Tackling the Whites… Solo!
As I wrote about in my last post, I’d injured myself and have been required to take some recovery time, but I made it most of the way through the Whites before then. They were definitely a struggle with the added challenge of a pulled muscle but I want to share my White Mountain experience outside of that injury.
I’ve recently been hiking alone a lot. I originally made the choice to stop hiking with my group right around Shenandoah. I absolutely do not regret this decision. Because what I know I would have regretted is hiking the entire trail someone else’s way.
However, I assumed we’d continue to cross paths and see each other, maybe hike together again somewhere down the line, but our hiking paces and styles were further off than I thought. I didn’t see Spider again, the friend I started the trail with, for about 900 miles.
I also assumed that I’d fall into other groups, which I did, but eventually got off pace with them as well as we took zeros at different times.
While I whole-heartedly think that every thru-hiker should do a stretch of the trail solo for its entirely different experiences, challenges, freedom, and learning possibilities, that doesn’t change the fact that hiking alone is hard. It’s a zillion times harder than hiking with a friend. Yes, an actual zillion. And since I have done it both ways, I can say with certainty that the increase in the mental challenge is astronomical. Even if you don’t actually physically hike together during the day, just having someone around that has your back and that you’re seeing daily makes a huge difference.
Of course this makes sense. There are countless studies out there about how people are more successful on several different types of endeavors when they take on something with another person. Starting a business, a new fitness plan, ect. And every study says the same thing: you’re more likely to be successful with support from others.
Now add in the fact that The White Mountains and Southern Maine are known to be the hardest parts of the trail. Maine has river fords, which just doesn’t seem like a good idea to do alone, and the Whites are notorious for their technical climbs and rock scrambling. During my first backpacking trip to the Whites a few years ago there was a section where I had to pass my pack up to my friend and climb up without. So, needless to say, I really wanted to have a hiking group through this area. Whenever I imagined my thru-hike, never did I think I’d be tackling the Whites with a weak muscle and alone.
I did try to fall back in with people. I was near two of my previous hiking groups and was making friends with another but, at the end of the day, my leg couldn’t handle the miles to keep pace. And if I tried to force it to, I always regretted it the next day when my groin would hurt just trying to get out of my tent in the morning. So going solo it was!
Before the Whites
The night before hitting the Whites I stayed at the Jeffers Brook Shelter at the base of Mount Moosilauke. I had read that the NOBO descent down Moosilauke was a doozy: steep and challenging, and with danger signs.
I’m better at ascents than descents. And most people agree that descents are harder. Because I have a fear of falling, technical descents especially pose quite a challenge for me both physically and mentally. So I decided I would hit Moosilauke first thing and therefore feel no pressure and be able to take my time.
A man and his 14-year-old daughter (who had thru-hiked SOBO four years ago when she was ten) showed up at the shelter. They weren’t staying but were instead bringing trail magic: treats and beer. Living in the area, they’ve hiked just about every trail in the Whites. He gave me the low-down:
- Moosilauke – Hard but not as bad as everyone says, with about three spots that are going to be especially bad and I’ll be glad it’s dry.
- The Kinsmans – Hard. Both up and down are technical and challenging.
- Mount Garfield – Hard but not devastating.
- The Presidentials – The tallest peaks but surprisingly the easiest (mostly) because once you get up you’re on the ridgeline for awhile.
- Madison – The hardest part of the Presidentials, particularly the descent down into Pinkham Notch (which I had heard before).
- The Wildcats – “We hated the Wildcats.”
Day 1 – 15.9 miles – Jeffers Brook Shelter to Eliza Brook Shelter
I knew taking on 16 miles was a bit ambitious but, given that Moosilauke was the only major climb of the day I thought I could handle it. The climb up Moosilauke was good; it wasn’t technical and it was pretty and enjoyable.
