#14 Thru-Hiking the AT: Wentworth, NH to Crawford Notch, NH

Above picture taken from Lonesome Lake right next to the hut. View of Franconia Ridge… peaks from right to left are Mt. Liberty, Little Haystack Mountain, Mt. Lincoln (in cloud), and Mt Lafayette (in cloud).

Originally posted on August 17, 2015 by Great Miami Outfitters.

This is the 14th blog entry of his trip. The adventure continues. Chris has 345 miles (or approximately 16%) of his thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail to complete. Chris “Pacer” began his 2015 Appalachian Thru-Hike on April 7, 2015. You can read previous entries from the links at the bottom of this page.

#14. Wentworth, NH to Crawford Notch, NH
345 miles left…16% to go. Short leg, but some wild hiking. We’re definitely in the Whites!

Low 50s to mid 70s–temperature has been great; humidity climbed a bit. No rain–yay!!!

I reloaded my cold gear as we headed into the Whites. Pom Pom laid out a hiking schedule for these 4 days that provided some unique opportunities for a thru-hiker. The White Mountains are her backyard; as such, she spends all 4 seasons in them. Since we were close to her house, we stayed at her place for the last zero day and 2 of the 4 nights during this leg. Her husband, Ethan, would either pick us up at the end of a hiking day or would stage a car for us that we would hike to. He also prepped dinner each night. Ethan has been a tremendous help to us–hugely appreciated.

The White Mountains are revered as some of the most beautiful and hardest hiking on the Appalachian Trail. I’ll reserve the Trail Tale to try describe the uniqueness of hiking in the Whites. Roughly 100 miles long, it transitions into southern Maine (about 100 miles long as well), also respected similarly. Most of the large mountains we’ve climbed have paths that are designed with switch backs that have a couple purposes: 1) most importantly, helps prevent trail erosion (straight trails get washed away when it rains), and 2) makes the climbing a bit easier on the hiker because the grade is reduced over a longer distance. The Whites, however, go straight up and straight down…period, dot, end of story. It is hard to believe that hikers with so many miles invested would quit at this point, but some do… they get frustrated with the lack of progress and how slow the hiking has become. As a planning factor, it’s recommended to only hike 8-10 miles a day through the Whites. For the most part, I’ve heard hikers staying close to that range–some are actually hiking a little less. We, on the other hand, have been hiking monster days. When we have been asked how many miles we hiked, the reaction was always surprise. Over these 4 days, we hiked; 16.6, 17.0, 10.3, and 17.4, in that order.

As I mentioned in my last update, we took our zero a day early to avoid a storm. It was a good call because it rained a lot… more in the mountains. That first morning, we hiked about 8 miles to the base of Mt. Moosilauke… our first mountain in the Whites. Over those 8 miles, the trail was saturated and incredibly muddy. I didn’t realize how much mud would be in the Whites. Mud bogs are routine here and can stretch long distances. Wood planks stretch over the worst sections and can be very slippery when wet. Other times, we use our poles to test areas and look for rocks to hop across. At some places, the mud can be 3-4 feet deep… hiking poles just sink effortlessly in like a toothpick in cake batter.  Mt. Moosilauke is just over 4,800 feet tall and we climbed about 3,800 feet straight up. At this point, I can ascend without taking breaks. The climb up Moosilauke was steep, but I was able to keep forward progress all the way to the top where we took a break to enjoy the clear views. We could see back into the Vermont mountains and ahead to the mountains over the next couple days. This was our first chance hiking above tree line. Then, the descent… WOW.

Once you see a descent in the Whites, you immediately realize this is the hard part and so dangerous. Moosilauke’s descent down Beaver Brook Trail is hard to describe, so l’ll just call it brutal, intense, and slow for now. At one point of the descent, it falls 2,000 feet in just 1.5 miles. This section descends adjacent to a cascade the entire time…a long series of waterfalls all the way to the bottom. At any point you can look over to this rushing cascade, which is spectacular and fast…quite a sight. At some points, you actually step onto the edge of the cascade for a foot or hand hold. As the cascade is straight down, so to is the Trail.  From the top of the descent, the Trail was soaked from the rain. All evidence of soil footing is gone from years of erosion (remember straight down). You’re left with large rocks or long slab sections. You’re looking everywhere for grip and hoping you don’t slip. The slabs are scary. You have to commit every small step you take and hope you don’t fall. All slabs on descents terminate steeply. A slab fall would be a tumble of a few feet or 40-50 feet… pucker factor is way up on slabby descents. To be honest, I was a little stunned after my first ascent and descent in the Whites… I didn’t know what to think, but I was exhausted.

