A Walk in the White Mountains |
August 23th-26th, 2010
Hanover, NH -
Madison Springs Hut
We got out of the house at 8:30 in the morning and after a quick stop at Lou's for muffins, coffee and hot chocolate, we headed north. North through Lyme, Orford and Wentworth. We then continued east past Moosilauke, through Woodstock and Lincoln and over the Kancamagus Highway - the "Kanc" as it is often called. The traffic in Conway was, as always, backed up. Finally we arrived Pinkham notch, where we can see Mt. Washington's radio mast 4,266 ft above us.
We went into the visitor's center and bought an updated map and then shouldered our packs and got on the trail at noon. It was a much later start then I had hoped for. It just seemed to take longer to get here then it had aught to.
We set a good pace up the "Old Jackson Road" and reached the Auto Road in under an hour (1.6 miles). It is misty and moist, but for the first few hours we could occasionally see the peaks which hem in the Great Gulf. It started drizzling at this point, but the day is still warm. At the two hour mark we were well into the "Great Gulf Wilderness" and so we stopped at a stream crossing for a snack which turned into lunch. Pita Bread, cheese, peanut butter, nuts and gorp. We got out our rain coats at this point. The weather has settled down into a constant drizzle.
Eventually we reach the bottom of the Great Gulf and cross the Peabody River On a suspension bridge. At this point we had a choice to make. Our original plan was to follow the Osgood Trail up and over Mt. Madison to the Madison Springs Hut, where we are spending the night. But we are running late and we could take the more direct Madison Gulf Trail. It would save us a bit over a mile of hiking, and 700 ft of climbing, which means probably an hour. It is now 2:30 and dinner is at 6:00. We choose the longer, Osgood Trail, four miles and almost 3,000 ft of climbing. This will be the major climb of the whole hike.
Even though it continues to drizzle the rain gear comes off, it is a lot of work to climb and we are toasty. The Osgood trails starts off deceptively easy, and then abruptly transforms into a staircase up and up. An hour later we stopped for a three minute break, chocolate bar and water. The trees are dripping with moss here - something we rarely see in New Hampshire, and I expect an indicator of the normal weather in the Great Gulf Wilderness. The trees start to thin and we think that we must be nearing the treeline, but then the spruce and hemlock get tall again and we have another half an hour of climbing.
Just before finally breaking out above the tree line I hear some voices off the side of the trail. There is a rabbits warren of side trails here and some patches in the krummholz where people have camped in desperation for years. This time they were occupied by a group of Scouts from the Ukraine! Will and I stopped and talked with some of the boys who were sitting by the trail. I could see and hear some of the girls in there group - Scouts in most of the world is coed. They told me that they had originally planned to cross Madison today and camp on the other side, but had turned back to the treeline due to the wind. We took this as a warning of weather to come, donned our raincoats again and secured hats. At times I wear my hood over my hat so I don't lose it.
Madison was lost in the fog.
Just below the peak is "Osgood junction", where you can choose to go over the peak, or pass below it on the Parapet trail, or you can drop back to the valley via the Daniel Webster Scout Trail. I had never heard of this trail before. Daniel Webster is the name of the local council which covers New Hampshire. I have since learned that this trail was build by eight scouts "of high rank" in 1933. The local newspaper reported, "The U.S.F.S. has furnished the scouts with tents, blankets, cots and food in return for the volunteer labor." What an adventure for a summer!
We pressed on to the summit of Madison at about 5:00. I love this sort of place, thick with fog and a howling wind. I tell Will, "It may not be scenic (we can only see about 30m), but it is invigorating!" We only spend a few minutes on the peak itself, and then pressed on to the hut.
About twenty minutes later the hut appeared out of the mist. We checked in and claimed bunks and wrapped ourselves around a mug of hot tea while we waited for supper. The Madison Springs Hut is half stone and half wood. The stone half is split into two bunk rooms with a total of 52 bunks. The bunks go up three tiers, nearly to the ceiling. I pick an upper one, and Will the one below me. Each bunk is equipped with a pillow and three thick wool blankets. Since there is no light in the bunk rooms we unpack and set out the fleece bags we are carrying before it gets dark. We also remember to grab our head lamps before heading to supper.
