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New Hampshire's White Mountains
Volume 44: Fri October 10, 2003
My last Adventure ended with me about to enter the infamous and dreaded White Mountains of New Hampshire, known for rugged, difficult trails, as well a serious contender for the world's worst weather. Antarctica is a breezy, comfortable destination in comparison. And you can't mention the White Mountains without giving some thought to the crown jewel of this rugged terrain: Mount Washington.
Mount Washington is the highest peak of the Whites—the highest in all of New England for that matter, topping out at 6,288'—surprisingly low given the ferocity of its weather. The average yearly temperature at the summit is a chilly 26.5°F—and that doesn't even include a wind chill of 35.3 mph, the average wind speed at the summit (classified as "gale-force", apparently, which makes it sound even more sinister). Hurricane-force winds occur, on average, every three days. And if that wasn't enough, Mount Washington boasts the top wind speed ever recorded. Imagine—if you will—the poor individual that had to go out on a stormy April day in 1934, rope tied around his waist so he wouldn't blow into oblivion, to record a wind gust of 231 mph. By comparison, hurricane-force winds start at a relatively modest 74 mph. I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but thousands of hikers have died under less trying circumstances.
So the White Mountains have a harsh reputation, to put it mildly. Never having been in them before, I couldn't guess how much exaggeration was involved because every 'hard' section of the trail tends to be exaggerated, but there are some scary statistics surrounding this area. I'd be less than honest if I said I wasn't a bit concerned as I examined my now flimsy-looking 10 oz. silicon impregnated tarp (without stakes or poles to hold it up, I might add).
This day, I'd be heading up Mt. Moosilauke, my first 4,000' peak since Virginia. Amanda dropped me off at the trailhead on a beautiful, clear day and I trudged up relatively quickly and surprisingly easy—probably since I wasn't carrying a full pack. I broke through the tree line—the first so far of the AT—to a fantastic panoramic view. Near the top, I bumped into C.C. once again, the guy filming a documentary on thru-hikers. I had a flowery daypack of Amanda's and after showering, shaving, and generally getting clean, I didn't look much like a thru-hiker anymore. Perhaps that was why C.C. didn't enlist me for another acting job like the previous two times I had bumped into him.
Running well ahead of schedule, I took my time sight-seeing at the top before heading down the back of Moosilauke and perhaps the most knee-crippling descent of the entire trail. Even with just a light day pack, I found myself wincing with every knee-jarring step down that severe slope. I was quite happy when I reached Amanda at Kinsman Notch and dug into the sandwich she brought with a vigor that would amaze even an Ethiopian.
The next morning looked overcast and ugly, and while driving to the trailhead it started to sprinkle. I told Amanda I changed my mind—I'd do it the next day when the weather was hopefully better. It wasn't really fear that changed my mind, but I *hate* hiking in rain.
So I played hooky from the trail. We went to Franconia Notch where we could view the Old Man of the Mountain, or at least what was left of him since his face slid off a few months earlier.
Which, I might add, really annoyed me. Here, this geological wonder that looks like a human head sat for 12,000 years, and a few months before I make it out to see it live, in person, the damned thing falls apart. Why couldn't it wait for just five more months? The gall.
But I'll get over it. I suppose. It IS a silly monument, really, since you can only see it from a certain direction, at a certain distance, at a certain time of day, under certain weather conditions—heck, with so many conditions, it's amazing anyone ever got to see the thing in the first place!
But Amanda and I made the pilgrimage to pay our last respects. At the viewpoint many people had actually left flowers and notes as if they were in mourning. Somebody has to say it: it's pathetic. It was like the state of New Hampshire had lost their mascot. They did, in a sense, I suppose. The Old Man of the Mountain is on the New Hampshire quarter, on their license plates, and even marks their freeway signs. But still.....
A group of truly hopeless individuals have started a 'save the Old Man' organization to raise money and plaster concrete or something to the cliff to recreate it. They seem to not realize that what made the Old Man so interesting was that it was natural. Pasting concrete to the cliff would be an insult to the Old Man's memory!
