(I’m currently in Manchester Center, VT, having hiked over 500 miles. The following post was written from N. Woodstock, NH, two weeks ago. I’m getting caught up on my blog posts. Thanks for reading!)
The miles continue to come slowly, or so it seems. As a southbound hiker, familiar with the terrain in Maine and New Hampshire from my previous hikes, I expected this. But it wears on the body and mind. I know I’m doing the hardest and best states first. This was something I looked forward to when I considered my hike. These states are rocky and relentless. I pass northbounders every day and it’s all I can do not to say, “Oh, have you got a lot of work to do.” They will discover that on their own and I don’t want to diminish their elation as they get closer to the end of their journey, one step at a time. But wow, have they got a lot of work to do.
And so do I. I’ve walked 345 hard miles. I’m midway through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This section of the AT through the Whites covers nearly 100 miles of intense peaks and valleys, the reward being beautiful and expansive views from the tops of those peaks. Many of the mountains in this range are named after U.S. presidents and are thus called the Presidential Range.
The hike out of Gorham was a six-mile ascent that culminated at Imp Campsite. I felt strong and ready to return to the trail after my two-day rest at the White Mountains Hostel. Imp is part of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s series of campsites and employs an onsite caretaker. There is an $8 fee to stay there. Soynuts had also been in Gorham (but stayed at another place), and was headed to the same site. We shared a tent platform and talked about our time off in Gorham and what was in store for us in the Whites. I left before Soynuts the next morning and proceeded to make Pinkham Notch my goal for the day.
There is another series of huts in the Whites sponsored by the AMC where hikers can take a break and buy snacks and drinks for a small price. It’s very expensive to stay overnight in the bunks at these huts, but they offer a “work-for-stay” option to thru-hikers. If a hiker arrives at a hut at the right time in the afternoon, they may be accepted by the staff to do some easy chores for a couple of hours in exchange for a place to sleep in the dining hall (not a bunk) and leftover food. I’ve done this in the past, and have found it to be an inefficient way to get through the mountains. Most hikers really enjoy the WFS experience and try to time their arrival at the huts in order to get to stay there.
After leaving Imp, I mentally prepared myself for one of the most difficult days in this section. It’s really hard to rank difficult days. There are several sections that are as intense as another, but I remembered the ascent up to Wildcat Ridge on my northbound hike, and knew this would be just as challenging to go down. And it was. I reached Carter Hut midday and stopped for some chili made by a “croo” member (the AMC hut staff) and lemonade. Feeling energized and fueled up, I began the steep ascent out of Carter and up to the Wildcat peaks. This led to the top of the ski area where the gondola was running for tourists. I was on a mission to get down to Pinkham Notch and still had the steep descent off the ridge ahead of me.
It was tedious and slow-going. As most of the descents of the last month, every step required careful attention. At one point my feet lost traction and I slid down the rock slab on my backside several feet. I was surprised that my shorts survived the slide.
Step-by-careful-step, I finally made it down to level ground. A mile later I crossed a road and entered the AMC’s touristy Pinkham Notch center. I still needed to hike a bit more past the center in order to find a campsite, but I needed to take a break so I bought an ice cream sandwich and watched the hordes of weekend campers milling about for a few minutes. I couldn’t decide if I felt sorry for their temporary outdoors existence or envious that they were headed to showers and real beds. I finished my ice cream, hefted my pack and walked on to a small site just down the trail.
The next day I steeled myself for the next big challenge: the three-mile steep incline up to Madison Peak. Again, the relentless upward haul. Again, the acceptance that the miles will come slowly. This was not the time to expect anything more than one mile per hour. My mindset in these situation is to just keep moving forward. It’s a pretty good mindset for life, also. Don’t stop and risk getting bogged down. Keep moving forward, one step at a time and do not think about speed. It has no meaning. Face forward and move. After an hour and a half, I emerged above treeline. Then I began the rock-hop, following large cairns over false summits to the top of Madison. I was fortunate to have had good weather. In bad weather, this section could be especially risky.
The top provided a brief reprieve. I still needed to get down the other side, take a break at Madison hut (a half-mile below the peak), and begin the next bigger challenge: Mount Washington.
Madison Peak and Hut.
Mount Washington is the premier peak in this range and the second highest on the AT (Clingman’s Dome in Smoky Mountain National Park is the highest). The ascent from Madison Hut continued to be a sharp, rock-filled path and my feet began to feel inflamed and raw. I still had to hike several miles up and over Washington and down to a campsite below treeline. It was going to be a long afternoon.
The peaks surrounding Madison and Washington.
