Sometime in April as the pandemic slowly ground the life I knew to a halt, and as I found myself in the midst of cancelling/rescheduling and then re-cancelling most of my work and spring, summer and fall plans, Stud called up Baxter State Park on a whim and was able to reserve us a lean-to at Chimney Pond for mid July. These lean-to campsites are highly coveted and very hard to get. I’ve been there a couple times but not in almost a decade and I recall having to mail in a reservation request with 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice dates exactly 4 months in advance to the day.
Stud just so happen to call in the exact right moment and speak with a ranger who was working from home and was able to book us a lean-to Chimney Pond for 3 nights in July. I could hardly take in the news and had no idea what July would look like and if we’d even be able to go under the pandemic circumstances. We watched the covid-19 cases and death toll rise and fall in Massachusetts as well as neighboring states while following along with protocol updates with the various trail systems in the state and national parks and forests of the northeast. We read about entitled AT hikers who defied all rules and protocols running from rangers into closed parks as we carefully deciphered whether or not we could ethically go to Katahdin in July in a safe-ish rule-abiding way. We processed the crap out of our potential plans with our partners and the four of us got together and talk it through in the 6 weeks leading up to it.
On July 1st Baxter State Park opened for day use and then a week later, they were open for camping. Maine issued a “Keep Maine Healthy” plan requiring all out-of-staters to either get tested for covid-19 before traveling to Maine and bring proof of a negative test result taken within 3 days of arrival (72 hours) or quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. We went and got tested together on a Wednesday afternoon so that our results would be valid for our Saturday afternoon check-in. Our negative test results came in on time and we rejoiced and started packing.
Stud picked me up early Saturday morning and we hugged for the first time since February which is likely the longest I’ve ever not hugged Stud since we met 15 years ago. This would be my first car ride with anyone other than my partner and it was very exciting. There was no traffic and we stopped at a few rest stops feeling nervous about how we might be perceived wearing masks since most people in New Hampshire in Maine were not wearing masks and we’ve heard stories about people getting harassed for wearing masks in some areas. But it was all very chill and no one bothered us and there were very few people traveling so our normal but extra elevated public bathroom anxiety lessened as our journey continued. We had a full cooler with all the food we needed for the next 5 days and thus avoided going into any of small towns only stopping at rest stops to use the bathroom.
Shortly after passing Millinocket, Maine, the last town before heading into the wilderness, I was delighted to see my phone no longer had service. As I put my phone on airplane mode, I vowed to not take for granted this gift and absolute privilege of being able to unplug for a few days in the backcountry.
We pulled into Baxter State Park in the early afternoon clutching our negative covid-19 test results along with our signed Certificate of Compliance as requested on Maine.gov but no one asked us for any of it. The masked ranger who checked us in at the toll gate’s only concern was our plan to hike North Brother Mountain the next day in the rain. He sent us on our way and we drove the 20 mile an hour dirt tote road counter clockwise thru the park towards Nesowadnehunk Field Campground where we’d be staying for 1 night before hiking North Brother Mountain and then making our way onward to Chimney Pond.
It was maybe 1pm as we drove past the trailhead for North Brother, I thew out the possibility of us maybe just going for it and hiking it right then. I did the math and calculated that if we started now, we’d be back down by 8 or 9pm and would maybe have to hike the last mile or 2 in by headlamp which seemed kinda fun. For a moment we looked at each other and tried to imagine it but it was kind of late for an unknown 9-miler and the weather was iffy for an exposed alpine summit and were a bit anxious and unsettled so we continued on to Nesowadnehunk as planned where we took a long walk before settling into our lean-to where we set up this massive bug net that Stud pulled out making a bug net box inside the lean-to and then we played a few rounds of yahtzee before having a 4pm dinner from our cooler and attempting to make a fire between the the rain showers. We were in our sleeping bags by 5pm processing about life, racial justice, social media, covid-19, work, queerness, relationships and like everything and anything that was occupying our minds. Then Stud read to me from Jurassic Park. We reminded each other that summiting mountains was not the most important thing and that we were just so happy to be in such a beautiful wild place that was quiet and smelled really good. We watched the lightening bugs light up the field as we wondered what tomorrow would bring before slowly drifting off to sleep.
Yesterday, Stud and I officially completed hiking the NH48 which stands for New Hampshire’s Forty-Eight 4,000 footers. A 4,000 footer being a mountain that has an elevation of at least 4,000 feet and a minimum of 200 feet prominence. I’ve kept track of our adventures here.
Part 1: The Wildcats
We drove up to Pinkham Notch Sunday morning and the notch was crawling with visitors. We got the last parking spot at the 10 Mile Brook Trailhead parking lot. The air was crisp and sharp and we quickly put on all our layers and gathered our packs preparing for 2 days of hiking and a night at Carter Notch Hut during self-service season.
We shyly put our thumbs out hoping for a quick and easy hitch down to the Wildcat Ridge Trailhead but the cars were all zooming by so fast and there wasn’t a great spot for them to stop so we started walking down the road. We walked on the shoulder of route 16 with our thumbs out and eventually came upon a wider shoulder when a car slowed down and pulled over. We jogged up to find this nice pair of young women smiling and welcoming us into their car as they quickly tossed all their hiking gear aside to make room for us in their back seat. We thanked them profusely and they said they were on their way to Pinkham Notch from Quebec to go hike Mount Washington and were happy to drop us off just a bit past that.
We waved to them as they drove off and felt very pleased with ourselves and relieved to have been able to hitch so easily and to have been picked up by such nice fellow hiker folk. We found the tunnel under the road that lead to the trail head and were met with an unexpected large river crossing to get to the trail. It was cold, I was wearing pants and my legs felt wobbly as I balanced my way across the rocks trying my best to avoid getting wet. We made it across and were on our way up the Wildcat Ridge Trail being greeted by steep rocks and instant views.
