Living up to the Hype: Weeks 17-18 on the Trail
Since my last post, I’ve hiked through the most anticipated section of the trail, the White Mountains, and into the last state on the AT, Maine. These sections have been amazing! And so rugged. They’ve blown the rest of the trail out of the water.
A Moosilauke Punch in the Face
After leaving Hanover, NH, the first climbs in New Hampshire kicked my butt and made me fear what was in store for me. Smarts Mountain and Mount Cube quickly appeared on my toughest climbs I’ve experienced on the trail. And no one ever mentions them! After completing the Whites, no wonder they’re not mentioned, the rest of the White Mountains are insanely tough!
Ever since starting the trail in Georgia, you constantly hear about how beautiful and how demanding the White Mountains are. Mt Mooseilauke was my “welcome to the Whites” moment: 4 miles and over 4000′ of elevation gain. It’s by far one of the longest, steepest climbs on the entire AT. The first 3 miles were steeper than anything I’d seen so far on trail, then the last mile added near vertical rock-faces and boulders to scramble over. Whew! It never ended! Forget hiking, this is climbing! When I finally got near the top, I passed a SOBO thru hiker who greeted me with a knowing grin, “welcome to the Whites.”
As tough as the climb was, I was lucky to get the summit on a clear day and the views were just absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking. Layers on layers of Ridge lines. And layers and layers of sweet smelling day hikers (there’s an easier side trail to the top and I was there on a Sunday). Welcome to the Whites indeed!
The next day I climbed the South and North Kinsman peaks. The White Mountains are so tough that I’ve had to completely throw out my normal planning factor of at least 2 miles per hour. Try a mile and a half per hour, if you’re lucky. The Kinsmans really pushed that point home. Once I gasped my way onto the summit after what I thought was a long 4 mile 2000′ climb, I was horrified to see it’d taken me 2.5 hours to climb only 2.3 miles. The vertical rock faces that greet you at every turn in the whites sure are disheartening and tough to conquer, but once you reach the top, all the effort, frustration, and hard work pay off in a huge way.
The Hardest, Most Perfect Day on the Franconia Ridge
While staying at the Notch hostel in North Woodstock, NH, I reunited with my old hiking buddy, Chiclet, who I’d met in the Smokies and hiked almost all of Pennsylvania and New Jersey with. Much to my chagrin, the forecast was calling for 5 rainy, foggy days through the whites. The fact that it hailed and killed the power at the hostel that night (also forcing me to grill rather than bake my pizza, which I ate in its entirety without regret) drove home that we probably weren’t going to get any views in the White Mountains, a real disappointment for a section of the trail that’s been so hyped.
When we started our climb up Franconia Ridge the next morning, it was foggy and cloudy. But as soon as we completed the rooty, rocky, steep climb to Little Haystack above treeline, the clouds miraculously dispersed, opening up the views across the ridge and throughout the entire mountain range. I couldn’t have been any happier! How could I have been?! The two mile above treeline stretch is one of the most beautiful ridges along the entire AT, and the fog had cleared just in time just for me! I think I took 100 pictures that day!
To make matters even better, when I got to Mt. Lincoln, the 2nd of 3 peaks on Franconia Ridge, a group of 5 trail angels had hiked up Italian sausages, fresh fruit, brownies, and 10lbs of ice for (can you believe it?) frozen margaritas. There’s trail magic, and then there’s trail magic!! After downing to sausages and two margaritas, I really couldn’t believe that it had just happened! It was 1pm and we’d only done 5.5 miles, but we’d already had the most majestic day!
The rest of the day was so scenic and incredibly difficult. Mt Garfield and South Twin Peak felt like twice the size they actually were based on how steep the climbs were. South Twin, for instance, is only 8/10ths of a mile, but its a 1200′ elevation gain. It’s almost like we were rock scrambling our entire way to each summit. Talk about a smoker. Eventually we ended our 15.7 mile day after 13 hours of hiking, the hardest and longest 15.7 miles I’ve done the entire trail. But probably also the best!
