Why? Because on a sunny summer Saturday there were about a gazillion tourists
(excuse me, day hikers) on the Trail between Mt. Pierce and Mt.
Washington. I was happy to see so many folks of all ages and nationalities
(heard a lot of foreign languages) out enjoying the
mountains, but most were busy talking to their companions and completely
oblivious to other trail users.
I saw only two hikers the first seven miles when the Trail was more gnarly, a
frequent Whites hiker who was very helpful to me and a flip-flopping thru-hiker
I've met previously. More about them later.
I lucked out on the weather today. As I mentioned previously, Mt. Washington
is notorious for its fickle, violent weather. It records an average of only
sixty clear days annually and this was the second day in a row where it wasn't
covered in clouds. Hooray!!
And I was definitely kidding about running or hiking this section on a rainy
day. Not only would it have been a a lot more difficult footing on the rocks and
ledges, I also would have missed some magnificent views.
Some folks are capable of covering in one day the 26 grueling miles between Crawford and Pinkham Notch, which include at least ten peaks called the Presidential Range.
I'm not one of those people, so I broke it down into two sections.
Today's segment was primarily up, with a net elevation gain from 1,277
feet at Crawford Notch/US 302 to Mt. Washington's summit at 6,288 feet, the
second-highest elevation on the Appalachian Trail. The total elevation gain was
about 6,000 feet because of the descents from the six peaks I climbed before
reaching Mt. Washington. Elevation loss was only about 1,000 feet.
Definitely an uphill day!
But I prefer that. It may take me longer, but it's oh, so much easier on my
knees than steep descents. In the first two miles I had a 2,000-foot gain that
was difficult to climb but would have been more painful if I'd gone down it. The other
climbs were either more gradual or shorter.
My total time on the Trail was just under eleven hours, but that included
time spent with a hiker looking at maps and having lunch at the Lakes of the
And moving aside for those gazillion tourists who didn't see me on the Trail!
Twelve miles of the Presidential Range, from Mt. Pierce (AKA Mt. Clinton) to
Mt. Madison, are above tree line, making this a section best done in good
weather. I was above timberline for at least five miles today. Although the
clouds increased by the time I reached Mt. Washington, it was considered a
perfect day to be on the mountain. The temperature was in the low 50s there and
the wind velocity was about 30-40 MPH.
Not bad for Mt. Washington! (There was minimal wind on the other peaks.)
CLIMBING TO THE SUN
I began the 2,700-foot ascent to the first peak, Mt. Webster, at 6:40 AM. The
temperature was about 48 degrees and the sun was already out. The ascent was
made more difficult because of the steep steps required, the loose dirt that
would have been like ball bearings going southbound (downhill), and the numerous
rocks and roots.
I've decided already that it is a real accomplishment to say you've hiked all
of the AT in the White Mountains. You need stamina, endurance, strength,
balance, and nerve. Long legs and arms help, too, not for the longer
stride but to maneuver the numerous verticals and large "steps" up and down. I
have long arms and legs, and wonder how the heck shorter people manage to get
through these mountains.
And I haven't even hit the hardest spots yet!
I loved the first views going up Mt. Webster. The Trail follows smooth rock
ledges very near the edge of the cliff in the second and third miles. Folks
afraid of heights wouldn't be comfortable here, nor would I if it was raining.
On this dry day it was scary fun. The views north and south into the valley
with NH 302 reminded me of driving on the Beartooth Highway in Montana.
Driving to and from the Zealand Campground yesterday afternoon and this
morning we could clearly see this ridge I was on. It was definitely cool to be
up on that ridge all day, looking down into the same valley.
What an adrenaline rush summitting Mt. Webster! Even though it was below tree
line some of the rocky walls were more frightening than that climb out of the
Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania that unnerved me. Going down that side would have
been a real test of my resolve to complete the AT, because I'd have to look down
at the valley and see how far I might fall if I slipped (kinda like that hairy
descent off Kinsman three days ago). Going up, I was facing
the rock walls.
Of course, curiosity made me turn around several times to see how far I'd
fall if I slipped! Just human nature, I guess.
"Pahoo" is a hiker from Rhode Island who said he frequently hikes in the
White Mountains in the summer and snowshoes there in the winter. I had the good
fortune to run into him at the top of Mt. Webster. He is a gold-mine of
information about the AT here, and he's saving my butt on an upcoming too-long
section. Jim and I hadn't figured out yet how to break it down into two parts.