Before too long we found the summit of Wildcat D which is also a ski resort with some buildings we sat at a nearby picnic table eating our lunch, watching hikers go by and folks ride up and down the gondola enjoying the summit. From here we had superb views of Mount Washington, Tuckerman’s Ravine, Huntington Ravine and the northern presidentials. The sun and food revitalized us and we trekked on towards Wildcat Peaks B, C, and A which we hiked right over without noticing a cairn or a sign before finding a nice outcropping of rocks giving us our first views down into Carter Notch and we could see the lakes and the hut nestled down in the shadows as the sun began to dip below the mountains. We took a short break here wondering if we had already submitted Wildcat A. As the sun continued to set, so did we, feeling the temperatures drop and as we hiked on we discovered that we were descending quickly into the notch down the steep eastern slope of Wildcat Mountain which means that we had infact summitted all the Wildcats and would soon be at Carter Notch Hut where we would be spending the night.Looking back up at Wildcat from Carter Lake, it was wild to see the steep rocky pitch.
It turned out that there were only 9 hikers staying the night at Carter Notch so lucky us, we got our own room! We settled in and then hiked back to the main lodge to make our dinner. During self-service season, you bring your own food to cook in the huts and a sleeping bag. Its pretty sweet cuz it costs about $100 less than full-service season, there’s way less people, and they still give you a bunk with a mat and a pillow and full use of the kitchen. Win Win Win.We made our dinners and sat with some other hikers including an eclectic little group of straggling thru-hikers, meaning Appalachian Trail Hikers who are maybe not going to finish the trail this season but are making their way north and south and have been out on the trail for months. We were stoked for them because they got their own rooms too. The moon was huge and lit up the notch. We wanted to go see it by the lake but we were so tired. So we watched it from the porch of our cabin until we were too cold and sleepy to stay standing.Stud and I were in our sleeping bags by 7:30pm and both asleep by 8. I woke up around 5am and bundled up to go outside and relieve myself expecting Stud to be upright when I returned but when I got back, she was still cozy in her bunk so I happily got back in my sleeping bag and we waited for the other to initiate packing up to go but niether of us did and we just snoozed until almost 8am which was pretty awesome.
The hut caretaker’s hospitality was amazing. She went above and beyond. She baked some oat bars and offered them up to us all. She offered us tea and hot chocolate. In the morning, she made a pot of coffee to share. So I gave my fancy instant coffee packs to a thru-hiker who gratefully accepted them along with some other snacks from my food bag that I was happy to pass along. Stud and I labored down our oatmeal and finally set off.
Part 2: The Carters
It was 8:45am by the time we were hiking out of Carter Notch Hut and we just laughed about how late it was as we climbed up Carter Dome knowing we had plenty of time to do what we had set out to do and enjoyed the leisureliness of the day so far. Carter Dome…what a beast!We followed the ridgeline up to Mount Hight which has to be one of the most amazing viewpoints in the White Mountains. We spent some time up here soakin in the views, the sun and eating second breakfast after becoming ravenous from our climb up out of Carter Notch. We headed north and the trail between Mount Hight and South Carter descended an unexpected very steep and fast 700 feet before climbing back up another 500 feet to the summit of South Carter where a cairn was sort of tipped over by a nieghboring uprooted fir There was some nice rock seats so we relaxed here before pushing on to Middle Carter.Then things got weird….As we made our way up the ridge to Middle Carter, it dawned on us that we could just keep going instead of our original plan of turning around at Middle Carter and heading back the way we came and down and out Nineteen Mile Brook Trail, where our car was parked. We got excited about this and counted up the miles and decided that turning our 10.5 mile day into a 14+ mile day was totally do-able. But then we remembered how late it was and that there was limited day light and decided that was a bad idea. But then we thought it would be a fun adventure and we would be fine because we have our headlamps. But then we realized how tired we would be and that we wouldn’t have our car when we hiked out. But then we thought we could just hitchhike back to the car. But then we remembered it would be dark. We processed the crap out of this spontaneous potential plot twist all the way to Middle Carter and when we found ourselves on the sign-less summit we sat down and ate and went over it again and again, getting high off little doses of adrenaline thinking about going forward towards Mount Moriah. Just when we would decide it was a bad idea, we would then talk about doing it anyway. We were sitting on number 47 of the 48 peaks of the NH48 list under blue skies clear. It was hard to not just go for it and hike on to Mount Moriah. But we hadn’t planned for this and it was late. We decided to try and see if we could call for a shuttle in order to make a decision, knowing that trying to hitch down route 16 after dark on a Monday night might be impossible as would be a 5+ mile road walk down route 16 at that point. But we didn’t have enough cell service to get the call through. We talked it through a few more times (haha) and made a careful and very calculated decision to play it safe and stick with the plan which was a great choice because it meant we were off the mountains by 5PM, eating dinner at a reasonable hour and checking into the Top Notch Inn with enough energy left to shower and celebrate the eve before potentially finishing the NH48 and trying for Mount Moriah tomorrow.
Part 3: Mount Moriah – the finale!
We sat drinking coffee at 5:30am on this dark early fall morning preparing to attempt our final summit of the NH48. Such a bittersweet feeling of both sadness that this list may be coming to an end and pure excitement to be finishing.
A dramatic day from the get-go. This trailhead begins in a residential dead end and we weren’t sure where to park so we parked under some power lines hoping our car would still be there when we came back with all the windows still in tact. We knew there would be some weather rolling in later and given that this was potentially our 48th summit on the NH48 list, we were hyper focused and rather intense as we headed up the Carter-Moriah Trail in the dark with headlamps lighting our way. This trail does not waste anytime. It just starts straight up and we huffed our way up until we reached a more moderate grade and could catch our breaths before finding our rhythm. It wasn’t long before we were on a tree covered ridge and could start to see Pinkham Notch through the trees. We made our way up to the rock slabs and ledges described in the guide book which afforded excellent views of the northern presidentials. As the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped, I became concerned about my clothing choices and wondered if I had enough layers with me and wondered if I would regret the items I chose to leave in the car. The trail dipped and climbed and we were high up on the ridge for a while pushing forward to stay warm while trying to beat the potential thunderstorms. Every so often the trail would become sheltered from the wind and we took refuge in these wind breaks to refuel ourselves with water and food.
About an hour from the summit, the weather really began to change and we watched the views of the surrounding mountains slowly become clouded as we became socked in. We were both nervous about it but we pushed on moving as quickly as we could while still being careful climbing up the steep rock slabs and making sure to add and take off layers as often as necessary to stay dry and warm.
We then came upon the summit sign for Mt Moriah with an arrow to the actual summit. We looked at each other in disbelief before heading up. As we came around the corner to the exposed large rock boulder summit of Moriah the wind was whipping fiercely and we paused and looked at each other again with a bit of terror. We dropped our packs and our poles and braved forward finding the summit marker and embracing as we leaned into the wind. We took some pictures and videos and exclaimed before ducking back into the safety of the trees and finding a very sheltered protected nook just below the summit to recover and eat and drink and laugh soak in this summit and prepare for a safe decent.WThe sun was slightly visible through he stormy grey skies and it felt like it could be day or night. Climbing down the rock slabs was scary and slow but not as sketchy as we anticipated and we were able to move down the mountain quickly stopping to rest more than half way down at some exposed rock slabs where the the presidentials came back into view. As we snacked and rested our knees, Mount Madison went in and out of the clouds from across the valley and we watched as the clouds formed together and darkened over them. Not a moment later, we felt the first few rain drops and quickly gathered our packs and continued down the mountain praying that the heavier rain wouldn’t come until we were off the rocks and safely under the shelter of the lower tree canopy. We were lucky and we made it down safely and by the time the rain really picked up were were less than a mile from the car and not very wet at all.
Our car was intact where we left it and we drove south thru Pinkham Notch unable to fully absorb that we had just finished the list. We stopped at Joe Dodge Lodge to change and rest and look around their little store. We didn’t linger long because we were starting to tank so we headed to a diner for some celebratory pancakes and hot coffee which brought us back to life and we sat in the booth for a while looking at pictures, laughing and reminiscing of the last few days and the last few years of our adventures hiking the NH48 together.
In this interview with Boston Voyager I tell my story about discovering hiking as a form of healing and eventually becoming a Forest Therapy Guide: http://bostonvoyager.com/interview/meet-tam-willey-toadstool-walks-jamaica-plain/
Our shuttle driver Bill of “Mountain Courier Shuttle” picks us up in Crawford Notch where we leave our car. During the long drive up to the Appalachia Trail head, he tells us we are a breath of fresh air because we have a map and know how to read it. He then tells us many tales of the many misadventures of hikers he has scene up here who set out in flip flops and how nobody carries maps anymore and how so many hikers use GPS and their phones die up there and sometimes so do they. Bill reminds me of my dad and he is also from Somerville and it is clear that he loves shuttling hikers and genuinely cares about folks being safe out there. He tells us how he will make pit stops at the Highland Center and Joe Dodge Lodge and send hikers in to buy maps before he will drop them off at the trailhead. He tells us about those who set out completely unprepared and than get a multi-thousand dollar bill from New Hampshire Fish and Game after they get rescued. Bill is funny and a great story teller. He makes us laugh and he seems truly excited for us.
We hike up to the Madison hut in just under 3 hours and claim some bunks next to a window with a view of Mount Adams which we plan to do first thing in the morning. Its about 3pm and we rest for a bit and then head up to the summit of Mount Madison, the first of five of the peaks we intend to visit on this trip. We are given our first dose of craggy sharp rocky scramble and its early afternoon and this is all the hiking we are doing today so we spend a long time on top just enjoying the views of the ridge that we’ll be walking across tomorrow. We watch the cars swerve up and down the Mount Washington auto road through my tiny binoculars and try to decipher where we are and what the other mountains off in the distance are.
We head back down to the hut and change into cotton and relax in our bunks and I read aloud to Stud all the possible escape routes off the ridge and how terrible they all are but how the guidebook says they are better then dying from exposure. Hikers begin to pour into the hut who have just come across the traverse today doing what we will do tomorrow. Everyone is really sun-burnt…like even the backs of their knees look fried and I vow to wear TONS of sunblock tomorrow and reapply ALL DAY LONG (which I do).
One guy is limping and he lays down on a bunk diagonal across from us and his knee looks fucked. Its like his patella is popped off and his friend is being super sweet and compassionate bringing him ice and checking on him. I later offer them some of my tiny tube of arnica and they are very appreciative. People look really wrecked from the day and everyone is stinky which lets me know that I must still smell like soap from my morning shower. I remember the smell of soap on people when I was thru-hiking the Long Trail.
Stud and I keep to ourselves at first feeling shy and weird but then we socialize with some nice folks at dinner. One couple from Montreal carried a bag of wine across the entire ridge and is offering it to everyone at the table. Another couple from New York is talking about how hard Mount Adams was. I notice a woman who I would guess to be about 45-50 looking very pale at another table. A young man rubs her back in a concerned way and I worry she is about to pass out. She is sweating profusely and just doens’t look okay. I then notice her dinner is now a pile a vomit on her plate and I feel for her. The hut croo, meaning the staff of 18-25 year olds who run these huts, handle this very well and clean up the puke very quickly and tend to this suffering woman. I am sobered by all of this and committed to staying hydrated.
The folks we sit with ask us about our plans for the next day and ask us if we are hiking to the next hut tomorrow and we shyly admit we are hiking past the hut and continuing up and over Mount Eisenhower and then down. They’re eyes bug out and they look at us like we are masochists and maybe we are but we tell them we are leaving at 5:30AM and bypassing Washington but they still seem concerned but I don’t let it get to met because we know what we are getting into and we feel confident that we can manage this and we are well aware of how to get off the ridge if we can’t. We are not above calling Bill tomorrow to come pick us up if we can’t make it all the way to the car.
We go to bed at like 7:30 and read fun books from the little hut library. Stud finds one about some idiots climbing Everest on a lesser known route without sherpas and it seems like they’re all gonna die yet they wrote a book about it. Stud shares some amusing sound bites with me and I want her to read the whole thing so she can give me a blow by blow account of the story while we are hiking tomorrow. I read chunk from a cute little book about history of the White Mountains that include the relationships of all people with this area and each other and I question everything and am completely fascinated. From the Abenaki to the early fur trappers to the settlers and early farmers to the loggers, the trampers and the tourists like us. I read about the Atherians who claim Mount Adams to be 1 of 10 of the most holy mountains in the world due to its alien energy. I read about how the mountains were named, claimed, abused and all the weird things and all the colonial settler stories. I read about how the Abenaki avoided the summit of Mount Washington out of respect for the “Great Spirit” that lives up there.
