Unexpected Pleasure Through the Whites
Since day one, I’d been hearing about the infamous Whites. From how everyone described them, I felt sure that this week was going to be the most miserable week of my life… but it wasn’t. The Whites are challenging, but they are by no means impossible. In fact, many of the ascents and descents are no worse than what I saw in Southern Maine but with much better views.
Here’s the weekly break-down:
Day 24: The Wildcats (slackpacked with Rattle River Hostel) (21.1) – moderate
Day 25: Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Presidentials, Mount Washington) (14.4) – difficult
Day 26: Ethan Pond campsite (13.9) – morning difficult/afternoon easy
Day 27: Garfield Pond (15.3) – difficult
Day 28: North Woodstock (Franconia Ridge) (The Notch Hostel) (9.5) – difficult
Day 30: Kinsman Notch (slackpacked with The Notch Hostel) (16.3) – moderate
Day 31: Stealth camped before NH 25C (Mount Moosilauke) (13.9) – difficult
Day 32: Stealth camped at Grant Brook (19.9) – easy
Day 33: Hanover, NH (18.9) – Easy
Day 34: Hanover, NH (zero!) – Extremely easy
Day 24: The Wildcats (slackpacked with Rattle River Hostel) (21.1) – Difficult
I am addicted to slackpacking. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Granted, a 21-mile slackpack over the Wildcats is no walk in the park, and many people advised me against it. I started hiking at 7:20 and ended just before 17 in the evening. Many people warned me that this was a grueling slackpack and that some hikers didn’t finish until 10 or 11 at night. As such, I tried to keep a steady pace, but without my pack, I was really able to fly. I didn’t feel like I was in a rush at all.
The terrain was definitely tough; I went the NOBO-way from Pinkham Notch and remember the first ascent after Carter Notch hut as being the worst. It’s pretty much straight up for a very long time (I imagine a descent down this bit would be equally challenging). Also of note, this was the first day ever that I had a hiking partner. In my last blog, I mentioned a hiker named Pueblo. He rolled into the hostel on my zero day, and we decided to try the slackpack together. I think having him there really helped my speed and morale. We seemed to click instantly, and I don’t think we stopped talking the entire time. All in all, even with the mileage, it was a fantastic day. Pueblo and I returned to Rattle River Hostel (I stayed there three nights; I couldn’t not recommend it more highly!), and I ordered my second large pizza of the week.
Day 25: Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Presidentials; Mount Washington) (14.4) – Difficult
After our successful hike the day before, Pueblo and I decided to continue on together. Next up: the Presidentials. We were both pretty nervous going in. So many hikers had warned us about their difficulty, and we really didn’t know what to expect. So we got an early start. The hike up to Madison was pretty steep, but we managed and made it to the top a lot earlier than we’d expected. We originally intended to stay at Madison Hut, but given the time and our luck with the weather, we decided to push on. The PUDs en route to Mount Washington were pretty annoying, but we were lucky to have incredible views the whole way. Even so, it was extremely cold and windy nearly the entire day, so warm weather clothing is probably a must in all seasons. As we summited Mount Washington it was nearing 6 p.m. By that time, we were both pretty exhausted, and the weather was quickly taking a turn for the worse. So we took our photos and turned for Lakes of the Clouds Hut. This was going to be our first attempt at staying at a hut.
Many people had given us the tip that stopping by a hut between 4 and 5 p.m. was the Goldilocks hour if you wanted work-for-stay, but judging by the clock, we figured that that opportunity had sailed. We still needed a place to stay, though, and had heard that they rarely turn people away once you were up on the ridgeline above the trees. So we figured we’d stop by and see if we could sleep in the infamous dungeon. We rolled in just before 7 and explained our situation. They surprised us by asking if we’d like to do work-for-stay, and we quickly said yes. I don’t know how, but Pueblo and I seemed to keep lucking out at every corner. As often happens when you’re walking for days in the forest, neither Pueblo nor I realized what day it was. Turns out we had landed at the hut on Labor Day. After a three-day weekend, many hikers had already returned home to start work the next day, so the hut was essentially empty with almost no guests. What few there were kept coming up to us to ask about our experience on the AT. It was great! We were also invited to eat dinner with everyone and sleep inside on the floor, which felt extra cozy as a thunderstorm approached outside.
Day 26: Ethan Pond Campsite (13.9) – Morning moderate/afternoon easy
The next morning we woke to a wall of clouds. We couldn’t see more than three yards in front of us, so we put on our rain jackets and headed out. Despite the weather, we were still running off the high of yesterday’s good luck, so we started off optimistically, enthusing about how incredible the Whites were. It was pretty windy and wet for our first hour, but as the sun heated up, one giant gust of wind came and deftly whisked away all the mist. Our mouths literally dropped. We had a perfect 360 view of the Whites. All the giddiness from yesterday instantly returned to us, and we nearly skipped to next hut. We just couldn’t get over it! Why had we been so nervous about these mountains? Yes, the ascents and descents were pretty steep, but the views! The views were like nothing I had ever seen. I cannot iterate how lucky we got with the weather. If you have the flexibility, you really should try to hit this section in good weather… because I imagine it would be pretty miserable (if not impossible) to do in rainy, cold, and foggy conditions.
The hike that day was pretty tame. No dramatic climbs or descents until we hit the big one going down to Crawford Notch. This descent was tough and long. My knees were begging for a break by the bottom, so we stopped and took lunch. We eventually got going again, not too eager to start the ascent to Ethan Pond. By that point any spike upward on our elevation profiles meant one thing: a slow, steep, and rocky climb. As we began our ascent, however, we were pleasantly surprised. This had to be the steadiest, easiest climb we’d had yet on the AT. We got the top and were practically dancing at how easy it had been. We flew across the bog boards all the way to Ethan Pond, raving about how it had been another fantastic day.
We set up camp, had dinner, and then ended our day by watching the sun set over the pond and mountains. The sky seemed to explode into the most brilliant colors: a private light show just for us. And then as if for the twilight finale, one could just make out a moose’s dark silhouette, drinking from across the pond.
Day 27: Garfield Pond (15.3) – Difficult
This day started out great. The hike from Ethan Pond to Zealand Hut was actually flat, and the hike up to Mount Zealand wasn’t too bad either. There were several mountains that took some negotiating throughout the day, so we took it slow and indulged in a good amount of breaks. As evening approached, we considered trying our luck at a hut again, but ultimately decided it would be best to push on. We had heard that a big thunderstorm would be rolling in the next day, and we weren’t too keen to get stuck up on a ridgeline in that. So we continued on. Our final climb of the day was up Mount Garfield, and it was probably one of the steepest climbs I saw in all the Whites. Luckily, it was short, but I hated it. I was heaving by the time we reached the top and gladly took the first opportunity to plop down on a rock. When I finally caught my breath and looked up, I was taken aback by yet another incredible view. The sun was just beginning to set, and it hit me that I was nearly through the Whites. This was supposed to be the hardest section of the AT, and I was nearly through it. What was happening?
We sat and watched the sunset, and then began our descent to Garfield Pond.
Day 28: North Woodstock (Franconia Ridge) (The Notch Hostel) (9.5) – Difficult
Neither Pueblo nor I said much when we woke up. I think we were both a bit nervous about the ascent to Mount Lafayette, especially with the looming threat of a thunderstorm. We started off early in hopes that we might beat it. At some point, Pueblo and I got separated, deciding to take on the climb at our own individual paces. It was long and difficult, and I wouldn’t be too excited to have to do it again. Whenever I cleared the trees, I was disappointed to find the ridgeline still covered in mist. Pueblo caught up, and we began the climb to Mount Lafayette together. It was extremely windy, but the rain was holding off, so we remained optimistic. At the top, it seemed like the sun was trying its hardest to burn off the mist, and we were rewarded with some views, but they were fleeting. This was rather disappointing. We had heard that this hike was supposed to be one of the top ten hikes in the world, and we were missing all the great views. Alas, we were forced to continue on with the threat of the storm looming overhead.
As we climbed from peak to peak, we were constantly taken off guard by the wind. I was nearly knocked over a dozen times, only to catch myself with my poles at the last second. Alone, this would have been miserable, but every time I looked back, Pueblo was getting beaten up just as badly as me. It was hilarious. Together, we made it into a game. We laughed and howled into the wind as tears streaked our faces. We had to be insane to be up there in this weather, but still: no storm. As we were beginning our descent into the treeline, I commented on this fact, foolishly saying, “Pueblo, I don’t think it’s going to storm.” At that moment, the floodgates opened, and a monsoon crashed down upon our heads. There was a clap of thunder, and I took off. The trail seemed to instantly turn into a river of cascades, and I don’t really remember many details other than that. We made it down in what was surely record time (due to the sheer fear and adrenaline), and I stole a glance at Pueblo. He was soaked. I stifled back a giggle, but as soon as his eyes met mine, we burst out laughing. We were such idiots.