After Franconia Ridge, the Presidential Range appeared, with Mt Washington ominously towering above all the other mountains in the Northeast. The Presidential Range is a 12 mile above treeline scenic stretch of mountaintops that attracts most visitors to the White Mountains. Chiclet and I climbed the Webster Cliffs, which was unforgiving, both in its never-ending climb and in its beauty, to start the Presidentials. After it kicked our butts, we camped just below treeline to conquer the rest of the traverse the next day.
White out on Washington
I really was extremely fortunate with the weather I had in the White Mountains. Despite the forecast calling for fog and rain for 5 days straight, I had near perfect weather and eternal views for my time there, except of course for the morning I climbed Mount Washington, a behemoth of a mountain at 6288′. We stopped into the Lake of the Clouds Hut, which appeared from thin air out of the fog 25′ in front of us. Luckily, they had some leftover breakfast eggs and oatmeal from their overpaying “backpacking” guests that morning.
We began the climb up Washington in the blinding fog. The climb was surprisingly not all that rough, seeing as we’d had the mountain in our sights for days now from afar. Once we hit the summit it was so foggy I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me. Literally. My eyes started hurting from how foggy it was. We stumbled around the summit in the blinding fog, then escaped into the madhouse that was the visitor center. Yes, there’s a visitor center with a snack bar at one of the deadliest mountains in America…
Climbing down Washington, the boulders began in full force. It was like the Pennsylvania rocks all over again. Luckily, the fog cleared in about 2 hours after climbing down Mt Washington, so we had amazing views of Mt Adams, Mt Jefferson, and Mt Madison as we navigated the alpine zone rocks. I had to stop every 200 yards or so just to take in the views. The rocky descent down Madison jolted the knees, but the pain couldn’t wash away the high I got from the views on the Presidential Range.
Wildcat and the End of the Whites
I was able to meet up with an old friend, Tyler, to climb up and over Wildcat Mountain. (Thanks Tyler for opening up your home to two smelly thru hikers!!) The end of the Whites did not let up with how difficult or beautiful the climbs were. Wildcat is a popular ski area in the winter, but ascending it felt like skiing UP a black diamond trail.
Mt Moriah was a beautiful finish to the Whites. Chiclet and I shared a sunset there, said goodbye to the Whites, and congratulated each other on conquering them. For all the hype the White Mountains get, they absolutely live up to it. By far, they’ve been the most challenging, most beautiful section of the trail. My spirits left the Whites at an all time high!
I sure will miss the Whites
Southern Maine: Whites 2.0
After completing the Whites, I hiked into my 14th and final state, Maine! Part of me feels like I never want this journey to end since everyday is a new adventure. But the other part of me thinks back to my early days way back in the Smokies and Virginia, and I realize just how long I’ve been out here and how I’ll enjoy getting back to the civilized world.
My first impressions of Maine have been no joke. The hiking here is some of the most rugged hiking I’ve ever done in my life (not including the Whites, those take the cake!), but the trail is also remote, peaceful, and picturesque.
Maine’s ponds (lake-sized ponds, silly New England) are constant. All a hiker can do to not jump in every single one is to close your eyes and dream about Mt Katahdin. Seriously, they’re beautiful. Chiclet and I ended one of our hikes early in the day just so we could stay at a pond with canoes. Oh and there’s loons!
The Hardest Mile: Mahoosuc Notch
The AT guides describe the Mahoosuc Notch as the most difficult or fun mile on the entire Appalachian Trail. It’s both! The notch is a deranged scramble of giant boulders smashed in a sharp valley. This mile isn’t hiking, it’s rock climbing, crawling on all fours, tree climbing, and generally just finding a way forward. Throw out any plans of doing big miles. It took me and Chiclet over an hour and fifteen minutes to get through. The mile was so difficult I split my pants in the front. Whoops. But I definitely felt like a hiking badass!
Miles Hiked So Far
Next up is the Bigelow Range, the 100 mile wilderness, and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin! I can’t believe this journey is almost ending!
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