The sunset from the hut is spectacular and so are the stars. I am woken up by some lost hikers as they tromp by the window with headlamps. It freaks me out and I hope they are okay. I then try to turn my headlamp on and it doesn’t work. I change the batteries and find they are all corroded inside and I laugh. So I’m down to nine out of ten essentials…ah well, not bad. Good thing the days are long and that we’ll have 15 hours of day light tomorrow. And this is hardly the back country. I bet I could buy a light at the hut if I wanted to. Thanks to Ayla I always carry a glow stick.
I wake up to the first titch of light at 4:30 and I look down at Stud who is still sleeping. I’m excited and I want her to wake up but her alarm isn’t going off till 5. I peak again but she’s still asleep. Every time she moves I look down to see if she is awake and by the 5th time I look down she smiles at me and we look out the window as two big bunnies hop right over to us. One is really big and dark brown and the other is skinny and blond and I believe these bunnies are here to great us and they come very close to the window and we are delighted. I take it as a very good sign.
We get up and tip toe into the dining room where some Appalachian Trail Thru hikers are sleeping on the floor. I mix some instant coffee with some luke warm water leftover from a tea pitcher from last night. I see a half a loaf of anadama bread baked by the hut croo that was left out from last nights dinner after some late night lost hikers had a night dinner. I slice myself a piece and just as a take a bite I see a mouse run across the kitchen counter. I put the slice down and debate spitting out the bite but I don’t because this is a pack-in/pack-out situation and there isn’t an easy place to spit it out in this red hot moment. I slice another slice from the middle of the loaf instead but I still feel kinda grossed out eating it. I eat a few handfuls of my trail mix and drink down my coffee. Stud does the same and then its 5:30am when we start hiking towards Star Lake and the sun is rising and no one else is out here and its so quiet up here and I wave goodbye to the sleepy hut and the weary hikers who won’t be stirring for pancakes till 7am. Hot breakfast would be nice but we have a long ways to go. Pancakes will happen another time.
Mount Adams is no joke. I tell Stud about the aliens and the Atherians and the wind whips us around as we scramble up the impossibly jagged boulders. We don’t last long on the summit and the wind is beating against us. My eyes and nose run and drip everywhere and I wish I had a plexiglass face shelf in this moment. We descend into Thunderstorm Junction, a small col with lots of trails merging, and the wind lets up and we have no more big wind gusts for the rest of the day. Even at Edmands Col which is notorious for high winds, there is nothing but a light breeze. It must be the aliens!
We cruise along the ridge and we feel awesome. I have so much zinc sunblock caked on me that my trail name becomes “Casper”. Stud keeps thinking she sees a puppy but its maybe a chipmunk or maybe its the coarse high mountain grasses blowing a certain way. I think maybe its a marmot but thats not a thing here. Either way, her trail name becomes “Peak Puppy” or “PP” for short. We make many jokes all day about the adventures of Casper and PP and talk about ourselves in the third person and we think we are hilarious.
We see a pair of women hiking ahead of us. We actually saw them take a pit stop at the hut at 5AM when we were drinking coffee and I was eating mouse contaminated bread. They hiked up from the Appalachia Trail head at 4am this morning and are doing the whole traverse in a day. This is a thing…doing the entire traverse in a day. Its kind of like running a marathon but on a mountain ridge of jagged rocks…yeah. There is another pair of women behind us doing this as well. We are excited to be leap frogging with them all morning. We climb up Jefferson and reach the spur just as the first pair of women are coming down and they exclaim to us how hard this past stretch has been and how one of them is nauseous and they look wicked sun burnt and its not even 9am. I want to offer them my electrolyte tablets and sunblock but I refrain and just listen to this woman as she shares her experience with us and I try to trust that if she needs something she’ll ask and right now she just needs to be witnessed and share the acknowledgment of the ruggedness of this ridge. We nod like “yeah…this shit is hard” and they go on ahead. We summit Jefferson and we feel amazing. Its so big and there are no cars, no trains, no cafeterias, just rocks. Its one of the most overwhelming summits I’ve ever experienced. This mountain got to me.
As we hike down the other side of Jefferson another pair of women doing the traverse today catches up with us. We chat with them a couple times and eventually they pass us too. We reach the spur for Mount Clay and decide to skip it. We had considered it but things are heating up and we have a long day ahead of us so we go around the side which is still a big climb. Mt Clay is another one of those massive 4,000 footers that doesn’t count on the list of NH48 cuz its too close to another mountain or something…I don’t fully understand the criteria for the list…I just like goals. I had kind of wanted to summit it anyway but now that we are here, its clear that this is not the right time so we bypass it. We reach the intersection with the Jewell Trail and I have fond memories of hiking up it with 5e last summer. The rocks start to even out a bit and we pick up some speed as we find the Weston Path.
We see the cog cruising up and down the Ammonoosuc Ravine and it look like a toy. Our trail passes under it and we run under the tracks across the coal splattered everywhere and then wave to the passengers as a couple trains go by. The summit of Washington is packed and we are glad to not be going up there today. We’ve been there/done that and are over it. We are on a gorgeous stretch of trail and we can see the Lake of The Clouds less than 2 miles down the ridge. We meet back up with the Crawford Path and its now mid day and the hiker highway begins.
We reach the Lakes of The Clouds hut and we are greeted by a hut croo member who acknowledges my hat and shares with us that their sibling just recently attended some programming with The Venture Out Project and they met Perry and it was a nice connection and I’m feeling so happy. I then ask if there are any leftovers for sale hoping for a bowl of that minestrone soup from last night but there is only cake and brownies which is awesome but I can’t eat any of that right now. I wash my face in the bathroom and wet my bandana. We spread out at a table and eat and refill our waters and look at the maps. We lie down on the benches and rest for bit before heading back out.