I had a better idea. I took a close look at where the Old Man used to be and decided, if you squint and roll your eyes enough, it kind of looks like Ross Perot. Yes, Ross Perot. Let the marketing forces of New Hampshire unleash themselves and resell the Old Man as Ross Perot—who, ironically, looks like an old man! I may have saved the state from eternal mourning if I could just get any of them to listen to me.
After paying our last respects, Amanda and I headed out to North Conway, where we heard rumors of factory outlets, fast food, movies, and more (LOTS more!) which sounded good to me. =)
In particular, I needed a new pair of shoes. I loved the shoes I had, but they were deteriorating and sadly, I had to look at a future without them. They've carried me through all sorts of inhuman conditions since Duncannon—rocks, mud, rain, bogs. Other hikers scoffed that they'd never make it through the rocks of Pennsylvania. We proved them wrong, though. But at long last, I needed to start looking for a new pair of shoes. It was a sad day, indeed.
Amanda and I browsed around, looking for just the perfect pair. Light, cheap, and feels good. We split up to better cover the store. I'd try on a pair that looked promising, and be taking them off with a pained look as Amanda brought another promising pair.
Finally, she brought a pair that seemed perfect. It fit well—better than well, in fact—and was cheap. Or at least cheaper than most of the shoes in the store. But I was surprised when I asked what size they were and Amanda told me a size 9.
WHAT?! I've NEVER fit into a size 9 so well before. I usually wear 7 1/2.
Then Amanda admitted—they were woman's shoes. Yes, that day in North Conway, I became a cross dresser. It wasn't one of the proudest moments of my life, but utility was key and these shoes fit the bill. I bought them.
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking for libraries, eating, and grocery shopping before calling it a day and finding ourselves a hotel—or rather a cute little cabin—near Franconia Notch where we called it a night.
The next morning Amanda dropped me off at Kinsman Gap on a dreary, but not quite rainy day. The trail was steep—up, down, up, down, ad nausea, but otherwise not much worth noting except Lonesome Lake Hut.
Lonesome Lake Hut was the first hut I had reached—famous among thru-hikers for outrageous prices so you can spend the night. For $68, you too can purchase a space in an unheated bunkhouse (with linens!) where they'll feed you breakfast and dinner. I choke on $68 for a hotel room with a shower, television, AC, and heating, and these folks had the nerve to charge that much for a bunk space and no other amenities? The huts are run by the AMC—known affectionately as Appalachian Money Club or—less affectionately—as other things.
However, thru-hikers only have the option of a work-for-stay, where we work for an hour or two washing dishes, sweeping, stacking wood, or whatever else they have in mind, and we have the privilege of sleeping on the dining room tables after everyone else goes to sleep. They'll also feed us any leftovers they happen to have left over. At least for the first few thru-hikers into the place each day.
Seeing as there are almost no established places for thru-hikers to camp for free in the White Mountains—a fact of life we've probably grown too accustomed to—a work-for-stay seemed in my future, and I was interested to check out this hut that now sat before me. I wouldn't be using it this time around since I had a $44 cabin waiting for me at the end of the trail, but it was nice to see ahead of time what to expect.
I wasn't in the hut for five minutes before it started to rain, and decided to stop and read a book for a bit in the hopes it might let up. And it did!
I practically ran down the nicely graded last couple of miles to Franconia Notch, where Amanda left a note pointing to the parking lot where she was waiting. This would be my last day slackpacking, however, since Amanda had to go back to work the next day.
We dropped by the grocery store where I could pick up the rest of the supplies I'd need to make it through the Whites and headed back to the cabin for the night.
At 4:00am, the alarm went off. I threw all my stuff in the back seat in a haphazard, dazed manner while Amanda piled her bags in neat stacks in the trunk. Unfortunately for me, Amanda had to be at work VERY early in the morning, and if I wanted a ride back to the trailhead, I had to wake up at an unearthly hour as well. Before leaving, I turned the television on to the Weather Channel to see what I'd have to deal with that day—a cool, crisp, party-cloudy day. Excellent! I was shocked to learn at that very moment, Mount Washington was boasting of temperatures at 32 degrees and 51 mph winds. Boy was I glad I wasn't going there that day!
