Weather in the Whites Can Break You
Day 173: 5,320 ft ascent, 10.4 miles (plus 3 miles road walk)
It was Sunday. After spending four days inside sick with Covid I was ready to hike again. I knew it would be hard because I was still weak, but it was time to take off.
My dad was in the thick of the 100 mile wilderness. My brother, Tucker, made plans to meet him on Tuesday to hike Katahdin with him. Since I knew he was headed up our way from his home in Connecticut, I asked him if he wanted to join us (on his birthday) hiking Franconia Ridge. He agreed to meet us at the top of the first peak, taking a different route up so he could loop back to his car and a campsite at a campground.
Erik and I set off from our cottage around 7:00 a.m. headed towards the trail. We had about 2 miles to road walk, and then another mile on a paved trail to get back to the AT. We had been having really good luck when we tried to hitch hike previously, so we stuck out our thumbs with plenty of hope it wouldn’t take long to get a ride. We were wrong of course. Nobody was out early on a Sunday morning.
We finally made it to the trailhead and started climbing. I was right, my energy was non-existent. I knew I had to go slow and steady if I was going to make it to our destination for the day, the Garfield campsite. I kept my heart rate down and was passed most of the climb by eager day hikers. We eventually made it to the alpine zone, and finally above the treeline.
Our days atop Mt. Moosilauke and the Kinsmans had given us some views between the clouds, but they were by no means clear days. We got the clear day for Franconia Ridge, and wow was it worth it. I kept stopping and looking around, unable to take in everything I could see. We quickly made it to our rendezvous spot with Tucker, and there he was bouncing off of the rocks. He was in the midst of marathon trailing and he loves climbing rocks and exploring. He had run up the trail to meet us. Yes, you read that right, he ran up the mountain. He was in his element.
We made our way down the trail, and I quickly decided everything we had hiked so far was to get to this point. This was why you hike the AT. Forget the south and the mid-Atlantic. New Hampshire was like nothing else we had seen or experienced.
It was a Sunday, and the difficulty of the trail to get to the ridge didn’t stop many weekend warriors from making the journey to the top. We saw two different proposals as we wound our way through the throngs of people. It was hard to stop to take any pictures without being in the way or other people being in the background. This was frustrating, but it didn’t ruin the day by any means. I was glad so many people were out experiencing the trail that day. It is a special place.
It was fun hiking with Tucker for a few hours. It was nice to have different conversations than usual. I was struggling with my energy levels as the day wore on, but there are very limited campsites through the White Mountains, so we had to push on.
We said goodbye to Tucker after a few hours and trudged on. I was exhausted, but we had a couple more climbs to go. We made it to the top of the final climb right at sunset. I had a beautiful view of Franconia Ridge in golden hour light. It was a special moment.
We made it to the campground right at dark. This was the first Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) paid site we were staying at, so we had to stop by the caretaker’s tent to purchase our AMC thru-hiker passes. These passes would give us discounted campsites through the White Mountains, discounts on food and drinks at various area lodges, and treatment as AMC members for discounts on purchases at AMC locations.
We set up our tent under the stars on a platform right beside a few other tents. I still wanted to sleep under the stars one night, but a rain forecast the next morning meant tonight wouldn’t be the night. I had enjoyed the views of the day, but I was exhausted. I was worried about having the stamina to make it through the rugged White Mountains while recovering from Covid. It was also hard to continue finding motivation to hike knowing we couldn’t finish the entire trail by the suggested date of October 15th. I went to sleep uneasy about what the next day would have in store for us.
Day 174: 2,520 ft ascent, 10.2 miles
It started raining as we broke camp that morning. Erik and I knew we were in for a wet day. I hate hiking in the rain.
When we left the campsite, we were greeted with a steep downhill trail. The trail was routed in the middle of a natural drainage. I’m sure it would’ve been annoying but do-able in good conditions. In the rain I was terrified. One slip and I would be crashing down the mountain much further than I wanted. Every step was on a rock. I quickly had to give up keeping dry feet for safety, having to step inches deep in water just to make the next down step.
We slowly made our way down the mountain and over to the base of the next mountain. We took a small detour off of the trail to visit a hut. This was the first one where we went inside. We were wet and cold, so a short break inside was a relief.
We ate an early lunch, then took back off down the trail. I should probably say up the trail, because we were in the Whites, so you are always either going up or down. The rain came down harder as we climbed, and the wind started whipping around us.
My sadness about my Covid delay most likely ruining our chances to finish a thru-hike became overwhelming. Why was I still hiking? What was the point? This was miserable, and to what end?
In the pouring rain and roaring wind, I brought these thoughts up to Erik. Turns out he was having similar thoughts. The more we talked, the more we reasoned that it made sense for us to call it quits at the top of Mt. Washington. It was discussed as the original end of the trail, right?
We could go home and have a good five weeks to relax before I started back at my job. Erik could get a jump on looking for a job. We could go to the beach. I had been dreaming about sitting on a beach the entire trip. It seemed like the logical decision as we sloshed along the flooded trail.
We had to set up our tent in the rain that evening. By the time we were inside the tent the outside was in a mud pit and everything inside was soaked. We were so miserable. I looked for any options we had to bail and get dry.
I saw we could hike a half day tomorrow and hitchhike a couple of miles to the AMC front country lodge called the Highland Center. It would be $80 each for us to get a warm bunk in the bunk room the next night. This was more than we had paid for a night inside anywhere else on the trail, but it included two hot, all-you-could-eat meals so we decided to do it. We got into our dry clothes, the only dry things we had, and tried to get some sleep.
Day 175: 640 ft ascent (1,880 ft decent), 7.6 miles
The rain hadn’t let up in the morning. We tried to wait for a break in the rain to pack up the tent. I put on my wet socks from the day before. I had multiple pairs of clean socks left, but it wasn’t worth getting another pair wet knowing what the trail would look like once we got going.
The trail should’ve made for a quick and easy morning. It was pretty flat with minimal roots and rocks. It was anything but quick and easy for us. It took us about 6 hours to go 7.6 miles because the trail was a river. There were some spots where there were boards we could walk on to get up and out of the water, but even on those we had to walk slowly so we wouldn’t slip. Most of the morning our feet were inches deep in water.
We finally made it to the next major road. We stuck out our thumbs and the second car that went by picked us up. We quickly got checked in and found the 16-bed bunkhouse empty except for us. The bunkhouse was divided into two rooms of beds: 4 in one room and 12 in the other. We spread our things out in the 4 bunk room, hoping we might get lucky and have the room to ourselves.
Erik took the tent outside and cleaned off all of the mud on it. I spread out all of our gear in the room in front of fans and heaters. We didn’t have access to laundry, but we got everything dry. Only two others joined us in the bunkhouse that night, and as we had hoped they took bunks in the other room.
It’s amazing how dry clothes can change your outlook. I looked at our remaining time and remaining miles. I knew Katahdin had closed late last year, so it was possible we could still finish if we got there after October 15th that we had been shooting for. In fact, I projected we were only 4 days behind our self-imposed/recommend end date.
My mindset about finishing switched from impossible to improbable. Improbable meant there was a chance. I wasn’t ready to give up on the trail yet. I knew I had the ability to keep hiking. I also knew I would always feel like I had unfinished business if we didn’t at least try to keep going.
I showed Erik my projected schedule and estimated completion date. After a hot dinner that night, he was with me with continuing on past Mt. Washington. We both knew it was still possible we wouldn’t finish. We knew it might get cold. We knew we might hike through more rain. But for the foreseeable forecast the weather was supposed to be ideal hiking weather and nothing was stopping us today. We were ready to push until something besides ourselves told us it was time to quit or we reached Katahdin.
Author’ Note: I finished my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on October 18th. Life back home is keeping me busy, but I still have stories to share. I plan to keep writing them as I find time.
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