Miles 1747 – 1908
August 26 – September 13, 2017
I entered New Hampshire feeling my absolute best on trail. Strolling into Hanover, the town was full of college students and their families for orientation. They ogled at the thru hikers like we were a different species. At the Dollar General in town, Markus purchased a foam, pirate-themed pool noodle to supplement his vastly diminished waist so his pack, now much too large, would fit properly. There were many familiar faces in town and we took an easy day eating subs from Stinson’s and getting some beer and pepperoni pie at C&A Pizza. At dusk, we crossed the soccer fields and made it just out of town to set up our tent.
We went up and over Moose Mountain the next day, small in comparison to what was soon to follow, but already the views were stunning at the summit. Emerging from the woods, we were drawn at the Lyme-Dorchester Rd trail crossing to a blue house west of trail where a large group of hikers were clustered on the side lawn. We joined them and sat with a small group separate from the rest, which included Nightcrawler (well-known for his hiking kilt and wise-cracking sense of humor), Radio and Sunnyside. We took a seat with the familiar faces and graciously accepted a brick of dried fruit from Nightcrawler, who had dehydrated it himself before trail.
“Don’t eat it all at once,” he warned as I attempted to pry apart the congealed pieces. “I tried that once and there were some unfortunate consequences.”
The views from the summits in New Hampshire were stunning, as nearly all of them were in the alpine zone. The trees were either small or scarce, allowing for panoramic views of the mountainside. As we hiked along, bouncing around within the same group, we ran into Nightcrawler, Brave Happy, and the rest almost every day. The NH 25 state road sits at the southern boundary of the famous Whites Mountains. We camped out at Oliverian Brook with Brave Happy for a night when we reached the road before hiking a half mile down to The Hikers Welcome Hostel.
We managed to swing a couple work-for-stays, helping to do laundry and checking in arriving hikers. We received an ample mail drop there from my mom that would get us through the beginning of the famous mountain range. We had heard stories about the beauty of the White Mountains, the stunning views, and the challenging terrain. I was excited to see what the talk was all about and in many ways it was as if we had been preparing this entire time for these mountains.
After spending a few zero days resting up, we set out on September 1st to climb up Mt Moosilauke, the first mountain in the Whites. The climb was rocky and steep, with an accumulation of nearly 1,000 ft per mile, but once we broke through the tree line and submitted the peak at nearly 5,000 ft, it was worth it. It was frigid cold at the summit and ice clung to the summit sign. Working our way down the north side of the mountain, we slide down great patches of granite, slabs at least 50 ft across, with a waterfall cascading down the side. Warmth returned to the air when we dropped back down to 2,000 ft and set up camp with a small group in a thicket of trees near a road.
The next day contained another challenging climb, first over Mt Wolf and then clambering straight up over 3 ft tall boulders to South Kinsman Mountain. At the peak we rested a bit with a group we had kept bumping into, including Faramir (Boromir had long gone home), Red Fox, Hendrix, and Frozen, who we had inconsistently seen since our first meeting at Springer Mountain in Georgia. After a long day of hiking, Markus and I managed to swing a work-for-stay at Lonesome Lake Hut, which can accommodate around two thru hikers a night in this manner. We helped clean up after dinner, and rolled out our sleeping pads on the floor of the dining hall.
The huts in the Whites are expensive, though thru hikers can sometimes grab a space on the floor in exchange for an hour of work. Regular visitors to the Whites typically stay at the costly huts and designated tent sites to prevent the area from being “loved to death”. Thru hikers normally avoid these areas and stealth camped instead, while carefully following all the pertinent rules and regulations pertaining to camping in the forest protection areas.
The view from Lonesome Lake showed us the path the next day along the famous Franconian Ridgeline. The climb started at 1500 ft to rise up to over 5000 ft in 6 miles. We met Nightcrawler, Sunnyside, Radio, and Faramir along the way and we collectively ogled at the gorgeous views. Once you hit the ridge, the trail opens up into a treeless, 360 degree view of the White Mountains. You could see for miles up on the ridge and we took our time to appreciate the view… Perhaps a little too much time though. The sun sets quickly in the mountains, and our aim was to clear Mt Garfield, a minor peak just after the descent of the greater ridge, a few more miles north.
Faramir left us at Mt Lafayette, hoping to get a work-for-stay at Greenleaf Hut, so the rest of us wound our way down the mountain with our backs to the setting sun. The climb down was rocky, but we were in high spirits after a beautiful day on the ridge. We hit Garfield Pond, then began the 700 ft ascent to the peak of Mt Garfield. In true Whites’ fashion, it was a technical climb and required some upper body strength to lug yourself up and over great stone steps. The wind at the summit was blowing sharply, threatening rain, and we watched the last tendrils of light as the sun dipped behind the ridge we had left behind. The descent to Garfield Ridge Shelter, not a half mile further, but a 1,000 ft below us, was unexpectedly treacherous to say the least. At one point, we were scaling down a straight drop through a waterfall, made worse by the fact we were guided by the dim light of headlamps as we tried to maneuver down the slick stones. Miraculously unharmed, we arrived at the shelter well after nightfall and set up camp.
