Traversing the Presidential Range!

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.

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Part 3: Mount Isolation

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.

Part 2: Mount Whiteface and Mount Passaconaway

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:

Private Property
No Trespassing
Hikers Welcome

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.

A week of many summits: Part 1: The Tripyramids (North & Middle)

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!

Best Laid Plans…

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:)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mount Pierce

  • Elevation: 4,310 Feet
  • Location: Caroll, NH
  • Date Hiked: January 25, 2018
  • Companions: Stud
  • Trails: Crawford Path, Appalachian Trail

The -30º windchill that hits us as we exit the car onto the icy parking lot takes my breath.  It hurts and as I fumble through my pack and try to get myself organized I am aware of how much I am struggling to function and we haven’t even started hiking.  We run inside the Highland Center which is this fancy shmancy AMC lodge conveniently located in Crawford Notch at the base of many trails.  This place is a hub for day hikers, backpackers, climbers, bicyclists, skiers and  tourists.  They run a shuttle, they sell and rent all kinds of gear, last minute snacks, and they have lodging, a cafe, and host various programming.  I always stop in before and after a hike when I’m in this area and use the bathroom and check in with the AMC folks and sign the hiker log so that someone knows where I am.  I tend to get shy and paranoid that the AMC folks are going to discourage us from our plans so while I dodge eye contact, Stud locks in with this very friendly woman who is not at all overly excited about our plan to hike up Mt Pierce on such a cold blustery day.  She is encouraging and positive and expresses no concern so this puts us at ease and we end up having a really nice chat with her.

We head back outside and pull on our micro spikes and quickly run across the windswept highway scaling the icy snow banks to the trailhead.  It all feels very real very fast.  It is too cold to stop and get situated so we just trudge ahead up the Crawford Path which is claimed to be the oldest hiking trail in continuous use in the United States.  Lots of history on this trail and in these woods.  The spirits are VERY present.  Lots of strange sounds.  Between the cold affecting our brains and the frozen trees, we hear lots of creaking and ghostly sounds that mimic children yelling and cats screaming…but we are the only ones out there.  We shake our heads “no” a lot.

Hiking in this kind of cold does things to a body that are counterproductive.  Unlike say… hot yoga (for example) where heat is used to softens things, in below zero tempts everything seizes up and within 10 minutes my hip flexers feel like frozen elastics and my legs are like lead.  I am confused by what is happening to my body and taken back by how incredibly hard this hike is feeling so far.  20 minutes in, I am relieved to find myself finally warming up and I begin the delayering process.  After a handful of costume changes and stops and starts we finally find our groove and fall into rhythm stopping to eat and drink every 20-30 minutes.  Our water bottles keep freezing shut even though we keep them upside down in our packs but the ice keeps forming around the top so every time I manage to just barely get mine open I drink a little extra just in case I won’t get it open the next time.

We reach the final cut-off and cross through a very cold steep section.  There are some snow drifts but nothing too deep that requires more than our spikes.  It was here that I have my first thoughts of turning around.  I can’t remember the last time I considered turning around but I am just so cold we are headed towards an exposed ridge line where things will only get colder and more windy.  I am concerned so I let go of the expectation that we will summit anything today and I shift my focus to simply taking in the frozen forest atmosphere.  It is truly magnificent and I relax into it all.

We start to see some blue through the trees.  The frosty moss glistens and we begin to bliss out.  There is this magic that happens when the trail starts to shift from a constant steep grade into a mellow foot path.  We have reached the ridge and we are now comfortably walking thru an eerily quiet alpine forest just before we will soon reach the tree line and cross this threshold onto a new planet.  Our endorphins are pumping and we know we are close but not sure how close.  We pause a few times to look at each other and smile and we suddenly know why we are here and what this is all about.  Its not about the summit anymore, its ALL about this last bit of alpine forest before the alpine zone.

As we come around a last corner of scraggly snow caked trees, I pull on my shell, tighten up my straps and we head up and out onto the exposed ridge.  This is my first time above tree line in winter in the White Mountains and my mind is blown.  With each step forward I remind myself where I am.  I am following Studs footsteps when she suddenly stops and turns around to ask if we are still on the trail.  I glance around and say yes.  We go a little further and realize we are not on the trail, have not been on the trail and are not sure where the even trail is.

This is how things can start to go downhill.  This is how the infamous stories start.  There are no blazes because its winter and they are covered.  All you have are footsteps which can quickly disappear if the wind were to blow a snow drift over them.  A compass can help if you have taken the time to set that up before being exposed.

We pause, we look around, we take note of where we came from.  We both realize we need to climb to higher ground to see where we are but we aren’t sure.  We both have the same thought that one of us should stay put while the other goes up a little ways to take a look around when Stud says it aloud and asks if I will stay where I am while she climbs ahead.  I say yes.  Stud hesitates and we process this for a second and debate if this is the right thing to do.  I announce that I feel good and that I have all my faculties and it makes sense and I am clear on where we came in from and that she should go up and look while I stay here so we don’t both get lost.  I watch her climb up ahead and then she keeps going a little further until just like that,  she’s out of my sight.  We hadn’t processed this possibility.  And now I am alone.  My stomach drops and I can feel the invitation to panic but I don’t.  I look around and I say a little prayer and I think about my girlfriend and I decide that I will stay safe, be smart and not do anything too stupid.  I want to run after Stud but I don’t.  I decide that if I don’t see Stud’s head pop back into view in about 30 seconds that I will run after her.  Meanwhile Stud realizes that she has gone farther then she intended and turns around only to realize she can’t see me.  She races back into view and waves for me to come up.  I run towards her up the rime ice digging my micro spikes in as my adrenaline is shooting through the roof.  We find the trail and charge towards the summit.  Stud says she too freaked out when she realized she had gone just beyond being able to see me. We acknowledge this two minute moment of terror and we hug.  We are relieved to be okay and we’ve made it to the top.  We’ve summitted Pierce and its so dang beautiful!  We look across the ridge at Mount Eisenhower. Originally we had planned on trying to summit this today as well.  But this ridge is way too intense to hang out on for any longer so we snap some pics and then run back down towards the shelter of the trees.

Once we are below tree line we are high on adrenaline and we can not stop screaming. We half jog down the mountain for maybe two miles before finally collapsing on the trail for a break.  Stud’s water bottle is now completely frozen at the top and I can just barely get mine open but I have plenty to share and we take turns chugging the icy water.   I take my gloves off for about two seconds to open a bar and just like that I can feel the threat of frostbite grazing my finger tips and quickly put my gloves back on.  I lay down in the middle of the trail letting my legs recharge before we continue down.  We pass a total of 4 hikers by the time we reach the windswept parking lot of the Highland Center where we are so grateful head inside to a heated shelter to change.  Cotton has never felt so good.

 

 

Hancock Mountain, North & South Peak

  • Elevation: North Peak: 4,380 Feet, South Peak: 4,278 Feet
  • Location: Lincoln, NH
  • Dates Hiked: October 23, 2017
  • Companions: Stud
  • Trails: Hancock Notch, Cedar Brook, Hancock Loop

Stud and I debate whether or not we can motivate ourselves to get up and out early enough to see the sunrise on top of the Hancocks.  We have just hiked the Osceolas the day before and we are staying in a tiny cabin just 20 minutes from the trailhead.  We decide to get up early but not THAT early and we are at the trailhead by 6:45am.  The parking area is tucked inside the crook of the tightest hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway.  Its dark and spooky and we have to cross the highway but its easy cause no one is coming. We don our headlamps and we are off!  My headlamp is SIGNIFICANTLY dimmer than Studs.  I really got to change those batteries…

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Not long after we make our way into the woods, the trail lightens up enough to put away our headlamps…and since mine isn’t really working that great anyway., I happily tuck it away in my pack.  The trail is lovely and fairly flat and wide.  We walk along the North Fork of the Hancock River. There are some great camp sites and I take notes in my head about revisiting this area. We quietly pass some sleepy tents followed by their trash and food tied in a low hanging bush up the trail that basically yelled “come n get it bears and other ground dwellers!”

We pass by these bright red berries and I wonder about them.  Stud says “gut berries” referencing the youth novel Hatchet where this kid gets in a plane crash and has to survive in the wild and eats these “gut berries” that make him sick but hes so hungry that he continues to eat them until he figures out how to sustain himself.