Mount Monroe kicks our ass. I just climbed Monroe last year with 5e and I can hardly remember it being anything more than a bump but right now, at this afternoon hour, after all the miles and summits and sun exposure, it takes us a while to find our rhythm and as we slog up, this mountain feels huge right now. From the summit we can see Mt Isolation where we were last week and Mount Jefferson looms behind us. Mount Eisenhower is ahead and it looks impossibly far but we trek on. The trail starts to transition from jagged rock to a mix of sand and gravel and boulders and there are stretches of what one might even call a “footpath”. As we get closer to Eisenhower I start to fade and say things to Stud like “I dunno Stud”. Stud responds with “we got this bigT!” and this is exactly what I need to to hear and I believe her and find a little extra oomf.
We reach the beginning of the climb up Mount Eisenhower and find a shady spot next to a big rock slab. We’ve both had to pee for a while but have been completely exposed for miles waiting to find a spot that is slightly out of view as there have been many hikers coming and going. We are both so wrecked we don’t have the energy to explore around the rock much so we basically take about 5 or 6 steps off the trail and pop squats right next to each other while hikers head our way and we are too weary to care. The shade feels amazing. We chug water and eat a snack and then power up Mount Eisenhower which feels like a soft tender friendly mountain after what we’ve been climbing all day.
From the summit of Eisenhower, our last summit goal of the day, we decide to continue south on the Crawford Path instead of backtracking and then heading down Edmands Path. We reach the intersection with the spur towards Mount Pierce and Mizpah Spring Hut. The last time we were here was in winter and it looks completely different. And just like that we are descending off the ridge following the good ole Crawford Path right down into Crawford Notch where Studs car awaits us. These last 4.5 miles are a killer and we are moving slow when we hear that first pair of women coming up behind us. We must have passed them when they headed up Mount Washington and bypassed it. They also summited Mount Pierce and Mount Jackson as they were doing a full traverse. They looked wild-eyed and sun burnt. One of them talked a lot and was very excited and than referenced her friend behind her saying how she was totally wrecked. We look at her friend and she did look wrecked and tried to speak but couldn’t even talk at this point so we just congratulate them as they stumble by.
We reach the Clinton Road cut-off and make it to our car. Yay! Its 7:30PM. We’ve been hiking for 13 hours and have covered about 17 miles and four huge mountains with a fifth the day before. We note that we don’t feel as wrecked as we did after Mount Isolation and we assume this is due to the lack of humidity? We head towards Franconia Notch and stop at Echo Lake for swim but its too cold to get in so we just put our feet in and wash up a little before changing into dry clothes. I’m proud of my overall lack of sunburn…just a spot on the back of left arm and some spots on my neck. My Casper look really saved me and I can’t really get the zinc off so I remain Casper-like.
As of this traverse, Stud and I have hiked 39 out of 48 of the NH48 and its feels dang good. I love that ridge so much and I actually can’t wait to go back up there again. I want to explore the Great Gulf Wilderness and I’ve always wanted to hike across the Alpine Garden Trail that runs just above Tuckermans and Huntington Ravine. There is just so much to explore up there and so much to learn.
We drop 5e’s car at the Rocky Branch trail head and all pile into Studs car and head to the Glen Boulder trail head with the plans to do a loop. We see the infamous “Glen Boulder” from the road, which is this giant house sized boulder perched up on the side of the mountain that looks as if its about to teeter over and roll down the cliff. The sky is clear and while there is and has been a forecast of a “chance” of thunderstorms, there is no “expected” percentage…its just a summer heat wave and there’s always a chance in super humid weather like this. We did discuss whether or not to go up the very exposed Glen Boulder Trail given the possibility and in the end we decide to go for it, figuring we will be up and over in the earlier part of the day and back in the trees if the weather changes in the afternoon.
It’s 6:30AM when we start hiking up from Pinkham Notch unlike the last 2 days this trail wastes no time. We are immediately climbing and rapidly gaining elevation. Despite a very poor night of sleep at the
cheap motel air conditioned palace I’m feeling pretty good. There is plenty of water on the trail and I’m already down a half liter within the first hour so I go ahead and refill a bottle just and decide I will refill every chance I get. We pop electrolyte tabs in our water and every time I drink, I’m brought back to life as if I’ve been given an injection of super powers.
Before we know it we are already popping out above the trees with views of the Wildcats and the Carters across the notch. The heat wave continues but its early and we are fresh when we reach the Glen Boulder. We take refuge in the shade of the giant boulder and have a quick snack followed by a goofy photo shoot with the big balancing rock.
As we continue climbing higher up, the reality of being in the alpine zone begins to dawn on me. Despite having scoured over the maps and having read thorough various trail descriptions from multiple sources, somehow I hadn’t fully planned for this and I suddenly feel ill-prepared. Generally, when I know I’ll be on an exposed ridge line I pack a few extra things but given the heat wave and the kinds of mileage we were doing I was traveling pretty minimally and I began to feel a little nervous about this. I had maybe six and a half of the ten essentials depending on one’s definition. I had the basics including some emergency kit and first aid stuff but I was missing some things for sure.
Stud then comments about the clouds which seem to be forming across the valley over the Carters. But its hard to tell and we are climbing higher and more exposed. Stud makes a few more comments about the clouds and at this point we are half way across this exposed ridge. The clouds are gathering and there is that pinkish haze that happens sometime and just as they appear to start forming in a unsettling way, they then kind of blow apart but we are watching them. The trail then dips into a short corridors of trees and we plop down in this tiny shadow of shade for a break and I say that I am nervous about the clouds. We all agree there is nothing to do but go forward because there is no imminent threat of Tstorms. If things get weird we will find trees and get below them and get through whatever happens but that there is a good chance nothing will happen.
I feel better after a snack and a chug as I always do and we proceed to summit Slide Peak which is a pretty amazing view and also about 1000 feet of elevation higher than our goal peak of Mount Isolation yet isn’t on the NH48 list even though its huge and amazing. The clouds continue to be ambiguous and we soon reach the intersection for Davis Path which means we will soon be out of the alpine zone and back below tree line which is relieving. We reach the intersection and are officially headed into the Dry River Wilderness.