So that's how I ended up at the Flume Visitor Center with all my worldly possessions covering a picnic table at 5:00 in the morning. It was still too dark to hike—I didn't have a headlamp—so I wisely used the time to pack up all my worldly possessions into a pack that could pass for organized using what little light the stars provided.
I finished packing about an hour later when I discovered myself in a troubling predicament: The park had no trash cans. I blithely assumed that after I repacked my food into Ziplocks and poured my denatured alcohol from its metal container into a lightweight water bottle, I could throw away the left over trash in a trash can. I'd been doing it for months now without any issues! But there it was, a sign at the front of the visitor center, that said this was a no trash can park.
Obviously, for people in cars, this generally isn't a big deal. But I found myself in the unusual predicament of being on foot with a bunch of car trash. I couldn't carry this trash all the way to Mount Washington 50 miles away where I expected to encounter my next trash can. And at 6:00 in the morning, the parking lot wasn't exactly bursting with helpful visitors that I could beg to take my trash for me. This was a serious pickle I found myself in!
I'm not proud of myself—really, I'm not—but I did what I had to do: I littered. For the first time in my life, I deliberately left trash on the ground that I hoped somebody would pick up, but would perhaps decay there until the end of time. In a sense, I feel it serves the visitor center right for not providing trash cans in the first place. Next time they want to cut costs, maybe they'll think twice about eliminating trash cans.
But I still felt guilty as I headed up the trail in the morning twilight, wondering if the litter police would sock me for that $1000 fine. I wondered—if I pleaded with them about all the trash I picked up along the trail so far that would more than make up for the little bit I left behind—would help my case. With heavy heart—and an even heavier backpack—I trudged onward.
The hike started out normal enough, but as the trail went higher in elevation, I noticed the tops of the trees whipping wildly in the wind and fast-moving clouds beginning to obscure my vision. But it was when I headed above tree line I was plunged into another world.
Without trees for protection, the wind easily matched that I had seen on the Weather Channel for Mount Washington. I staggered down the trail like a drunk man. Every step had to be carefully calculated since a particularly strong 70 mph gust would blow your foot to the side before you could plant it on firm ground. On more than one occasion I found myself draped onto rocks on the side of the trail, pushed into place by the punishing wind.
The clouds came in with gusto limiting visibility to about 20 feet in any direction. Beads of moisture began to form on my jacket. Without gloves, I improvised by wearing spare socks on my hands. The pants I wore flapped loudly in the wind like a flag in on a windy day. I'd never seen anything like this in my life!
But there were two things, despite my preoccupation with the cold and wind, that I couldn't fail to notice.
You'd think I was the only crazy person to brave such weather conditions—or even that just thru-hikers would be crazy enough to do so—but I passed people left and right. I couldn't go ten minutes without passing a group of people, typically in groups or two or three, but in one case a group of ten people. While I didn't expect to die out there on Mt. Lafayette, it was good to know that so many fellow hikers were around to find my body and take appropriate action if the worst should happen.
The other thing I noticed—which goes to prove that insanity is not limited to just the human race—were birds. Yes, birds. Think about that. While I kept getting blown over and into rocks, at least I had traction to keep me somewhat in place. These birds I'd see near the trail—smartly behind a small rock or scrap of bush that somehow managed to survive the elements—trying to protect themselves from the wind. And here's the amazing part: They'd actually try to fly to get away from me. It's not like they were on the trail where I could step on them. It's not like I was even heading direction at them. But when I got within about 10 feet, they would fly up about two inches before the wind caught them and blew them horizontally off the mountain at 50 mph. This happened so often I lost count on my fingers.
At the top of Mt. Lafayette I chatted—or rather, yelled—over that howling wind with a group of about five hikers joking about putting rocks in my pack to keep me from blowing off the mountain. Had my pack really been empty of all the food I just restocked, I might have done just that! But to stop long in this severe weather invited hypothermia, so I continued on.
