White Mountain Majesty
I am in love.
Well, I’ve been in love this whole time. I’ve been in love with the pine trees, the sunsets, the rocky peaks and every inch along the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t think I could fall any harder in love… until the White Mountains.
I haven’t blogged in awhile and I wasn’t sure I was going to until I finished my hike. The second half of the trail has left me exhausted but also more in awe of the incredible experiences I’ve had on this journey. I wanted to share my stories… but I also wanted to hug them to my chest for awhile. I didn’t want to spend too much time in front of a computer screen when I could be outdoors creating memories instead of writing about them.
However, I have an entire hostel to myself in Gorham, New Hampshire right now and decided now would be the perfect moment to write about my favorite stretch along the Appalachian Trail so far. I also only have a limited 30 minutes at this computer so I will do the best to share what I can. Ready… set…
WELCOME TO THE WHITES
The climb up Mount Moosilauke is the first for Northbounders into The Whites. In AWOL’s AT Guide, the elevation profile looks intimidatingly treacherous. It’s approximately a 4,000 foot climb in 3 miles. I woke up at 5 that morning and tried my best to mentally brace myself for what could be a physically and mentally draining hike.
But it wasn’t that bad! The grade wasn’t too steep, and before I knew it, I was at the summit and almost cried at how beautiful the view was in front of me. I was here. I was in The Whites. I’ve been looking forward to this moment ever since the start and I couldn’t believe I hiked this far across the country. I could see for miles. I could see all the peaks I would hike over in The Whites, and I couldn’t wait to abuse my muscles and shatter my knees for the views and the sights I would witness over the next few days. I was here. Welcome to The Whites.
When I first started the Appalachian Trail, I absolutely dreaded going uphill. I was so out of shape that I felt like my heart and lungs were going to explode with every step. I looked forward to every downhill, knowing I could run down the slopes to make up any time I had lost.
1800 miles later, it’s the complete opposite. I dread going downhill. Every step downhill sends sharp, shooting pains throughout my kneecaps and wet, slippery rocks prove to be a navigational nightmare. I would rather go up and never come back down. Mt. Moosilauke has one of the steepest descents on the trail and sometimes I wish I could just take a toboggan down all the descents and call it a day. But I can’t. I can do a lot of butt slides down the sides of rocks, though. Close enough.
18 MILES AND ALL SMILES
For weeks, I heard SOBOs and experienced thru-hikers all say the same thing: you WILL have to drop your mileage significantly in The Whites.
I get it now. Except before I really understood why, I decided to hike an 18 mile day throughout some of the toughest mountains in the trail. It’s not that I really wanted to hike such a long day, but rather I kind of had to. The Whites only have three options for sleeping: you either drop $100 on a bunk in a hut or get work-for-stay at the huts, or you have to find a stealth spot. There’s no way I’m dropping $100 so that option is ruled out, and getting work-for-stay is only available to a limited amount of thru-hikers. The final option is to roll the dice and hope that somewhere along the rugged terrain I can find a flat spot to set up my tent.
The morning of my second day in The Whites I decided to roll out of camp at 6:00 am. I was absolutely not mentally prepared for the tough climb up Kinsman.
Elevation profiles are total BS sometimes because what may look super steep in the guide is actually a fairly gradual climb, and vice versa. It really all depends on the terrain. Kinsman was straight up hand-over-hand climbing. There are moments when I can use nothing but my fingertips to pull up the entire weight of my body and my backpack. Every move, hand and foot have to be strategically placed because one slip could lead to a tumble that may crack open my head. Matters are even complicated if I still have my trekking poles out and I have to hold onto those while trying to grab a hold of rocks.
After a few tough hours, I reached the top of Kinsman and decided I had enough with my trekking poles. They were more of a nuisance than anything else. I strapped them to the back of my pack, stuffed down a snack, and headed back down the mountain, my hands free of my poles I felt like doing jazz-hands all the way down. I could now hop and jump on rocks and swing from trees with the use of my hands that I leapt down that mountain faster than any descent I’ve had on the trail. Going pole-free was amazing! I figure out my strategy to get through The Whites.
Halfway through the day, I caught up with a few fellow thru-hikers I’ve known since the beginning: Pigpen, Don Vino, Kaiser and Swahili. They stumbled across a swimming hole under a bridge and were relaxing by the side of the brook. Taking a dip sounded absolutely refreshing so I decided to join them. Plus, swimming with my clothes on is like getting a free bath and laundry. Never pass up those opportunities.