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We check the map at the upcoming intersections and make our way deeper in towards the edges of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.  We take a big break when we arrive at the Hancock Loop Trail where the real ascent begins.  We eat and pee and hydrate and then start making our way up.  Its an intense .7 of a mile with over a thousand feet of elevation gain and we are feelin it!  Since we got such an early start, we take our time and take long breaks soakin up the balsams and the spruce.29CEF154-8099-462A-9A5D-17307DADF58D37D3E5D7-0057-4B3C-8DBA-0E64E23992FBWe push up and up until boom!  We see this sign!51A4781E-05CF-486B-A435-465A53017A6EWe make our way over to the outlook for North Peak and the clouds sit below in the valleys and its all just almost too much to bear.  We exclaim and curse and jump around trying to not fall off the mountain.  I take lots of pictures of a stick that I found along the way up and then lay it to rest near north peak as a gift.A3E1857D-6D8B-416B-89B0-4CECD124D5A179963BC3-1D40-42B7-A69D-9F20788F5918DB6B3AFC-61FB-4051-9BE8-3F7327CEBCB3F856DD5C-9A6D-435D-9488-242CC73DEA95

 

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We then head towards South Peak which looks impossibly far away.  I am always amazed how far away a mountain will look across a valley and can’t imagine that I could ever just walk there in an hour or so but we do.

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We dip into a scraggly mountain spruce forest and the morning light flickers between the trees like a film strip.  Its not even 11 and we’ve already had our lunch break and I feel so peaceful and present in this mountain.28CECF81-0EA9-42B8-9BC1-7C7E35C9EA3F98D29F20-8299-4455-B3AD-1D3DF6EA466EF285C422-8E7C-4C66-A3EB-7A302BD71CEB890FDAB5-5FC9-4521-8162-0A90C44FA1F9942DE4D5-8571-4411-9395-006E35BD1E28

Almost too soon we pop out on South Peak.  I am not ready to descend but that is whats next.  We sit and look out and talk about Mount Carrigain which looms off to the east. We talk about maybe saving that one for last on our NH48 list.  We try to distinguish the many peaks and then start our descent.D6B00A18-04EA-46E2-8714-52506C28AA92637F3418-5413-4004-A1EE-03348D4951F0

The descent is steep and brutal and we grunt and take breaks to rest our knees.  By the time we are back down it is only 2pm and we take a long leisurely rest on some benches at the scenic parking area where we are parked.  It overlooks the Osceolas where we were the day before and there are some informational stories and pictures about the history of peak baggers and hikers who use to be called Mountain Trampers who came up from the city just like us to find adventure and wonder in the White Mountains. Many of these mountain trampers were women.  I would like to read their journals.

We head back to the cabin for a rest and then back into Lincoln to explore the gear shops.  We check out some hiking boots.  I ask to try on a pair of mens boots and the clerk ignores my request and tells me that she will go get the women’s equivalent boots.  I say I am not interested in that boot and she tells me not to worry because the color is very “neutral”.   I cringe a little at her assumption and then I ask again, politely, for the mens size.  She asks about my foot width.  I ignore her question and I ask her again for the boot I want to try on until I am exhausted by the exchange and we decide to leave.  In these moments I wish I had an index card to hand out that just lays it all out for people who just don’t get it.  Also, dear world, when you see a pair of butch dykes, tomboys, masculine appearing women, whatever, please don’t call us ladies.  Just don’t.  Here are some alternatives: ya’ll, folks, or just “hello” will do.  This slight effort will go so much farther and deeper than you can ever know.

 

 

The Osceolas and The Step Of Truth

  • Elevation:  4,315 Feet (Mount Osceola) 4,156 (East Peak)
  • Location: Lincoln, NH
  • Date Hiked: October 22, 2017
  • Companions: Stud
  • Trails: Mt Osceola Trail

Stud and I make a spontaneous decision to turn off of 93 and head up Tripoli Road, a long and winding dirt road that neither of us are familiar with.  It will be closed for the winter and it feels exciting and unknown.  The foliage is blowing our minds and we spot all these stealthy campsites along the road with cute little fire rings tucked into the woods by streams.