I didn’t see any other hikers until almost at the top. The Hikers Welcome Hostel at the base of Moosilauke slack packs people over Moosilauke bringing them to Kinsmans Notch and the hikers hike it SOBO, meaning that the hard part of the mountain they get to ascend instead of descend, and with a day pack instead of their big packs. My anxiety towards hiking Moosilauke was so great that I briefly (very briefly) considered this option. In the end, flipping a mountain just isn’t for me. But, with so many people doing just that, it left the south side of the mountain basically deserted on my climb up.
I was in the clouds when I first reached the top of Moosilauke. I waited for about 40 minutes hoping things would clear. They did a little and I got a few little peaks as the clouds rolled in and out.
The descent was exactly as the trail angel said. And I was flying high after I got down. One big White Mountain challenge complete! It gave me a total boost of confidence that I felt that I needed and I was ahead of where I thought I’d be at that time of day.
Then I had the last seven miles. It took way longer than I expected. It was muddy and messy and time consuming as I tried to navigate the mud pits. Everyone talks about the Vermont mud but Vermont was nothing compared to the mess I found on Mount Wolf. They weren’t even mud pits but basically mud ponds that were like quick sand. I found myself doing ridiculous acrobatics trying to get around areas that I literally couldn’t get through. I fell four times and slipped and almost fell two more. The mountain club responsible for this area should address this because sections are near impossible to find a way through or around. I didn’t love the mud in Vermont but I usually accept mud as a part of hiking. This small section, however, is unhikeable and out of control.
Day 2 – 8.8 miles – Eliza Book Shelter to Franconia Notch
This day was overall a pretty decent day though some of the hiking was hard for me. I had a shorter mile day that included hiking South Kinsman and North Kinsman then down into Franconia Notch where my dad was meeting me. Again, it was just as the trail angel had predicted. It was hard and technical. What enhanced this was that the technical part seemed to go on for awhile. It wasn’t just one section here and there but seemed almost non-stop technical climbing for the final 1.5 miles to the top.
It’s only another mile from the peak of South Kinsman to the peak of North Kinsman. The descent down North Kinsman was technical and time consuming as well but a bit more manageable. Opposite of Moosilauke, where SOBO’s get the better direction over the mountain, I feel like going NOBO over the Kinsmans is more advantageous. Unfortunately I was stuck in fog/clouds again and couldn’t enjoy any views.
I reached Franconia Notch and met my dad at the Flume Visitor Center. He gave me the keys to his car and went off to do his own hike. I went into Lincoln first to pick up some stuff and immediately indulged in Dunkin Donuts. The rest of the day consisted of regular town chores: laundry, shower, dishes, getting my food in order for the next stretch, ect.
Day 3 – 10.3 miles – Franconia Notch to Garfield Ridge Shelter
My dad started the day with me and we had a fun climb up the Liberty Springs Trail and up to Little Haystack Mountain. My dad had to turn back here, which made me sad, and I continued on along the Franconia Ridge. I had done part of the ridge on a day hike before and was in complete fog. I could not see a single thing. National Geographic has put the Franconia Ridge hike on their list of top 20 hikes to do in the world and I was really hoping that I would have better luck this time. I did but a lot of it was still a wash out. I got a view at the beginning from Little Haystack Mountain and then hiked into the clouds and remained there for awhile. The wind was extreme on the ridge line and, at some points, was strong enough where it caused me to side step. Sometimes, when I went by rock outcroppings, I would dodge behind them to try and give myself some reprieve from fighting the gusts.
As I started to descend, on the other side of Mount Lafayette, the wind let up and the clouds cleared away. The last climb of the day was Mount Garfield which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was challenging but in a good way, not in a nerve-racking, holy smokes, what if I fall, way. The view was beautiful, and better still, it wasn’t windy so I could relax and enjoy it.
Day 4 – 12.6 miles – Garfield Ridge Campsite to stealth spot
I started with the descent down Mount Garfield, which was tricky and technical. It also was basically hiking down a brook, which seemed a bit dangerous because it adds wet rocks to an already steep and technical descent. However the tricky, technical part only lasted for a few tenths of a mile and the rest of the day was far more relaxed hiking. The other climbs of the day, though I hit a couple more 4000 footers, weren’t as intense compared to some of the other spots I’ve already done. And a stretch near the end of my day was flat and clear of rocks and roots. I found a stealth spot near the river instead of pushing the miles to the camp spot.