"Pahoo" takes his trail name from a TV show in the '50s, a semi-Western
starring Yancy Derringer. Pahoo was an Indian psychic who moved quietly and
quickly through the woods.
I hiked with Pahoo the mile between Webster and Jackson, the second mountain
of the morning. He was going down a side trail to the valley from the summit of
Jackson, so we sat there a few minutes in the warm sun and he showed me the map
of the long, difficult section including Mahoosic Notch that I simply cannot
complete between obvious road crossings (it would be 31 miles). He pointed out
five trails going down to a dirt road that we hadn't considered. It's bonus
mileage on two days, but the only way I can manage that section since I don't
have a sleeping bag. There are no huts that far north.
I moved up the Trail out of Pahoo's earshot (he hates phones on the Trail, as
do many hikers) to call Jim. I knew Jim was moving the camper to the Gorham area
and I wanted him to visit the ranger station near there to ask about this road
since the office would be closed tomorrow. (Turned out, Jim learned about another road that
is easier for him to access and the bonus mileage for me is less.)
Soon after this I met the only other hard-core hiker I talked to today,
"Ghost." He's a young man who gained his trail name by hiking so quietly on the
Trail that other hikers are very surprised when he comes up behind them -
silently, like a ghost.
I find it interesting that the two hikers I talked with today pride
themselves on the same quality: hiking unobtrusively through the woods.
Some would say you should be noisy so as to avoid bear or moose encounters. I am
more of a quiet hiker; I want to see the wildlife and not scare it away.
Ghost is heading south at the present. I first met him when he was going
north from Georgia to Harper's Ferry this spring. Then he flip-flopped to
Katahdin and started hiking south. He'll finish at Harper's Ferry.
The more I think about it, the more I like this approach. I've said to
several hikers that I wish the Whites had come right after the Shenandoahs, when
I was in great shape from all the higher mountains in the first third of the
Trail. NOBO's lose conditioning in the mid-Atlantic states, then get hit in the
face (or quads) with the difficulty of the Whites. Same thing going SOBO,
although the Shenandoahs and more southern mountains are nothing like the
Ghost is onto something. Maybe it's more important to do the AT in a
methodical fashion based on difficulty (and weather) than it is to finish at
Something to ponder if you're considering a thru-hike.
Speaking of hiking or running quietly in the woods, along this section of
trail below the tree line I saw numerous woods grouse that are more tame than
the grouse I saw in Virginia and other more southern states. They just sat a
foot or two off the trail, not bothered at all by my presence - none of that
nonsense to lead invaders away from their nests. (Or maybe it's because their
babies aren't as vulnerable now?)
are a very pretty mix of colors. See the "more photos" link for one or two
pictures of the grouse in our NH album.
On the way to the third peak, Mt. Pierce/Clinton, I stopped at the Mizpah
Spring Hut, another AMC wayside. This one holds about sixty guests but it was
pretty deserted at 11:30 AM. There was only one other hiker inside. I didn't
bother him since he was busy reading.
I'd heard about the "bottomless" bowls of soup hikers can buy for lunch,
leftovers from previous dinners. That sounded good after all the climbing I'd
done this morning. I had a choice of potato or chicken noodle soup. I chose
potato and had two hot bowls before moving on. Delicious, even left over! And it
was only $2.00. What a deal.
Mt. Pierce is the first mountain in the southern Presidentials above the
timberline. Several small groups of people were having lunch at the summit,
enjoying the sunshine and incredible 360-degree views. They must have come up a
side trail from the valley. I can guarantee they did not come up the way I did!
Mt. Washington was quite clear in the distance. I had three more mountains to
go before reaching it. The AT runs just below the summits of Eisenhower and
Monroe; there are side trails to the tops but I didn't go up. I'm real
surprised the AT doesn't go up and over them! AT hikers get the grand tour of
the Presidentials, winding around in a circuitous route to hit them all.
I saw more and more day hikers the closer I got to Washington. There was even
a trail runner coming toward me on Pierce, one of his arms in a sling! I was
able to run some between all the mountains today except up toward Mt.
Washington, although patches of rocks prevented much continuous running. This is
a view near the top of Mt. Monroe:
After passing Mts. Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe, the Trail drops a bit to
Lakes of the Clouds Hut, situated near two crystal-clear lakes well above tree
line at 5,000 feet. This is the largest and most popular hut in the Whites,
housing up to ninety guests. The dining area isn't as spacious as that at the
much smaller Galehead, however.
