Despite the talking, snoring, rustling, electronic beeping, and other nighttime noises, no one in the hut would have preferred their tent on a night like last night. The wind howled and rain splattered against the windows all night. I pitied anyone trying to survive, let alone sleep, on Mount Washington.
The Croo comes around and yells everyone awake at 6:30 a.m., giving us all ample time to get dressed before the 7:00 breakfast bell. Even so, one guy in the room set his alarm for 6:00, let it buzz for nearly a minute, then turned it off and went back to sleep. After that, everyone else in the room either got up or lay in bed waiting for the Croo to call.
The breakfast cook was off his game this morning, feeding us cold sticky oatmeal and burned sausage, though he did okay with the scrambled eggs. Still, there was plenty of it and being served beat the heck out of carrying and making it myself. I gulped mine down and headed out the door before the Croo started in on the same silly breakfast skit I’d seen before.
I’d planned 14.9 miles from the Hut to Pinkham Notch, but everyone I talked to at dinner thought I was insane. Maybe, but I had no other viable options. At least it was mostly downhill.
I walked out into a crisp 34F, ripping winds, and blowing mists, though the air was drier than when I’d arrived last night. My clothes hadn’t dried overnight, but the wind took care of it on the 1,300-foot, 1.5-mile climb to the Mount Washington summit, teaching me the true meaning of wind chill factor. I’d pulled on my fleece beneath my zipped and hooded rain jacket, but my hands, face, and legs suffered until I’d climbed enough to get the furnace going.
After I’d climbed a quarter mile, the clouds began to break up, showing patches of blue sky above, though thick fog continued to sweep over the mountain slopes and catch on the peaks.
Mount Washington is the second highest point on the entire AT and the highest point in New England. Benton MacKaye’s original plan identified the peak as the AT’s northern terminus, but Myron Avery insisted it end in his home state of Maine. Since Avery was the get-it-done guy, and MacKaye was the visionary, Maine’s Mount Katahdin became the northern end point.
There are three ways up and four ways down Mount Washington. You can hike, drive, or take the cog railway up the mountain. If you’re going down, can also just stand tall and wait to get blown off the peak. That worked for my pack cover. One of the 80-90 mph gusts ripped it off my pack and sent it sailing off into the valley below. I knew when I put it on that morning, I should have used a tether.
I could barely stand up in those gusts, but they were nothing compared to the 220 mph winds recorded previously on at the NOAA weather station on the summit. Today’s winds and the 31F air temperature kept everyone else off the summit when I arrived. I had the entire mountain top to myself. Nothing was open and nobody else was around.
I took a lonely selfie at the summit sign and left, staggering in the wind like a drunken sailor.
The bright blue sky, dramatic clouds, and bare rocky terrain made for stunning views and pictures, but the walking was hard work. The rocky trail pounded my feet and challenged my balance, particularly when the irregular gusts swept across the ridge.
I crossed the Cog Railway tracks and spotted the train slowly climbing up the west face toward the summit. Traditionally, thru hikers moon the train, but I had no intention of waiting around for it to crawl up the tracks to me, nor was I going to expose any skin to the wind and cold.
I’d intended to take the blue blaze trails to the summits of Mt. Clay and Mt. Jefferson, but both had their heads buried in thick clouds when I passed the trail junctions. Plus, with the wind and my long day, I didn’t need an extra work beside navigating the rocky, poorly marked trail. I can’t imagine hiking this terrain in a winter storm.
I reached the Mt. Madison hut about 11:30 a.m., only six miles done in four hours, and already worn out, so I stopped to eat lunch out of the wind. Other guests at the Lake of the Clouds hut had warned me that the hike to Madison Hut was challenging. And I still had nine miles to go. Everyone resting in the Madison Hut looked a little shell-shocked.
The ascent from the hut to Mt. Madison’s summit was truly evil. Steeper than steep, bouldery, poorly marked, and totally exposed to the wind. But the view from the top was worth the effort, even though I had to take shelter behind a rock outcrop to be stable enough to appreciate it.
A lady stumbled past yelling to me from six feet away, “Is this the trail?” I responded, but she never heard me, as my words landed in Gorham, blown off the mountain by the wind.
The climb down was as nasty as the climb up, and for all the same reasons. Dozens of false trails splintered off the main trail, ending at unclimbable rock faces, turning in the wrong direction, or just finding their own way down the scree slope of angular boulders. Eventually, I reached the tree line, happy for the first time in weeks to be back in the long green tunnel.
Back in the Woods
I took a break behind a cluster of trees, happy to have my feet back on soil and the rest of me out of the wind. As I sat there, I realized that New Hampshire is just as rocky as Pennsylvania and nearly as muddy as Vermont. But the views are much, much better. And I’ve had better weather.
Back in the woods meant not yet out of the woods. I still had seven more miles to Pinkham Notch and about 3,500 feet of descent left to go. And my feet, Achilles, and knees were beat. I’d banged every toe at least once, hyperextended by knee at least five times, and had pinched my feet between boulders a dozen times. Everything ached and the furnace was empty. I pulled out my Vitamin I (Ibuprofen/Advil) for the first time since the Smokies.
After a long break, I took a deep breath, climbed back to my feet, shouldered my pack, and headed down the trail. Normally, this would be the perfect time to pull out my audiobook, but I’d accidentally downloaded Book 11 instead of 10, so I had nothing to listen to except the one Switchfoot album I have on my phone. It would be a long hike down.
Why was this so slow and painful? The miles are less than what I’m used to. The elevation change is high, but nothing I haven’t seen before. I’ve done rocky, muddy, cold, and windy.
It must be the combination of all of that, plus the poor signage. I find myself stopping multiple times every mile choosing between unmarked splits, searching for white blazes or cairns, or pulling out the FarOut app to figure out which way to go. Picking my way through the endless puddles and mud pits takes time too, as does pulling out my trekking poles when they get stuck in mud or between roots and rocks.
I pondered all this as I plodded along. Climbing over a downed tree, I slipped and fell face first into a mud pit. Flat out. Legs, torso, arms, and face in the mud. I was too tired to notch. I just rolled over and laughed.
As I walked the last mile into Pinkham Notch, I didn’t know if I’d be able to hike tomorrow. I’d only scheduled 5.9 miles to the Carter Gap Hut, but it included some very steep climbs, and I had another 15.2-mile day after that. Then I planned two short days with the kids. I need to rethink all that.
But first I had to get off this mountain. Things will look better after a rest, a hot meal, and a night’s sleep.
- Start: Lake of the Clouds Hut (Mile 1863.9)
- End: Pinkham Notch (Mile 1878.8)
- Weather: Windy, foggy, and cold turning to windy, sunny, and chilly
- Earworm: Back to the rolling Caissons
- Meditation: Jn 9:1-5
- Plant of the Day: The woods (wind break)
- Best Thing: Views
- Worst Thing: Fatigue