My Walk in the Woods, Ch 15

This is the tale of A Lo Hawk’s 132 day, 2200 mile traverse of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2008.

Chapter Fifteen (July 20th-26th)

Day 104: (NH) 12 very technical miles into the White Mtns

It is here. The day I have dreamed of and anticipated for months has arrived. My body is tingling with elevated levels of caffeine and adrenaline. I eat all the perishable food in sight, take a few puffs from the pipe and get a last look at the clutter of buildings and junk scattered around the property of this cozy hostel. Heavy clouds threaten an imminent thunderstorm keeping the other hikers from venturing out but I can’t wait. Aloha Amigos!

Hiker’s Welcome is a critical rest stop for hikers because it is conveniently located at the foot of the daunting White Mountains which form a rugged spine across the state. The Whites were created over 100 million years ago by magma intrusions of granite polished by glaciers. Now they are intimidating peaks of steep slabs and ledges occasionally covered by a thin layer of timber and vegetation connected by immense boulder fields and deep notches. It is common trail knowledge that previous pace and mileage will be cut in half on this highly technical but very scenic stretch of trace.

Sidetrack GPS analysis of the big three National scenic trails (AT, PCT, CDT) conducted by the inimitable GUTHOOK proves the AT; shortest in miles and lowest in altitude, nevertheless has the greatest overall change in elevation (917,760 ft).

New Hampshire has the oldest maintained trail system in the U.S. (typically with far fewer switchbacks than trails out west). There are more AT miles above treeline (roughly 4500 ft here) in NH than in any other state and it reaches at or near 24 of the state’s 48 4,000+ ft summits. The four steepest sections of the entire trail will be negotiated this week.

For now I am blissfully ignorant of these facts as I march down the lonely country road under ominous skies looking for the turn into the wilderness. It isn’t long before the pity party begins. I slowly and methodically ascend 3100 feet into the clouds where 4802 ft Mt Moosilauke sits in a grey void. The exhausting descent is a precipitous drop, second steepest section on the AT, 2200 ft in 1.7 miles (including 930 feet in 0.5 miles). Wooden steps have been attached to the smooth rock face in some places making the down climb with a pack less death defying.

I eventually make it to Kinsman Notch, 10 miles from Glencliff, my quads feeling like they went through a meat grinder. Drained and stalled, the inevitable downpour demands action. With no place to hide or camp, movement is the only answer. The afternoon consists of a slow, slick two mile climb to a ‘minor’ peak, Mt Wolf (3500 ft). Somewhere between the wooded east and west high points I try to find a flat spot not covered by mossy rocks or ancient rotting timber. Drops of rain from the saturated trees drip on the tent all night. I am reminded of the rain forests of my home state of Oregon as I tumble into deep slumber.

Day 105: (NH) 11 extremely difficult miles to Lonesome Lake Hut

Day two in the Whites continue the misery with more rain and ankle biting terrain. A seemingly endless sequence of large step down and step ups jolt the entire body. There is as much scrambling as upright walking; my fingertips are raw and my knees are scraped. The unforgiving parkour course brings me to the summit of 4355 ft South Kinsman followed by a rocky roller coaster down and up to North Kinsman 1.5 miles later. A long ridge trail descends past Kinsman Pond Shelter to a junction with Fishin Jim Trail.

Here the wet conditions turn torrential. Gravity brings all the water pouring down steep granite slopes directly across the trail in a massive, frothing flood. Each careful, deliberate step is a test of faith. For once, I wish I had a pair of trekking poles for balance. My nerves are frayed, my stomach is in a knot. I lock my mind in the hurt locker and mechanically move forward. I finally reach an oasis named Lonesome Lake Hut.

Sidetrack There are eight high mountain huts in the White Mtns owned and maintained by AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). Most are made of stone, some are log cabin style. They are full service in the summer, offering dinner, breakfast and usually bunkhouse lodging for a hefty fee. Thru-hikers can inquire about vacancies, if any are available they may be offered a bunk in exchange for work such as washing dishes or sweeping rooms.