We are ultimately headed to a tiny cabin in Lincoln for a couple nights with the intention to hike some 4,000 footers for a few days.  But we’ve been busy and we haven’t had time to plan or look at the maps before now.  All that was certain was the cabin reservation that Stud made for us.  The day is young and we are dressed for hiking and our packs are full and ready to go with water, snacks and the essentials.  As we cross from Massachusetts into New Hampshire we start tossing the question back and forth about what we want to do first.  Stud pours over the maps in the passenger seat and we talk through our options deciding to hike the Osceolas.  There are 2 approaches.  We decide at the last minute to hike in from Thornton Gap which is suddenly our next exit.  The tiny dirt lot is full and cars have started to park on the side of the road and we do the same.  Its a beautiful mild fall Sunday in the whites and this is a fairly moderate hike and there are lots of people out but we manage to not get caught up in a big leap frog situation.  The trail is well maintained and full of switchbacks which seem like a rarity in the northeast.  I love a switchback and am always delighted when they appear.  We climb steadily popping out on Mount Osceola within two hours.  The summit is packed so we don’t stop.  We snap a quick pick and keep moving.  The trail heads down from here over to the summit of Mount Osceola’s East Peak.E07585F8-A573-4C3F-BD50-C71A9484FD92We reach a fork and it looks to us to be a little rocky outcropping off to the side of the trail so we plop down and dig into our snacks thinking we are well enough out of the way.  We don’t realize that we are sitting on top of a section of the trail between the two summits known as the “Chimney”.  And there are 2 ways up or down the Chimney: the steep way and the steeper way.  Just as we are getting comfortable and shoving food in our mouths, a couple hikers are coming up this steeper side of the chimney which happens to be just below us.  Its sort of around a bend which is why we didn’t notice and the hikers rising up catch me off guard.   We cut our break short and move out of the way and decide to just keep moving.  We start our decent down the chimney.  There is a mom and her 2 young boys ahead of us and one of them is pretty nervous, hesitating for a long time before climbing down.  The mom gets nervous about us and keeps apologizing to Stud and I who are stuck behind this little guy while she tries to coax him down.  We don’t mind and I feel for the kid.

We climb down slowly finding the foot and hand holds and taking our time with it.  Once at the base its a leisurely stroll to the other summit and we arrive at Mount Osceola’s East Peak maybe an hour after having left the first summit.  The summit is in the trees and marked by a cairn and there is a really funny pair of women lingering.  We sit and eat and take in the scenery.  The funny pair move along and yet again we are blessed with a summit to ourselves.  We enjoy our quiet afternoon up here.  I have come to really love a summit in the trees.  I love the way the scraggly mountain firs fragment the sky letting in streams of light.BF4C94F6-6C7A-4D86-AF33-AB6202FF641548B9A3DD-B036-489E-BC1C-5186D50166A699519857-1874-41B1-9DE4-94C93960A7FC

Now we have to go back the way we came and we catch up with the funny pair of women climbing up the Chimney.  Its looks wicked steep from below.  We decide to go up the “steeper” way just for kicks.  Stud goes first and as I climb up behind her she acknowledges this one tricky step which I then name the “Step Of Truth” and we think this is hilarious.  02CECC07-47D7-4477-8677-176D79EE185F940C897D-CFC4-4523-924E-1BFDACB5B6712B8BCFA5-5141-4B93-BB5F-9C4C46E3CD06

I hereby dub this the “Step Of Truth”

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Just as I make my way to the top of the Chimney and am able to lift my gaze up again, I spot this perfect little toadstool under the mossy underside of the rocky trail.

DF14AA40-4226-4D40-9F86-B2D4F6C83501We pass some hikers who ask about the Chimney ahead and I really want to make some kind of comment about the “Step Of Truth” but I can’t figure out how to do it without being obnoxious but we joke about it after.  Once back at Mount Osceola’s summit we sit for a long time enjoying he views and enduring the little crowd of fellow city slickers and dogs.  We start to feel uneasy about some hikers getting too close to the edge so we make our way down to the car.  We feel great and its not very late so we head to our cabin and take hot showers flip on the TV and get lost in a marathon of American Ninja Warrior and become immediately attached to who we want to win.  We head into Lincoln for dinner at the Gypsy Cafe where I have the most aesthetically pleasing cup of tea ever.  Back at our tiny cabin we get sucked back into American Ninja Warrior until our eye lids get heavy. We each have our own little tiny room connected by a screened-in porch that hangs right over the Pemigewasset River which lulls us to sleep.532CFCA4-75C2-4F66-8241-0AC462746D5D0B1A837F-E262-4BBC-8F8D-1A559135F8DF