Mount Washington is famous for having the worst weather in the world. Wind velocity can reach well over 200 miles per hour, and reached a record of 231 mph in 1934. However, on the day I summited the winds were calm and the sky was clear. But daylight was fading fast.
After an arduous six-mile hike from Madison Hut, I finally reached the cutoff sign for the top of the peak. It was quite the touristy scene, as there is a road and a cog railway that leads to the summit. There is an observatory, a cafe, and other buildings. I was exhausted and out of water. I stashed my pack behind some boulders, grabbed my empty water bottles and quickly walked the .2 miles to the top. I got to the cafe just as they were closing but the staff let me buy something to drink. I filled my water bottles, ran to the sign for a quick photo and ran back down the trail to retrieve my pack. I still had to get below treeline and find a place to camp.
As I began the descent off the peak, I realized I would never make it to an adequate campsite before dark. The next hut (Lake of the Clouds) was only 1.5 miles away, but I knew that other hikers would have already arrived and been selected for the work-for-stay spots. I would have to hike a few miles beyond the hut to find a suitable site. My feet continued to burn and every step was painful. I began to evaluate my options, and there was only one. I would have to find a stealth spot on the mountain and continue my descent the next day.
There are many other side trails on the mountain and I hiked down one of these paths, then down another side spur. Finally, I found a somewhat flat, but lumpy spot and set up my tent. If a ranger came by, I was prepared to plead my case, show the raw condition of my feet and ask for suggestions. As it was, I was alone on the mountain and experienced the most amazing evening of my trip so far.
For a mountain that is famous for extremely bad weather in all seasons, I was very lucky to have such a pristine night. There was a light wind and the sunset was one of the most brilliant I’ve ever seen.
The next morning, I packed up and continued down to Lake of the Clouds Hut. I had a snack and enjoyed the amazing views from the huge windows. I also called the AMC and made arrangements to take the shuttle the next morning from Crawford Notch (the next road crossing, 11 miles down the trail) into Lincoln, NH. I needed to take an extra day off so my feet could recover and I wanted to check out a new hostel, the Notch Hostel.
Lake of the Clouds Hut.
11 miles downhill seemed like an easy day when I looked at the profile on my map. But I knew better. This is the AT in New Hampshire. Nothing is easy here. But still, I wanted to believe. So with the memories of my stealth night on Mount Washington, I began my hike down to Crawford Notch.
A few miles into the hike, I came to Mizpah Hut. I stopped here for lunch and more snacks and lemonade. There were other hikers there, most of them staying for the night. Revived and excited to get to the road, I resumed my descent. I had six miles to go. A chart on the wall at Mizpah stated that the six miles to Crawford Notch would take five hours. I knew that I would be going down Webster Cliffs, a series of ledges that require attentive rock scrambling. I expected it to take four hours. It actually took me four hours and forty-five minutes. It was a hot afternoon and I ran out of water again.
The view from Webster Cliffs looking down to Crawford Notch.
Finally, I was down. I came across a stream, filled my water bottles and walked to a campsite close to the road. The next day, I would board the AMC shuttle which would take me to the twin towns of North Woodstock and Lincoln and the much-anticipated, Notch Hostel.
After arriving in Lincoln, I made a beeline to a local pizzeria that I’d been to on my last hike through the area. I devoured a whole pizza, retrieved my bump box at the post office (I mail my computer ahead to my next town stop so I can conduct my lessons online), picked up a few supplies and headed to the local McDonald’s to wait for my prearranged ride to the hostel. On my way to the McDonald’s, a woman who happened to be staying at the hostel offered to take me there. Within minutes we drove onto the beautiful property.
The common area on the second floor.
The hostel as three floors with rooms filled with bunk beds and two private rooms. There is also an extensive yard for tenting. I sleep better in my own tent or in a private room, so I tented two nights and stayed in one of the private rooms for one night. After my difficult day going over Madison and Washington, I needed an extra day to recover. I also needed to conduct my online lessons so the Notch Hostel was the perfect place to stay.
And now I’m about to begin the second half of the Whites. There are still big mountains in this section, but the constant intensity of multiple climbs every day is about to end. I’ve pushed hard for four weeks and I’m looking forward to the terrain easing up.
I expect to cross into Vermont in the next week or so and hopefully increase my mileage a bit each day. It excites me to move deeper into the heart of the Appalachians and to be in places that bring up feelings of connection to past hikes. This is why I’m out here and why I was called back to the trail. Despite the difficulty of the trail, there is a pull that is hard to resist. I’m where I belong and thrive, and I cannot wait for what lies further south.