At first we were debating about waiting out the storm before making the climb up to Franconia Ridge, but I knew I had to keep going. I still had quite a bit of miles to knockout before finding a stealth spot at the end of the day and wanted some daylight at camp. So I set off for the climb.
Oh, raindrops. No big deal. Wait… That’s thunder. Gahhh I did not want to be climbing to a ridge in the middle of a thunderstorm. I dug around in my backpack for my rain cover and sat down on this rock that was perfectly shaped as a bench. As soon as I sat down, it poured. So I sat there, peacefully contemplating the storm and predicted when it would stop. About 20 minutes later I wasn’t disappointed when the rain drops became lighter, and continued my climb.
The climb wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked in the guide, and I made it to the ridge faster than I anticipated. Upon arriving above tree line, Swahili was up there taking pictures.
“Don’t look behind you yet,” he told me as I made it to the ridge. “Wait until you’re all the way up.”
I made it to the spot where he said I should look, and turned around. I quite literally gasped. It was the most stunning view on the trail so far. Nothing but mountains on a clear, sunny day. I could see where I just hiked from and saw cars the size of ants crawl down on the road thousand of feet below is. I looked forward and saw the rocky ridge that lay before us, and followed the trail for miles until it reached Mt. Lafayette.
“THIS IS SO EPIC!” I said. And I couldn’t help but think that same line over and over again.
The winds were strong and I felt like they could lift me up and blow me off the mountain, but the views were so brilliant I didn’t even care. Walking along that ridge line was the most beautiful experience I might have ever had.
As the ridge walk was coming to an end, so was daylight and my energy depleted from my limbs. We still needed to come down off the ridge and find a decent place to camp. I never felt so exhausted in my life. The two massive climbs we had that day finally sounded in my muscles and I realized I hardly drank any water. While I had an extraordinary day, those 18 miles took their toll and I needed to get to camp and sleep. Three miles later from the ridge, Swahili and I found a spot shared with other section hikers around Garfield Pond. I set up my tent, laid out my sleeping bag, and fell asleep in a matter of minutes. I didn’t even eat I was so tired. I knew I would pay for that in the morning, but the only thing I wanted in that moment was to close my eyes and curl up in my sleeping bag.
THE HUT SYSTEM
It took me forever to get out of camp the next morning. Plus, one of my shoelaces snapped the night before so I had to deal with solving that problem before heading off to hike. At 9:30 I finally finished all my camp chores and sluggishly began another day in The Whites.
I had no energy. Garfield Ridge was rocky and steep for miles. My knees felt like they were going to snap in half every time I stepped down from a rock. Sometimes I seriously wonder if I screwed up my knees for life by hiking this trail. But I’ll worry about that later.
What felt like 20 miles later, I reached a hut around noon. Swahili was already there and said something about pork loin.
Food. I need food. And not the packaged crap I’ve been eating for five months. I needed real food. I walked inside the hut and saw a bowl of leftover pork from the previous night’s dinner.
“Take as much as you want,” the girl working in the hut said. I didn’t need to be told twice. I grabbed a plate, piled on three slabs of meat, sat down at the table and stuffed my face. Ohhh it was so good. And it was exactly what I needed. My muscles craved every protein and nutrient I fed into my body and I could feel myself waking up with every bite.
I heard mixed reviews about the huts. Some hikers say the huts screw you over and that getting extra food or work for stay is extremely hopeful thinking. Other hikers have said that the huts are friendly and will offer whatever they have if they can. At that moment, I had nothing but praise for the huts. I was in heaven. I looked at my guide to see how far I would hike that day, and I still had another 10 miles with the next hut about 6 miles away. Well, at least I could make it to the next hut and see how I feel. So with a stomach full on energy, I packed up my things and headed back on the trail.
By grace of the Appalachian Trail gods, those next 6 miles were comparatively easy to everything I just hiked. For the first time in The Whites, I could go into cruise control and walk without having to think too incredibly hard about where to put my hands or feet. I was at the next hut, called Zeland, earlier than I expected. I used the bathroom and hungout for a bit, debating my next move. By the looks of it, I was the only thru-hiker there. I messed with the idea of trying to snag a work for stay, even though I only did 12 miles that day. Swahili popped up not too long after, and I decided to go for it. I meandered into the hut and asked them what they had available.
“Sure, I could take you tonight. Just hang around until dinner and then we’ll feed you leftovers and we’ll find you some work then,” the girl informed me.
Awesome!! I was done hiking at 4:30, we were right next to some falls and I could just finally relax. I didn’t even have to cook dinner. I never have done work for stay before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I heard they barely even work hikers for more than half an hour, but I prepared myself to accept whatever they wanted me to do.
