Today I faced what is probably the most fearsome obstacle along the entire
Appalachian Trail and made my way through (under, over, around) it: the
notorious, forbidding Mahoosuc Notch.
I was so apprehensive of the Notch that I had trouble sleeping last night. I knew
it would be a very long, tough day because of the difficult terrain and boulder
maze in this notch. It was even more difficult than I imagined.
Afterwards, I was drained physically and emotionally. I was also doggone
proud for getting through that notch without getting injured or giving up. It's
one of the toughest things I've ever done physically.
Still, I recommend it for folks who aren't afraid of heights, who either have
long, strong arms and legs or a companion that can help them get up some of the
boulders, and who have a great sense of adventure.
The whole section is thirty-one miles long between roads (US2/Gorham to
Grafton Notch) but there are side trails that can shorten the distance. For
example, if you just want to experience Mahoosuc Notch, you can go out and back
on the AT from Grafton Notch (about fifteen miles round trip) or use the
Mahoosuc Notch side trail up from Success Pond Road (more like six to seven
miles). If you're backpacking there are several shelters and campsites to break
up the distance over two or more days.
Do not do this section in the rain; it would be very dangerous with all the
open rock ledges on the mountain summits, the "suicide" slabs and wooden ladders
'way up high, and the huge boulders in Mahoosuc Notch. Besides, you'd miss
all the great views.
The AT guide recommends allowing three to five days to do the entire
thirty-one mile section. Slow little me did it in one shorter day (11.8 miles)
and one very long day (19.3 miles) - with very little running. Folks I talked to
on the Trail, both thru-hikers and locals familiar with the terrain, thought I
was nuts for attempting nineteen miles, including the Mahoosuc Notch part, in
just one day.
But I did it!!
It took about fifteen hours, including an hour and a half after
dark and 1.4 bonus miles at the start to get up to the Gentian Pond shelter and
the AT - but I did it. Jim deserves a lot of the credit, as you'll see later.
Despite the rugged, difficult terrain, I liked today's 19.3-mile section
better than the first 11.8 miles to Gentian Pond that I completed on
Day 124. There are spectacular
panoramic views from all the mountains I climbed today (Mt. Success, Mt. Carlo,
the east and north peaks of Goose Eye Mountain, Fulling Mill Mountain, Mahoosuc
Arm, and Old Speck) and the highest mountain lake along the AT, tranquil Speck
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
One factor adding to the difficulty of this section is the elevation change.
Not only was there a gain of about 6,700 feet, but also some of the ascents were very
steep. The worst going north were up Success Mountain (one part was about 800
feet in less than half a mile midway up) and Mahoosuc Arm right after
negotiating the infamous notch (about 1,400 feet in a mile).
The descents were
moderately steep. The longest was the 2,685-foot drop in three and a half miles
at the end, from the top of Old Speck to Grafton Notch. I was so motivated to
finish that we ran most of that gnarly descent in the dark (without falling!). Total
elevation loss was about
This is comparable to the 6,700-foot gain and 8,100-foot drop on Thursday on
the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Ridge. My pace was slower today despite a little less
mileage. That's mostly because of the time it took me in the Mahoosuc Notch.
The second factor was the terrain - many rock slabs, some quite steep and
some wet in shaded areas; numerous boulders and tangled roots, like in the two
lead photos; several wooden ladders up and down nearly vertical rock walls; and many bog
boards, some on the summits. Thank goodness the Trail was mostly dry.
On one of the summits, there was a gap between bog boards that was too big
for me to jump so I went into the thick, wet peat moss - and lost a shoe! It
wasn't easy getting it out of the ankle-deep moss. <make loud sucking noise
here> At least it wasn't the dark brown muck I often have to walk through in wet
The wind was also an obstacle today. In the early morning Mt. Success was
covered in clouds blowing furiously over the summit. Thankfully, there was no
rain. I took this photo on Success:
Soon after crossing the New Hampshire/Maine state line the sun came out but
the wind only got stronger. I felt like I was going to go sailing away on top of
Mt. Carlo, the two Goose Eye peaks, and Fulling Mill Mountain! I'm guessing the
winds were gusting at least sixty MPH there, hard enough that I had difficulty
staying on the bog boards. I hunkered down a couple times until the wind died
down a little and I could get back down below tree line.
Jim also experienced strong winds (estimated 40-60 MPH) in the early
afternoon as he came in southbound over Old Speck and Mahoosuc Arm. He had to
bend down and hold on to his hat to keep it from blowing off. By the time we returned over
those mountains in the late afternoon the winds were more like 20-30 MPH.
I was worried about negotiating Mahoosuc Notch but it was a feat just
getting there. I finally arrived at the west entrance at 2:35 PM,
later than I'd hoped. Several folks
were coming out that side with various comments and expressions on their faces.
All said to take your time, be very careful - and have fun!
I think the last part was said sarcastically in most cases.
I've read about the Notch for years. It has to be the slowest mile on the AT,
and the most dangerous. It is a deep cleft between Fulling Mill Mountain and
Mahoosuc Arm, filled with giant boulders the size of trucks and houses that have
fallen into the valley floor from the sheer cliffs.
