The Whites: My Favorite Place to Suffer
The Whites. Everyone’s favorite topic to fear monger about. Massive climbs, exposed ridge lines, the nightmare of AMC huts — you’ll never make it out alive! In reality, they’ve been my favorite mountains I’ve ever backpacked.
The Wine Climb
Lovechild and I began our descent (or ascent really) into the madness that is New Hampshire with a bag of boxed wine. It looked like a bag of piss strapped to the top of his hyperlite and tasted about the same. The night before we had caught up with one of my friends from home, Davida (also known on trail as Boogie) who has thru hiked the AT and PCT. She was who made me realize that I could do something crazy like thru hike, even at my young age. So naturally, after seeing her, I was jazzed and inspired to do more crazy stuff.
So there Lovechild and I were, stumbling out of Hanover, half drunk and overjoyed on yet another intoxicated rainy day. Towards the sunset, we began to approach Smarts Mountain. I could see it in the distance from a rocky clearing. It was a massive hump, hunched in the distance, awaiting our drunken arrival.
In the meantime, I was overcome with the way soft orange light streamed in through the boreal forest we walked through. Hemlock trees with gnarled roots formed footholds as I descended down to the base of Smarts. Just through their needles, I could see the sun blazing a pink and orange stripe across the sky. Moss held dewdrops of golden light. Even when I’m in the middle of the green tunnel, the sunsets are still striking. I am always struck by the simplest thoughts — I am alive, moving through this forest full of living things: the soil holding the earthworms, the earth held by the hands of roots, the moss holding the tiny lives of thousands of microorganisms. And the earth holding me as I walk in this soft golden light on through to the quiet dark.
And there was a big lump of a mountain I had to climb in front of me. And I was crashing. Hard. I was hungover and starving, and the only thing I had to eat was my own dumbass words that I had wanted to catch the sunset from the top of Smarts. The food cravings began at the base of the mountain, when it was still normal trail with a slight incline. All I could think about in my slightly hungover state was chipotle, Chinese food and rotisserie chicken. I’ve never felt hunger worse. The sun had set and I was consumed by darkness, a hangover and hunger.
Then the climb got a lot worse. Iron rungs loomed out of the darkness from the dismal circle of light my headlamp provided. Stone stairs stretched upwards past them, sheer wet rock scrambles lurking after that. After the rungs, I tried to step up on one of the stone stairs. My leg didn’t quite clear it and I lurched forwards, barely catching myself before I face planted into the rocks. I groaned. This was such a dumb idea. But there was nowhere to go but up — because I wasn’t about to go backwards.
Every time I looked up more rocks loomed into view. It was the trail of never ending scrambles to the top. I kept thinking that I saw a little bit of hazy sky — but it was just more leaves. Suddenly a wooden ladder appeared and I almost screamed from frustration but I was too tired. I was starting to realize I needed to adjust my diet. I felt like my body was completely giving up. Food was the only thing on my mind — not even how grueling the climb was. My thighs were screaming but my mind may as well have been inside an oven with a hundred rotisserie chickens spinning around it.
Eventually, after much salivating over an imaginary drumstick (and panicking about a potential protein deficiency) I caught a glimpse of the fire tower, looming out of the dark in its silver glory. Despite feeling like death, I sprinted to the top to see the last few rays of sun disappearing over the tree tops. I hugged myself and shivered. Everything felt hundreds of feet away from me — not just because I was high up, but also because I was starving.
Eventually I came down and slipped into the shelter, just to realize it was full of sleeping hikers. I set up my gear in a corner and resisted the urge to crash into it, instead going outside to scrounge through my food bag. I felt exactly like a bear. Now I understood why animals were so desperate for food out here — it was tough surviving in these mountains. I promised myself I’d make a food adjustment at the next resupply (since I couldn’t stomach tuna packets anymore.)
A Change in Diet
So for my next resupply, I raided the frozen isle of a price chopper. For some reason, all I wanted was bean burritos and spam. And so, my resupply consisted of Cheetos, frozen bean burritos, king’s Hawaiian rolls, and spam. I unboxed the precious spam bricks at the hostel and slapped them into a plastic bag.
Thus “the meat bag” was born. Two bricks of spam wedged into a ziploc. Nothing says, “this is my last straw and I am going insane,” quite like it. I was hunched in shelters for the next few days, gnawing on meat bricks and making “Spamwiches” with my rolls. I coated them in mayonnaise too obviously. Many hikers looked at my bag in horror and hesitantly asked, “What is that?” To which I perkily replied, “SPAM!” It’s all I wanted to eat, so I decided to give my body what it wants.
Unfortunately, my body also wanted bean burritos. Which lead to me leaving a trail of farts for Lovechild as we sprinted up towards Liberty Campsite. My digestive tract would have another rumble every five minutes, which would cause Lovechild to groan behind me, and I would erupt with laughter and run up the hill like a disgusting fart goblin.
We planned to reach Franconia Ridge for sunrise, so we wanted to camp as close as possible. We forked over the $10 each to camp to an absent minded caretaker who seemed confused by our request for dirt patches for our trekking pole tents — which are harder to set up on tent platforms. The only spot left was a sad little rocky dirt patch in the back of the tent site right next to a stream. It was too dark by that point to look for anything else and it was getting cold.