I don’t like this. I am scared of the Dry River Wilderness. A lot of people die in there. Like people go in there to die. Not hikers necessarily but random folks who come up here and go in there to return themselves to the land in mysterious ways. Its less traveled, the trails are hard to navigate, its easy to get lost, there were once a bunch of lean-to’s that are now mostly gone, search and rescue claims its one of the hardest places to find people and it just feels haunted and spooky in there to me. But here we go and at least we are on a more well-traveled trail….so we think.
We hike down the ridge and being back in the trees feels great. Again the heat is slowing us way down and by the time we finally reach the Isolation Spur to the summit I feel pretty exhausted. We climb up passing by a few hikers who are heading down and we have the summit to ourselves and its just so unbelievably beautiful. We can see Mt Washington and Mount Monroe and the Boot Spur. We take our time up there just resting and taking it all in. It feels huge to be standing on top of Mount Isolation after looking at this elusive peak on maps for so long trying to imagine it. And here we are!
But we still have a long 8.5 mile descent ahead of us. Longer than we could possibly know in this celebratory moment. So we begin our descent back the way we came but then turning down the Isolation Trail towards Rocky Branch. The mileage on the map feels way off. Or maybe its the heat. Either we’re moving very slow and I can’t help but wonder if we are being sucked into a Dry River Wilderness Vortex.
It feels like a very long time before we reach the Rocky Branch Trail and we have to do one of the scariest water crossings yet. Its huge and its flowing and I basically crawl and shimmy under some brush along some boulders to find a place where I think I can hop from rock to rock. We all make it across and continue finding the trail a bit hard to follow.
The Rocky Branch Trail is basically a swamp with miles of rock hops and waste high grasses and everything is slippery and we are in the trees but also being baked by the sun and there is evidence of moose everywhere. Like big moose poop and baby moose poop and I keep seeing HUGE fresh tracks. We are a bit on edge as we keep expecting to turn a corner and find a giant mamma moose on the trail. But we don’t. Of course I always kind of want to see a moose or a bear out here but if a big animal did come down the trail I don’t know how I would gracefully get out of their way because we are in a swamp and I might sink up to by knees if I step off these rocks.
We stop often to drink and we are getting kinda fucked up. The heat and these endless rock hops are killing us. Our kingdom for a footpath! We finally reach the end of the Dry River Wilderness but we still have miles to go and the trail is descending steeper. This trail never lets up and we go about a mile an hour all day long. We tell stories and try to distract each other from the physical pain and exhaustion. At this point no amount of water or snacks will revive us. The only cure for the state we are in is to stop hiking but we have to keep hiking and we do. Our stamina surprises all of us and we are machines.
We can hear the road and we switch back our way down and down and down until finally we pop out onto the asphalt parking lot exactly 12 hours and 13 miles later. We are fuuucked up! We jump in 5e’s car not sure if any of us should be driving but we safely make it back to where Studs car is and we all just lie down on the ground until the pulsing throbbing of everything slows down enough to take our shoes off and eat and drink to be okay for driving. We hug 5e goodbye and make sure she is okay and we agree to all text one another once we are safely home. 5e heads to Joe Dodge to check the place out and clean up. Stud and I find a sub shop and get subs to go and head to Lake Chocorua for a dip before driving home. Its 7pm and we have a long drive but we drink ice tea and swim and we are revived enough for now.
In conclusion, I don’t recommend the Rocky Branch Trail. In fact I would totally go up and down the Glen Boulder Trail again because it was awesome. But not in a heat wave and not when the clouds look questionable and not without 10 out of 10 essentials plus an extra 2.
Stud and wake up in our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace in North Conway and go out for breakfast while 5e drives up from Boston. We all meet up at the Ferncroft Road trailhead in Wonalancet at the base of the Sandwich Range Wilderness on some land that is privately owned but welcomes hikers. Its very exciting to see 5e and we are pumped.
We fumble with our packs and tighten things and make our last little decisions before heading out into the heat wave. The Blueberry Ledge Trail is another nice gentle approach giving us time to catch up with 5e. We share adventure stories from the day before and other stories and just talk and talk our way up the trail until its too hot and too steep to talk and we focus on climbing.
We break often to drink and snack and I start to worry that my 2 liters of water is not enough. We are climbing higher and I am now down to 1 liter as we pass by a pile of water bottles that some other hikers have clearly stashed for later. I find myself fantasizing about stealing small undetectable sips from each of these stashed water bottles and I am shocked by my mind even entertaining this thought so I shake my head to snap out of it and pray we find water soon. Not 10 minutes later, we come across a trickle. We all fill up a liter, treating our liters with Aqaumira and letting the cold water run over our bandanas cooling ourselves off.
We continue climbing and soon we are at some incredibly steep ledges greeted by a well-intentioned guy who wants to give us the complete blow by blow of how to get up the ledges (even though we asked him nothing). I am grateful for the lack of views due to the hazy humidity and I watch Stud and then 5e climb up the impossible-looking rocks and wonder how the heck I will do it. I haven’t been this scared since Mount Mansfield. I feel too short to reach and I can’t see Stud and 5e around the giant house shaped boulder that is on front of me so I shout up to them just to make sure they are right there and of course they are and they try to explain where they put what foot where and I can’t really take it in so I just finally hurl myself up and clutch onto anything I can grab and make my way up. We then climb 2 more very steep and very large and ledges encouraging and supporting each other with each scary step until we reach the top of the ledges and lay down on the flat open rock to recover and chug water.
We haven’t even reached the summit of Mt. Whiteface yet and its getting late. I’m concerned about the time but we can’t move any faster in this heat and we absolutely have to take lots of breaks to stay hydrated. We finally reach the summit of a small cairn in the trees. We make our way across the Rollins Trail over the Mt. Passaconaway and its a lovely trail. We find the spur and head up eventually reaching the elusive summit, another tiny cairn in the trees and we plop down for an extended break. 5e offers us some electrolyte tablets that change everything. I had some that I left at the hotel room that I bought ages ago but never used and now I’m so happy to have a stash. Its 4:30 and we still have a 5 mile decent down Dicey’s Mill Trail. We are exhausted and so grateful to not be camping! haha!