The next day would be long as well. We started with a steep climb out of Kinsman Notch; then, the profile looked fairly decent for 7 miles to the base of the Kinsmans. However, these 7 miles were treacherous and slow.. long mud sections, wet root covered trail, slow foot work. We were only covering about 1 mph–we were way behind day 2’s schedule from the beginning. We ate lunch at Eliza Brook Shelter and started the ascent up South Kinsman. Again, the climb was the easy part. The views were clear…360 degrees… Moosilauke was behind and above us. To the north, we were also looking up to Mt. Lafayette 1,000 feet above us… the next day’s climb. Now the descent down Fishin’ Jimmy Trail (locals call it F’ing Jimmy because it’s so hard)… very similar experience to the previous day’s descent. After the steepest stage of the descent was the first hut–Lonesome Lake Hut. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) maintains several hundred miles of trail, many campsites, and also runs 8 huts that can accommodate 30-90 guests that hike throughout the Whites. The huts are usually full and hard for thru-hikers to schedule far enough in advance before they’re full. We barely beat darkness of day 2. We had a car staged, so we drove back to Pom Pom’s house late. Ethan said we all looked whooped–we were. We quickly ate and off to bed.

The next day, day 3, was purposely short so we could spend time along the Franconian Ridge on several mountain tops, ending with the highest point, Mt Lafayette, at about 5,300 feet. As we drove to the Whites, the sky was perfectly clear. We were excited to be able to take our time and enjoy the views. We climbed out of Franconia Notch about 3,000 feet to the top of Liberty Mountain. Then, 700 more feet to the top of Little Haystack Mountain where we broke above treeline. We stayed above treeline the next 2 miles and crossed over Mt Lincoln and then to the top of Mt Lafayette. The afternoon was hazy but it was neat to see the views shift as the clouds quickly blew by. At times, we were in the clouds, then just as quick, we weren’t. We got our first glimpse of the Presidential Range in the distance with Mt. Washington as the tallest… other presidents on its shoulders… they were only a couple hiking days away for us. We looked 1,000 feet below us and could easily see Mt Garfield where we would camp. After a long break and lunch, we descended 2,000 feet; then, climbed a very steep 1,000 feet to the summit of Garfield, clawing back 1,000 feet the trail designer probably could have more directly routed to Garfield’s summit. We rolled over the top and down a wicked steep (I’m in New England) 600 feet to our AMC-ran campsite… $8 per person. The caretaker said she can squeeze in 65 people… I have no idea where she’d stack them in such a tight area. We pitched our tents on tent platforms that are built off the ground and made out of wood… they’re nice and flat and drain well when it rains.

View from summit of Mt Lafayette looking north. The peak above the granite slab on left is Garfield. The next ridge are the Twin Mountains. Way off in the distance under the clouds are the Presidentials.

The next morning, up and out early for a long 17.4 mile day. We left camp and back to the straight down descent where we left off. The Trail got much worse just 50 feet down. The AT and a stream/waterfall joined all the way to the bottom. We had about 500 feet of descent in a steep stream–luckily, it didn’t rain over night or it would have been even worse…nerve-racking descent. The rest of the day was moderate descending, and on the way down, we crossed over the peaks of South Twin, Mt. Guyot, and Mt. Zealand. At the base of the steepest descent, we filled our water bottles at Zealand Falls Hut. After a short down, we hiked a 4 mile flat section where a railroad bed once ran that was used for logging. We made great time on the flat… so nice to have good footing even for just a couple hours. Pom Pom said this is the only flat section in the Whites.

Ethan drove BigSky and I into Lincoln where we’d take a zero at the Comfort Inn. Pom Pom would enjoy her zero at home for a family day and to celebrate her daughter’s 17th birthday.

Monday we hike to the Presidentials… the weather around Mt Washington is the most volatile in the entire country. We plan to move over it quickly.

