Days 178-180 New Hampshire: The Presidential Range
On our last morning at the Ski Lodge, we enjoyed one more delicious breakfast sandwich from Wayne’s then said goodbye to Jeff and see you later to the other hikers. We crammed into a shuttle with Marky Mark, Cowboy, and the Temp. Our shuttle driver was less than pleased, but he only complained for about half the ride… When we got back to the trail we met Grillmaster, Hoolihan, and her dog Hawkeye in the parking lot. We had all been waiting out the bad weather and thought we felt ready to get back on trail.
Within 20 mins we all realized we were not as ready as we thought. The boys were complaining bitterly about the climb, and we knew it wasn’t even the bad part yet! My legs were upset and my backpack felt far too heavy. Maybe we shouldn’t have had so many beers over the last two days… Alas, I fell pretty far behind. I only caught up to Pinky because he was also feeling it and took a break. The boys must have gotten their legs figured out, though, because we didn’t see them again until Mizpah hut that afternoon.
The legs eventually warmed up and we settled in to the climb. The rock scrambles appeared before too long, and we found ourselves climbing along the side of a cliff. If it hadn’t been almost completely socked in we probably would have been able to see the highway we’d come in on down below us. As it was, we could only hear it. The clouds were spooky and cool, though, and I was loving it.
We climbed our way up and over Mt Webster, then Mt Jackson- the first official 4K-er of the Presidentials. We picked our way along bog boards and tried not to soak our feet in the mud.
Finally, close to 2pm we arrived at Mizpah hut. Staying at the adjacent campsite, Nauman, was one option for the day. However, it was still pretty early so we figured we could make the remaining 4.7 miles to Lake of the Clouds- I really wanted to “Dungeon Blaze” (more on that later.) We got plenty of fuel for the afternoon from the hut- we were finally lucky enough to arrive while they still had food! We had our thru-hiker cards from Garfield which gave us 1 “free” (we had to pay $10 for the card) soup and 2 free baked goods. We enjoyed some delicious squash soup and an amazing brownie, in addition to our own copious snacks from our recent resupply.
Refueled and excited to get to Lake of the Clouds, we continued on. The terrain continued to be difficult, and at times had some downright dangerous elements like this destroyed ladder thing.
The whole time we were in New Hampshire we were hugely disappointed in the (lack of) trail maintenance provided by the AMC. I understand it is challenging to maintain the trail, and I don’t expect perfection, but the volunteer clubs in other states did a much better job than the extremely well funded AMC. I’m not going to spend the whole blog complaining about the AMC but I would like it known that I think they could do better. The end.
Within about an hour we had made it above treeline. We wouldn’t get back down until after Mt Madison. The Presidential Range has the longest stretch of the AT above treeline- about 12 miles. This makes this section both extremely beautiful and extremely dangerous. Hikers have to pay close attention to the weather because there is no shelter. Even a moderate storm can be deadly. Our whole time on trail the gossip mill included stories about hikers getting injured, rescued, and even dying in this section- as recently as this summer. We were approaching this section with reverence and fear. I’d spent the two days at the Ski Lodge obsessively checking the weather forecast on Mt Washington to make sure it was going to be safe to do the traverse. We thought it looked safe enough, but the forecast can change on a dime.
In addition to being terrifying, the Presidentials are otherworldly. The clouds we’d come through going up Webster and Jackson were now breaking up. Every moment the clouds were shifting, giving us an ever changing kaleidoscope of light and shadow, unexpected glimpses of peaks ahead or the valley below.
The ground was mostly rocky but there were also alpine plants, even flowers, which are unique to this area and elevation. Every step brought a surprise.
We also had to carefully watch every step because the trail was pretty rocky. The trail over this first section of the range was actually pretty good, compared to what we would face the next day, but it still wasn’t like a nice, smooth, dirt path. Some people seemed unconcerned by the terrain, though. We noticed a hiker coming towards us, gliding along like a graceful, chill gazelle. When we got closer we recognized him as PETE, the chillest caretaker from the Garfield Ridge campsite!! He had hiked over to Lake of the Clouds on his day off. Even while hiking this challenging terrain, he was chill as hell. Just cruising along in his dang CROCS, not even in 4 wheel drive mode! An amazing man.
