For most of my life the Northern Presidentials have been looming over me and it took 24 years to get up the courage or spare time to actually conquer them. These are some of the most extreme mountains on the east coast any way you look at it. Asside from Katahdin in Maine, it is really the only case where a major mountain range rises straight up from a large lowland river (the Androscoggin) with an elevation gain of around 5000 feet in a few miles. The local treeline is around 4000 feet and the higher peaks avoided scouring by the glaciers. Hence, the entire area is covered by felsenmere -- acres of jagged boulders shattered and scattered by the extremes of temperature. It is truly an other-worldly place.
August 17, 1997 On Sunday I joined Courtenay, "The Count" and Sydney Foster, "Just Dreaming", on the last leg of their AT section hike. They had started in Danby, VT and in three weeks had made it as far as Greenleaf Hut before being stalled by weather and an offer of a job. To occupy the last few days before The Real World took over again, we decided to skip ahead to the Presidentials.
We got a fairly late start and climbed up the Tuckerman's Ravine Trail to Hermit Lake where a huge debate ensued regarding the weather. At 2 pm, clouds could be seen boiling off the top part of the Headwall at the hands of the 40-ish mph westerly wind (a typical Mt. Washington condition). There were concerns about thunderstorms and being stuck above treeline. Finally by 4pm we agreed to start up the headwall and turn back if we thought conditions meritted it.
Hiking through Tuckerman's Ravine is always a pleasure no matter how many times you've done it (at least seven in my case). While there are typically 50-75 feet of snow in the glacial bowl in the spring, and the skiing is usually quite possible through the end of June, this year the ice was particularly tenacious. Right at the base of the Headwall we encountered the Snow Arch, a hundred foot long, twenty foot wide chunk of mini-glacier cut through by a waterfall into a graceful arch perhaps ten feet across. We also encountered a pair of idiots with more bravado than brains attempting to ski on this sharply sloped surface. The first one to try ended up falling off the end and falling five or ten feet onto sharp, entirely bare rocks. Fortunately he broke only his snowboard instead of his legs or worse. The second skier elected to leave it at that and quit. Good plan!
Indeed when we reached the top of the Headwall, conditions were much improved. The wind speed had dropped a bit and the clouddeck risen. Occasional patches of clarity reminded us that, while we usually could not see more than a hundred feet or so, we were still more than a mile up perched on an exposed rocky ridge with towering mountains all around. Deeming it safe, we trudged the mile or so over the Bigelow Lawn to Lakes of the Clouds Hut where we shacked up in the Dungeon. I couldn't help remembering the last time I was at Lakes and the terrible consequences. As luck would have it, we were spared a similar fate this time.
|Mt. Monroe--just about as good as it GETS!|
Click image for link to 370KB JPG.
The Castellated Ridge and the slopes of Mount Jefferson
provided a dramatic background for our final, exhausted struggle.
August 19 Waking we realized just how sore and stiff we were from yesterday's travails. We poured over the maps and saw just how much climbing would be required to visit the two northernmost peaks that we had skipped yesterday. Instead, we choose to live to fight another day. After rest and food, we discovered that in fact the Randolph Path, the last trail of yesterday which we had hated so much at the time, was really pretty dramatic and fun. There were views of the Castelated Ridge (better to see from a distance than see up close) and dramatic views of the valley below. We stopped by Grey Knob cabin and Crag Camp.
Crag Camp is an interesting place. The new building, built on the site of the very old one, is perched on the edge of King Ravine, a huge glacial Cirque with towering cliffs on three sides. Across the ravine could be seen the peaks we had elected not to pursue and the Airline which runs up the opposite ridge along a dramatic looking knife edge. Crag Camp also features a 100-year-old pedal organ in beautiful condition carried up and lovingly restored by a fellow named Mike. Mike was in residence that day and treated us to fine renditions of classic organ peices (Bach, Phantom of the Opera) as well as some less-well-known arrangements ("Yellow Submarine", James Taylor). We sat on the edge of the precipice and ate our honey, graham crackers and gorp.
Since everybody's knees were pretty well shot, we let ourselves down gently. After about a mile and a half of steep though interesting trail, the Spur trail meets up with four others at the Pentadoi. We choose the Amphibrach and dropped the last 1500 feet in a very easy 2.5 miles. Indeed, the trail was so easy and pleasent, we were surprised to find ourselves at Cold Brook Falls, practically at the road. The final short walk to to the Appalachia trailhead was filled with nostalgia about the last three weeks of trail hiked (by them) and anticipation of a cold swim and hot meal.