Hours later I finally ducked back into the tree line and out of the blistering cold wind. Also, as I descended the mountain, the layer of clouds was rising, and once again I had magnificent views to admire. I plodded along like this until I reached Galehead Hut where, after ten strenuous hours of getting my butt kicked, I called it quits. I made it 13.0 miles.
Amanda, when I talked to her next, would tell me that she saw a shooting star on her drive to the airport and felt that it must be a good omen. If she only knew....
So I walked into the hut and asked one of the workers there if they had room for a "lowly thru-hiker"—I figured a little modesty and self-deprecation would get me further than cockiness. They said sure, I was the second thru-hiker to arrive, and to set my stuff to the side.
They put me in charge of setting up the dining table for dinner and then I sat around talking with the other thru-hiker killing time. Us thru-hikers had to wait until all the paying customers finished eating before we could eat with the hired help in back.
I should describe these huts in more detail, so I'll do that now. This one was the newest of them all, built only two or three years ago. There had been an older hut there built countless decades ago that became more expensive to maintain than simply building a new one from scratch, so they razed the old hut and built this new one.
Being out in the middle of nowhere, they helicoptered building supplies and construction equipment. They drilled a well around 200' deep so it would have a clean, pure water source. There is electricity—provided by wind and solar power, and a backup generator in the event that neither are available for five consecutive days. You can always find the latest weather forecasts pinned up in each of the huts—a useful feature to say the least. And the huts were always packed full of games, books, and educational exhibits to keep people occupied and out of trouble.
There was absolutely no open flames in the hut, or even on the porch since the people that designed the hut—in their infinite wisdom—thought making it out of wood was an excellent idea. Now I'll admit, Galehead Hut was a handsome structure, but it still didn't seem like a good idea to build a large, wooden structure where raging wildfires could occur—or even where someone cooking a meal on their stove could burn the place down.
And—get this—Galehead Hut is completely handicap accessible, right down to the privies where a large sign loudly proclaims them as handicap accessible. Keep in mind, the closest trailhead is a strenuous seven or so miles away (the AT, naturally, is not the closest trailhead).
I asked the workers there about that, and they said the AMC tried to get an exception to the Americans Disability Act for the structure since it was painfully obvious that nobody in a wheelchair was ever going visit this place, but in the end they couldn't because handicapped people around the world rose to protest such a dastardly deed. And just to spite them, after the structure was finished, they did—believe it or not—have a wheelchair bound visitor to the hut. From what I understand, his non-handicap friends had a big help in carrying him up the trail much of the way, but the point was made: Even in this desolate location, the wheelchair-bound might still want to visit.
But here's the thing that bothers me: If someone in a wheelchair could somehow navigate the challenging trails to the hut, how much trouble could a privy not designed for wheelchairs possibly present? The wheelchair bound person—all he managed to prove, in my humble opinion—was that his friends were stupid for carrying him up there in the first place.
Naturally, after proving his point, nobody in a wheelchair has ever visited the hut since.
By 9:30, it was "lights off" and everyone started clearing the dining room to head to bed. So I pulled out my sleeping bag, laid it out across the dining table, and promptly went to sleep.
The next morning I was set in charge of sweeping the dining room before I was off the hook and once again was making my way down the trail. The wind was still ferocious above tree line, but the clouds were gone allowing me to gaze far into the distance while I tripped. Much more satisfying than looking at the ground while I tripped.
My dilemma this particular day rested with where I would spend the night. The next hut, Zealand Falls, was much too close for me to call it quits so soon. The one beyond that, Mizpah Hut, was much too far for me to reach. There was a shelter that was doable, but it would cost me $8 to camp there. And, it was supposed to rain starting in the late afternoon.
Ultimately, I ended up at Crawford Notch where I stealth camped. I walked off the trail about 200 feet or so, found a small clearing, and set up my tarp. I wasn't under it for two minutes before it started to sprinkle, then downpour. But I didn't care, because I was dry, and the weather was supposed to be clear by morning.