Owl’s Head – The Holy Grail of the NH48

  • Elevation: 4,025 feet
  • Location: Franconia, NH
  • Date Hiked: September, 23 2017
  • Companions: Stud % 5e
  • Trails: Lincoln Woods, Franconia Brook, Lincoln Brook

What makes Owl’s Head the Holy Grail of the NH48?  For starters, it is set deep in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness on unmaintained trails far from any parking lot, established campsites or huts and sits far off the beaten path of the many other popular hikes in this region.  It requires multiple river crossings that can be seriously hazardous during high water.  One has be prepared to spend a night in the backcountry OR be able to hike big miles to summit this mountain.  The actual “trail” or “path” up Owl’s Head is basically a super steep exposed rock slide of sand and loose gravel and boulders that basically crumble under foot.  Once you get up top, you are in the trees and have to climb over and under downed trees to find the summit cairn which has been moved in the last decade to the “true” summit making the whole trip .4 miles further than it already was. Because of all these features, Owl’s Head is often put off and left last on people’s list who are attempting the NH48.

After much perseverating over routes and options, Stud I finally came to the conclusion that we would attempt to reach the elusive Owl’s Head summit as an out and back 19-mile day hike in late summer/early fall when the water levels were low.  This way we wouldn’t have to cross the rivers with full packs and just have a lighter carry overall. Typically I have zero interest in hiking big miles.  For me, anything over 15 miles is what I consider big miles and I prefer a nice 8-12 mile hike in the mountains where I can have time for extended breaks to take in the forest atmosphere and notice as much as possible beyond the ground in front of me.  I knew this hike would be hard and different from other hikes.

5e, Stud and I head into the Lincoln Woods at 7am wearing most of our layers and start hiking at a pretty good clip to warm up.  We figure that we have about 14 hours of daylight and we guess that our hike will take about 12 hours.  We have our headlamps, water treatment, extra food and all our essentials.  We are hiking on an old logging railroad so the terrain is very flat and the leaves are just starting to change and it is magical.  Our first 2 river crossing are over bridges and we scope the water and keep our anticipatory talk about the upcoming river crossings to a minimum but we know we are all nervous about them.  We leapfrog with a few other hikers.  Its a clear day and the parking lot had been pretty full but most hikers are not headed to Owl’s Head.  That said, we are not the only ones on this adventure and we are relieved to meet others headed that way knowing we will not be completely alone out there.IMG_2794IMG_2795

The walk is lovely.  A true walk in the woods.  Unlike other hikes that just head straight up, we are hiking many miles over the course of many hours just to get close to this mountain.  We reach the first river crossing and I feel super anxious.  Stud rock hops across like its nothing and 5e and I follow suit.  But I don’t feel  relieved when I make it to the other side cuz I know there is more to come.  We reach the next crossing.  Same thing.  And the next.  By our fourth crossing we are cheering and finally feeling relief about the water.  We keep our breaks short and eat often.  We are walking and weaving along the river and its so pretty and peaceful and its flowing babble just lulls me into a rhythm.  The few hikers we pass are very friendly and humble and the vibe on the trail is one that I really love.  Owl’s Head starts to come into view on our right and we figure we must be getting close to the slide path that goes straight up it and we start to look for it knowing it may not be well marked having read this in the guidebooks.IMG_2796IMG_2797

We manage our last crossing just before reaching a pair of cairns marking the Owl’s Head Path and I consider them a threshold to this myth of a mountain.  We pause and take a short break before heading up.  We chug our water and refill our liters and have a last snack.  As we start our ascent, I am very aware of how deep in the woods we are and how late it feels to just be starting up a mountain and how we’ve already been hiking for over 4 hours and the toughest part is yet to come.  We reach the slidy stuff and each step up sort of slides back a bit.  It is profoundly steep and the gravel and loose rocks crumble under foot and we are all scared.  Stud panic hikes ahead and 5e expresses her fear just below me while I try to keep steadily moving up.  We do our best to not loosen the rocks so that they don’t fall on each other but they fall everywhere.  I grunt and laugh nervously and we encourage each other until alas we reach the top of the slide and find ourselves on more of a trail with more solid rock scrambles which are fun and a relief. The steepness starts to level out and we have entered the mossy greenery and we can see the blue sky start to peak thru the wind blown spruces ahead of us.