One of the reasons to stay in a hut is the community. The hut's crew (or "croo" as they insist on spelling it) are usually young dynamic people, often just out of college and not quite certain where they are going -- but in love with hiking and lots of people. The guest tend to be older hikers, like myself, with "more money then muscles", as my father said a few years ago. Although there are a very few families with young kids. One family has hiked up with an infant and a toddler in their backpacks.
We eat dinner in a communal mode and the hut is full tonight so every table is full. There are six to eight people at a table. Dinner always includes soup, fresh baked bread, vegetable and tonight a baked lasagna. We shared the table with two other pairs of hikers. Across from us sat Kathleen and Kenneth, a brother an sister in their mid-forties. She is from Philadelphia and he is from Washington DC. Kathleen has often hiked in the Whites but only now convinced her brother to join her. A bit of a sibling reunion.
The other pair we talked with were father and son from Ispwich, England. The father is a solicitor in his mid fifties and the son is a teacher, about thirty years old. Apparently they do a week long hike every year. Last year's was in the Pyrenees in Spain. This year's hike was suggested by the solicitor's secretary. They had seen a sign proclaiming the "World's Worst Weather", and joked that they would show the secretary a photo of that sign, "and then sack her -- for a minute or two".
One of the crew members came over to our table and introduced herself. She told us that she had done a senior thesis in archaeology on the plague. The solicitor turned in astonishment and announced, "I have too!" Apparently he had just finished an advance degree (masters or PhD) on the economic effects of the plague. The croo member had spent a semester in London and the solicitor knew some of her professors, although his degree was from Cambridge.
We talked and talked for a long time into the evening. That seems to be about the only thing to do. People slowly drifted off to the bunk rooms. At 9:30 the croo turned off the lights, electricity is scarce since it comes from solar cells and a wind turbine. I turned on my head lamp and wrote in my journal. But I am ready for bed. The night is getting cold and those three wool blankets look inviting. The wind is rattling the windows, but I don't think it will keep me awake. I headed to bed at 10:00.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Madison Springs Hut
- Mt. Washington
- Lakes of the Clouds Hut
I woke at first light, at about 5:30. My bunk is next to a big window so I can see out. The mist is still there, swirling as it goes through the pass, but it is not as thick as yesterday. I dozed off and on for a little while, but then at 6:30 one of the hut croo came into the bunk room and sang "Edelweiss". It was a sweet alarm clock.
Will and I folded our blankets (we knew the hut routines from our hike on the Franconian Ridge last year) and packed ourselves up before 7:00 which is when breakfast is served.
Breakfast was canned pears, oatmeal, bacon, eggs, coffee cake (freshly baked), coffee and hot chocolate. I know that we will easily burn all of these calories today, but at the moment I feel about three pounds too heavy. While getting ready to step out on trail the mist around the hut breaks for a few moments and we can see the clouds trapped down below us in the Great Gulf. The thermometer at the hut reads 43 F as we shoulder our packs at 8:00 and step out.
The presidential range extends as two long arm sticking out from Mt. Washington. There is the southwest arm we will hike tomorrow, and the the northern arm which curves to the east to embrace the Great Gulf. The ridge from Mt. Madison to Mt. Clay stands about 5,000 ft in elevation, that is about 3,000 ft above Pinkham notch. Along that ridge stands three major peaks; Madison, Adams and Jefferson, as well as a number of minor peaks; John Quincy Adams, Samual Adams and Clay. But once you have reached the ridge line, all of these peaks are only a few hundred feet more in elevation.
We left the Hut and circled to the north of Adams. The major trail here is the "Gulfside Trail", which in fact doesn't cross any peaks except Madison. The peaks are accessed with short side trails. When we came to the first intersection, the summit of Adam was some place south of us lost in the fog. We decided that it was pointless to climb Adams just to say that we did it - but really wouldn't be able to enjoy it. So we stuck to the Gulfside Trail.
