The Beginning of the End …
It’s been quite some time since my last post – sorry for that. While I may not have been providing regular updates, rest assured, I was persistently moving towards the finish line. When I last updated you, Dash and I had just entered New Hampshire and we had just finished visiting with my wife and daughter. It was now time to get ready for the gauntlet the AT was about to throw at us: The Presidential Mountains, the Wild Cats, the Mahoosucs and the Bigelows to name but a few. I was approaching these iconic mountains with a little trepidation. I know I had the miles on the legs and I was as fit as I have been in quite some time, but this would be a real test. When reading comments from past hikers, they all describe steep and seemingly unending climbs followed by treacherous descents. Mixed in, are technical sections that would also test my resolve and fear of heights. I’m not going to lie, I was a tad bit concerned.
Welcome Back to the Mountains
The terrain leaving Hanover, NH quickly became more mountainous. The first test was Smarts mountain. It wasn’t terribly long but it was steep and definitely made the legs burn. It’s on! One difference between the AT in the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine and the mountains further south is that the trail designers up north appeared to not believe in using switchbacks to ease the climb. When it was time to go up or down, it seemed nearly vertical. I guess the trail designers, like NOBO hikers by this point, were just trying to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. This being the case, we had to start altering our expectations about how far we could go in a day. The 20+ mile days were not going to come as easily or frequently up here. Instead, we had to plan our days based on the elevation change we expected to complete. Some days this would mean a 12 mile day would be considered great. Consequently, just when I thought I was getting closer to the end of my journey, the miles were passing far more slowly and thus taking a greater toll on my mental well being.
The Forecast Calls for Rain … Again and Again!
We had been blessed with some good weather through most on the New England states up till now. Unfortunately just when good weather would be most welcome, providing spectacular views from the most iconic mountains on the trail and provide sure footing for those insidious descents, our luck ran out. I believe we experienced significant rain every day but one in June which certainly changed how we approached the hike.
If you ask just about any AT thru hiker, the Presidential mountain segment in the Whites are considered to provide some of the best views and provide some of the toughest challenges. Besides being steep and often technical, much of the trail is above tree line which means you are exposed to weather which can be very unpredictable. I was looking forward to climbing the mountains along the Franconia Ridge (Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield and Haystack). From my pre-hike research, there are some spectacular views. As I started up my first climb, the weather was cloudy but I thought the rain might just hold off. As I got above the tree line and started walking along the ridge I was greeted with some truly awesome views. I got my phone out and started to make a video for my family. As I traveled down the ridge, capturing the views and providing my video’s narration, I noticed a wall of clouds in the distance moving rather quickly in my direction. I quickly signed off and begin moving more quickly. It looked like a storm was coming and the last thing I wanted was to be exposed on the ridge. Within minutes I was enveloped in a cloud getting soaked by a cold driving rain. I was soon soaked to the skin and getting very cold. Between the rain and the clouds it was difficult to see the cairns marking the trail. I knew I had to make it below tree line as quickly as possible. I ended up hiking the 6+ miles summiting Lafayette and Garfield with close to zero visibility. Just when I was getting concerned for my well being, I made it to the tree line. Shortly thereafter, the winds subsided and the rain let up. With the exception of a few minutes at the start of the ridge, I had no views and I barely knew I had summited the various mountains along the way. I did vow to never get caught above the ridge line like that again as I still had Mt. Washington in front of me with another exposed ridge walk. I was definitely going to take the potential of inclement weather much more seriously.
The rest of my time in the Whites and mountains of New Hampshire, I was dodging rain, trudging through the mud and sadly not getting any real views from the summits. There was a brief moment atop Mt. Washington where I was able to get a couple of pictures but for the most part, all my summits looked the same – me, at a sign, with a cloud backdrop.
On one day, we experienced 7 inches of rain in a single day. This wreaked havoc on the trail and the streams we had to ford. It also made it more challenging to get into town to resupply as some of the roads were significantly washed out. Back to that famous AT quote – “No Rain, No Pain, No Maine” – I had these covered!
Meeting new friends
At one point, Dash and I were soaked through and tired from the previous days hard miles. We decided that when we crossed the next road that we would get a ride into town and grab a hotel, resupply and get some town food. Unfortunately, when we got to the road, neither of us had service to summon a ride. We had pushed a few extra miles to make it here so it was also getting late. Oh yeah, it was raining – hard. Dash and I got on opposite sides of the road and put our thumbs out. We didn’t really care which way we went as long as we were in a car and out of the rain. Much to our dismay, the few cars that drove past us weren’t too keen on picking up two wet, dirty and certainly stinky hikers. Just as we were about to give up and pitch our tents, a car pulled over and the driver said he would take us to the AMC Highland Center Lodge. There we bumped into a few other hikers seeking shelter from the rain. One hiker, Geo, was in the middle of a LASH and trying to finish the AT by making it to Katahdin. While I didn’t know it at the time, I ultimately ended up hiking with her and her crew (Little Bit, Beacon and Stick) all the way to Monson.
The miles in New Hampshire were tough and they took their toll on both body and mind. When we made it to the Maine border, Dash looked at me and said he was ready for a break. We had been pushing hard and he wanted to slow down and enjoy the final miles. I, on the other hand, wanted to press on and bring this adventure to an end. It was hard saying goodbye to the good friend I had been hiking with for the past 1500 miles, but you have to “hike your own hike”. I still had a few more miles to make it to the targeted shelter for the day and then had the dreaded Mahoosuc Notch and Mahoosuc Arm to tackle the next morning, so I said my goodbyes and hiked on. The notch is often referred to as the slowest mile on the AT. I soon discovered why. Basically, this section is an obstacle course comprised of massive boulders arranged such that you had to crawl under, climb over and jump from one precarious perch to another. My favorite piece of gear, my trekking poles, were useless. It took me about 90 minutes to navigate my way through this section. It definitely provided a whole body workout and, if I didn’t have a pack on my back, might have been a lot more fun. Once through this section, I was met with one of the steepest climbs on the trail – the Mahoosuc Arm. Talk about a one-two punch.
The Final Push
Well, if you think that once you get New Hampshire behind you that it would be smooth sailing to Katahdin, you’d be wrong. Southern Maine is a lot like New Hampshire with steep mountains and technical climbs. It does differ a little though, Maine also has river crossings that border on the insane! Most of the crossings we encountered were flowing very fast and some had water that got above the waist making them challenging. I was grateful to be with a few fellow hikers in this section. One by one, Little Bit, Geo, Beacon and I would carefully make our way across the streams. The rocks on the river bed were generally pretty slick making the footing difficult. One benefit of the crossings, however, was that the rushing water would remove the mud that had accumulated on our bodies and shoes. Of course our cleanliness was short lived, for as soon as we got to the other side, we would one again find ourselves trudging through the muddy stream that is the Appalachian Trail. The Kennebec river crossing actually requires a “ferry service” (canoe ride) to cross. This year, due to the high amounts of rain and the danger this presented, the service actually shutdown for awhile requiring some hikers to hire a shuttle to get them to the other side. This necessitated a 30+ mile drive and $65 and took about 2 hours. Fortunately, the canoe was running the day we arrived.
Once in Maine, there were a few non-trivial mountains to deal with before the run in to Monson (the start of the 100 mile wilderness). While the climbs were tough, the confidence gained by making it through the Whites coupled with the pull of the finish line, made the miles a little easier. We were back to 20 mile days and, in spite of the inclement weather and the blood thirsty insects that seemed to be everywhere, my spirits were high. On July 6th, I found myself at the Birches campsite in Baxter state park. This is where NOBO thru hikers typically camp the night before summiting Katahdin. I had made it. As I lay in my tent, all I could think about was that final climb and the thrill of standing on that iconic sign.
I plan on making one last entry describing my summit day, transition back into the “real world” and my overall thoughts of my AT adventure. I wanted to allow a week or so to pass so that my body could heal and I would have time to reflect on my many experiences over the previous 5 months. So until then I leave you with this:
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
- Successfully hiked through the Whites, Wildcats, Mahoosucs and Bigelows relatively unscathed
- Stayed in two AMC Huts (Mizpah and Madison)
- Fall count exceeded 20 – I stopped counting!
- Made it to the base of Katahdin
Never Been Closer,
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