We walked to the Flume Visitor Center (by then it had stopped raining, of course) and called a shuttle into Lincoln. We got some supplies at the Price Chopper and then headed over to The Notch Hostel for a hot shower and some much needed R&R. Life was pretty great.
Day 30: Kinsman Notch (slackpacked with The Notch Hostel) (16.3) – Moderate
Based on our previous experience, Pueblo and I had learned that slackpacking was basically the tits. Slackpacking felt like a reward. In fact, it was so fun, it almost felt like taking a zero, with the reverse effect that we actually smashed out more miles than we ever could have normally. I don’t actually remember much of the terrain this day. It all just seemed to fly by as Pueblo and I got lost in conversation after conversation. I believe we had one steep climb in the morning going up Kinsman, but without our packs, everything else felt like a breeze. When we got into town that night, we rented bikes from the Notch and rode into town to find some beer and grub. It was great, but our time was limited. Pueblo had plans to leave the trail in Hanover to visit family, so I knew we’d be saying goodbye soon. He had really made this chapter of my hike exceptional, and I was sad to think about continuing on without him. The next day we would hike Mount Moosilauke, our last White Mountain, and then we’d be done. It hadn’t even been a week. Where had the time gone?
Day 31: Stealth camped before NH 25C (Mount Moosilauke) (13.9) – Difficult
The only bad thing about slackpacking is that the next day when you actually begin hiking again with your real pack, it feels a lot heavier. The climb up Mount Moosilauke was steep and rocky, but it had to have been one of the most beautiful climbs. The trail followed a waterfall the whole way up, so we were repeatedly rewarded with stunning views of the cascades.
As we emerged from the treeline, we were again hit with a burst of wind, but the skies were clear, so we bundled up and continued to the peak. It was a nice hike, and it truly felt like we were approaching the culmination of something great. We’d each packed a beer to toast whenever we made it to the top, but once we got there, we were surprised to find an entire crowd of people sitting around picnicking. We sat down, not sure what was going on, and I sheepishly asked Pueblo if he thought it was all right to drink with all these people around. Then, as if to answer my question, a man next to us pulled out a giant bottle of moonshine and began passing it around. What the hell was happening? We soon discovered it was Flag Day, and that there is a tradition in New Hampshire to raise the flag on all 48 mountains that exceed 4,000 feet (The 48 4,000 footers). We couldn’t believe it. Here it was our last day in the Whites, and there was a flippin’ party waiting for us at the top! How lucky could we get? We were soon adopted by a hiking group, and they invited us to share in their homemade bread, cheese, and moonshine. We were literally beside ourselves. About two hours later when we eventually tore ourselves away, we were so giddy and overjoyed, we couldn’t stop laughing. Maybe it was partially the alcohol, but I think the realization and relief that we had officially made it through the Whites flooded over us into an intoxicating euphoria. Then, as if to confirm the fact, as soon as we reached the bottom of Moosilauke, the trail widened, and we were greeted by a carpet of soft, red pine needles. We had done it. We had made it through the Whites.
Day 32: Stealth camped at Grant Brook (19.9) – Easy and day 33: Hanover, NH (18.9) – Easy
These two days passed quite uneventfully. The trail was incredible. The terrain was soft, and the climbs were steady. We were easily able to pack in big miles and cruise into Hanover… although I don’t think either of us really wanted to. Whenever we got to Hanover, we called a trail angel from the Hanover trail angel List, and then ran into a store to buy some food. We made a big dinner together that night and had some drinks, toasting our fantastic time on the trail. The next day I took a zero, and Pueblo left to visit his family. We said our goodbyes, and then I started off for Vermont.
Thanks so much for following along. I know the Whites can be pretty intimidating, but I hope you have gleaned some insight from my experience. This was by far my favorite week on the trail yet. If you have any questions about this section or my experience, don’t hesitate to reach out.
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