The White Mountains: Get Schooled!

For five summers now, my husband and I have had the pleasure of joining a friend on his annual hut-to-hut hike he and his cohort have been doing for many years in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. ‘Pleasure’ would not be the word chosen by my older and wiser husband, but last month we both went for round five and lived to tell about it. Again. Another prime example of type-two fun (definition here).

 

I had already been day-hiking the Appalachian Trail when said friend first divulged the logistics of this weekend-warrior event, and I knew that the AT twisted its way through the Whites over some of the most grueling, spectacularly-rugged terrain on the whole trail, including Mt. Washington at 6,289 feet high and the rest of the peaks of the Presidential Range. This was not an opportunity to pass up in my not-yet decrepit years.

 

My husband was willing to go for it. And other assorted feelings. Actually he has been pretty badass about it each time, putting up with my goals and shuttling me around accordingly, driving back for forgotten boots or trekking poles, trusting friendly intel on ‘easier’ routes when there really weren’t any, and getting it done anyway.

 

A stay at any one of the eight AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) alpine huts is a not-for-everyone, off-the-grid privilege. There are no showers, no flushing, and no rain dates for reservations which must be booked months in advance. For seasoned backpackers it is a luxury. And AT thru-hikers can help out the ‘croo’ (hut crew) for leftovers and a space on the floor to sleep.

 

Hubris transforms into humility in the Whites. There are technical terms to keep in mind, such as ‘butt-slide’ and ‘face-plant’—where the former should be used liberally to avoid the latter, otherwise known as a ‘close inspection of the trail.’ And ‘New Hampshire-flat,’ which describes a terrain requiring the hauling of one’s weight up and down over lumps and boulders that don’t show up on a cross-section map. Bragging rights and miles per day are meager at best. Oh, but those views…

There is plentiful schooling at the huts, often veiled in cross-dressing comedy acts. So how did all that fresh food get cooked and on the table, let alone get up the mountain? And how does it all come out, er, in the end? Composting. Wind power. Solar power. Young-people power. And much more. We are taught about the flora that survive the harshest alpine zone conditions by growing tightly together, close to the ground. And we are reminded to watch our feet, not to undo in a moment what took decades to grow.

We learn how snoring takes on symphonic proportions and how earplugs don’t quite work. Just another unsolved problem of communal living. Move on. Or hit the floor under the tables with the thru-hikers, who tend to snore less (worked for me one time). I should mention that our friend—whose fault all of this is—does make up for everything, every time, because he hikes with a mini guitar, and come sunset, the hut and hills are alive with the sound of ‘Entering Marion’ and other classics worth trudging all day to hear.

Whites hiking is not for the faint-of-heart, as signs posted attest. And in a thunderstorm above tree line, everyone is faint-of-heart. I would know. I was caught on round four, on the AT along Osgood Ridge, on my way to Madison Springs Hut. Alone.

 

When I saw the yellow warning sign it was early in the afternoon and skies were bright. Until they weren’t. At that point, turning back would have taken me hours away from my seat at the table with my saner friends and spouse, who were taking less-exposed approaches. Me? I got seriously schooled. Flashback is literally the right word…

 

My quads are burning and the rest of me is cold. Somehow I heave off the pack and add on more clothing while counting seconds between flashes and rumbles. I pray and bargain with any and all higher powers to retract the lightning, that I’d willingly take on all the rest. The soaking rain, the wind, the ankle-twisting talus.

A tall cairn appears, a sentinel rising in the grey wetness. My heart skips a beat, can this be the summit? I knew the hut was just a half-mile further, if so. The answer fades in to view, and sinks in. No. This is only one of many other piles of rocks before the top, snaking far into the distance like some kind of tripped-out parade of trolls on dry ice. Damn.

On I march, cairn to cairn, eyes searching the vast, undulating moonscape for other stupid humans. None. Just utterly-exposed me, ready to crouch in a ball on my pack if the flashing quickens. I am terrified, but dead-set on staying alive. Keenly aware of the truth of my physical smallness, and this awareness is as grand as the land. The truth always is.

He finally appears, old James Madison for real. I touch the cairn. I touch the sign. I read, shout, and cry the words, then the storm rolls away (was this its plan?). I am left with punishing, pay-back winds, but a deal’s a deal. All I have to do now is not break my ankle getting down to the hut. Hand over hand, I grip the rocks, laser-focused on Every. Single. Hold. Panting like a strung-out dog.

No half-mile has ever been this long.