After a quick chat with Pete, we continued and passed our first opportunity to take a side trip. The AT follows the Crawford Path for the Presidential Traverse. The Crawford Path does cover Pierce, Washington and Madison. There are blue blazes over the 4 presidential peaks that the Crawford Path does not explicitly go over. Some thru hikers will take these alternate routes so that they can “peak bag” the whole range. Because we were feeling pressed for time, the peaks almost all looked socked in, and we are not peak baggers, we chose not to take the trails to the 2 peaks we passed on the way to Lake of the Clouds. (We also didn’t take any the next day…)
Honestly, the path around Monroe was possibly even more incredible than summiting it would have been. The clouds were moving pretty quickly and some of my favorite moments of the day were back there.
Then, coming around the corner with giant Monroe above us and the Lake of the Clouds hut appearing out of the mist just below was so cool. When we arrived at Lake of the Clouds we were happy to find a bunch of thru hikers already there. We knew Cowboy and Marky Mark were ahead of us and would beat us there- in fact, we had planned on it. They were going to help us do a con (all Cowboy’s idea, cooked up while we were rooming together at the Ski Lodge).
To stay at the AMC huts as a thru hiker you either have to get lucky and get one of 2 thru hiker work-for-stay spots or you can shell out $150 to stay in a bunk (this does include “all you can eat” dinner and breakfast). A lot of thru hikers around us had chosen to spend the money to get a bunk at Lake of the Clouds so they could be sure they had somewhere to stay. There is NO camping allowed above treeline, so if you don’t stay at the Nauman campsite back at Mizpah, you have to stay at Lake or face a steep descent down a side trail to get below treeline, OR attempt to go across the rest of the range to Madison Spring hut or the nearby side trails which take you below treeline. It’s a scary prospect to be stuck at Lake without somewhere safe to sleep.
To help with this dilemma, Lake of the Clouds does allow thru hikers to pay $10 to stay in the “Dungeon”- their emergency basement shelter. Our plan was to “Dungeon Blaze” and stay down there. We knew we wouldn’t win the work for stay lottery and we didn’t want to spend $300 for both of us to stay in bunks. We were also concerned about getting there early enough to snag one of the 6 Dungeon spaces. Cowboy’s idea was that he and Marky Mark would get to the hut first, they had reserved bunks but they wouldn’t say this up front- instead they would take a Dungeon space as a placeholder for us. When we got there, they would say JK we have a bunk and give us their Dungeon space. Pretty good con, right? Luckily, so many thru hikers had gone ahead and gotten bunks that there were only 3 Dungeon spaces taken by the time we arrived, and they didn’t run the con. Dungeon Blazing success!
We said hello to the girls (Squirrel, FM and Pearwood) and the other hikers we knew. Everyone was nervous/excited about summiting Washington tomorrow and had generally had a good day getting to Lake. We all shared our weather reports, and would continue checking it overnight- there was decent signal at the hut. Of course, the forecast had changed and we now had a slight chance of rain with thunderstorms in the afternoon. The general consensus was to get as early a start as possible in the morning and try to get at least to Madison Spring hut or all the way to treeline before the weather began.
It was COLD that evening. The clouds that had been hanging around all day cleared up as the sun was setting and we got our first unobstructed, very up close, view of Washington. He’s BIG y’all! Even from 1 mile below the summit it looked extremely imposing.
We also got to watch a beautiful sunset from right outside the Dungeon.
After the dinner service was finished, we were able to go inside the dining room where it was warm. We planned to eat dinner inside since it was so cold outside. However, as we were setting up our stoves one of the croo members came over and said cooking inside wasn’t allowed! I was annoyed because I had definitely seen someone else’s cook stove out on a table earlier, which gave me the impression this would be allowed. I huffed and went outside to cook in the freezing cold and wind. I’ll be honest, my stove was not working well so I did go inside the dungeon after about 10 minutes of my water refusing to boil. Then I went back up to the dining room to eat after I was done cooking.
We had a great time eating dinner with new and old friends. Mother Duck and Trashman, who we had met briefly before but never spent much time with, were some of our dungeon mates that night. They had spent the last few days moving south. They chose to change directions so that they could still make progress through the rainy days and time out the weather so they weren’t going over Washington in the worst of it. Smart cookies! I would file this genius thinking away and use it later on.
That night was the first time since the spring that I slept in my sleeping bag with it fully zipped up. It was chilly billies up there at 5,031 feet of elevation! We kept the door open- both because it was extremely smelly in the dungeon and so that we could see the moon and stars through the open door. I loved being able to look out and see the profile of Mt Washington against the sky whenever I woke up.
Waking up came pretty quickly. The alarm went off before 5 so that we could be hiking by 6. We chose to quickly eat a few bars for first breakfast, with the plan to eat a larger breakfast at the summit. We set off just as the sun was starting to glow behind Washington.
Even though it was only 1 mile to the top it took us a full hour to get up there. Washington is just a giant pile of rocks! It was tricky going. Also, I was stopping every 5 seconds to look around me in awe and take photos and videos. I feel like I got some decent photos but it’s just impossible to capture the SCALE of our surroundings and the true quality of the light. Here’s some of the photos I took. Try to imagine being there, if you can.
It was the most beautiful 1 hour of the entire hike, for me. I loved the clouds below us. I loved looking across and spotting Franconia Ridge and remembering being there just a few days before and imagining what it would be like to be here. I loved seeing the sunlight begin to hit the ridges behind me. I couldn’t believe I was finally hiking the baddest mountain on the East Coast and at SUNRISE. What! Honestly, I spent the whole day just in awe of being on that range. The Presidentials truly are the most rugged, unforgiving, challenging, and breathtaking place I have ever been. Looking back, I still think the Whites are generally overrated, but they are undeniably different from anything else on the East Coast and the Presidentials in particular are incredibly special.
I cried a bit when we got to the summit. I’m crying a bit now remembering it. The summit is weird because it’s got a dang ROAD going up to it and there’s a huge visitors center and a weather station and just a lot of human stuff on it. So the summit kinda sucks, to be honest. But, it was beautiful when you looked past all of that. The sun was fully up by then and the clouds were still rolling around, looking fabulous. We would continue to have just the most incredible clouds all day. (Clouds in the mountains are my favorite thing so I will not stop talking about them).
We joined Timber, Uptown, Lemon Drop, and Baloo in the adirondack chairs and had ourselves a leisurely second breakfast.
About an hour later, we decided we should probably move on because we had 8.7 miles to go to our campsite for the night and the threat of thunderstorms in the afternoon. 8.7 miles may seem like NBD, but we understood enough about the challenges of the Whites by now to know that we would indeed need all day to do it. When we left the summit, after one more photo op with the sign, it was socked in.
But by the time we crossed the road and the Cog tracks, the clouds had moved around again and we had shifting views across the Gulf on the right and the valley on the left. Standing on the edge of the Gulf, which was alternately a sea of fog, was so spooky and gave us butterflies.
At 9 am we could hear the Cog and see it puffing smoke as it began its first trip of the day up the mountain. We decided that the next time we come to Mt Washington we are taking the train. From here, it was a long blur of a day until we made it to Madison Springs. At one point we took a break and realized Pinky’s water bottle had fallen out of his backpack without him noticing. This was the second water bottle sacrificed to the mountains New Hampshire. Sorry for littering 🙁
We were surrounded by clouds and mountains and it was absolutely gorgeous. At the same time, we were doing the most challenging hiking we had done to date. In fact, calling it hiking is a misnomer. We were largely rock scrambling and rock hopping. Mostly on dry rocks, sometimes covered with tiny gravelly rocks or sand. Once or twice the trail was a stream!
We had to pay close attention to every step. Pinky had a hard time appreciating the beauty because he was so focused on not dying. I made frequent pauses so I could take it all in. He listened to music and podcasts constantly to keep his thoughts from turning dark. I felt like I needed to be completely present and focused, so I didn’t listen to anything all day.
It was a relief when we finally saw Madison Spring Hut way down at the bottom of the intimidating Mt Madison (another giant pile of rocks). It took us 5 grueling hours to make it the 5.7 miles from the summit of Washington to the Hut. I got there before Pinky, I quickly filled my water bottle and sat down to start eating.
We had to make a decision here. We could take a steeep side trail down to a shelter or campsite, we could sit around at the hut and make a work for stay attempt, or we could risk going over Madison and down to treeline with a 20% chance of thunderstorms in the late afternoon. It was only 1.6 miles to treeline, and 3 miles to the Osgood tentsite. It was about 1pm when we arrived at the hut and the sky was clear. The other hikers who had arrived just before us were heading out and Raisin, who arrived while we were there, was also going to head on for Osgood. We decided to head for Osgood, too.
In retrospect, this was a horrible decision. If I had known how brutally difficult those 1.6 miles are, I would have just skipped Madison altogether and bailed out on a different side trail. It’s impossible to overstate how difficult those 1.6 miles were for us. Pinky was already done in by the 5.7 miles since Washington. His shoes were seriously lacking in tread, he hates the kind of rock scrambling we were doing, and he was basically terrified with every step. I had a minor panic attack about halfway down Madison because I was sure we were going to die in a thunderstorm (it never did thunderstorm, it didn’t even actually look that threatening, but more clouds did roll in as soon as we got over the summit and I was convinced one was imminent.) We still look back on those 3 miles between Madison Spring Hut and Osgood tentsite as the worst miles of the trail.
The first bit, climbing up the rock pile above the hut, was actually kinda fun for me. I like the scrambly climbs much more than the flat or down scrambles. Getting to the top, though, was very scary. I’m not really afraid of heights, but it’s SO high and SO exposed and you are literally sitting on the top of a giant pile of rocks and it kinda feels like you could get blown right off. It was one of the coolest views of the whole trail, though.
The whole Presidential range is extending behind you, and the great bowl of the Gulf is below with the side of Washington across it, and the Wildcats are directly across from the long ridge you have to go down to treeline. It was incredible to see these huge mountains that I had spent the whole day walking across (okay we didn’t take any side trails so truly I didn’t summit all of them, but I had walked on all of them).
The worst part, was that we could see treeline and it didn’t look *that* far away. But then every time we’d come up a crest, it would still look the same distance away. It just never got any closer.
The trail wasn’t even a little bit of a trail at this point. We were following rock cairns piled up on top of more rocks, and those rocks were HUGE. I was butt sliding almost the whole way. It was slow going. Pinky was moving even slower than I was and I was afraid to get too far away from him. But I was also afraid to stop because, remember, I was terrified a thunderstorm was going to begin at any moment. I would wait for him and stare at the clouds and panic. Then I’d crawl along on the rocks, panicking about slipping and breaking a leg, realize I couldn’t see him behind me anymore, pause, panic, etc. It was awful.
Two hours later we made it to treeline. Unfortunately, the going didn’t get any easier from here. It was still brutally steep, but at least now we had trees to hold on to. We also had untrustworthy dirt and sketchy roots to slip on. Regardless, I was immensely relieved to no longer be at extreme risk for death by lightning.
An hour and half later, we made it to Osgood tentsite. Cowboy, Marky Mark, Raisin, and Dragon Queen were already there but we hardly spoke to them. We were so exhausted we just wanted to set up our tent, eat and go to sleep. We found an open platform and did just that. We mostly talked about how much the day sucked, but also how proud of ourselves we were. Most of all, we were so glad we didn’t die.
As we were eating, Baloo and Lemon Drop rolled through, and just after dark, along came Foody. He had camped at Nauman the night before and made it all the way there. He did an insane 14.8 mile day. I could not believe it! What a champ.
As we were snuggling in to our sleeping bags- it was way warmer than the night before but not *warm* by any means- we heard some rustling outside. It persisted, and Pinky thought it sounded like something was getting into my backpack. I stuck my head out with my headlamp and shined my light over it- two shiny eyes looked back at me! The creature quickly ran back into the woods, turning around once more to look at me before scampering out of sight. It had a little face, pointy ears, and a long body. I had no idea what it was. I thought I heard a few more sounds throughout the night and I was sure I was going to wake up to a chewed-on backpack… but when we got up in the morning my pack was intact. Phew.
The next morning, we slept in a bit since we were feeling our exertions from the day before, and we only had about 5 miles to go to Pinkham Notch where we would get a ride to town for the night. Plus, my sleeping pad was waiting for me at the post office!! I’d had a leaky pad since VERMONT and had finally worked out getting a warranty pad shipped to me from Big Agnes. I could not wait to have a pad that didn’t need to be re-inflated 3 times a night! It was going to be a good day!!
The hiking was so so nice between Osgood and Pinkham Notch. A nice dirt path, some springy pine needles, minimal rocks and roots. We were in such good moods, and so unconcerned about timing, that we wound up chatting for a good 45 minutes next to a creek. First we talked with some day hikers, then we talked with Legion from Hiker’s Welcome! When we stayed there, almost 2 weeks before, he told us about his upcoming hut-to-hut trek that would take him from the Wildcats back to Hiker’s Welcome on the other side of Moosilauke. He was a few nights into the hike… and did not look like he was having a good time. He told us about his woes, we told him how much we hated Madison, and wished him luck with the rest of his hike. We told him Squirrel, Pearwood and FM were behind us and he should keep an eye out for them, too.
About an hour later, after we had taken a short scramble up to some rocks with a view up to Madison (I decided I much preferred looking at the dang thing to being on it), FM herself came out of the woods! We were delighted to see her. We hadn’t seen the girls at all the day before and were wondering how they had fared. Like us, she had a horrible time on Madison. She and Pearwood had set up camp as soon as they got below treeline, just as it was getting dark. We were so glad they made it safely down, and were thrilled to have her company for the rest of the walk to Pinkham.
The rest of the way was extremely pleasant. We got to Pinkham Notch around 12:30. There’s a pretty good store in the visitor’s center. I had read they did Darn Tough exchanges and I was *hype* to exchange mine- my dang Altra Olympus 5s, while they lacked some of the structural problems other people’s had, did have a completely worn down inner heel on the right shoe and it had worn a hole in both my Darn Toughs AND Injinis and given me a small blister. I was devastated because I really thought those Darn Toughs would last the whole trip, we were so close.
In addition to new socks, we got a few fun snacks, some cold drinks, and took this photo for our dear buddy Two. We were missing him and his Two Foxes.
Then we went about figuring out where we were going to stay in town and how we were going to get there. We decided on a hotel, we were a little worn out on the hostel life and wanted some peace and quiet for a night. Hitching also seemed like more of a challenge than we wanted, so we called up good ole Jackpot, since he was in the area. This wound up being great- he wound up taking us to the WalMart for a resupply in addition to the post office and the hotel.
The post office, however, was a huge disappointment. My sleeping pad WAS NOT THERE. And they had absolutely no idea where it was!! I cried. Both my tracking info and the post offices’s said it was there, but the guy could not find it. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to continue to sleep on my deflating pad.
Our Jackpot adventure quickly lifted my spirits. When he picked us up from the WalMart, he asked if we wanted to go test drive a car with him. He plans to continue his shuttle business next year and was looking at options so he can expand his seating capacity. We were absolutely down to go for a joy ride. So we went almost next door to the car dealership, and piled into the car with him, Detour, and the poor salesman who did not bargain for being stuck in a car with that many stinky hikers, but was very nice about it. It was a very fancy car and we had a great time.
We couldn’t come up with any other side trips, so Jackpot took us to our hotel and we began the process of getting cleaned up. It was great laying in that big hotel bed, eating strawberries while double fisting a beer and kombucha. Once we had clean clothes we walked over to the barbecue place and had some weird attempt at southern food. New Englanders should maybe leave fried chicken and barbecue alone. The corn bread was pretty great, though.
We slept great, no tiny creatures trying to get into my backpack this time. The next morning it was tough fitting the food bags into the backpacks- it’s hard not to go ham at a WalMart. We were only going out for 2 nights before my friend Hannah would pick us up, but you wouldn’t believe that if you saw our food bags… You’d think by this point we would have learned how to appropriately resupply, but it remained a challenge.
Jackpot arrived to take us back to the trail. We threw our heavy packs in the truck, and headed back to tackle the last 21 miles of the White Mountains National Forest- the Wildcats and Carter-Moriah Range.
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