This follows what the people on the tent platform next to us most likely would’ve heard in the complete dark:
“Ahhhh we can make it work!”
“I don’t know. It’s way rocky.”
“We’ve fit in smaller!”
“…how about we cowboy camp?”
“We’ll be cold.”
“Fit into one tent?”
“That’s way too small! I want to sleep a little!”
*disgruntled rustling noises as we attempt to set up our tents*
“AGGHHHH. This is never going to work.”
“Sure. Fine. Okay.”
*disgruntled rustling noises as we attempt to set up my Gossamer Gear the One (emphasis on THE ONE)
“AGHHHHH. Can I have a little more of the sleeping pad?”
“I’m literally on the edge.”
“Well go a little closer to the edge.”
*sound of tent collapsing*
“AGHHHHHH” (mutual screams of anguish)
And so our night went. We managed to get the tent to a point where it stayed up and took turns rotating on Lovechild’s Nemo Air Sleeping Pad (not meant for two people!) so that none of our body parts fell asleep for too long. Luckily, that meant we were very eager to get out and go see the sunrise on Franconia ridge.
Sunrise on Franconia
It was so worth it. It was the best sunrise I’ve seen the entire trail. We stood on top of Liberty Mountain with 360 degree views of the entire ridge line, the Kinsman mountains we had just climbed and all the mountains to come. They stretched out like blue velvet, shadows forming in the divets where they folded. An uncrashing ocean, stretching out before us. I’d never seen mountains this big before.
The white rocky peaks of Franconia jutted upwards towards the bright orange sky. The sun began to peak out from behind the mountain tops and I cheered and jumped up and down. I felt like a kid again in front of those mountains, grateful for something as simple as the sun coming up again and the incredible colors it brings.
The rest of the day, we walked along my favorite section of trail. Mountains stretched out on either side of the ridge line. I couldn’t believe how wild they felt. The wind whipped around me as I walked along the backs of giants. We were the tallest things around! Standing there, I began to realize I wanted to spend the rest of my life finding views like this. It was insane that I had walked there, to an awesome, strange feeling mountain range, all the way from the mountains of Georgia. I was starting to feel like a real thru hiker. I wanted to sit and stare at the seas of blue mountains and endless sky all day — but we had a work for stay to try and catch at one of the huts.
AMC Huts: No Go Zone
In short, it was not worth it. I should’ve stayed on the mountain. Lovechild and I rolled up to the hut just in time to help out with a work for stay at the hut. Thru hikers are able to work to stay on the floor in the huts, and get the leftovers from the hut guests for dinner and breakfast as a thank you for wiping down the tables, scrubbing the stove and sweeping the floor. Each hut only accepts two thru hikers. Guests in the hut pay anywhere from $75 to upwards of $100 a night to stay.
It was a strange experience to say the least. Lovechild and I were told to sit outside until the guests were finished with their meal. We joked that we were the feral hikers, huddling outside in the cold. The highlight of my night was when some kids on a backpacking trip came outside and asked us tons of questions about thru hiking, such as “How do you shower?” and “What do you eat?” and “Are there huts everywhere?” To which we replied, “We don’t,” and “Children” and “Nope.”
Afterwards, we went inside to wipe down the tables, then swept, and then scrubbed the stove — and after arriving there at 3:30 — finally at 8:30, we were able to eat dinner. The leftovers consisted of all cold things (much to our sad, cold soaking lives’ dismay.) We split a small amount of pulled pork, mashed potatos, kale, corn and tomato soup among us. We were still hungry afterwards. I understood the croo (the workers in the hut) had an exhausting job of cooking for all these people, hauling food up the mountain manually, and working odd hours, so I felt bad for them as well. I could see how we were just an extra thing to look after, and didn’t expect much — except maybe a little bit more food after working for stay and hanging around for a while.
It was hard to not feel a little bit used, especially after the section hikers staying in the hut passed us and said things like, “You better work for that stay,” and asked us the next morning, “How was the floor?” All in all, it was an undesirable experience — and we decided it wasn’t worth exchanging time we could be spending in the mountains for some cold food and unkind comments. Every hut is different — and I’m sure it didn’t help that one was jam packed — but it was enough to motivate me to just be a feral person in the woods instead of messing with the huts.
Birthday in the Whites
I am so grateful to have spent my birthday in the whites. These giant mountains challenge me physically and mentally more than most things I’ve encountered in my brief 23 years. It was incredible to turn 23, facing the massive peaks of what’s to come, moving forwards towards future trail. I become stronger with every climb out here and realize I’m capable of more than I know. I look at these mountains and think “Whoah. I could never climb something that huge.” And then I do. The only thing that holds me back is my perspective.
A mountain doesn’t seem as large when you’re halfway up — and from the top, everything else is tiny below — but the world itself is so large. It’s a humbling and exhilarating perspective I never take for granted. As the end of trail comes closer, I’m grateful for the new perspective the trail has given me on life. When I’m stumbling along and unable to quit looking at my feet because of rocks and roots — I look up and realize I’m surrounded by beautiful mountains with incredible people in front and behind me. As I grow into the person I’ll be at 23, I’ll try to remember to look up and appreciate the little things in life, like the way sunlight comes through leaves, a mountain sunrise, or how incredible it can feel to see the smile of a friend.
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