At last I limp into the hut, quelling the worries of my fellow troopers, who have epic stories of their own. My husband escorts me as I fumble my way out the back door, where regrettably my tummy forgoes the leave-no-trace rule. Abashed and awash in gratitude, a bowl of broth replenishes me. The sky is full of fire and shadows, the storm long gone. When I yawn and fold into my bunk it occurs to me: this is one hell of a solution to the snoring problem…zzz (What snoring?)

 

I was rather reflective after this type-three experience. I still am. Had I been on a longer-distance trek with no dinner bell tempting me over the summit, I would have likely turned back. But what was the real lesson here? Never to hike with any chance of thunderstorms? Never to hike hard stuff? Well. Perhaps my enthusiasm for solo-hiking was misplaced… in this place, this time. Bingo. 

 

So next time, which was this summer, I brought a friend. The one who took on Rocksylvania with me. She knew the score, and fit right in. She believes I arranged another thunderstorm on purpose on our way to Mizpah Spring Hut on Friday. But it was way less exposed for way less time. Way to go, my all-weather friend, thanks for not hating me.

 

Saturday’s stay would be at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, nestled on the shoulder of Mt. Washington. The Crawford Path, part of the Appalachian Trail, was the only way to go. It is the oldest trail still in use in our country, built as a bridle path to Mt. Washington’s peak in 1819 by a woodsman named Abel Crawford. He and his family had settled in the mountain pass now known as Crawford Notch, offering lodging and easy summit access to scientists and explorers of the area. Almost 200 years later, hikers still flock to this path. We were no exception. It was a glorious, vista-filled day. Among us this round was a 14 year-old we nicknamed ‘Gazelle,’ and maybe for her, just maybe, we old folks weren’t all that boring.

Sunday morning, I had one more teency little AT mission, a missing piece up and over Mt. Washington. My partner-in-crime and I geared up in all our layers to face the wind in the clouds to see what we could see… which was nothing but lichen-covered talus at our feet. But oh what there was to feel! Ass-kicked for hours, all the way down that colossal mountain to a napping hubby in the parking lot. And Vincent, our orange chariot who swept us off our bloody stumps to join the others for well-earned beers and video-captured commiserating before the long drive home.

 

In spite of ourselves, we have become part of this motley crew of characters who intentionally entwine for a short time to experience something rock solid and larger than all of us. To hike, break bread, banter, tease, sing, and share a little ibuprofen. Or whiskey. To witness two of us get engaged, standing on a rock in a waterfall. To trip over wet boots in the dark, snore, then laugh and hug as we part our separate ways. Year after year, after swearing on camera we won’t be back unless the rocks are removed, some combination of us always shows up.

Recreational trails were cut into these mountains long ago so people could experience, basically, what we did. Many peaks have the names of presidents, our founding fathers standing tallest of all. Where are such leaders today? And if the mountains could talk like the leaders they stand for, what would they say? Maybe they’d tell us how they watched a world of enterprising humans strip them of their trees until the soil beneath them bled out. But then how a few persevering people banded together to say enough was enough. All I can say is that I am able to walk, limp, climb, or butt-slide along these centuries-old, storied trails because of 142 years of leadership and stewardship by the Appalachian Mountain Club. I am proud to be a member.

 

copyright Karen Viola

Those whopping Whites allow generously for our travels and curiosity, giving us space to understand our place. They teach us, between all the rocks and hard places, that only when we appreciate our vulnerability will we know how to be strong. Like fragile flowers clinging to the tundra and blooming, in solidarity.

 

More to come around the bend…

10 Responses to “The White Mountains: Get Schooled!

  • Such a joy to read, as always. I think how much my dad would love your tales of hiking. <3

  • Elsa Southam
    3 months ago

    Impossible to describe our pride…absolutely AWESOME blog, photos, and drawing. Your loving family in Toronto, Mummeth, Dad, David 😍😘🤗

  • Sounds like quite a nice, new adventure! Glad you could share it with a friend this time!

  • Wow. A Tall Tale in only one respect: 6, 289 feet. I’ve already conveniently forgotten how LOUDLY my calves complained upon our return from Olympus. Your prose restores all the joy I took in your excellent company, even out there on the bald top of Mount Jackson under the cracking skies. Hoping the path ahead contains fewer rocks and less thunder, but even if it doesn’t, I’m looking forward to sharing it.
    –Yer all-weather friend

    • Hahaha Mt. Olympus indeed. So grateful to share the journey, on or off the rocks… xo

  • Wow! What a poetic, sensitive and compelling telling of the rewarding experience of hiking ancient routes through the White Mountains with long time friends, new friends and future long time friends, all of whom are looking out for your safe travel in those often treacherous mountains. So sorry that I and my mini guitar were not able to be with you and hubby to share the experience this year.
    B

    • I have you to thank the most for the inspiration… can’t wait to play music together next time 🙂

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