at a tiny indentation in the bedrock. It held. I caught myself, scrambled back up, and found another way down.
I can’t imagine falling off that drop and not breaking a bone or getting knocked unconscious. I wish I could say there was only one such down-climb today. But most were just the normal 45-degree sloping bedrock slab, running with water, where you take a deep breath, trust your shoe tread, and hope for the best. Or sit and slide.
Bogs, Planks, and White Mountain Fragility
As an Arizona, the number of Alpine bogs continues to surprise me. Fortunately, most of them have long two-plank wooden walkways that traverse the boggiest sections. Unfortunately, wood rots in bogs, making some of the walkways an adventure. Even worse, about 10 percent of the planks have huge nails that have worked their way up, leaving their heads ¼ to 1 inch above the top of the plank. Those things are toe killers.
Sometimes, a section of planks is missing, leaving an impossible gap. Other times, one end of the plank has rotted off, leaving the remaining part plunging into the muck. I stepped on one of those the other day and it popped up like a cartoon rake, nearly throwing me into the swamp. Other times, the planks aren’t anchored at all and just float atop the mire. Until you step on one and it sinks. Others tilt and tip sideways.
Today, the planks added a new wrinkle – planks on a slope. Walking the planks is a balancing act in the best conditions. When wet with rain, the sloped planks are as slick as snot, so some of them had cross pieces to provide traction. But when the whole plank is listing 20 degrees to the side, every step is treacherous.
But my favorite part is the signs warning hikers to stay on the trail lest they damage the fragile alpine vegetation. Trail? What trail? This is an obstacle course built by the Munsters. If we could see the trail, and if it were above the waterline, hikers would gladly stay on it. I’d imagine the trail maintainers, sitting around over beers, telling stories that all end with the punchline, “…and then I put up a sign telling them to stay on the trail.”
IMPORTANT NOTE: I’m Not Complaining
All that above was just descriptive observation. The obstacles were exhilarating, exhausting, Type II fun. A lot of it. Even when it started raining.
I’d hiked alone all day, making decent time, but hardly setting any records. As I ate a quick lunch on one of the Goose summits, I started thinking that I’d skip the shelter, do the Mahoosic Notch today and camp alone just after that.
But about a mile from Full Goose Shelter, the weather turned, and it started raining. Hard. I scurried to the shelter to wait it out, arriving just before 2:00. As I climbed a newish wooden ladder up a rock ledge to the shelter, I saw and heard a hiker pounding on the donation box. He saw me and went back in the shelter to cook his lunch.
That was awkward. We were the only two people there for the next hour. How to begin a conversation that doesn’t begin with, “So, are you south-stealing or north-burglaring?” He did mention that he’d hiked south through the Notch and that it had taken him 2.5 hours to scramble through the 0.8-mile long gully. The Mahoosic Notch is widely considered to be the toughest mile on the AT.
After hearing Bill Sykes’ account, and seeing the revised forecast for all-night rain, I decided that a late afternoon, 2.5-hour, toughest mile, rainy solo hike through the Notch wasn’t in the cards for me today. I picked out a good spot in the shelter, happy that my larcenous friend had retreated to his hammock tent to smoke and listen to a ballgame.
PBJ, Firefly, JW, Bracket, Crane, and Sauce all rolled in by 5:00, drenched and telling tales of hiking in the rain and fog. Chumbawumba and Fireball had gotten a late start, stopped for lunch at the Carlo Col Shelter, and decided to stay when the hard rain started. Just Try had gone on, but text latered that she’d been stopped when the trail turned into a floodway too deep to walk through. She been at one of the steep, climby descents, so she just bivouacked uncomfortably on a hillslope for the night.
Just before dark, another southbounder hiked in, saying that it had taken him three hours to go through the Mahoosic Notch. He also said that the trail remains just as hard as what we’ve seen for at least another 40 miles. Maybe, but I think I’ll just find out for myself.
- Start: Gentian Pond Shelter (Mile 1911.7)
- End: Full Goose Shelter (Mile 1921.3)
- Weather: Chilly, overcast, drizzle all morning, hard rain by mid-afternoon.
- Earworm: Promises (Eric Clapton)
- Meditation: Ps. 23
- Plant of the Day: Alpine bogs
- Best Thing: Did not die on the worst thing
- Worst Thing: Scary downclimbs on wet rocks
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