It wasn't, though. The rain had stopped, but it was overcast and the trails were wet. I ate breakfast, packed up camp, and the trail immediately started a severe climb up Mt. Webster, nearly 3000' in three miles. And once again I found myself above tree line doing everything in my power not to be blown off the cliffs to my death below. At the end of another exhausting day, I found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, a measly 1.4 miles from the summit of the infamous Mount Washington.
This hut was designed to withstand 200 mph winds. Few structures in the world can withstand such winds, but I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head remembering that just 1.4 miles away they recorded a 231 mph wind gust. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the problem there. At the hut they said they had been recording wind gusts of 75 mph—ferocious, no doubt—but still a far cry from 200 which put some of my fears to rest.
This hut also has the unique position of being the highest of the huts at 5040' above sea level. And none of the huts are heated. My hands, numb with cold despite the socks I wore on them, were set to work washing dishes—a job I was actually thrilled to death with since the dish water was hot! It seems the hut ran out of soap for washing dishes and so none of them had been cleaned since breakfast. One other thru-hiker had already arrived and we spent well nearly two hours washing dishes before we finished. And after soaking my hands in hot water for two hours, they STILL FELT COLD!
The hut was freezing. Of course, outside was even colder even without the wind chill, but with all my layers of clothes on I was still shaking from the cold. I knew the huts weren't heated, but I figured the body temperatures from the nearly 100 people at the hut would at least keep the inside temperature bearable. I was wrong.
I went to sleep once again on the dining room tables but spent most of the night awake, shaking in my sleeping bag, unable to stay warm. That night would be my coldest, most uncomfortable night on the trail—and I was actually indoors! I love irony, except when it happens to me.
The next morning I woke up to sun beating down on me through the hut's windows. It was still painfully cold—a fact even more annoying because I even had the sun shining on me. And looking out the window, I got my first view of Mount Washington. Until then, it had always been covered in clouds, but not now.
The morning weather report said visibility was an incredible 120 miles—the best so far of the entire year!—with perhaps 10 mph winds at the top. It was still pretty damned cold outside, but I couldn't have asked for better weather while hiking up Mount Washington!
I headed out, passing a sinister-sounding sign warning that Mount Washington has the world's worst weather and to be prepared for anything, because the weather can change on a dime. I practically leaped up the rocks to the summit where I immediately headed into the main structure and into a heated environment. It was wonderful. I made phone calls. I used the flush toilets. I bought a chili dog, banana, slice of pizza, and a Coke at the cafeteria—perhaps the best meal I'd ever had. I gazed at the morbid list of the more than one hundred people that have died at or near this summit (with vivid descriptions about how they managed to take themselves out of the gene pool)—mostly idiots that came up unprepared and froze to death at night. Hmmm. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned from that.
And I tried to imagine what it would be like if this was the end of the Appalachian Trail. Benton MacKaye originally proposed Mount Washington as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and if he had had his way, I'd be done. Completely and totally done after more than four months of hiking!
But alas, Avery prevailed and pushed the trail another 332 miles to Katahdin. The bastard.
Not only did I have the incredible luck to arrive on the clearest day of the year with no wind to speak of, but it also happened to be Labor Day weekend. Tourists started filling the place at an alarming rate, if not from the toll road to the top, then the cog railroad. And if not the cog railroad, then from hikers such as myself. More than once I looked around hoping to find a sign showing the maximum occupancy.
From Mount Washington, the AT takes an excruciating 13.4 mile route to Pinkham Notch. What makes it excruciating is that there is a 3.6 mile blue-blazed trail available that goes straight down to Pinkham Notch, cutting out a very rugged, difficult 10 unnecessary miles. It's very upsetting to know of such a shortcut, yet not be able to take it since your main goal is to hike the AT, not from "Georgia to Maine".
I sadly set off for the 13.4 route, although I'd later learn that about half of my fellow thru-hikers took the shortcut. I can't imagine how horrible it would be to climb to the top of Katahdin and tell all my friends, "Yeah, I hiked the entire AT—well, except for 13.4 miles because I was too lazy."