The next day passed clear with sunshine, another beautiful day in the mountains. At Crawford Notch Rd, nestled in a valley between the Franconian Ridge and the Presidential Range, we teamed up with Nightcrawler and an older thru hiker named Ma’am to share a room for the night at a local motel. We had a good time that evening bumming around town and ordering some pizza to go from the local pizzeria.
When we entered the White Mountains the following morning, there was a light drizzle in the valley and fog on the ridge line. The climb up to the presidential range was steep, and the bitter wind was biting on my hands and face. From 1,200 ft we scaled the mountain to 5,000 ft, fighting through the wind and cold to arrive that evening at Lake of the Clouds hut. The hut was full of section hikers, and thru hikers littered the kitchen. Due to its elevation, the Lake of the Clouds hut is one of the few in the whites that cannot turn hikers away when they are at capacity. There ended up being around 10 of us sleeping on the floor of the dining hall that night. Among us was Brave Happy, Ma’am, Nightcrawler, Lorax, and a number of other hikers we had become familiar with on our travels. Markus and Nightcrawler got to talking that evening and Markus decided to wake up early to join Nightcrawler in his namesake activity: waking early to summit Mount Washington for the sunrise.
They left early before dawn, and Ma’am and I followed them up a few hours later. By the time we reached the summit, Markus and Nightcrawler had been crouched in the shelter of the gift shop entrance for an hour, huddled beneath their sleeping bags. The clear skies they had started their night hike with had quickly turned to cloud and by the time I arrived at the summit of Mt Washington, the freezing temperatures and bitter wind had returned. We hung around for a bit until the shop opened, and I went inside to purchase a pair of fleece gloves. Up until this point I have been wearing socks to keep my fingers warm.
The conditions for the day seem less than optimal to complete the Presidential Range. After some debate, we decided to take a side trail down the mountain and hike some of the other routes through the White Mountains, with the hope of actually being able to see some views and experience a different side of the range.
We talked to one of the guides in the shop and he suggested taking the Lion’s Head Trail into the ravine below. Despite the guide saying that it was a popular alternative, it was not exactly what we had in mind. The trail went down what seemed like an avalanche. Loose rocks and stones made for a difficult descent, both physically and mentally. By the time we got below the cloud cover and were starting to level out, it had taken us an hour to go a quarter of a mile.
I was mentally exhausted. Part of me wished that we had just hiked through the wind and rain along the Presidential Range instead, but there was no way I was climbing back up that damn slope. Markus found me perched on a rock over top a little stream.
“Hey are you doing okay?”
“I’m so tired…” I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand.
He helped me down from the rock and we hiked together until the trail became easier to follow. Once we reached the river, the four of us sat down and ate a bit before trudging forward again. The trail continued to fight us. After doing countless river crossings in the knee-deep and freezing cold water, we eventually made it to a trail junction. By that point, I wanted nothing more than to return to the Appalachian Trail. Judging by where we were at, I argued that we follow a side path to the south to take us back up to the ridge line. The others were more interested in hiking back up to the road that led down from the Mt Washington summit and hitching into town. We debated for a while, and in the end I was outvoted. Going against my gut, I turned and huffed up the right-most side path. The path was nearly as challenging as our previous dissent. We scrambled over rocks up the steep ascent to the road.
We were walking along a cliff’s edge and I was picking wild blueberries when we heard Nightcrawler cry out behind us. He called us to come down to him so Markus dropped his pack and descended back down the mountain. It wasn’t long before I dropped my pack and went with him. Ma’am was on the ground shaken and clearly injured.
While climbing over a particularly slippery rock, her foot had given way and she had tumbled off the rock, hitting her head on the way down.
“I thought she was dead,” Nightcrawler whispered to me as Markus took Ma’am’s pack from her.
Thankfully, she was responsive and insisted she was well enough to move. After a few minutes of analysis, we agreed we needed to get her off the mountain as quickly as possible, and the fastest way was to continue up the path we had started. Markus took Ma’am‘s pack ahead of us and I followed closely behind her ready to grab her at a moment’s notice. In this manner we were able to get her to the trail head and the road. The sun was setting on the mountain and there was no traffic coming down the mountain. We waited for a little bit to see if any cars would come down, before starting the long road walk down in the growing darkness.
We hadn’t gotten far when a caravan of cars came around the corner. We wave them down and they stopped reluctantly. After explaining the situation, they were willing to cram us into the limited space to get us at least to the foot of the mountain, where we could then call a cab into town. It was dark by the time we reach the mountain’s foot and we arrived late to a motel in Gorham. We spent a zero day in town, all of us needing a recovery day from the near emergency we had evaded. Ma’am was recovering quickly though she was still clearly shaken from her experience. Her husband was going to come to town to see her, so Nightcrawler, Markus and I left town without her.
The remainder of New Hampshire, although beautiful, had lost its charm for me. I became increasingly nervous during the challenging climbs and the steep descents, No longer trusting my body to make it through safely. My mileage dropped to the point that some days I didn’t feel comfortable going more than six miles. I had lost my nerve after Ma’am‘s own accident. Thoughts that I hadn’t concerned myself with were floating to the top of my mind: What if it happened to me? What if my own foot slipped on this rock and I went tumbling down the mountain? What if I wasn’t as lucky as her?
Nearing our last border crossing, I begin to adopt the mentality I needed to finish trail. Every day I had to get the mileage and every day I had to keep progressing, but damn was I ready to be done with these mountains. I was ready to go home.