I’ve done some casual hiking in Switzerland (an ascent of Mount Tendre, the highest peak in the Jura canton; and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller above the Rhine River valley) but I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never climbed anything substantial in New England, especially the region’s tallest peak, Mount Washington (6,288 feet) in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Hailing as I do from Cape Cod, a flat sandbar, my outdoors pursuits have been monopolized by the sea and sand, yet the urge to scale something tall in the woods has been growing for years.
Last winter’s literary obsession with mountain climbing tales led me to join the Appalachian Mountain Club, buy a backpack, a stack of maps and drag a nice pair of mildewed Asolo hiking boots out of the closet. While I have positively no Mittyesque desires to ever bag a 8,000 meter peak (e.g. Everest) as the odds are bad enough for experienced climbers in their 30s let alone abject amateurs in their 50s; I do love a challenge, particularly one that kicks my ass, and over the past few months that challenge looked like a Presidential Traverse — a visit to all of the peaks named after Presidents in the White Mountains, an expedition traditionally accomplished on or around the Summer solstice when daylight hours are at their max. This post is not about such a Traverse, but a warm-up to one.
My good friend, extreme sport fiend, and CRASH-B sprint coach: Marta, is renting a place at the foot of Mount Washington in Jackson, New Hampshire on the banks of the bubbling Ellis River. She’s an amazing athlete and mountaineer, especially when it comes to backcountry skiing, telemarking, winter climbing, and the real hardcore New England winter sports that hark back to the early days of skiing before chairlifts, bunny slopes and ski chalets. Marta, like me, is into doing stuff the hard way, a fellow hater of luggage with wheels. She’s been up and down the White Mountains countless times — running the trails, cycling up the Mount Washington Auto Road against the clock, a few Presi Traverses — and hence was the ideal guide for my first ascent.
We left her place at 6 am and drove north on Route 16 accompanied by spectacular views of the eastern slopes of the range. We parked at the Great Gulf Trail trailhead, paid $3 for a self-service parking permit, shouldered our packs and set forth down an abandoned road to a suspension bridge pocked with crampon marks over the West Branch of the Peabody River and then west, upstream, along that river on the Great Gulf Trail (which eventually reaches the summit of Washington). After two miles of relatively flat walking — which was enough to start me, the original Mr. Aquaman, sweating under my 30 lb. pack — we split off on the Madison Gulf trail to the northwest up an increasingly steep trail that forded Parapet Brook several times. Marta’s dog Gus balked at one stream crossing, but was generally kind of astounding to watch work up the trail with his four-paw drive. The air was cool and as since we were shaded in the spring canopy, the conditions made for relatively easy going as we worked uphill through the trees, with no views to give an orientation of altitude or progress. Finally, after an hour and half we popped out of the trees on a rocky knob and had a great view into the Great Gulf and the northeastern flank of Mount Washington.
After that tease the trail ducked back into the trees and the climb got steadily steeper to the point that I was basically drenched in sweat, stopping at one point to take off my shirt and wring out about a cup of fluid. Hydration was obviously going to be the first order of the day, and anticipating that I had 100 ounces of water in my pack’s Camelbak, and two additional liters in the side pockets. The Camelbak kept me going through its hose and bite valve and Marta continuously hounded to drink, drink, drink. All told I pounded down over 200 ounces of water during the day (and one RedBull) and micturated exactly once.
In a bit of a surprise, we came upon a pair of fellow hikers, a husband and wife in their 50s or 60s, making a descent — something unique as the AMC guidebook explictly says the Madison Gulf trail “is not recommended for the descent, for hikers with heavy packs, or in wet weather.”
They explained they had lost the trail the day before on their way uphill to spend the night at the AMC Madison Hut. Instead they were forced to bivouac in the open forest, in very chilly temperatures, pulling on all their clothing and cuddling for warmth. They asked us to pass along their names to the Hut staff because they had a reservation and didn’t want to kick off a search and rescue effort on their behalf. We offered them food and water, but they declined and passed behind us.
As we continued to climb I saw the granite face of the Madison Gulf headwall to my left, a green-grey monster that rose 1,000 feet from the floor of the cirque. Things were getting steeper and I was forced to use my hands for propulsion, wondering how we were going to scale what was obviously a very serious gain in elevation.
The answer was the Chimney, a sheer stack of white boulders and rocks that goes straight up the face, a gurgling stream/waterfall bubbling unseen underneath. Marta went first, Gus scrambling with her, and I watched her foot and hand placements before making my own moves on the face. Keep in mind I have an unreasonable fear of heights, but for some reason I was okay with the first part of the Chimney, and actually felt very impressed with myself thanks to four months of training at Cape Cod Crossfit which has given me a whiff of the upper body strength and flexibility needed for rock climbing.