We climb over and under and around the downed trees towards the “new” summit and reach the cairn and it feels fricken awesome.   It reminds me of how I felt when I reached the summits of Mansfield and Camel’s Hump on the Long Trail.  I can’t believe I am standing on Owl’s Head.  It is surreal.  It feels amazing.  We collapse and eat and chug water and then we are joined by another hiker who asks us if we would help him cheer for his friend who is coming along behind him.  He tells us that this is his friends 48th and final mountain in completing his NH48 goal.  We are pumped!  We hear him coming and we all stand up and start clapping.  He is shocked to hear us as we start cheering for him and I almost get emotional.  He looks to be in his late 50’s and I find out later that he’s from NY and has been chipping away at the NH48 for the past 7 years.  Its my first time being on a NH48 summit with someone celebrating their final peak and he is touched and humble about it.  His friend’s final mountain is Madison and they plan to hike that the next day.  We congratulate them and end our summit break a little early to give them some time alone on the summit.

Walking back Stud spots a big brown rabbit.  Its was huge and hopping around on top of this mossy summit and something about that rabbit just really got to me.  A message for sure.  As we begin our descent down the slide trail we are pretty freaked out about going down but its okay.  We slip and slide and we loosen rocks that knock each other behind foot and I even have a dramatic fall at one point but we are fine and we just take our time and talk each other down it and when we reach the bottom and cross back over the threshold between the cairns, we collapse by the river.  We lay on the soft pine floor and chug our liters, eat snacks, refill water and rest.  Its mid afternoon and we have a long hike out.  We feel great and we manage to get across all the river crossings just fine.  A couple hours later the light starts to fade and so do we.  We are exhausted and things start to hurt.  The last 2 miles are brutal and I just want to collapse but I just keep walking and we all start to just drag ourselves forward.  I keep drawing my attention away from my physical discomfort and try to focus the trees, the river, the leaves, the beings and I a, so grateful to be on this land.  I am delighted to see so much Balsam Fir.

We reach the suspension bridge at 6:30PM, exactly 11.5 hours and 18.5 miles later and we climb down underneath it to soak our feet in the cold river.  I attempt to get all the way in but its too cold and the light is fading and I don’t want to get over cold.  But I wash the dirt off my calves and splash water on my face and arms.  We hobble to the car and change into jeans and flannel and it feels so good.  We drive away from the Lincoln Woods as the sun sets over the misty blue mountains and we feel incredibly accomplished, exhausted, sore, and content.

 

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Franconia Ridge to Garfield Ridge to N. Twin

Stud and I park at the North Twin trailhead and get swooped up by Notch Taxi who arrives early and is super nice and drops us in Franconia Notch at the Whitehouse Trailhead where we walk north to pick up the Appalachian Trail.  Its 11am and our packs are loaded with everything we need (and more) for a potential 3 night/3.5 day trip in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.  We start our ascent up the Liberty Spring Trail gaining 2,000 feet of elevation in 2 miles until we reach the Liberty Spring Tentsite approximately 2 hours later.

We are relieved to get into this campsite early because there are just a few backcountry campsites that sit along the high peaks of Pemigewasset Wilderness where friendly AMC (Appalachian Mount Club) caretakers collect a small fee in exchange for a tent platform, a bear box to store food overnight, a composting outhouse, daily weather reports, and there is usually a water source to filter from.  On sunny summer weekends these campsites fill right up and caretakers will fit upwards of 40-60 hikers into these sites. This is impressive considering that these campsites sit on a very steep mountain side pitches and there are only like 5-8 tent platforms at each campsite.  These caretakers will find a spot for everyone and no hiker is ever turned away and even at capacity they don’t feel crowded.  Some of these sites are directly on the AT (Appalachian Trail) so many thru hikers rely on them because there are very limited stealth campsites spots in the alpine zones of the White Mountains.  Given the rugged terrain of these ridge lines, these campsites can be a fun place to connect with thru-hikers, weekend warriors, school groups and whoever else saw those same sweeping views and managed those same hard rock scrambles and long exposed ridge lines.  Many hikers who come thru these sites, whether it be to camp or just refill water, will arrive weary and worn down by the terrain and in need of a witness.  We witness each other, some more humbly than others.