The decent is long and we pause often and we drink about 4 liters when all is said and done. I enjoy watching the landscape change as we descend and eventually we pop out of the backyard of the hiker-friendly homeowners. It feels surreal to be in a wide open space and the light is amazing. We trek down the long driveway not 100% sure of where our cars are and we reach a gate with a sign that reads:
I find this sign really funny and we continue down a dirt road eventually finding our cars. It took us 10 hours to hike these rugged 12 miles in this heat and we are feeling it! We head up route 16 pulling over at Lake Chocorua for dip and the sun is setting over the lake and the water feels magnificent. I scrub the layers of dirt off my calves with my bandana and float and splash around until I feel myself cool down. We change into dry cotton and head north to our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace for a quick pit stop before grabbing dinner. Its late by the time we get back and we again laugh about the thought of camping right now. We go over our route for tomorrow and crash.
Stud and I leave Boston at 5:30AM enjoying a very scenic morning drive over the Kancamagus Highway to the trail head for the Tripyramids. The car is packed with camping gear, coolers, camp chairs and everything we need for three days of hiking and base camping which includes camp cots, pillows, extra foam mats and all the luxuries of car camping with the hopes to sleep as comfortably as possible between some hard hiking. On the drive up I asked Stud if she happened to bring a deck of cards and we decide we’ll pick up a deck later when we get firewood to roast the marshmallows Stud has. In hindsight, this is simply hilarious. Let me tell you why.
We park at the Pine Bend Brook trailhead on the side of the Kanc and head up towards North Tripyramid. We feel great! This trail is a nice leisurely approach before it starts climbing and this gives us time to chat. We reach the steep part and slow way down as we begin to scramble up the slippery rocks made even more slick with the thick layer of humidity.
We summit North Tripyramid whose summit is very anticlimactic and unclear…another tiny cairn in the trees. So we just blow past it and head over to Middle Tripyramid where we intend to have a real lunch break but the black flies drive us off the summit so we head back down the ridge to rest. Its getting late and we are moving slowwww and I keep forgetting that its 90+ degrees and I can tell that I am not eating or drinking enough. We decide to descend a different trail called Sabbaday Brook Trail which is a longer way down with a road walk back to the car but it looks fun and we love a loop. We are also getting low on water and according to the map, there is lots of water on this trail.
The initial descent is steep and slick and we are sliding all over the place. I am moving slow and being so careful with every step and as I teeter down this one rock slap, my foot slips out from under me and I am suddenly falling and in an instant I am face down on this rock. Stud whips around in a panic and I quickly inventory myself to discover I am totally fine and not hurt. I get up and notice my trekking pole is bent and the inside of my arm has some scrapes goin up into my armpit and my shoulder feels little tweaky but really I’m fine. My adrenaline is pumping so I don’t even really stop moving and Stud asks if I’m okay and I assure her that I am but I need water and we can hear it running.
We finally reach the source of the babble discovering this beautiful fairy land of mini water falls splashing unto tuffs of moss and we rest and refill and Stud combines parts A and B of Aquamira to treat our water and we sit on rocks and rest.
Re-hydrated and thinking we are much further along than we are. we eventually reach a big water crossing and realize we have much farther to go then we thought. We make it across but the rock hops are slick and we are tired. The trail then crosses back over again and we are confused. By the 10th water crossing, our shoes are soaked as the rocks are too slippery and we slide off them. Stud straight up falls in the brook which I don’t fully comprehend until much later and we are so over the Sabbaday Brook Trail and its endless water crossings.
At some point Stud notes that it is 5:30PM and we are shocked at how late it is. We finally pop out at a very popular tourist attraction called Sabbaday Falls and we plop down on a lovely bench very aware of our stench and filth next to the clean families who have made the .3 mile trek up to the falls, which are stunning. We hike out to the Kanc on the very well graded .3 last stretch of the trail and then begin our road walk back to the car and its really hard.
We reach the car and drive down to the Swift River where we soak our achy over heated selves and I scrub the mud off my legs with my bandana. The Swift River is not too cold but cold enough to refresh us. We cool down quickly and change into cotton by the side of the road. As we drive into North Conway I feel myself start to tank. Its almost 7PM and I feel nauseous and a headache coming on. I pop some ib profen and chug water.
Its still 90+ degrees, we need dinner and the thought of setting up camp now feels impossible. We are both thinking it and I can’t remember who said it first but it comes out; “We could consider a motel room if there is a vacancy somewhere in North Conway…” We are now 100% attached to finding a room but its also a holiday weekend (we think) so we are nervous and we are prepared to camp if we have to but the htought feels really hard right now. By 7:30 we are sitting down for dinner and I am crashing so hard. Stud gets online and finds us a room. YES!
We eat half our dinners and pack the rest for tomorrows hike and then move into our
cheap motel room air-conditioned palace that has views of mountains and indoor plumbing. We sprawl out the maps and text with 5e who is meeting us tomorrow morning and hiking the next couple days with us. We make our plans, wedge our trail runners up against the AC so they will dry over night, we unpack the coolers into the mini fridge and text our beloveds at home to tell them we are safe and they laugh with us about it. 5e says shes totally into the motel room and is down to split the room for the next night too so we go ahead and book it for tomorrow too. We justify this decision by stating aloud to each other that we are adults, we work, we get to do this, we are boosting the local economy, etc…I admit that I was excited to camp, I love camping, and it seemed like a great idea at the time!