The trail crossed the cog railroad, a rustic-looking beast belching smoke into the air like a proper steam-engine should. There's a thru-hiker tradition to moon the cog railroad. There's a conductor tradition to throw hunks of coal at thru-hikers mooning the cog railroad. And there's a tourist tradition for those riding the cog railroad to take pictures of thru-hikers mooning the cog railroad. It seems everyone was in on the tradition—except, sadly, for myself where I didn't learn of the tradition until I had already hiked two miles beyond it and bumped into a few thru-hikers talking about their experience mooning the cog.
It was heart-breaking to learn I had missed my opportunity to expose myself in public when it was acceptable to do so—in fact, my DUTY as a thru-hiker to do so!
I headed into the Osgood Tentsite for the night—one of the few but free established places to camp. There was no shelter there, but there were wooden platforms for tents. Since no rain was forecast for the weather that night, I laid myself out on a platform without putting up my tarp and went to sleep. And at only 2550' above sea level, managed to stay far warmer outdoors here than I did indoors at Lakes of the Clouds Hut the night before.
The next morning I hiked down into Pinkham Notch where I made more phone calls and bought a pair of gloves. The socks I had been improvising with were smelling pretty bad since I'd been wearing them on my feet at night, and I figured a real pair of gloves was due. Food was available, but I sadly passed on it in a feeble attempt to lighten my pack load by eating my own food. With all the food I'd been eating in the huts, my pack wasn't anywhere near as light as I had hoped for by this point on the trail.
Then I headed up Wildcat Mountain, another excruciatingly steep trail proving that the concept of switchbacks has yet to reach this part of the country. Even more dispiriting was the gondola at the top, where large men and women paid for the privilege of being carried to the top to get their "wilderness" experience.
I continued on, stopping for the night at the Carter Notch Hut.
This hut is a bit different from the others in the sense that no meals are provided. There is still a kitchen where one can do their cooking, though. It only costs $20 for that reason, or thru-hikers can do the work-for-stay. This time my job entailed moving firewood from one pile to another. The hut is used year round (most are not), and they have a stove they bring in during the winter months as a heat source. Not being winter, that option wasn't available when I was there, but they were already getting the firewood ready for it.
There was also a group of people from Boston that hiked up for the weekend—and it was painfully obvious that they'd never spent a night out in the woods by themselves before. With that introduction, you'll probably think they were woefully unprepared, but actually it was just the opposite. They carried up about a dozen bottles of wine and enough food to feed the entire army of—let's say—Lithuania. Apparently they worked together at a *really* nice restaurant in Boston—and when I say *really* nice, I'm talking $100 per plate minimum and a cup of water costs $10 with five different forks and—imagine if you will—people that come in and know exactly what every one of those forks are for.
These are the kind of people that can't imagine eating macaroni and cheese when they go into the backcountry. Ironically, they probably would eat snails—something none of us thru-hikers would be caught dead doing. They spent hours in the kitchen preparing a meal you'd typically only see in a five-star restaurant, so it was a bit strange to see it in the backcountry miles from the nearest road. It put the pizzas I made on the trail to shame.
And like I said, they brought enough to feed a small army—certainly far more than they could possibly eat—so they offered it to the rest of us. I sadly declined, pointing to my overweight pack and saying I had to lighten the load. They kept insisting I eat something, pointing to their pile of food saying that they wanted to lighten their load too! Eventually I won that argument, but I did get to witness an eight-course meal that probably would have cost thousands of dollars at their restaurant—all out in the middle of friggin' nowhere.
They were a fun group of people, though. I'll give them that. =)
Once again I slept on one of the dining room tables. The next morning I hiked out of the White Mountains (alive, with all ten fingers still intact) and into the town of Gorham, a few short miles from Maine. Which is where I'll end this edition of Ryan's Great Adventure. Stay tuned next week as I enter Maine and perhaps—just perhaps—reach the end of the Appalachian Trail. ;o)
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