The caretaker is this smiley tough woman and Stud and I connect with her immediately. She sets us up in what she calls “the penthouse” which is a tent platform high up and further off the trail and kind of hidden.  We set up our tents next to each other filling the small platform and later we are joined by 2 young French-speaking young women who squeeze their tent onto a tiny flat spot next to the platform.  We ask about eachothers days and Stud and I throw some water and snacks into a smaller day pack and head off to ascend Mt Liberty and Mt Flume.  Its late afternoon and it feels great to hike without our big packs.  The views are sweeping and the summits are rocky with many cliffs and many sunbathers.  We relax on top and I pull out my new tiny binoculars that I acquired last week on a job helping someone purge their apartment.  We admire the dozen or so mountains around us that we have summited over the last few years and study many dozen more that we have yet to attempt before returning back to camp and make dinner and then study our maps before crawling into our tents.We wake up early and are packed up and hiking north on Franconia Ridge in the cool morning processing about queer life, pronouns, gender, music, future goals, politics, the various organizations we associate with and all the things we like to process about in between eating candy and trail food.  We pass many hikers.  We stop to chat with some and not with others.  Some of the bro-dudes mistake us for other bro-dudes and so we just kinda grunt back to them in our lowest voice and move along.  But we welcome more conversation from the hikers who recognize us as the late-30 year old women that we are.  One of these hikers says to us “Thank Goddess for this wonderful day!” and we fall in love with her and talk about her for the rest of the trip.  We share this enthusiasm of being on such a beautiful ridge line and mostly avoid conversations about what lies ahead and whether its “good” or “bad”.  People tell us what to expect and how much water to carry even though we don’t ask for this kind of advice.  I don’t bother to mention that I’ve actually hiked this ridge before and I just respond to the various unsolicited advice with “cools thanks” and try to gracefully disengage.  I’ve hiked enough to know how much water I need but the bro-dude-splanations still get to me and I fight hard not to internalize any assumptions other hikers may make about me and I notice that I care less and less with every year older I get.  I decide I love being 39 years young.

 

Its a long gorgeous climb over Little Haystack, Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette.  Its a mix of rock scrambles, long steep pitches, and short stretches of nice footpaths.  Once we are up above 5,000 feet the wind picks up and I can no longer wear my hat and sunglasses for fear that they will blow right off me.  The sun is bright and the wind is almost knocking us over.  It is so intense so we don’t linger long on any of the summits.  We take advantage of any wind breaks along the short slightly sheltered spots where we hunker down to drink water and eat snacks and relieve ourselves.  Weary, we are eventually make our way up and over Lafayette and turning northeast along the Garfield Ridge.  My eyes water and I blow record breaking 10 foot snot shots behind me into the wind.

As soon as we get back down below tree line we lay down on the trail on this boulder cliff and eat and drink and rest.  Its not a good spot for a break but we have been pushing hard and have to stop.  We push down the relentless descent and after hours and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss we are back down in the pine forest.  We find a perfect spot for an afternoon siesta.  We take off our socks and shoes lie on a bed of soft pine needles elevating our feet of a log while eating salty crunchy things and bathing in the mountain breeze laughing about how tired we are.  We see some hikers pass by who we camped with last night who we have been leap frogging with all day.  Its a young woman and her father and they are thru-hiking the NH section of the AT and I am inspired.

 

 

