1,891 miles on the Appalachian Trail: White Mountain High

August 9, 2017


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.