Day 5 – 4.8 miles – stealth spot to Crawford Notch
As I mentioned in my last post, the parents of one of my sisters high school friends, Mike, live in the area and welcomed me into their home. My sister, brother-in-law, and nieces were coming up as well. Since they wouldn’t be arriving until 4:00 in the afternoon, Mike said he would come and pick me up from Crawford Notch.
We weren’t sure when phone service would be good so the backup plan was that he would pick me up at noon if he didn’t hear from me. I ended up losing service about 24 hours prior and therefore could give him no heads up as to how close I was. I ended up getting to the road at about 8:30 in the morning. It had also started to rain. The AMC Highland center was about 3.5 miles down the road and I figured I would walk there so I wouldn’t have to wait over three hours in the rain.
Luck was on my side and everything worked out in my favor. First, as I reached the road, an AMC shuttle driver was arriving there. The shuttles normally cost $20 but the driver was a thru-hiker from 20 years ago and had no one else to drive because of the rain. She offered me a ride for $5 instead of $20. Then, when I got to the center, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had service and could let Mike know of my new location. And, with virtually no notice, he came and got me right away. By 10:30 I was in their home and getting a shower, laundry, and the most delicious grilled chicken caesar salad for lunch. They were so kind and welcoming. My sister and rest of the family arrived and I had a very enjoyable night that included s’mores and my five year old niece telling a scary campfire story about how she and her friend (Mike’s son) beat up Big Foot who was attacking them.
Day 6 – 6.4 miles – Crawford Notch to Nauman Campsite
I would have loved to take a zero day and hung out with everyone. Both because I miss my family and also because I felt like my leg could really use a day off. All the technical ascents and descents were really taking its toll. But, after looking at the weather, saw that bad weather was coming in a couple of days. Doing a half day up set me up to get all the way over the Presidential Range on the following day and avoiding the bad weather. This turned out to be a good decision. I had good weather and later saw on Instagram a video of a hiker that went across the range the day after I did and had crazy weather and wind. It did not look fun!
I did take the first half of the day off and we all went to a children’s amusement park, Story Land.
My sister dropped me off at the trailhead around 1:30 and I did the 6.4 miles to the Nauman campsite. There involved more tough, technical climbing but, unlike South Kinsman where it was never ending, the difficult climbing came in spurts. And the views along the Webster Cliffs were amazing.
Day 7 – 19.6 miles – Nauman Campsite to Pinkham Notch
The day started well enough. I knew I could make it all the way across the Presidentials, but hoped I could make it down Madison as well. I was anxious about that descent because of everything I’d heard and was hoping I could fit that in as well so as to not risk doing a technical descent in the rain that was expected the following day. I left super early in the morning and made it to Washington around 10:00.
The views were just as spectacular as I remember. I got lucky with the weather as well. I made it all the way to Washington with mostly clear skies. The clouds came in while I was up there and I hiked the next portion of the range in clouds. It cleared again in the afternoon and I made it to the Madison Spring Hut around 2:00. Plenty of time to do the .5 to the Madison summit and then the 2.5 down to the campsite at the base of Madison.
Again, referencing my last post, this was where I had my terrible fall that has forced me into taking some recovery time for my leg. I reached the tent site at about 5:30 and, realizing that I had to come off trail, just kept going to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
All that’s left of the Whites is the two days from Pinkham Notch to US Route 2, which I’ll actually end up doing last. I’ll be hitting the trail again, but will jump back on in Maine and hike through the end. Then, over labor day weekend, I’ll go back up and hike from Pinkham Notch to the Maine border. It’s not the thru-hike I planned or wanted, but I think it’s smarter to ease my leg back into it instead of jumping right back into the technical climbing. And as long as I get to do the whole trail, that’s what matters!
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