Amy and I were visitting my parents in the White Mountains of New Hampshire last weekend and decided to do a short hike up and over Mt. Madison in the Presidentials. Not only is the hike up Madison spectacular, but I have yet to hike the seven mile stretch of trail from the summit to Pinkham Notch, part of the Appalachian Trail. I grew up in these mountains and cut my teeth (or at least my hiking boots) on the fellfields of the White Mountains. Little did I realize that living in the south has made me soft!
Amy and I set out from the Appalachia parking lot at about 8:30 in the morning. We took the spectacular Air Line trail up Durrand Ridge. Several years ago I hiked this same trail at the beginning of a marathon traverse of the northern Presidentials. That day had been cool, windy and foggy. Today was oppresively hot with high humidy and fierce sun. The cool forest was a nice relief, but the swarming black flies left us waving and swatting.
It was with conciderable relief that we popped up above treeline high on the ridge. Unfortunately, the wind was essentially calm here and did nothing for the bugs and little for the heat. Still, the view was impressive into King Ravine and up the slopes of Mt. Adams. We trudged upward and made it to the crowded Madison Springs Hut around 11:30.
After resting there for perhaps 45 minutes, we took stock of the situation. Amy was feeling poorly from the heat and hydration was an issue. We restocked the water bottles and headed out, slowly, up the final bit of Mt. Madison itself. The summit offered no relief from the heat and the bugs were, in fact, worse! But the views were good. Small patches of snow clung to the slopes of Washington and Jefferson. Starr Lake could be seen below above Madison Gulf. The Great Gulf Wilderness stretched below to the south looking lush and untrammelled. Our route was clear down the Osgood Ridge and into that lushness. Our final destination, Pinkham Notch, was hidden behind a shoulder of Mt. Washington, and it looked like a long way to go.
...and indeed it was. Walking over the shattered fellfield rock is never easy and, even with the copious practice with loose rock I got this spring, it was a painful and slow process. At least we were headed down now and the physical exertion didn't add to the general heat of the day. After a looooong mile of walking on the otherwise spectacular ridge, we finally dropped below treeline once again at about 4 pm. The short trees gave welcome relief from sunburn and a bit of coolness. The descent started in earnest.
Another facet of White Mountain trails that I'd forgotten about in the Gentle South is the direct approach taken to trail building. In much of the East, trails switchback up and down steep slopes making a longer, but easier trail. Not in NH! If you're headed from A to B in the Whites, you take a more or less straight shot up or down the hills. We plunged downward for an interminable mile and a half losing about 2000' of elevation in an unending series of steps. Kudos to the trail crews which built this path, but it's a real knee-burner. Many toads were inexplicably seen on the descent.
At long last, we reached the Osgood Cutoff and slabbed west across the flanks of Mt. Madison. From here on, the trail was much more gentle in elevation change if still a bit rocky and exciting. The sun was disappearing behind Mt. Jefferson by the time we finally reached the Madison Gulf trail. Four miles to go. Both of us were tired, dehydrated, bitten and sore. The bug repellant had been lost on the summit, but the constantly dripping sweat probably would have rendered it ineffective anyway. With 2 miles to go, we humped up and over Lowe's Bald Spot and crossed the deserted Mt. Washington Auto Road. The time was quarter of eight and it was getting decidely dark out. Fortunately, the final two miles were relatively easy, gentle ones and we reached the Pinkham Notch fortifications without incident. Vast quantities of Gatorade was consumed and we collapsed into the car.
That was the longest 11.2 mile hike I've ever done. My mid-Atlantic legs tell me it was more like twenty-some miles. Still, the scenery was gorgeous and the terrain challenging. Next time, we'll try to pick a breezier, less-humid day for above-tree-line ramblings.
The Wilderness Journal