This week I’ve been reflecting on my long-term relationship with the NH48. When I started hiking these mountains in 2009 I didn’t know anything about this list. When I first heard about the list, I wasn’t interested. I was apprehensive and cautious about getting caught up in the mentality of “peak-bagging”. I didn’t want the magic of simply being out there to get thwarted by an arbitrary list. I also worried about the way a list like this could affect my decision making in a risky way while hiking. But I also couldn’t even fathom the idea because it seemed too lofty a goal. 48 mountains is a lot of mountains. From Boston, the closest trail head is a 2 hour drive and the farthest is a 3.5 hour drive. The hikes themselves range from 4 hours to 10 hours as an “out and back” with a long drive on either end, unless you turn some of them into multi-day backpacking trips or base camp nearby. There is also the option of staying in high huts which are expensive and have a very strict cancellation policy and also involve dining and bunking in close quarters with a slew of strangers where you can almost guarantee there will be either some gear or trail or food or mile comparison happening at the table…or maybe some kind of mansplaining or competitive bro blabbering…or at least some posturing.
Hiking the NH48 is an investment of money and time. Its also hard and dangerous. The trails are old and steep and rocky and rooty and there is tons of exposure where weather can change on a dime. There are signs in the alpine zone warning of death and advising you to turn back if the weather changes. Many people are rescued every year and many people have died on these mountains from falls, avalanches, exposure, and other things. And if this list of 48 mountains isn’t enough of a risky adventure for ya, you can also do all 48 mountains in the winter thus earning yourself a an even more elite badge. Then you have the record setters, the ones who trail run them all setting the fastest times, the ones who do them all in a season, or all in 1 month, or the woman who did each and every mountain on the list every month for an entire calendar year. That means she made 576 summits that year on some of the toughest terrain in the northeast in all weather and in all conditions.
Hiking the NH48 is a pure privilege on so many levels. When I decided I wanted to set this list as a personal goal, I decided on a 5 year timeline which I knew would be more than enough time so not to rush through it or get too caught up in my head about it. The White Mountains are a sacred place and my intention as I set out on each and every hike is to hike these trails with respect for the land, the beings, the ancestors and my able body. This goal has encouraged me to not only hike more often but also to branch out and explore other areas of the Whites that I had never considered before. Its a way to connect with other hikers who will often ask at a trail head what number is this for me in which I reply “I don’t know” because while, I do keep track on this blog, I honestly don’t keep track in my head that way. I’ve hiked some of these mountains more than once and I’ve passed by some of these peaks without sumitting before I set the goal and then of course returned later once I had a reason to summit.
My relationship with these mountains is more than a check box on a list. I’m in a long term relationship with with the White Mountains and I’m very aware of how much more there is to explore beyond this list. I do enjoy meeting hikers who have been chipping away at this list for over 20 years. This past fall I was honored to be able to witness and clap for a hiker as he completed his 48th and final summit on Owls Head with his friend, both of whom were in their fifties and had been hiking these mountains together for years.
For me, having a solid hiking adventure companion is everything and that’s why I asked Stud to do this list with me. Half the fun for us is the car ride. It gives us time to catch up and process our lives. I also trust Stud 100% to make sound decisions. I don’t have to worry about trying convince Stud to turn around less than a quarter mile from a summit if something weird happens. We are compatible in this way. Our partners, family, and friends sometimes think we are these wild risk takers. Maybe we are comparatively, but in the world of outdoor adventure, we play it pretty safe.
This past week we had big plans to traverse the presidential range which is a stretch of 20ish miles of exposed high peaks. Its a long hard rocky scramble with long stretches of exposure and its also a breathtakingly beautiful ridge with wild flowers and views for days. Its a place you definitely do not want to be in a fog or a storm or very high winds. We were planning on hiking up to the Madison hut on a Monday, crossing the ridge on Tuesday, staying at Lake of The Clouds Hut on Tuesday night, and hiking down on Wednesday. We were waiting to book the huts until the last possible moment. We kept checking the hut website online to see if the green circle that symbolizes “availability” would turn to the yellow circles symbolizing “limited availability” and since it remained green, we figured we’d book the day before just in case the weather changed because once you book, you don’t get your money back if you don’t go no matter what the weather is doing. And its a good thing we waited because the next thing we knew, the temperatures on the high peaks plummeted and a foot of snow was being predicted to dump.
We were in denial. We had been planning this trip for months. We were really treating ourselves to two hut stays on the high peaks in early June before school would get out thus avoiding the summer crowds. We had cleared our schedules and set 3 days aside for this. We were really excited and also we hadn’t scene each other in a while and had a lot of catching up to do! We went over and over the plans trying to decipher if we could still do it and move things around and choose the “better” day. We knew the trip was a bust. I mean, maybe we could do it. But why? Why spend all the money and time trying to survive an icy freezing crossing with poor visibility on slick rocks with cliffs everywhere. Just to check off a few more peaks on the NH48 list? Nope. Not worth it.
The same weather that brought this snow to the White Mountains in June also brought waves to the beaches of Massachusetts so we make a plan B to go surfing one day. That morning my alarm goes off at 6 and I am about to put on my wet-suit when I discover I am sick…like sore throat and a head cold. What?! I text Stud and I’m in denial but I’m pretty sure I don’t even have the energy to lift my surfboard right now. Part of me thinks the ocean is the perfect neti pot but a smarter part of me says submerging my body in very cold water when my immune system isn’t up to par is not a good idea.
A few days later and I think I’m mostly recovered from this passing spring head cold when bam it hits me harder and instead of heading down to Ptown for my annual work-cation at my friends house I find myself exhausted and unable to do anything and I’m suddenly sicker than I was before. So I just lay low and drink gallons of home brewed ginger lemon tea while suffering over the shift in plans, the lost income, the missed adventure. Three days later I am welcoming this invitation to rest my body and mind. I’ve been going hard lately. Some might say I’ve been burning the candle at both ends. But this concept is a slippery slope because I can go straight to blaming myself and thinking I made myself sick and that I deserve to be sick and that it is like a punishment for living too fast. But I like my fast full life. I do a lot of things. I admit it. While I am grateful for the unexpected time for restoration, I will not slow down just because some pollen got caught up in my nose and infected my sinuses. I will keep laying the best plans ever but I do want to learn to work on my disappointment when things don’t go as planned and I do want to keep learning how to surrender to the uncontrollable and I do want to keep learning how to neutrally accept what is…AND I’m super excited for plans C, D, and E! Coming soon:)