Rested and restored we start our final ascent of the day up Mt Garfield which takes everything we have and when we get to the top we have the summit all to ourselves.  We take our time up there soaking in the views of the long jagged ridge line we had just hiked.  I look at Lafayette thru my binocs and see dozens of tiny silhouetted people up there.  I could even see the Long Trail’s Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield.  I think I could also make out Whiteface and Madonna Peak if I was correct.  But Camel’s Hump is so distinctive and it was connecting to wave to some of my old mountain friends from over here.  Its fun to know the mountains and name them off and see them from various sides.Next stop, Garfield Ridge Campsite.  It feels late but we still get into camp early enough to get another awesome tent platform spot.  This site also has a large lean-to and it fills up with AT thru-hikers.  Our neighbors are the daughter/father hikers and we chat with them about their hike and its really fun to talk to them about the trail.  We eat and crawl into our tents and sleep better then the night before.In the morning we are packed up and back on the trail by 6:45.  We make our way down the almost comically steep cliff stretch of Garfield Ridge where I imagine the look on thru-hikers’ faces when they get to this spot…like how it this even a trail?  Welcome to the White Mountains.  We reach the intersection of Franconia Brooke Trail and make a decision about our next move.  We had been strongly considering hiking down into the Valley and setting up camp at 13 Falls and then attempting to summit Owl’s Head via the northern Lincoln Brook Trail the following day.  This is a remote stretch of trail that few people travel on and everything we’ve read about it says the trail is hard to follow and its easy to get lost.  There are lots of water crossings and its a big day.  While we have been enticed by it and read a lot about it, in the end we decided to stay on the ridge.  After all the elevation gain and loss that we’d already done, adding more felt exhausting and we were losing confidence about that northern stretch and our (lack of) compass reading skills so we listened to our intuition and decided to stay up top and head towards the Galehead Hut for a big late breakfast break and take advantage the huts views, shady benched front porch, running water and bathrooms.  After some coffee and oatmeal we stashed our packs inside the hut and took a spur trail out and back to the summit of Galehead Mountain.  Back at the hut we each chugged a liter of water and sat with an older AT thru-hiker while she ate every leftover the hut croo offered her.  One the hut croo cooks brought out a big leftover pot of soup with some bowls and we watched this hiker down like 5 bowls of soup and we felt genuinely relieved and happy for her.  Hiker hunger is impressive and kind of fascinating.  I was tempted by the soup but decided to leave it for the thru-hikers since our new plan would have us hiking out that afternoon which meant we’d get to eat whatever we wanted later.

 

We filled our waters and started up South Twin which is basically straight up and gains 1,200 feet of elevation in .8 of a mile.  Its like a rock staircase and eventually we popped out on top and the wind wasn’t too strong and we were able to really enjoy this summit.  I felt a little shaky and dug into my food bag no longer conserving for that extra day.  We had been on this summit 2 years ago but it was so windy that we basically half jogged right over it on our way to the Twinway towards Guyot.  But today, the day was young and we would be hiking out from here so we sat for a while and I pulled out the binoculars and we took in the 360° views all around.

We branched off the AT  following the North Twinway Spur over to North Twin Mountain.  This 1.3 ridge was simply a beautiful stretch of trail that went in and out of the trees passing thru fern fields and bright moss covered boulders and the blue sky and distant mountains were visible thru the scraggly mountain pines cooling us off with that mountain breeze coming in from all directions.We popped out on North Twin, our final summit of this trip, and went to a lookout to eat and drink.  It was hot.  The clouds started to gather and within minutes we watched the puffy benign poofs thicken into growing thunderheads.  It was amazing how fast it formed.  We couldn’t have been more grateful to be heading down and off the exposed ridges.  We descended down the North Twin Trail down a steep gravelly slidy rocky path careful to not lose our footing.  Our legs were tired and we slid down many big boulders on our butts until finally the trail mellowed out and we could actually hike and not just brace ourselves the entire way.  We were maybe 2 miles from the car when we started hearing thunder like I’ve never heard before.  It echoed down the mountains and we could feel it in the ground vibrating through us.  As the sky darkened over various peaks and the thunder grew louder and stronger, we thought about the hikers we met and hoped that everyone would be safe.  Then we had these huge river crossings.  The water wasn’t very high and we could totally rock hop across it but it was a long stretch of many rocks to hop with some big hops over rushing water and between the grumbling thunder and some distant flashing in my peripheral vision it took so much focus and concentration to stay balanced on these rocks and not freeze up half way across or fall in!  Finally we were done crossing the “Little River” for the last time and we cruised along very moderate (almost flat) stretch of trail until we reached the car.

We kicked off our shoes and just as we drove down Haystack road back to route 3, the skies opened and the rain started to fall.  What timing.  Things seemed to clear up as we rounded the bend into Franconia Notch so we jumped into Echo Lake at the base of Cannon and before changing into some dry cotton clothes we had stashed in the car.  We discussed our lingering Owls Head Plan B which would be driving down to the Lincoln Woods, camping nearby, and then hiking Owl’s Head as a day hike the next day.  From the Lincoln Woods, its an 18 mile round trip hike which is a LOT for us but the trail is easier to follow from that direction and its mostly flat until the final ascent and we wouldn’t be carrying full packs.  But 18 miles is a LONG day for us.  There is also a significant water crossing that can be sketchy especially with anymore rain coming overnight.  SO we decided to post-pone Owl’s Head for another time and drove home stopping for some real food on the way.  Owl’s Head, perhaps we’ll see in September.