Friday, August 15, 2014

A Presidential Loop in the White Mountains of NH: Short-Armed Climbers Beware!

It's becoming an annual tradition for me to do a solo overnight in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in early August. Having hiked in the Whites with my father every summer growing up, there's ample opportunity for nostalgia. Thus it was that at 3:30AM on August 5 (2014), I was pulling out of my in-laws driveway in southern MA en route to Pinkham Notch. 

After four hours of driving, lots of coffee, and several CDs from the fascinating audiobook Mayflower, I parked at the busy Pinkham Notch visitor center. By 8AM, I was hiking toward the Madison Spring Hut by way of the notorious Madison Gulf Trail. 

 It begins ...

On the Madison Gulf Trail

 A lovely place for a break

I didn't realize the Madison Gulf Trail was notorious until I could be bothered to read the alarming trail description the day before setting out. The White Mountain Guide cautions that the trail "is one of the most difficult in the White Mountains" involving "loose rock" and "scrambling" with potentially "difficult stream crossings" and that "parties frequently fail to reach the hut before dark because of slowness on the headwall." Perhaps most worrying for some is this passage: "hikers with short arms may have a particular problem reaching the handholds." Fortunately for me, my arms are long, so I was undeterred. In fact, the warnings only served to exhilarate me, as did the weather forecast, which was predicting thunderstorms in the early afternoon. 

True to the trail description, the Madison Gulf headwall was interesting. Just before reaching the headwall, I encountered a group of hikers who had just descended it. Two of the boys were talking a mile a minute, advising me to avoid the steep wet slabs by bushwhacking around them, while an older companion appeared completely disheveled, stating ominously that I was in for an "adventure".

The adventurous headwall section seemed to last for about 500 vertical feet, with the crux being a fifty-foot scramble up a steep slab that could be considered third class. Being very comfortable on this sort of terrain, and going up instead of down, there would be no bushwhacking for me. And before long, I reached the alpine zone and felt that I was officially back in the White Mountains. 

Nearing the headwall section ...

The crux of the headwall section. It's hard to tell, but this slab is about fifty feet high and steep. The "trail" goes right up it. 

Welcome to the Alpine Zone

 Star Lake with Mt. Adams in the background

I reached the Madison Spring Hut, where I would be spending the night, at 1PM after 7 miles and 3500 feet of elevation gain. The hut was renovated in 2011 and looked great. After picking out a bunk and enjoying a warm bowl of soup with fresh-baked bread, I hurried up to the summit of Mt. Madison to beat the rain. But the rain never came, and the remainder of the day was glorious. 

The newly renovated Madison Spring Hut

On top of Mt. Madison with Mt. Washington (L) and Mt. Adams (R) in the background 

Looking down on the Madison Spring Hut from the Mt. Madison spur trail

 Sunset from the Madison Spring Hut

The next morning started with a splendid (and filling!) breakfast of oatmeal, apple cobbler, quiche, and bacon at 7AM. But outside it was socked in and chilly. With a full day ahead of me, I hustled out of the hut at 8AM. 

For the next several hours, I made my way through dense fog, wind and drizzle over the three highest summits in the White Mountains -- namely, Mts. Adams, Jefferson, and Washington -- and ascended 3,000 vertical feet in the process. My glasses were fogged up for most of the 6-mile traverse, so I had to manage without them. Since there is no trail over much of this terrain, just cairns at regular intervals, route-finding became a little stimulating at times.    

Good morning. Navigating by cairns with fogged up glasses. 

Windy and drizzly on top of Mt. Adams

Getting close to Mt. Washington summit

 After hiking mostly alone through the mist for 5.5 hours, it was somewhat of a shock to encounter the crowds on Mt. Washington summit who had arrived by car or train. And I can't say that I was thrilled about having to wait in line to get a summit photo. That said, the clam chowder in the summit cafeteria sure hit the spot. 

Who among us can resist the summit selfie?

 The perks of a civilized summit

Concerned about how my knees would respond to the relentless 4,250-foot descent of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they felt great all the way down. In fact, I felt rejuvenated, cruising downhill as if I were ten years younger. And to make things better, the clouds finally cleared on the descent, affording spectacular views of this place I love -- a place that from time to time gives me a deep and genuine sense of happiness that is somehow elusive almost everywhere else. 

Pondering this elusive sense of happiness that I keep going back for in the White Mountains, I recalled a few lines of a poem by William Butler Yeats entitled "The Song of Wandering Aengus":

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Tuckerman Ravine

Looking up at Tuckerman Ravine in a light rain.

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