2,075 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Maine was harder

MONSON, ME

For most of the southern portions of the Appalachian Trail, people had been warning me about New Hampshire. They kept saying how my mileage would fall off in the White Mountains, the weather was violent and unpredictable and the terrain would be as rocky as Pennsylvania and twice as steep.

I can now that everything true about New Hampshire is also true about southern Maine, but worse.

My start in to the last state on the Appalachian Trail was a little delayed. After an unexpected day off at Lakes of the Clouds, I wanted to try and get through the few remaining miles in New Hampshire as fast as possible. I stayed the night in Gorham, NH and decided to slackpack (hike without a full pack) the 21 miles from Pinkham Notch, over the Wildcat Range, to the Route 2 crossing and spend a second night in town. I figured this would cut a day off of my travel time and would be more convenient, since my first plan would have me stopping for another night in Gorham anyway.

I set off with three other hikers I met at Lakes with loaner day packs at almost exactly 8 am that morning from the visitor center at the Notch. Honestly, I credit these guys with getting me through this day. Powerade, Southbound and Colby Jack, thank you.

The first half-mile felt great. Suddenly going from a 30 pound pack to a 10 pound one is amazing. I practically felt like running across the bog boards that started the trail.

However, that happy feeling went away as soon as I saw the first real ascent. The southern end of the Wildcat Range is pretty much a sheer rock wall. We passed another thru-hiker who opted to do the range with his pack and he told us he had to haul his pack up the face with a rope.

It took an hour to go the first one and a half miles and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.

Rains from the last day made the rock faces of the sawtoothed ridge slippery and difficult to navigate. I spent more time standing on top of a drop-off, carefully planning my route down from treeroot to barely-there crack in the rock to a landing place that might not be a pit of mud. The saving grace was the last three miles. I could walk that gentle downslope of soft dirt path all day long. I actually ended up running for part of it, just because it felt good to stretch my legs out a bit.

Those 21 miles were some of the hardest on the trail. The worst wasn’t the rugged terrain, the slippery surfaces or the threat of more rain later on, but because I didn’t have all my gear with me. On other days, if the terrain is harder than expected, there’s always the option to bail out early and set up camp. With the slackpack, I was committed to 21 miles, regardless of how late it went. And it did go late. I called the hostel for pick up at 7:56. That’s almost 12 hours of hiking with maybe an hour’s worth of breaks throughout the whole day.

Despite it being difficult, I’m glad I did the slackpack. And, I’m glad I took a full zero day after it, something I’d avoided since Connecticut. It would have been a miserable two days with a full pack and the zero gave my body some time to recharge, which it desperately needed.

Maine proper started out deceptively easy. The first seventeen miles out of Gorham weren’t too bad, at least not compared to the Whites. We joked and laughed at the campsite that night, making fun of southbounders who warned us about the horrors of southern Maine.

We were wrong.

It was like someone turned up the difficulty to 11. Every mountain was steep and rocky, either with huge boulders or just solid, flat slabs of rock. I had to trust that smearing my shoes over the flat surfaces would keep me vertical.

That first full day also brought me through the Mahoosuc Notch. The Notch is often called the most difficult mile on the trail, or the most fun by adventure-seekers, bouldering enthusiasts and masochists.

I kind of regret not putting something for scale in this photo, because it’s really hard to tell that the rock in the middle is as tall as I am.

It took more than two hours for me to clear that mile of trail. Boulders the size of cars and in some cases small houses were scattered around a deep ravine. The gaps beneath them were so dark and deep they stayed cold even in August. It was like standing in front of an open refrigerator and there was still ice in some places. The trail went around, over and in some cases under boulders, like the trail crew simply spun around, pointed at a rock and said, “Put the blaze there!”

I planned to hike 16 miles that day. I figured it would be a tough one, but I had done a couple 15-milers in the Whites and had done 17 the day before, so I was feeling confident. After the madness that was the Mahoosuc and the other climbs that day, I finished at around 4 p.m. having completed a big 10 miles.

Maine continued to pour it on over Bald Pate Mountain. The peak was like solid slabs of granite stacked on top of each other. I again had to rely on my trail runners sticking to the damp rocks.

At the elevation above the treeline, there is no protection from the weather. Storms come in fast, hard and dangerous.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s camping in the rain. For most of the trail, I tried to plan out my campsites to be in shelters if there was any chance of rain in the forecast. On August 12, I found a great campsite next to a surplus pond. It was a nice spot and the sky over the pond was clear, so I didn’t feel too bad about stopping early for the day. I could have made it to the next shelter four miles on, but I would have arrived just as it was getting dark.

I was congratulating myself after a relaxing evening when I heard thunder. The next lightning flash was clearly visible through the thin wall of my tent. Then the rain started. My tent was pounded all night. I barely slept, paranoid that my tent would spring a leak.

Luckily, my tent held but I had to pack out probably three pounds of water weight in to Rangeley, where I received some awesome trail magic from a friend of my aunt and grandmother. I had an awesome hot meal and a great tour around a pleasant little town tat I’m sure Stephen King would love to visit.

Robin and Stephen, thank you for putting me up and putting up with me for the night!

The next few days were really my last “difficult” days. I say that because they were the last ones with any serious elevation change, not because the last ones were any easier. The few days after Rangely took me over the Bigelow and Saddleback range. Both were dramatic and beautiful. The ridges were almost entirely over the treeline. The mountains fell away from the trail in steep drops hundreds of feet down and the wind threatened to blow me off the trail in some places. I felt really bad for the college orientation group I met at the campsite just after the Bigelows, since they were planning on doing a traverse in a predicted thunderstorm that I was uneasy on on a clear day.

Taking photos in Maine on a clear day almost feels like cheating, especially in a place like the Bigelow Range.

Thankfully, that rain hit me over some pretty flat terrain. Despite the constant downpour, I still managed to get in 22 miles to Pierce Pond. I attribute that to just not wanting to stop in the rain for breaks. Also, a hunting cabin at Pierce Pond has a pancake breakfast that’s open to hikers. Motivation, thy name is food.

The last few days into Monson were nice. The weather was great and the trail was pretty mellow, at least compared to southern Maine. Despite that, I was hitting some serious trail fatigue. Earlier in the hike, I could do days like those and be done by five or six. By Maine, it was a struggle just to finish the day before dark.

A lot of the time, the trail can be boring and difficult. Those times are made up for by the views on top of those hard-to-climb peaks and the people that share the long journey.

All that was left from Monson was the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It was hard to believe the trail was almost over. All that separated me from that sign at the peak of Katahdin was 100 miles through the Maine backwoods.

Piece of cake, right?

I can’t say how excited I was to hit this milestone. After about 1,000 miles, people stop making these and it was nice to see again.
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1,891 miles on the Appalachian Trail: White Mountain High

August 9, 2017

GORHAM, NH

I’ve been hearing about how difficult hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is pretty much since Harper’s Ferry. I heard it would be practically winter conditions, rocks worse than Pennsylvania and wind to blow a hiker off a ridgeline.

After hiking the distance between Mount Moosilauke and Wildcat Ridge, I can confirm that all of those things are true. What is also true is that the Whites hold some of the most amazing views, challenging and interesting terrain and, for me, held the strongest sense  of accomplishment and adventure.

I went into New Hampshire kind of nervous. Because of what I’d heard of the state, I wasn’t sure what kind of mileage I’d be able to do. How much food should I pack? Where should I plan to be each day? What if I ran into bad weather?

I was also starting this leg of the trail without my constant traveling companion, Trex the dinosaur. He took a little vacation when he fell out of my bag into my parents’ car in Hanover.

The little guy eventually made it back to me in my next resupply box at Crawford Notch

These question weighed on me as I climbed Mount Moosilauke, the first 4,000 foot peak since Virginia. The ascent wasn’t too bad, just long. The descent, however, was a great indicator of things to come.

It was rocky and steep. Most of the trail ran alongside a waterfall rushing over bare rock, making the path very slippery. Some parts were only passable due to wooden blocks bolted to the rock face.

On the way to the peak, I ran into someone I hope becomes one of the trail legends Thru-hikers talk about for years. A gentleman known as “The Omelette Guy” has a kitchen set up on the side of the trail just before Moosilauke. When a hiker rolls up, he welcomes them and asks how many eggs they want and what they want in their omelette. A four-egg omelette with cheese, peppers, onions and ham was just the thing to get me over the peak.

Even after 2,000 miles, it is still amazing to me that there are people in this world who go so far out of their way to provide a bit of help and comfort to complete strangers.

After the first day, the Whites proceeded to efficiently, mercilessly and repeatedly kick my ass. A 16-mile day, something that by this point I consider low, felt more like 26. I got to camp late and exhausted. The trail moves continuously up and down over something more akin to rock climbing than hiking in a lot of places and was often wet with rain.

Much of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains is above the tree-line. The elevation is such that weather conditions do not allow full-size trees to grow. Battered by wind, snow and cold, only low-growing vegetation clings to the high peaks. These regions continue for miles around the tips of the mountains and along places like Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range.

These areas offer no protection from the wind and rain, but the trail is often clear and well-worn through the brush. Navigation is easy, unless the troughs worn by hikers are filled with rainwater. Finding a new path is forbidden because, though they are hardy enough to survive the mountain storms, the plants are fragile enough to be killed by a footstep.

If the weather cooperates, hiking above tree-line is one of the most amazing hiking experiences. The views from the alpine zone are unobstructed by trees or foliage. The bare rock and weirdly twisting plants makes it look like an alien landscape. Being atop a high peak like Lafayette or Madison means a vista a vista of mountains stretching to the jagged horizon. The wind blows and the temperature drops, doing away with the sticky back sweat of a humid summer day.