There are numerous deep crevasses you wouldn't want to fall into. Soon after
entering the maze I slipped off a rock and fell straight down. Thankfully, the
"floor" wasn't too far down. But I had to pull myself up a rock taller than
myself to get back up, and it was very strenuous.
Water runs under the boulders and ice remains in some of the caves
year-round. I could see ice in one of the "caves" I crawled through. This is the
entrance to one of those caves (I went under instead of around):
All this is surrounded by thick, mossy vegetation on the canyon walls. As Jan
"Liteshoe" wrote, "Very Lord-of-the-Ring-ish."
Hikers must climb around, through, over, and under the massive boulders in
this maze. It's not like they are flat and you can jump from one to another. No,
they are canted at strange angles. Some are squared off, some are rounded. Some
are smooth, some are rougher for better traction.
Sometimes you have options to go up, down, and around or go through
(crawling) a boulder section. The Trail is well-marked through here, thankfully.
There are even some arrows, as in the photo above.
Several times I'd stand above the next section to negotiate and I'd be
You're kidding? Through there? No way!
But I'd have to find a way each time!
I've read that back-packers have to take their packs off to squeeze through
some of the narrow passages or through the caves but my pack was small enough
that I didn't have to remove it. However, I damaged the netting on the back of
the HAWG and the small case I wear on my waist belt to carry my phone, notebook,
pills, etc. It's the first damage to my pack the whole trip.
According to the AT guide, "a few hours should be set aside" for the traverse
of this 1.1 mile notch. From hikers, I heard anywhere from one to three hours,
depending on how much exploring you do when in the maze. It took me an hour
thirty-five minutes of concentrated physical and mental effort to get out of the
Notch as quickly as possible.
I was intimidated the minute I entered the Notch. Oh, my gosh! (OK, I
said something stronger than that to myself.)
I ended up following a young
couple out for the weekend during the first half, until I got the hang of rock
climbing and "three-point" maneuvers (I was using four-point maneuvers a lot,
too, both hands and both legs spread-eagled between canted rocks over deep
chasms). The fella has gone through the Notch several times, so his girlfriend
and I watched how he did it and followed. They were going so slowly, however,
that I decided to press on. I did the second half by myself.
I wasn't sure where the Notch ended, but assume it's where the Trail takes a
decidedly-upward turn toward Mahoosuc Arm.
I was glad I'd survived the maze as quickly as I did, and happy with my
accomplishment. I beat that dreaded Notch! And I'd go back again, too. It's
difficult to describe, so I want Jim to see it for himself.
I was pretty tired on the long climb up Mahoosuc Arm. The previous thirteen
miles took a lot out of me, and this new climb was very strenuous.
About two-thirds of the way up, I saw Jim. Oh, happy day! Just his presence
gave me the psychological and physical strength I needed to keep going the last
six miles. I found new energy to get up that mountain, and Old Speck, and to
finish the gnarly trail in the dark. It was a tough twelve miles for Jim, who
hasn't had time to run much this summer.
Between Mahoosuc Arm and Old Speck lies the beautiful Speck Pond, a large
glacial lake with a shelter and wooden tent platforms near the shore. On his way
in to meet me Jim talked with several hikers but we didn't have time on the way
back at 6 PM to stop and socialize. We had to get in as many miles as possible before dark (we had our
lights on at 7:30). The campsite was full, and I know several more hikers behind
me were heading for that shelter. It's a popular destination for weekend hikers
who come in from Grafton Notch, where there is a very large parking area.
I talked with only two thru-hikers and one caretaker today. "Doc" and
"Captain America" are both middle-aged men heading north. "Captain" began his
thru-hike in 2000 but got ill and had to stop (I forget where). It took three
long years for doctors to finally diagnose his problem correctly - he had Lyme
disease. He was very sick and missed a lot of work. He's finally recovered
sufficiently to resume his thru-hike. He's a year older than me, and I admire
his determination to reach his goal.
I also talked with "Shatter," the roving AMC caretaker for this long section
of Trail. Jim and I saw him Wednesday when I ended at Gentian Pond, and he said
he'd probably see me when I was on today's section. He was just amazed that I
was going to go from Gentian Pond to Grafton Notch, saying he's never heard of
any hiker doing that in one day.
I'm sorry I'll never see him again. I'd love for him to know I did do
it! (Granted, it was a looong day.)
And I actually hiked 20.7 miles today, not 19.3. The 19.3 is all I can count
toward AT mileage. Since there is no road access to the Gentian Pond shelter, I
had to climb over a thousand feet up Austin Brook Trail to get to the shelter
(1.4 bonus miles). I started there at 5:48 AM. I got on the AT at 6:37 AM and
off at 8:51 PM for a total of just over fifteen hours.
Jim and I were both very glad to see the truck when we finished! What a day.
One state to go, folks. Only 267 miles left! If I can survive Mahoosuc
Notch, I should make it to Katahdin one of these days.