Thursday, January 14, 2016

Southbound on the Appalachian Trail 2015: New Hampshire

It's true, New Hampshire is pretty fantastic. After a week or so of grueling hiking in Southern Maine, I crossed the border into New Hampshire in July of 2015. Of course it's all a matter of opinion, but I thought southern Maine was the most difficult hiking on the AT. Once we entered the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the terrain was still very difficult, especially in the Presidential Range, but the trail seemed a bit more groomed.

I was still hiking around Mismatch, Skunkbite, and Lux. Skunkbite had hiked from Georgia to Vermont a few years ago and was finishing his AT by hiking from Maine to Vermont. As you can probably guess, he earned his trail name by getting bit by a rabid skunk while sleeping under his tarp during his first AT thru hike attempt a few years ago, requiring rabbis shots and hospital visits. While hiking in southern Maine, Skunkbite and I met a day hiker at one of the shelters who had a passion for the AT. During our conversation, the day hiker asked Skunkbite,

"What are you going to do after you finish the AT?"

Skunkbite replied with all seriousness, "I want to sail around the world."

I loved that answer.
Skunbite at shelter in Maine
While hiking with Skunkbite, my first week in New Hampshire, the day before we entered the White Mountains was marked by one particular incident. While hiking down one of the steep, granite bouldered mountains, I slipped on a rock. In my attempt to regain my footing, I twisted my knee in such a strange alarming way, ran down the rock about 10 feet out of control, and fell into a patch of small fir trees. I thought for sure my hike was over. After a minute, I stood up and realized that the pain was subsiding, but my knee felt really strange. I hiked on it the rest of the day until reaching the town of Gorham, by this time it was swelling up. I spent two days in the White Pines hostel by myself, icing my knee, and reading a stack of Appalachian Trail magazines called "Journeys." While reading the magazines I was filled with an appreciation of the trail I was on. There were several articles about hikers who had injured themselves on the trail and had to leave it and come back to it years later. I still wasn't sure whether my knee was going to hold up, since it was still swollen and tender while resting at the hostel. I realized I had been taking my hike for granted.
Resting in the town of Gorham
By the second day of rest, I was feeling anxious to get going and test out my knee. I was entering the Presidential Range, one of the toughest sections of trail. On the first day, my knee felt pretty good, I was grateful for every step, and I was hiking extremely cautious, especially on the down hill sections.
Before long, my knee felt just about back to normal, and just in time. The trail meandered over the Wildcat Ridge, 4,000 ft peaks. The weather was absolutely perfect, one of those clear crisp sunny days where you just feel happy to be alive. Mount Washington was in view, in fact in crystal clear view, although stormy weather was predicted to arrive the following day, the day I was to summit Washington.

Mt Washington
By this time, I was hiking solo again. Lux, Skunbite, and Mismatch were all nearby on their own independent schedules. The clear skies from the day before were replaced by howling winds and clouds the morning I was to hike over Mt. Washington, the 6,228 ft. monolith with the world's highest recorded wind speed at 231 mph. I was camped just below Madison Hut off a side trail just below tree line. My first attempt to hike up to Washington ended in a retreat back to camp as there was so much fog and wind I could only see from rock cairn to rock cairn. I was too scared that I might get lost which one does not want to do up there in bad weather. After resting under my tarp for a couple hours, I decided to just go for it, especially since weather was not supposed to improve for several days. It seemed like now or never.
A couple enjoys the view north towards the Wildcat ridge. I was on my way up to find camp near Madison Hut, 6 miles shy of Mt. Washington summit.
Once above tree line, the fog and wind returned and once again I was walking cairn to cairn. Thankfully, it was not raining, just sprinkling at times. When exposed, the wind was pretty fierce, and then when the trail led behind rock outcroppings, the wind would cease. After a couple miles, I started seeing other hikers, and my anxiety decreased. Before the summit of Washington, I was amazed how many people were braving the elements up there. Some people were incredibly under dressed, including one group of about 6 teenagers peak bagging in khakis and sweaters and turtlenecks. What they lacked in clothing they made up for in bravado.
Fog and wind hiking up Washington
Once Mt Washington's summit was reached, the circus atmosphere continued. There is a road that leads to the top, and there were people everywhere getting photos at the summit sign. After getting a photo I couldn't wait to go inside the visitor center and get some hot chocolate. It's hard to put into words the two opposite extremes of hiking to the summit in questionable circumstances and then all of a sudden entering a massive cafeteria jam packed with people. Suddenly I saw Mismatch and another hiker named Snow. Mismatch suggested getting some food and heading downstairs into the hiker room. It was a small concrete compound away from the huge crowds, a perfect spot to regroup. With pizza and hot chocolate, we were happy campers.
A line for summit photos on Mt. Washington

That evening, Mismatch, Snow, and I along with several other hikers were fortunate to secure a spot for a "work for stay" at the Lake of the Clouds Hut, a few miles south of Mt. Washington. The Hut system in the White Mountains serves backpackers who make reservations beforehand to stay there. Many backpackers will plan trips where they hike hut to hut, for a price, but also for a nice combination of mountain scenery combined with a little comfort and camaraderie at the end of the day. For thru hikers, the huts offer an opportunity to escape the elements for a short while, perhaps a chance to buy some coffee or cookies, and sometimes a chance to spend the night in exchange for a little work. While at Lake of the Clouds, we were asked to wash dishes after the hut cooking crew served dinner to the paying guests. Not only were we treated with a comfortable place to spend the night, but we were given dinner leftovers, as well as treated with one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen in my life.             
Sunset at Lake of the Clouds Hut
The Whites were definitely pretty spectacular, one of the highlights of the AT. It was also a turning point on the trail. Shortly after Washington, it was the first time I noticed my hiking legs had returned, I felt really strong. It was strange to receive congratulations from a couple of day hikers who had been AT veterans. They seemed to be implying that the difficult stuff was now behind us. We still had at least 1,700 miles to go. I was feeling some "Post White Mountain Blues" kicking in. I was not ready to leave the grandeur of the area. The Whites were the last place I would see Mismatch and Skunkbite. Mismatch went on a hiking tear from this point, hiking many 30 mile days. Skunkbite was somewhere behind and I can only assume he finished his trail in Vermont. Lux was one of the few familiar faces I would see in coming days...
Saying goodbye to the Whites from the top of one of my favorite mountains on the trail, Mt. Moosilauke. The trail visibly changed to gentler terrain south of this mountain.


  1. Great shots, all over. Love your writing, too.

    Mt. Washington may be the only part of your hike I've seen before, other than maybe in Shenandoah National Park (I'm just assuming the trial must go through there). When friends and I hiked it, I think it was late, like November, or something, because the roads were all closed, the parking lot was empty, and I actually don't remember seeing anyone else up there at the summit. The last few miles were like in your shot--thick fog. You could barely see cairn to cairn. Without them, it would have been impossible. I also remember the "Many People Have Died" signs, and we sort of laughed at them, because we were stupid. Never felt endangered, myself, despite the fog and the wind, though. Just bummed that we couldn't actually see anything besides the summit marker at the top!

  2. Thanks Skyhiker, that's pretty wild you were able to summit late November. Even in July I was worried about that mountain!