One of the first true alpine experiences of the AT, Franconia Ridge follows miles of peaks above treeline with stunning views on either side.

Despite the beauty, there is nothing more terrifying than hiking along an alpine ridge in a storm.

As I was hiking Franconia Ridge, just getting to the peak of Mount Lafayette, a thunderstorm rolled in. I could see it building in the valley below, dark clouds rising to flat anvil tops and a veil of rain obscuring the view. I thought it might pass me by and I could find a spot to stealth camp below tree-line for the night. Then, the wind shifted, the clouds flew in, actually climbing up the mountain, and dropped huge raindrops on me for 20 minutes before moving on. As I crested the peak, the rain stopped, but the clouds stayed and every few minutes I heard thunder.

I opted to take the one mile side trail to Greenleaf Hut that night to escape what sounded to be a bad storm. When I was about to step on the hut’s porch, the clouds rolled off the mountain and blue skies followed. I was already off trail and wasn’t going to hike back up the steep mountain, so I did my first work-for-stay that night.

Throughout the White Mountains, there are huts set up by the Appalachian Mountain Club. These serve as bunkhouse and waypoints for hikers in the mountains and have full-time staff, called the “croo,” that provide meals and information about the mountains to guests.

They also usually allow a few thru-hikers to stay the night (on the floor) and a meal (leftovers after paying guests are served) for a few chores. Hikers just need to be polite and show up late enough in the day. I stayed at three huts for the low price of helping with dishes, sweeping the dining room and organizing the bunkhouse each. I call that fair.

My cousin, Christine, even helped me out with an unheard-of reservation at Lakes of the Clouds hut. This meant I was entitled to an actual bed, didn’t have to do chores and could eat at the table during meal service. You know, like a real person. So thank you, Christine, for the night of luxury.

I ended up extending my stay at Lakes for another night, this time as a dirty thru-hiker once again. The croo said the weather the next day would include sustained winds of 30 to 50 miles per hour with gusts up to 80 and a wind chill temperature down in the 20s.

I experienced some of the bad weather in the Whites the day before and was in no hurry to do so again. A storm descended on me on my hike up from Crawford Notch, bringing wind, rain and cold. My rain jacket was already soaked through by the time I broke treeline, and the remaining miles to the hut was a study in misery. Everything was soaked and cold in minutes. The trail flooded almost as quickly, and soon I was hopping between rocks to avoid what now resembled a river. I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in any direction, and every time I reached what I thought was a peak, another would loom out of the fog in front of me. All I could do was keep moving forward. I don’t remember ever consciously thinking it, but later I figured that stopping for too long up there would probably kill me. Even keeping my body heat up like that, if Lakes had been another mile further from Crawford, I might have been in some serious trouble.

The sign does not lie. The weather chances fast and violently in the Whites, and more than 150 people have died exploring the peaks.

It took almost all the next day for my clothes and shoes to dry out. In that time, more than a dozen other thru-hikers sought shelter at the hut, trying to wait out the fierce weather on Washington.

I spent the day waiting around, reading, playing cards and trying to plan the rest of my hike, I set out the next morning with another group of thru-hikers. There were more than twenty sleeping on the floor of the hut that night.

My Washington summit day was better, but by no means good. The mountain was still socked in by clouds and the constant wind was wet and chilly. Still, with a few layers, I made it the 1.4 miles to the 6,288 foot peak, the highest in the Northeast, at just after 7:30 am.

That is the smug smile of a hiker who made a smart decision to not hike out in 70 mile per hour winds.

I wish there had been a view at the top. Every hiker does. But there was something to summitting in bad weather. I feel like it’s part of the experience to witness the “worst weather in the world.” Mount Washington is a test, just like the rest of the Whites and the whole of the AT. Hikers can never win against these mountains. They’ve been here longer, they’ve seen tougher things than us, and they will again. There will always be something out there greater than ourselves. What things like that socked in day on Mount Washington teach is that even though there are things that can beat us, there is much more that can still be overcome. Someday, that line will become clear. I’ll find the thing I can’t do, and I’ll yield. I’m not going to risk my life for it. I did that my second day at Lakes.

But if there’s a chance it can be done. If there’s a chance to accomplish something, to strive towards a goal and reach it, to stand atop a high peak and shout into the wind “I AM HERE. I DID THIS,” then I am going to take that chance, and be glad I did, regardless of the outcome.

There is less than 300 miles left in the trail. If I can keep a decent pace through Maine, that means I’ll be done with this whole mad endeavor in less than three weeks. It’s hard, planning for the end of the trail. For the last four months, I’ve just been thinking campsite to campsite, town to town. I guess real life always has a way of rearing its ugly head.