As we passed through Thunderstorm Junction the sun occasionally broke through. From here we dropped about 500 feet, traverse the south face of Sam Adams to Edmand's Col. The day is clearing and we can look down into the Gulf below our feet. One of the delights of this trek is that all day today we will be above treeline. This means that we are constantly being buffeted by the wind, but exposure brings with it a type of exhilaration as well.
We stop for a break in Edmand's Col. It is sunny, and if you hunker down behind a rock to get out of the direct blast of wind you might remember that it is a pleasant day in August. However if you stepped out from shelter the wind could be frightening here. I tied my hat to my pack. We watched clouds being sucked through the gap, racing on over 100 m is 5-6 seconds, which means the winds are 30-40 mph. Are coats are cracking in the wind, and a loose strap on a backpack can snap like a whip.
While we stopped here we met a group of four guys who are determined to hike the whole Presidential Range, including all major and minor peaks, in one day. They started down in the valley at 2:00 this morning, coming up the Osgood trail before dawn, undoubtedly by headlamp. They passed us at the col and disappeared into the clouds which engulfed the peak of Jefferson.
We also left the col and started climbing Jefferson, but when the peak trail branched off we stayed with the Gulfside Trail and skirted the peak to the east. Still we had come up several hundred feet from our break and found Sphinx col thick with an eerie fog. We could see no more then 50 meters here and this col is shallow, a few hundred yards which were almost flat. This alpine tundra, sometimes referred to as "Monticello's Lawn", almost has the feeling of a moor. We followed the cairns across the land, only able to see the next one or two. Occasional a rocky obelisk would loom out of the mist -- and then disappear as we passed it. At the Sphinx Col junction we meet a couple who were staying at Lake of the Clouds and now just making a day trip to Jefferson. The four ridge hikers also passed us here.
So we hiked past Mt. Clay.
The day promised to clear a bit. Just before the intersection with the Jewell Trail we could see and hear a group headed down that trail. They were discussing Mt. Jefferson and so we called down to them to tell them they had missed the Gulfside Trail.
Beyond Clay we could occasionally catch a glimpse of the cog railroad, and even when clouds blew in an obstructed over view we could hear it.
From here at the saddle south of Clay, to the peak of Mt. Washington, is a climb up the last pyramid, the final spire. 1,000 feet over broken stone to the top. The train ran by us every 20 minutes. I found pieces of coal 100m from the rail-line -- pieces which must have blown off the tender in high winds.
After laboring up for so long it is a shock to see a car driving across the tundra. The famous Mt. Washington Auto Road snakes up a ridge from the east, from Pinkham Notch. There has been an road up the mountain since 1861, from The Glen House, a grand hotel in Pinkham Notch, to the Tip Top House on the summit. The cog railroad was build in 1869.
We followed the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail (AT), which is also the Gulfside Trail here, up the the summit. It is a bit strange to be the two guys with backpacks striding towards the final peak, in the midst of a crowd of tourist most of whom came up in cars or on the railroad. The summit itself has a visitors center run by the state park system with a cafeteria and gift shop. The Tip Top House is still there, as is the weather observatory and a number of building related to the radio mast.
After stepping on top - 6,288 feet - 1,917 meters, Will and I availed ourselves of the cafeteria, one can work up an appetite mountain climbing. Stew, hot dogs, pizza and chili, and then the lunch we packed up with us.
When I signed the hiker's logbook there was a woman who saw that we were headed onto the Lakes of the Clouds hut and asked if she could hike with us. She was going to hike with a friend who had canceled out at the last moment, so she had come up the van on the auto road by herself. I told her that Will and I would first spend an hour at the top before hiking on, but then we would look for her.
We found two Adirondack chairs outside the visitors center in the sun and out of the wind. It was a delight to sit there for awhile with my boots off - letting my feet and socks dry out.