From south to north they are: Lonesome Lake (a fishing camp of log cabins built in 1876), Greenleaf, Galehead, Zealand Falls, Mizpah Spring, Lakes of the Clouds (largest, highest at 5030 feet and most popular due to its proximity to the 6288 ft summit of Mt Washington, highest point in New England), Madison Spring (built in1888), and Carter Notch.

The picturesque old log buildings are swimming in mist and appear mysterious but the allure of dry shelter is overwhelming. I aim directly for the largest structure, woodsmoke billowing out of the stone chimney. I enter a room bustling with activity. I meet the bossy caretakers and am told I can bunk with two other thru-hikers. One turns out to be Rhino, a hiker I’ve been chasing since the Smoky Mountains. The other hiker’s name is Dr Zayus. I dry out my gear, we head for the dining room for some bad soup, then I am tasked with drying silverware. At the end of this memorable day I gratefully crash on a warm, dry bunkbed.

Day 106: (NH) 14 awesome miles from Lonesome Lake to camp past Mt Garfield

Overnight the weather improves. Dr Zayus, Rhino and I sweep out the bunkhouses while the paying customers have breakfast, then we carbo load on leftover oatmeal and pancakes. The day trippers are generous with their spare food but I decline to load my pack any further.

It is a nice day and I am ready to go. A quick toke in the shadows and I take the Cascade Brook trail to the Franconia Notch and parkway. I pass under US 3/I-93 along the Pemigewasset River and cross via the paved Franconia Notch bike path bridge. I begin the ascent of popular Franconia Ridge, reaching treeline at 4760 ft Little Haystack.

The next section above the trees is referred to as the Presidential Range and it is spectacular. I climb up and over 5089 ft Mt Lincoln and 5249 ft Mt Lafayette on the north end of Franconia Ridge. Next up is Garfield Ridge which leads to 4501 ft Mt Garfield. The trail drops off the north shoulder of the mountain 970 feet in 0.6 miles (fourth steepest section of AT). I stealth camp near the Garfield Ridge (fee) campsite.

Day 107: (NH) 17 miles to Crawford Notch

Today is a big mileage day but thankfully it is mostly downhill the last six miles and the destination is worth it. Past the Galehead Hut, the trail ascends sharply 1130 ft in 0.8 miles to the 4902 ft summit of S Twin peak. A more gentle down and up to 4580 ft Mt Guyot followed by a steep one mile drop and steep climb to a highpoint on 4265 ft Mt Zealand. Jaw dropping views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness from dramatic cliffs. Descend around cliffs to Zealand Falls Hut where I buy a yummy lemon bar. Across the Zealand Pond outlet to Ethan Pond trail which climbs through the stark terrain of Zealand Notch to the rugged slopes of Whitewall Mtn. Walk on an old railroad bed then climb to Crawford Notch State Park. Cross Saco River, climb Webster Cliff trail to 3911 ft Mt Webster then a series of ledges to 4052 ft Mt Jackson followed by 4311 ft Mt Pierce. After Mizpah Spring Hut, begin the big descent to Crawford Notch, major access portal to/from civilization.

From the congestion at the Notch, I walk down the road to the Crawford Notch General Store and Campground. I secure a spot in the bunkhouse and shop the well stocked shelves of the store. I am informed the shower and laundry area will close in 30 minutes so I take my six pack of beer and do some serious hiker trash multi-tasking before meeting new hikers in the bunkhouse in the evening.

Day 108: (NH) 11 windy miles to Lakes of the Clouds Hut

Sidetrack Built in 1819, the Crawford Path runs the length of the Presidential Range from Crawford Notch to Mt Washington and is the oldest maintained foot trail in America.

Up early, beat the crowds to the Notch. I am physically ready and mentally excited for this day. The weather is good but the wind is notorious above treeline in this area (Mt Washington holds the world record for wind speed at 231 mph). I warm up on a minor climb, drop to a col then make a big climb to the broad, open summit of Mt Eisenhower (4780 ft) where the wind begins to hinder my pace and stance.

Next is a minor peak, Mt Franklin, then a slow, halting climb to the east of the summit of 5371 ft Mt Monroe (4th tallest in NH). The wind is steady and brutal, causing me to bend forward to make progress and stop and brace during strong gusts. The only break is the occasional rock outcrop. It is clear any attempt to set up a tent and camp would be futile if not dangerous. I’ve got to keep moving.