August 28, 1997 Having consulted the maps and done a lot of research, I decided I wanted to bag my final two milers (Madison, Adams) before returning south to job and school. The weather was not forcast to be very auspicious and the shortest route I had planned was just under 10 miles in length with about 5000' of climbing.
Nevertheless, I got a very early start and was on the ground at Appalachia by 7am. The weather was cold and misty with low clouds. I was packed lightly carrying only my home-modified Lowe Alpine lumbar pack and my treking poles (don't leave home without em.) I'd added some extra straps to the pack so I could bring along heavy windbreaker, heavy fleece pants, and raincoat in case of extreme weather. Inside were loads of emergency gear and high-energy food. I didn't even bring my camera, which tells you how serious I was about this endeavor. I wanted to know how fast and far it was possible to move working alone with essentially no load.
The first few miles up the Airline left me short of breath and long on clothing. Layers came off and were lashed onto the pack. After a mile or two, the trail climbs steeply through softwoods eventually emerging at about 4000' high on the edge of King Ravine. The thick, valley clouds at this point were mostly below me and the pale sun periodically showed through a higher layer of cirrus. The large picture window at Crag Camp could be seen across the ravine more or less on a level with me. The trees give way to alpine barenness in a surprisingly short space of maybe a tenth of a mile. Suddenly I was on the Knife-edge seen a week before and very exposed. The layers which had come off earlier went back on.
Unsure of my first goal, I opted for the cautious route and slabbed over to Madison Springs Hut. The time was 9:15 and breakfast had just ended. There was a huge pile of buckwheat pancakes left over from the guests which I dug into with vigor consuming four or five dry. Since the alpine weather was much nicer than expected (temps in the fifties, wind in the twenties, visability varying), I set off and quickly ascended Mt. Madison, a steep rocky .4 miles to an alpine and completely socked-in summit. Returning to the Hut, I consumed the rest of the pancake pile, and set off merrily up Mt. Adams.
There is some fringe cult which conciders Mt. Adams to be one of the five "power points" on the globe where the Creator's knowledge was first beamed down... or something. While I don't buy the mysticism, the summit was pretty mystical. Very sunny and bright with not a breath of wind and no visibility whatsoever. Sort of like being trapped in a very tiny, silent, luminous fog. The only other life visible was a small beetle sheltered down in the rocks. In this spot of tranquility, I decided that having come this far, why not traverse the rest of the northern range and emerge at Pinkham Notch Camp. The time was 11am.
Coming down from Adams was really quite confusing. Visibility was still nil and there were several trails going in similar directions over the chaotic felsenmere all marked with identical cairns. Since many of the summits are simply big cones of shattered rock with the trail arbitrarily picked across a few of them, getting off-trail was very easy. With no sun or visual landmarks to aim for, at one point I found myself headed north when I should be going south west. It's easy to see why people get disoriented and dead in these mountains. At Thunderstorm Junction, marked by a huge cairn the size of a small house, I joined the AT and hiked quickly south guided by the quartz-topped cairns.
For the next few miles, I limitted my elevation changes in favor of speed. Veritably flying over talus and rock, I covered ground like I never have before. Before long I was stopping in Edmand's Col for lunch having linked up with the previous week's route. The clouds had lifted a bit and the lower slopes were visible, hinting at the tremendous gulfs and gullies to the east. Pressing onward, I detoured east around Mt. Jefferson via the Monticello Lawn and west around Mt. Clay slabbing past the Jewel Trail. Many groups of slowly plodding hikers were swept past. It was an incredible feeling. I'd already been most of ten miles (a long hike for me) on some of the most challenging terrain in the eastern US. And I was feeling GREAT!
This euphoria propelled me up to the summit of Mt. Washington for a brief rest and refuel break. The time was 2:15. Finally, feeling my oats, I began the 4000' descent back to the valley. Though the summit was relatively underpopulated except for a cold looking wedding party and a smattering of car- and train-borne tourists, the Tuckerman's Ravine Trail was veritably crawling with folks. I ouched my way to the top of the headwall and then slowly came down the face. The snow arch was gone though there was still a large chunk of ice sitting in the streambed. Alas, there will be no glaciers starting this year.
I regained some of my speed and stride in the last 2.4 miles from Hermit Lake down to the base station covering it in about 50 minutes. Finally, I rolled into Pinkham, called for pickup and untied the boots. The thing I love about this hobby is that it feels so GOOD when you stop.
That was "quite a ramble". Total milage: 15.3 miles, time, 10 hours.
The Wilderness Journal