The Horror of the Whites
I’m stumbling over the slick wet rocks, wind a constant pressure. I’m soaked through and dripping from the stinging rain. The thick mist obscures my view, only dimly allowing me to see 20 or 30 feet ahead of me. A vague shadow creeps into my view, a cyclopean object that I realize is an entire mountaintop that’s silently prowled up to me. My toes and fingers have gone numb, and I can only beg silently for the day to end.
The White Mountain National Forest is widely regarded as the one of the most difficult sections on the Appalachian Trail, and I can attest that reputation is well deserved. After completing the Mahoosuc range, a brutal goodbye to Maine and hello to New Hampshire, I took a few days off in Gorham to rest and recuperate at the Rattle River Bed and Breakfast, a combination BnB and Hostel right on the trail. It’s an excellent balance between relaxed quiet and frenetic community. There’s plenty of space to find alone time if you need it, as well as comfortable common areas if you’re looking for company and conversation. Oh, and I got a night of work for stay helping them pick out equipment for their new Wi-Fi network, and I can tell you that they’ll soon be one of the few trail hostels that have a stable and reliable internet service.
Once I’d recharged, I set out for the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range, the first of the leg of the Whites for sobos. The climb up Mt Moriah is a steep and strenuous one, but trail for it is well laid out. Stone steps have been set out at various places, and while it’s certainly an exhausting climb, at no point does it feel like a ridiculously dangerous one. I was honestly impressed, and hoped I’d find this to be an accurate first impression.
It was not.
The Whites have a deep seated love of rocks and ludicrous speed style steep slopes. Going up, you think you’re knees are going to give out, going down you’re convinced you’re about to snap your neck. I can’t help but suspect that in some far forgotten day these trails were part of some dark and secret suicide pact by outdoor adventurers looking for a beautiful place to die. This theory is often bolstered by the fantastic views. One feels they are standing on some edge of the universe looking out on Creation. It’s easy to imagine why some folks in the past mistakenly believed the world was flat, because you can’t help but sense deep in your soul that you are looking out so far that nothing else could exist beyond this wide open sea of mountain and green.
The highlight of the Whites is the Presidential Traverse, which includes a 12 mile stretch of forbidding Alpine zone, exposed to the winds and crawling over rocks, which is where our story began. I stealth camped close to Madison Hut before I began my journey across this exposed stretch. This let me hit the stretch fresh in the morning. Unfortunately, I awoke to find the mountain socked in with a thick blanket of clouds. Rain came in intermittent spurts, coating the uneven rocky trail in a slick coating reminiscent of a backyard slip and slide. Add to this wind gusts, which felt like a junior high school bully pushing you just as you make the most precarious of steps. This wonderful cocktail left me stumbling and falling several times throughout the day. The mountain karma made sure that each and every time I had such a fall, I did so at a spot where I could land with my hands or feet in a nice cold puddle. My gloves and socks were impregnated with near freezing water. The fun was increased tenfold when the sole of my right shoe caught on a rock and ripped off, leaving me walking the rest of the way in my sock. While I love my darn toughs, it’s simply not enough for climbing over a 6,000 ft mountain. I tried to patch it up with duct tape, but the tape kept coming off in clumps.
Fighting through the day to get to the top of Washington, one of the highest peaks on the trail, I was “rewarded” with a scenic view of the entire 15 feet in front of me. I passed the Cog Railway, and even if I wanted to I couldn’t participate in the questionable thru hiker tradition of “mooning the Cog” because I doubt the passengers would have been able to see me out their windows. I didn’t even bother with the short side trail to the summit because I didn’t see the point of a different 15 ft view.
Finally, after the long slog for the day, I got to the Lake of the Clouds hut, where I paid ten dollars to sleep on the dining room floor. (the Dungeon Hostel was full) It was one of the most uncomfortable and unrestfull nights of sleep I’ve ever had, and it was still a sweet reward. I managed to place an emergency order through Amazon for a new pair of boots, and stumbled my way down the mountain. A phone call to my friend Dave (the same kind guy who bailed me out in Bangor when American Airlines lost my pack on the way to Katahdin) got me a ride into town to retrieve said boots.
I took some time off in North Woodstock to rest up. I also celebrated my birthday by baking a triple chocolate cake for the other hikers there. This is a fantastic way to make some friends on the trail, and I can’t recommend it enough. Also, stuffing yourself on cheap sugary carbs is a great way to get over the existential depression that inevitably sets in when you realize you’re all the more swiftly approaching 40.
A few days later, I crossed Mt Moosilake, the final awful climb of the Whites for Southbounders. 1800 ft climb in less than a mile. Slick stone steps and loosely fitted wooden blocks, all coated in the veneer of misty cast-off from the long waterfall the trail parallels for most of the climb. All of this finally leading to the moment when I crossed the summit. The final view, my last time standing above 4,000 feet before I reach my end at Harper’s Ferry, I remembered why I love this life. It’s not because of the views. It’s not because I want to check off a list of peaks. It’s because at these moments, when I’m far from home, I can revel in one important fact:
When I look out at the world, I know I have taken the chance to Go. I left my cubicle life behind, and even on the most awful days, it has been completely worth it.
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