I was nervous as a slip would have meant a serious disaster, maybe not instant death but definitely a bad injury. Marta later said the Chimney might be categorized as a Level 2 climb, meaning a fall would result in injury, but not a Four or Five which would lead to death. Pitons, rock nuts, and other classic protection are definitely not needed on the ledges, but there were some “interesting” moments when I was pressed flat on the face, very conscious of the weight of the pack on my back, looking for my next handhold and ledge for my toes. Gus the dog was not into some of the sections and started back tracking down to me, leaving the Chimney route in search of another more dog friendly one. Marta had to downclimb to get him, and her theory of why he was balking on a climb he had done before seemed very prescient — my silent anxiety was giving off a vibe that was causing him to doubt himself. In any case, he made it, I made it, and the feeling at the top was pretty awesome, giving me my first empathy with the lunatics who risk death to climb Annapurna or K2.
I have to give Marta credit, she didn’t quote this passage from the AMC’s White Mountain Guide Book to me before the climb:
“The section of this trail on the headwall of Madison Gulf is one of the most difficult in the White Mountains, going over several ledge outcrops, bouldery areas, and a chimney with loose rock. The steep slabs may be slippery when wet, and several ledges require scrambling and the use of handholds — hikers with short arms may have a particular problem reaching the handholds. Stream crossings may be difficult in wet weather. … Allow extra time and do not start up the headwall late in the day. The ascent of the headwall may require several hours more than the estimated time; parties frequently fail to reach the hut before dark because of slowness on the headwall.”
Once out of the Chimney we climbed above the tree-line at 4,500 feet (Madison is 5,367 feet). The deciduous birches and cathedral of the pines flora from at the foot of the climb had given way to stunted evergreens, and then, above that, a barren rock pile interspersed with arctic tundra and cheery bunches of blooming alpine flowers. Signs warned us to stay on the trail and off the sensitive vegetation (what little there was). The air temperature above the tree line dropped dramatically from the 60s in the valley to the high 40s and my soaked shirt and shorts suddenly became a bit of a liability. Hypothermia kills a lot of hikers in the Whites (an excellent book about Mount Washington fatalities is Not Without Peril, by Nicholas Howe), and the unofficial motto of the White Mountains is “cotton kills” — meaning a person in a t-shirt and bluejeans caught in the wrong weather will see all their body heat wicked away from them. One either wears performance synthetics or wool if they want to survive a bad turn of the weather on the summit.
I dragged a polar fleece out of my pack, put it on over my wet shirt, and followed Marta up past Star Lake in the col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison, and down a short rock trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Hut, the oldest of the hut system in the range. A work crew was busy digging out rocks around the recently renovated bunkhouse and dining room. We said hi, popped inside (where Gus was immediately banished), refilled a water bottle, and inspected the bunk rooms where beds stacked four high with ladders offer a place to spend the night for a modest fee (reservations are necessary as demand is very high).
“They’d evict me for snoring, ” I observed, but Marta said the place was a “symphony” when filled to capacity.
We decided to eat our lunch on the peak of Mount Madison, a few hundred feet above us to the east. We climbed to the summit via a segment of the famous Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine, slowly picking our way up the boulders and scree to the summit, a very stark and exposed knob with magnificent vistas all the way around. I shucked my pack, unwrapped a turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich, and shooed away bee after bee homing in on the only food for miles around.
Stopping for lunch was not my best move. The four-hour ascent had thoroughly worked my legs and suddenly stopping caused them to cramp and go beserk with lactic acid. Sweating and drinking as much as I had during the morning had washed most of the salt and electrolytes out of my system. I started to see the symptoms when my hands began to cramp into claws and my hamstrings went into knots.
It was going to be a long descent.
Psychologically, one thinks a lot about the descent during the climb, comforting oneself with the thought: “Hey, once you hit the summit it’s all down hill and no more climbing the perpetual stairmaster.” The bitter reality is that descending is worse than climbing. The mountaineers adage that one hasn’t really climbed a mountain until you get back down to the bottom, and that most mountaineers die on the descent stuck in my mind. The problem in descending is that one is constantly arresting one’s momentum, fighting gravity, using the legs and hips to slow things down. This immediately causes bad things to emerge around the hips, knees, ankles and toes as one’s foot is repeatedly rammed forward into the boot. I broke out my telescoping trekking poles and with a hi-h0-away-we-go, began to follow Gus and Marta down the Osgood Ridge Trail, the continuation of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that would loop us down and back to the Great Gulf Trail and eventually the trailhead on Route 16.
The Osgood Ridge is completely exposed buttress that runs above the treeline from cairn to cairn with an occasional white painted blaze to mark the AT. The going is horrible: a constant descent over lichen covered rocks (I hated those rocks, told them they were shitty rocks on several occasions), painfully picking through the maze with only great views and a cool breeze to alleviate the suffering. I click-clacked along with the trekking poles, moving slowly as Marta and Gus flew away ahead of me, always in sight but seeming to descend effortlessly as they moved to the southeast down to the treeline unseen beyond the final knob. Add to the misery a swarm of gnats and blackflies, and I was quickly losing the exhilaration of the summit to a serious case of self-pity and trudging drudgery. Eventually I stepped on a loose rock, the trekking pole slipped and I pitched hard onto my shoulder and face. That sucked, but no harm done, no bruises or abrasions, just a miserable feeling of being old and tired and embarrassed.
“I fall down,” I joked. Creaked back to my aching feet, and asked Marta to stick a lost water bottle back into my pack. “Falling is not a good idea,” she said. I got the point.
I smeared DEET over my ears and neck (and immediately tasted copper in my mouth, such an encouraging trans-dermal reminder that I had just smeared poison on my skin) to keep the blackflies from having intercourse with my ear canals. After an hour that seemed like two, finally stepped off of the ridge and down into the treeline. Marta warned me — its either rocks or roots — and apparently the Appalachian Trail, because it is so heavily trafficked, is always in rough shape, with very little soil, and as far as the Osgood Trail is concerned, a steep straight-down-no-switchback descent down a chute of rocks and boulders.
The descent of the Osgood through the trees was the worst segment of the day in terms of pain and tedium. It was a never-ending exercise in looking down at the trail, picking a rock to step onto, planting the poles, painfully bending a knee and side stepping downwards. My knees were so trashed I started fantasizing about asking my orthopedic surgeon for a knee replacement. Eventually I met a trio of hikers coming uphill and had a flash of schadenfreude that at least I was leaving the mountain while they had the flies and rocky ridge well above them to contend with. A man about my age at the back of the string of climbers puffed “Fucking rugged climbing” as he passed me.
The terrain gradually turned more forest-like, the bugs vanished, and up ahead, was Marta and Gus standing by the base of the trail. My knees and hips were trashed. Beyond salvation, and somewhere inside of my right boot I imagined my middle toe had turned black from the constant ramming of my foot. It was an understatement to say I was exhausted.
“Say I fell and broke my leg. Like a real compound fracture. Who would come get me and how the fuck would they get up here?” I asked Marta, beginning to explore my options.
“Helicopter. Definitely a helicopter for someone your size.”
I wanted that helicopter ride. I also wanted a beer. So, not wanting to dawdle and let my cramping legs twist themselves to the point that I couldn’t move them, I drained the rest of my water, leaving a cup in reserve to wash down a handful of Advil back at the car. We descended to the Great Gulf Trail, and backtracked on the same trail we used to start the climb seven hours before. I was aware that my capacity for conversation had ended, but made an effort to be sociable as I over-thought every painful step. At least there were no blisters, a testament to the mighty Asolos, a darn fine pair of Italian hiking boots. Soon I heard the encouraging roar of the Peabody River down below, and gradually, as we passed hikers headed to the tent platforms with coolers full of beer, I could see the end of the expedition ahead.
Sounds of traffic on Route 16, then there was the suspension bridge … almost …. there ….I creaked up the three wooden steps, swayed across the bridge thinking of the 1938 K2 expedition fording a Pakistani cataract, and then, before I realized it was over, I was sitting on the tailgate pulling off my socks and remarking on how good my poor feet looked. Half an hour later and I was slumped in a chair outside of the Jackson Store with two Gatorades and a bag of salty Fritos, doing my best to get some electrolytes back into my freaked-out thigh muscles. I was cramping so badly that when I yawned my jaw and lower face cramped into an excruciating spasm. Next time, bring salt pills.
In conclusion: I’ve raced in the Harvard Yale race (rowing) when I was 20 and thought that was the hardest thing I had ever done. I’ve sprinted 2,000 meters on an ergometer in under 6 minutes and 30 seconds and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve ridden my bicycle a century, or 100 miles (with Marta) and thought that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But nothing compared to eight and half hard hours on “one of the most difficult trails in the White Mountains.” My respect for people who climb BIG mountains has rocketed.
Would I do it again? Definitely. I still have yet to climb Mount Washington.