At around 7:30, the hut workers called us in for leftovers after all the paid guests ate. It was so nice to have real food for dinner: stuffed shells and salad and vegetables! So much better than my standard Knorr pasta sides. After that they told us we could wash dishes, so Swahili and I washed just a handful of plates and bowls and we were done. Easy. A free place to stay and free food all for a couple of dishes. I felt like I was living in luxury, even if that meant sleeping on the floor of the dining room. I was hooked. I wanted to work in as many of the huts as was reasonably acceptable.
The next day was the start of the Presidential Range, and I felt amazing. I did a quick sweep of the bunkrooms to finish off my work and bolted down the trail. The climbs looked difficult for the day, but I was ecstatic to start my climb up Mt. Washington. The next hut was Mizpah, six miles short of the Washington summit, and I felt it was a good place to stop. Plus, a thunderstorm was threatening above us. I knew I didn’t want to risk being above tree line during a massive storm with nowhere to take cover.
I got to the hut at around 3:30, and I felt that was a bit too early to ask for work for stay. Most huts will only accept hikers if they ask at the right time and tell them to keep hiking. But I decided to chance it. At least that would decide for me if I needed to find a stealth spot that night. I walked in and asked, and the hut master granted my stay. Nice!! Second night in a row I would get to sleep inside. And I actually looked forward to doing the work. It gives me something to do and feels rewarding to do something productive other than hiking, eating, or sleeping.
That night, the storms rolled in at full force. It started to hail like somebody was throwing rocks at the windows and lightening crashed all around us. A few other thru-hikers showed up, but only 3 more could be granted work for stay. Everybody else, unfortunately, had to wait the storm out in the hut and then continue on to find a spot to camp. I was so grateful to be indoors.
The next morning I rolled out early as I did all my work the night before after dinner. I was so pumped to summit Washington, the second highest peak on the trail. Plus it was such a beautiful, clear day. You would’ve never guessed the sky poured it’s guts out last night. I walked across the ridge line to the next hut and managed to scrape up some leftover breakfast before the final ascent to Washington. I kept thinking the entire time how easy the climb was. It seemed I got all the steep parts of the Presidentials out of the way yesterday. I hopped up the rocks to the peak and groaned. People. Everywhere. I was the only one with a backpack on. I was even more upset by the fact I actually had to wait in line to take a picture on the summit. The summit has buildings on top of it too, which totally kills the atmosphere for me. I get the tourist attractions, but a mountain should be a place to admire the views, not a place to drop $5 on a slice of pizza. All that said I did become a hypocrite and buy a cup of coffee.
But still. I worked hard for this view. I wanted to appeciate it with other thru-hikers, but that was hard to come by. So after taking my pictures and downing my coffee, I decided it best to tackle the rest of the Presidentials before the afternoon storms rolled in.
That was where I felt most at home. The rest of the ridge line was untouched by tourists who came by train or car, so it felt like a natural hike again. For hours, I had nothing but views of majestic, rocky peaks. I felt like I was between the pages of a National Geographic magazine. A few miles in however, the clear breezy day gave way to a dark cloud billowing through the sky faster than I could make it to the next hut.
“What are you going to do?” Asked an older man behind me. He was out for a section hike.
“Find shelter!” I yelled back. I remembered passing an overhang of rocks not more than a quarter mile behind me. So I ran back to it knowing that was my best refuge from the oncoming storm.
Up above tree line can be a dangerous place in unpredictable weather, and with my aluminum hiking and tent poles, I did not want to become a human lightning rod. A few other hikers favored the idea to find shelter as well, so 8 of us huddled underneath the rocks until we felt it was safe to continue hiking again. Luckily, the storm wasn’t nearly as bad as it could’ve been. There wasn’t any lightning and it only rained for about 20 minutes. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t chance it. Common sense and precaution will save you more on a mountain than any amount of equipment will.
After the storm cleared up, the rocks were a little slippery but it was a fast hike to the next hut. We even got to see two rainbows appear over the valley below and I felt like chasing after a pot of gold.
I got to the hut, ate some snacks, and still felt I had some miles left in me to finish off the Presidents. So I continued onto the next campsite, just a mere 3 miles away over rocky terrain. Once I got there, I realized I was pretty much alone. But I actually really enjoyed it. It was nice to be at camp and not have to talk to anybody and just relax by cooking dinner and finishing off the night flipping through pages in my book.
The next day was Wildcat mountain, but I had no idea the climbs I was in for. But that will have to wait for another blogpost because my writing time has come to an end.
Until next time! – Apple Cider
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