Time appears to crawl along with my pace. I can only look to see where the next protective boulder is. I actually have to get down on my knees several times to avoid being blown away. At last I see the outline of a large two story stone building, Lakes of the Clouds Hut. If there was ever a situation for a thru-hiker to ask for shelter, this is it. I slowly inch my way to a set of stairs.

Once inside, I’m overwhelmed by the loud crowd milling around a big dining room filled with massive wooden tables. I see Rhino and another hiker I recognize. How does he keep getting ahead of me? He points out one of the staff and I am immediately welcomed. The Hut is booked to capacity but we are told we can sleep on the floor of the dining room this evening. Dinner is served, we take our plates to some benches near the coat room. On the wall is a chalkboard containing the weather report which claims the current wind speed is 72 mph.

After dinner, the staff put on a camp show with raucous singing and skits. I catch bits of it while washing and organizing hundreds of forks, knives and spoons in the kitchen. After the guests have left for their rooms, I spread my pad and sleeping bag under a table and go into deep sleep.

Day 109: 10 stunning miles to cowboy camp at Osgood tentsites

Today is the most glorious day of the trip. It is chilly this morning but the air is calm. I am anxious to go but we have to wait until breakfast is over to do our chores. Outside, I wander over to a group of shallow tarns (lakes) and enjoy the first of many tokes today. I decide to set a leisurely pace and take lots of breaks for a change.

At the summit of Mt Washington, I take a long break to explore the museum, observatory, gift shop and cafeteria. Non hikers arrive by car and cog railroad. On the descent, the AT parallels the tracks for some distance. It is hiker tradition to moon the train, one happens to pass by so I stop, drop my pack and pants, and deliver a hiker trash salute.

After traversing Sphinx Col, I climb 5712 ft Mt Jefferson (3rd highest), drop to Edmonds Col past Storm Lake. Next is 5793 ft Mt Adams (2nd highest) then descend to Madison Spring Hut. The Osgood Ridge trail initiates a major descent along the ridge. I arrive at the Osgood Campsite which has elevated wood decks to sleep on. I pick an empty deck, lay out my pad and sleeping bag, falling asleep under the stars with a happy grin on my face.

Day 110: 5 easy miles to Pinkham Notch visitor center then 4 challenging miles to Wildcat Ridge cowboy camp

I am looking forward to another memorable day so I leave the others snoring and quickly pack my gear. For a change its a pretty easy 5 mile walk down into the wide notch.

Pinkham Notch bisects the White Mtns providing major tourist access. A small town has built up at the mouth including the Visitor Center I am aiming for. There are essential hiker services here like showers and a free telephone. I call Kim Steward who works for the Forest Service and is a relative of my good friend from Oregon, retired Forest Service Ranger Zane Grey Smith. Her office is only a few blocks away and she arrives shortly to escort me around town.

First she takes me to a local sandwich shop where she introduces me to everyone. Then to the Post Office to pick up mail from Sue. After a quick stop at the local outdoor outfitters, we head back to Forest Service HQ. Mahalo Kim, you are a wonderful trail angel with a great job in a beautiful setting. I sit in the shade on the lawn transferring dehydrated food and supplies from the cardboard box to the nylon backpack.

Whump, there it is. Staring me in the face is the steepest climb I have attempted in my backpacking career. Four extremely challenging miles to the massive Wildcat Ridge; including a 2000 foot ascent in 1.5 miles with a 1000 foot stretch of exposed scrambling in a half mile. And I do it carrying a fully loaded pack!

It takes the rest of the day and uberhiker effort to reach the first of Wildcat Peaks A-D (4423 ft). Fortunately, along the route there are large ledges to stop and take in impressive views of Mt Washington. However, the terrain is so tough and unforgiving I see no place to camp or set up a tent anywhere. Finally I lay out my pad and sleeping bag in a drainage ditch beside the trail cowboy style. I eat a sandwich in the fading light and collapse from overwhelming exhaustion.

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