White Mountains: Round 2
It’s a week later and things between The White Mountains and I are still a little rocky (get it?). We have experienced everything from sunny and beautiful days, where you can see for miles, to weather that chased us off a mountain. After our last post, Alex and I hitched into Lincoln, NH, to Chet’s Place, a hiker hostel run out of the home of Chet West. Chet is an incredible person who was rendered wheelchair bound after a horrific accident involving a camp stove explosion. Chet opened the hostel as a way to stay involved and give back to the hiking community that he loves so much.
The next morning, we were set to hit the trail and climb up Franconia Ridge, which was momentous for a few reasons. The Ridge would be our first taste of prolonged hiking above tree line, and the weather was supposed to be beautiful. Also, the day was Saturday, September 11. The night before, we learned that traditionally, on the Saturday following September 11, American flags are raised by veterans, on each of the forty-eight, 4,000 footers. To climb above tree line during such a commemoration was an experience we will never forget. We spent the rest of the day hiking up and down along the ridgeline. Something about the sunny weather, looking out to the east, and not being able to see a trace of civilization for miles and miles, made the hike fly by. Before long we were on top of Mt. Garfield, reflecting back on the day.
The next morning, we woke to heavy fog, cold temperatures, and a lack of motivation to get out of our tents. Sometime around 10am, we mustered the courage to shoulder our packs and put more miles behind us. At one point, during the day’s mind numbing hike through Boreal Forests, above 3,000 feet, I remembered the old saying, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes.” I cursed my way through the rest of the day wondering why it always takes upwards of 12 hours to change for the better. The following day we reached Crawford Notch, which is approximately the halfway mark of the AT in The Whites. We set up camp under cloudy skies and true to my reasoning, woke up the next morning to partly cloudy skies and a reasonable breeze.
As we climbed out of the Notch, that breeze began to get unreasonable. It was still a breathtaking affair, with clear skies open to the notch below and mountains all around as far as the eye could see. The objective for the day was the Lake of the Clouds Hut, which sits at around 5,000 feet and 1.5 miles from the summit, of Mt. Washington. The Mt. Washington: with its record winds and “World’s Worst Weather.” The Mt. Washington: that makes its own weather due to its sheer enormity. A nice easy hike on a gem of a day. As we crested the climb out of the notch, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Washington, and if the dark swirling clouds that hung like a veil around the summit weren’t in the way, we would have been able to just make out the Adams Summit Building.
In the next five minutes it went from partly cloudy, to entirely cloudy and rainy. I was beginning to sense a trend, but we hiked onward. It’s hard to recall with any great degree of accuracy how long the remaining seven miles took, or how many times we had minor emotional breakdowns. What I can tell you, is the last two and a half miles are completely exposed, and at the highest elevation we had yet hiked to. It was also the same kind of weather we had encountered on Mt. Moosilauke…specifically, freezing cold and wet. Those last miles are all a blur; literally. In conditions like that, certain senses yield to more important ones. Colors fade as your hearing becomes more acute, listening for that next gust of wind before it hits you and knocks you over. You also lose feeling in your hands… but that’s because of the cold.
I’m not sure how, but we made it to the hut. The AMC hut system is amazing, and if you have the money, there is no better way to spend a night in the mountains. They’re fully enclosed and staffed with a “Croo” that is there to cook for you and answer any trail or mountain related questions. Even if you don’t have the money for a full service stay, they can often accommodate a few thru-hikers each night, on a work-for-stay basis. Needless to say, we were really looking forward to this stop. Unfortunately, a true hut stay was not in the cards because unbeknownst to us, the Lake of the Clouds Hut closed for the season two days earlier. We were, however, lucky enough that the closing crew was there and let us get in from the cold and fill up some water bottles. We were also lucky that Lakes, being at the highest elevation of all the huts, has an emergency shelter in its basement nicknamed, “The Dungeon.”
Without hesitation, we scurried inside and set up for the night. This place was true to the name, consisting of a 10 by 10 room with six bunks. It truly had the feel of an 18th century prison cell. It was a long, cold, restless night, spent listening to the wind and wondering if anyone had ever frozen to death in there, and if so, whose bunk they were in.
When we woke up, conditions were even worse. We learned later that it had been snowing up at the summit. Our plan had been to go up and over the summit and take a side trail down to meet my mother who had come up for a visit. We decided that instead, due to conditions, we would take a closer trail down, forgoing a summit assault that day. This steep side trail proved to be an arduous journey in itself, but we got down safely. After a night in a hotel (thanks mom!) we were back on an even keel and ready to reattempt the summit of Mt. Washington. Here we go again!