From there it's a 1,288-foot gain to the summit of Mt. Washington in a
little over a mile. There were probably 300 people on the trail here, mostly
going down. Since not all of them can be accommodated at the hut overnight, most would
have to go back up that mountain on a "trail" completely composed of large
rocks. The AT is difficult to find in some places; you have to follow cairns
and the few white blazes painted on the boulders occasionally.
At least there were a lot of flat rocks to walk on here, unlike the
wildly canted ones I've heard compose the "trail" on the next four mountains in
the series, heading north.
Jim considered coming down the mountain to meet me at the hut - until he
looked at the hordes of people, the drop, and the rocks! He's a wise man to have
stayed on top, waiting patiently for me. I climbed up pretty fast, passing
several young folks on the way up (that is so satisfying!). It's one of
the easier ascents in the Whites from the south.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
The summit was a beehive of activity on this pretty weekend afternoon. I
reached it the least popular, most difficult way: on foot, via the AT.
There are other trails leading up from the valley to Washington or nearby peaks,
which a few more people attempt. However, most folks get there in their own vehicles, in
shuttle vans, or on the cog railway, the world's first mountain-climbing
The first path to the summit was cut by Abel and Ethan Crawford in 1819. The
Carriage Road was completed in 1861. Today, thousands of cars ascend the
eight-mile dirt and paved road each season at grades of up to 12 percent. We can
vouch that it's a hair-raising ride up and down this narrow road with no guard
rails! It reminds us of the road up to Pike's Peak, since much of it is above
Until a couple years ago there was an annual car race up the mountain road. Last
weekend cyclists raced up it. Also in the summer is a foot race.
The summit is probably best known for its severe weather, a result of its
location in the middle of air masses flowing from the south, west, and north.
The twenty-mile ridge surrounding Mt. Washington has arctic weather patterns,
flora, and permafrost. It resembles the terrain and weather in northern
Labrador, right in our own New England!
Because of its frequent, sharp weather changes, a weather observatory was
first built on the summit in 1870. In 1934 the observatory measured a
wind velocity of 231 miles per hour, the strongest wind ever recorded on land
anywhere in the world.
And the AT goes right over the top! That is literally and figuratively
The weather observatory is staffed year-round, carrying out scientific
experiments and recordings. The AMC huts and visitor centers receive the
predictions early each morning and post them for visitors' information. If you
hike here, get this information, but don't rely only on it completely. Use your
eyes, too. The weather here changes in a matter of minutes and can become more
violent than any storm in the Rockies.
There are several buildings on the summit: the Sherman Building,
housing a snack bar, souvenir shop, bathrooms, post office, weather observatory,
and museum; a transmitter building; two broadcasting towers;
a radio station; a
TV station; and the old Tip-Top House, which houses another museum.
I stood on the rock pile at the summit like all the other tourists and Jim
took this photo of me blowing in the wind, happy to be there on a nice
After finding the AT route down the other side of the mountain, we escaped
the masses and drove down to Hwy. 16 (very carefully; it's narrow and twisty) to
the new campground Jim found near Gorham. He had a very busy day moving, getting
e-mail, and going to the ranger station, grocery, and post office.
I had new trail shoes sent to the Gorham post office via the Montrail rep,
Krissy Moehl Sybrowsky. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to send the two pairs of
Hardrocks I wanted. Apparently they are between model years and are out of
them. In hindsight, I probably should have found some on-line but our time and
ability to get on the internet is difficult on-the-move.
Krissy suggested I try another model, the Highline, which has the same
aggressive sole as the Hardrock. It may be more appropriate for my supinating
feet than the Hardrocks, she advised. They don't feel as sturdy as the Hardrocks,
however. I'll break them in and then decide if they'll work for the AT later on
if the rocks ever get easier (yeah, right!).
Up next: tackling the northern, more rugged "Presies." Because of the
extreme elevation loss going north (and a rough 2,000-foot descent from Mt.
Madison in one mile), I'm going SOBO from Pinkham Notch to the summit of Mt.
Washington tomorrow. That way I'll climb up that tough patch instead of ruining
my knees going down. Hikers have described it as the "worst descent yet" as they
are heading north. I'm listening.
Now, can I luck out and get a third consecutive nice day on Mt. Washington,
or will I hit a snowstorm?
Either could happen in this mountain range in August!