APPALACHIAN TRAIL ADVENTURE RUN

   
       
Jim, Sue, Cody, and Tater at Springer Mtn., start of the Appalachian Trail Adventure Run

 

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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
 
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DAY 127:  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 3
 
Start: Gentian Pond Shelter                                 
End:  Grafton Notch/ME 26
Today's Miles:                      19.3
Cumulative Miles:          1,908.1
Miles to go:                       266.8
   
 
"It's a stony jungle and we are mountain monkeys."
 
- Jan "Liteshoe," 2003 thru-hiker, in her August 25 Trail Journal entry
regarding the notorious Mahoosuc Notch in Maine
 


Tree roots we negotiated after dark near Grafton Notch, Maine (Jim took this photo in daylight)

Boulders across a stream near Mr. Carlo. 9-3-05

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 Pond.

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 8,300 feet.

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 areas.

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.

MAHOOSUC NOTCH

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 thinking,

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.

REJUVENATION

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.

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

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  2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil