APPALACHIAN TRAIL ADVENTURE RUN

   
       
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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
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DAY 120:  SATURDAY, AUGUST 27
 
Start: Crawford Notch/NH 302                              
End:  Summit of Mt. Washington/NH
Today's Miles:                      12.6
Cumulative Miles:          1,842.5
Miles to go:                       332.4
   
 
"Remind me the next time I do this section to do it on a rainy Wednesday."
- Sue to Jim, at top of Mt. Washington
 


Looking east past bog on summit of Mt. Jackson

View northwest to the NH 302 valley from a ledge on Mt. Webster         8-27-05

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.

PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGE

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 Clouds hut.

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

Who?

"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.)

GHOST

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.

Boo!

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 Whites.

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 Katahdin.

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?)

Their feathers are a very pretty mix of colors. See the "more photos" link for one or two pictures of the grouse in our NH album.

BOTTOMLESS BOWLS

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 railway.

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 tree line.

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 very cool.

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 day:

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!

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil