White Mountains, White Knuckles
Everyone I talked to about the White Mountains told me they would be beautiful but hard. They weren’t kidding! In New Hampshire, hiking becomes a full-contact sport and sometimes the rocks are like Pennsylvania rocks on steroids. But the mountain view and sunsets are the most amazing that I’ve seen.
The sopping wet spring weather has continued, which, while it creates uncomfortable conditions in the lower elevations, creates potentially life-threatening conditions in the Presidential Range. I feel like I have been in these New Hampshire mountains for forever, trying to get out. I am trying to be patient and embrace the extra rest, but it is a struggle.
This past week has consisted of three hiking days and four rest days. The first two rest days were intentional; I loved spending time with my wonderful grandma! The third rest day was unplanned. After learning of the weather forecast for Mount Washington, I decided to not attempt the climb up. The fourth day ended up being a nero: 1.5 miles to the top of Washington.
Splinter and I decided to hike the ridge over the Presidentials together because we were both planning to stay at a hostel on the other side. So we chose to wake up at 4 a.m. and get up Washington hopefully before the weather had a chance to get dangerous.
Washington: “I’m always dangerous. And if I’m not, wait a minute and I will be.”
Fun fact: the summit of Washington is in the clouds about 300 days out of the year, which means, if I can do math, you have about a 22% chance of hitting it on a clear day.
We start the 1.5 mile trek from Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Two minutes later the rain starts. First it is light, but the closer we get to the top, it is pelting us in sheets driven by the unrelenting wind. The trail is a stream and our shoes are soaked in less than five minutes. I stop a few times to make sure Splinter is still climbing; I huddle behind the rock cairns trying to escape the wind. Rain gear stops functioning.
We reach the summit. I touch the summit sign and am nearly knocked off my feet by a gust of wind. Later we learn the gusts were close to 70 mph. Immediately we look for a place to escape the wind. The visitor center isn’t open yet, but we find a little alcove behind it that is protected from the wind and most of the rain.
Another hiker joins us. She was attempting the hut traverse (50-ish miles in 24 hours or less between the AMC Huts) but by the time she reached Washington, the weather had put her in a bad place, hovering near the start of hypothermia. Splinter gives her his down jacket and sleeping bag to wrap up in and I give her gloves and my phone to call for help. The visitor center does not open till 8am, so the three of us and Turtle Tracks spend the next hour and a half waiting, trying to stay warm, and trying to figure out how we will get off the mountain. Cell phone reception is spotty. Around 7:30, we notice lights come on in the building, so Splinter and I start banging on the windows, trying to get someone’s attention. A gentleman lets us into the vestibule of the visitor center and we hang out there until the place officially opens. Then we drink hot chocolate and wait for a shuttle to take us down the mountain.
Today was scary. If I had been by myself and not with Splinter, I don’t know what I would have done. I questioned every other step up that mountain, my heart quivering and my stomach in knots. In hindsight, yes, we probably shouldn’t have gone up in the first place. But it is so hard to predict the weather up here. To me, starting out wasn’t necessarily a bad decision. To have kept going across an exposed ridge in that weather would have been a bad decision. God sending us Abby to take care of was a reality check. It stopped me from hiking any further in the intense weather.
The next day we are shuttled back up the Auto Road to the top of Washington. The wind is much less fierce and it isn’t raining, although the summit is still in the clouds so there are no views. We traverse the ridge of the Presidentials. As we get closer to Madison, the clouds gradually disappear and the sun comes out. The summit of Mount Madison was my favorite part of the day. I felt like I was on top of the world! From there I could see back to Washington’s summit, which was now clear. I don’t usually swear, but I swore at that mountain. Washington and I are not on good terms.
Earlier in the week, I walked Franconia Ridge, which was gorgeous. The day started off foggy and rainy, but eventually cleared enough to allow for some incredible views! I would be walking in a fog, then a gust of wind would drive the clouds up and over the ridge and the sun would dive out for a minute. As I walked, the Trail stretched out before me, visible across the peaks of the next few mountains. It was one of the high points of the week.
Another high point of the week was my first real mountain sunset. I’ve been living in the woods for two months now, climbing mountains, but the Trail isn’t called “the green tunnel” for nothing. Usually the trees block a decent view of the sunset. But once you climb up to 5000 feet in elevation, the trees shrink and disappear altogether. Thursday evening I spent at Lakes of the Clouds Hut 1.5 miles from the summit of Washington. It was a beautiful day with perfect weather. I watched the sunset that evening in awe. I was surrounded by an ocean of peaks, all rising up in varying shades of blue. The sun itself was blood orange, peeking out of the clouds for a few minutes before disappearing over the horizon. I took pictures but they cannot truly capture the beauty of it.
I have fallen in love with the alpine zone. The white-throated sparrows singing in the shrunken pines, the persistent smell of Christmas, the tiny flowers peeking up from between the rocks, the quartz and micah glittering in the sunlight on the slabs of rock, the feeling of walking on top of the world. It is a beautiful place, albeit an often dangerous one.
On to the Maine event
Tomorrow I head into Maine! I have heard that southern Maine is the hardest part of the Trail. Mahoosuc Notch and Mahoosuc Arm await me. One day at a time, one step at a time. I am just relieved to be out of the Whites and done with the Presidentials!
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