At about 2:00 we left the summit. As soon as you past the radio mast on the south edge of the peak you can see the trail clear all the way to the Lakes in the Clouds and the Hut. We didn't find the woman who had asked to hike with us. But the trail was so clear I was not worried about her. (We met her later at the hut).
The hike was downhill and easy. The day was clear and beautiful. Here we continued on the Appalachian Trail, but it locally is called the Crawford Path. Crawford Notch is where we will end tomorrow. In less then an hour we have arrived at the hut.
This is by far the largest hut the the AMC system. Since it is only one and a half miles from the summit of Washington a number of people go up the railroad then hike to here, and then the next day hike 3-4 miles to the railhead. Another popular day trip is to drive up Washington and then hike to this hut for lunch and then back to the summit.
In any case the hut was busy, and so after we checked in and dropped our bags I was happy to escape for a bit. We walked back to the "Lakes", which are really no more then ponds maybe 30 m across, and soaked our feet, knees and ankles for awhile. It was only three o'clock, so while Will sat in the sunshine and read I walked south on our trail for half a mile. It is a delight to lay down in the on the tundra next to the trail, listen to wind in the grass and gaze out across the mountains. Hawks were circling overhead.
When I returned to the hut I found Will trying to understand multi-variable calculus. One thing about Will is that it is hard to know what will grab his interest next. We sat in the dining room writing equations and drawing sketches of functions and surfaces in Will's notebook until supper.
Pea soup, anadama bread, salad, corn and baked pasta. Coffee and chocolate cake for dessert.
We sat across the table from a couple from Sunapee. He was a banker. When he found out I was a physicist he had a thousand questions to ask. So I never learned very much about him. We talked until sunset which was spectacular! The windows of the dining room face west-northwest and we could see the sun going down over the peaks of Vermont. Stow? Mansfield?
Will and I continued to talk about calculus for a while. The croo warned us that lights would go off a bit early since their wind turbine was not working properly. By the time I had caught my journal up to date I was ready for bed.
Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010 Lakes of the Clouds Hut -
Crawford Notch - AMC Highland Center
Through the night I could hear that the wind was on the rise and the hut was creaking and groaning. I awoke occasionally, when people went off to the toilet, or the snoring changed. But it was warmer then at Madison, and there were only fifteen of us in this room. I slept until a bit after six. When I opened my eyes it was a deep gray outside the window. I lay there until the promised musical wake-up call. At 6:30 the Hut Master came down the hall playing her harp. It was very pleasant.
I rolled out of bed, dressed, folded my blankets and went out xto the great room. The hut is in the midst of a cloud. Whereas last night we could look out the windows of the dining area and see Vermont, this morning we could see about 50 meters. The room started filling up with people, there are about 90 of us, and the staff needed to shoo us to the sides so that they could get to the tables and set them up for breakfast.
Over on the wall there is a "weather station". Outside the temperature is about 48-deg F, and the winds are about 48 mph. That makes it a 9 of the Beaufort scale, a "Strong Gale". I could also hear the sound of the wind turbine mounted on the roof. If the winds gusted up to fifty the turbine would hit a resonance and change from a whirr to a high pitched buzz.
Finally the croo called us to breakfast. Oatmeal, canned peaches, raisins, hot chocolate, coffee, bacon and pancakes. We devour it all in anticipation of many miles, but I will confess that the pancakes are a bit dense. There is a great deal of hubbub and concern over the weather. A number of people are afraid that they will be told they can not climb to the peak of Washington where they had planned to meet a van or the train. I find it curious that people are more concerned about being told they can not climb then they are about the weather itself.
I personally was happy to be away from the crowd. Will and I shouldered our packs at about 7:50 and stepped out into the gale. 45 degrees, 45 mph and visibility -- 45 meters, maybe not even. The hut is located in a col between Washington and Mt. Monroe. The wind is coming out of the south east and it is funneled through here with a great deal of ferocity. I think that most people found it frightening. We met a number of people at the Highland Center in the evening who had come down for the same hut as us, but we were the only ones to take the Crawford Path. Everyone else went down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which drops straight north from the ridge line. On that trail the treeline is about a third of a mile from the hut.
We circled Mt. Monroe. There would be no view from the top -- and I am not certain that I want to be climbing a knife edge peak in this wind. There is a long open alpine tundra from Monroe to Eisenhower. This gale is so exhilarating! We need to constantly lean into the wind, and I find that my trekking pole is a handy stabilizer. I am wearing my black hat and would have lost it long ago if I didn't also have the hood of my rain pulled over my hat and the draw strings cinched.
Sometimes we drop into notches in the ridgeline and the wind can be particularly furious here. It is blowing from the southeast (left) to the northwest (right). I have my trekking pole in my right hand and occasionally a gust will bump me up against my pole. Will is using the other trekking pole and we actually make good time pushing into the wind across the ridgeline.
We also circle around the base of Eisenhower. It is here that we meet our first hiker of the day and so we reason that we must be about half way between Lake of the Clouds and Mizpah Spring Hut.
Mt. Eisenhower is a mountain which was renamed. Until 1972 is was called Mt. Pleasant. I would love to see it, and climb it in clear weather. As we pass below the peak we are back in trees briefly. These are the first trees, or krummholz, since we climbed up the Osgood trail on Madison.
The wind has been abating over the last hour and it is being replaced with rain. I had originally hoped to spend a leisurely morning and early afternoon on this ridge. But it is just not the sort of day which invites you to skip through an alpine meadow, examining distant peaks and alpine flowers. It is a day to enjoy the ruggedness of the peaks, stimulating weather, and to keep warm by pressing on.
There is a short opening beyond Eisenhower and then we are in the krummholz again. We are meeting more and more hikers, the wind continues but is waning and the rain is growing harder. Just before Mt. Pierce the trail splits. The Appalachian Trail continues on the ridge over Pierce and on to the Mizpah Springs Hut. The Crawford Path bears off to the west and starts to descent into Crawford Notch. We are headed to the notch.
Down below the treeline we stop for a break. We have hiked five miles in two and a half hours, essentially without a pause. I enjoy hiking with Will, he reads the day, the terrain and the pace just the same way I do. The trail gets steeper, but never as steep as the Osgood Trail. Soon we find ourselves rock hopping and then paralleling Gibb's Brook. The water splashes and dances next to us, even as the rain continues to splashes and dances on our hats and hoods. And then -- with little warning -- we break out of the trees and onto the road.
Across the highway is the Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center and to us trails end.
I think we were both happy to be hiking and happy too to be finished.
Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010 -Thursday, Aug 26, 2010 AMC Highland Center
Kristina arrived at 5:30 and we dined at 6:00. Supper is similar to the huts in that you eat at communal tables. A family from New Jersey sat across the table from us, the two brothers hiking together while the parents stayed close to the Highland Center. At the end of the table two retired men discussed the hikes they had made in the last few days. One of them had been an airline pilot, the other an elementary school teacher who had also been a smoke jumper.
Kristina and I strolled around the grounds in the twilight and early evening. The rain had stopped.
In the morning, breakfast and then back to Hanover.
Of course the point of this trip was to spend time with Will. Much as I enjoy his friends, I was privileged to have him to myself for three days. And then there was the hike. When it was clear it was spectacular, but I didn't resent the wind or the rain, the cloud or fog for one moment. They made this alpine world the special environment which it is. And they are invigorating and stimulating.
The surprise were the people on the trail. The scouts from Ukraine, the brother and sister in Madison Springs, the father and son from Ipswich England, the four guys hiking the whole ridge. The non-hikers at the summit, the woman who had lost her party. The banker from Sunapee, the family from New Jersey, the airplane pilot and the smoke jumper. And then (of course) Kristina.
A most enjoyable Alpine Amble.
TPS - Aug, 2010