Picture taken from Zeacliff Trail Lookout. If you look closely low on the rock face, you can see the flat Appalachian Trail below where the lumber rail once ran. That entire valley and mountains around were clear cut and completely burned barren 100 years ago. It grew back very well.

Trail Tale:
Do I like hiking in the Whites? Over these 4 days of hiking, I’ve covered 60+ miles, and I’m not sure yet. I’ve been using movie analogies in past updates so I’ll continue here. The Whites are without a doubt an Academy Award Winner… but not everyone likes the same movies the critics like. Once you get to a summit, the views are great… no doubt. There are 48 peaks above 4,000 feet all connected with over 1,400 miles of trail. Getting to the views is incredibly hard and even dangerous. These trails are far more difficult than I imagined and far more bold than any others I’ve climbed. This type of trail is brand new to me.

How does one describe hiking in the Whites? I’ve already given you a small glimpse at the difficulty… words fail the description a little… they’re too one dimensional. I’ll do my best to capture it a little better as the Trail Tale. The largest part that these words can’t capture is the mental aspect… I’ll leave it to you to layer fear, exhaustion, frustration, nervousness, apprehension, adrenaline, etc on top of the words. You’ll know the right ingredient as I try to describe what’s going on.

I knew words fell short immediately after looking down my first descent, I recognized I’m about to do something much harder than I imagined, and I’m going to do it for a couple weeks in New Hampshire and a week or so in Maine… day after day. This is exactly why hikers get this far and decide to quit. Despite how much I’ve already heard, this is so much different than I expected.

Although there are mountains along the AT that are taller than those in the Whites, none (other than Southern Maine) gain or lose elevation as quick… not even close. I’ll break it down into 3 stages: ascending, descending, and the treks in between.

When you look at the White Mountains’ climbing profile, the climbs ramp almost straight up. From the base of the climb, you’re looking straight up the mountain… the Trail looks like a ladder built out of rock. A slight bend might make the Trail disappear left or right a few hundred yards up. I climb pretty quick clipping off a 100 foot elevation gain every 3-4 minutes. I start climbing and use my poles and hands to help pull/push myself up. At times, I’m looking for a rock, tree root or tree to pull myself up to the next rock. If I’m lucky, I can position my poles below me and push off them up to the next foot hold. Eventually, I get to the bend where the trail disappeared and can see several hundred more yards of trail climbing. Throughout the climb, I’m breathing hard, my heart is pounding, and I’m very sweaty–it feels like a real good workout that lasted 1-3 hours depending on the height of the climb. Like I said before, the ascents are the easiest.

The areas between the mountains can be surprisingly slow. Because the mountains are so steep and the trails are so straight, rain water channels down to these low points and mixes with the eroded soil that has collected there over the many years. All this water and soil creates large mud bogs that hikers have to pass over… it can go on for miles at a time. Usually, there are wooden planks or cut logs to step on in the deep sections. Sometimes, there are rocks placed to step on as well. I hate stepping on wet wood and walk very slow when I have to be on it. When wet, it gets a very slippery film… you’d be amazed how quick you can slip and fall. Before you have a clue what happened to you, you’re laying on a plank or in the mud. Most of my falls have been on wood (to include wet roots) even though I’m trying to be careful… it is inevitable… falls will happen. Plank sections can go for several hundred yards. When there aren’t planks, there are usually rocks hidden in the mud. You don’t blindly step in the saturated mud, because you’ll sink in deep. Some hikers lose a shoe and have to go back in after it.  If you can step to the firmer sides or bounce across a rock, you do. If the mud is more firm, you just walk through it because it’s quicker. The worst of the low areas are those that have a pond of some kind. These areas can flood easily and completely cover the Trail. When the path is flooded, it’s VERY slow going because you can’t see the footing anymore. I’m called the minesweeper in these areas because I’m out front figuring out where to step… everyone else follows my path as long as I don’t disappear. It looks like we’re  walking on water because we’re standing in ankle deep murky water. So murky, I can’t see where to step… I use my poles to feel where to place my next step. I have no idea how deep these areas would sink. I can effortlessly slide my hiking pole down to its grip in these areas… it would easily slide further if I had longer poles.  It would be awful to fall in and so hard to get out with a backpack on. I’ve only had to cross 2 of these sections so far and was very relieved to be on the other side both times… nerve racking.

Descents… the absolute worst!!! So many ways to get seriously hurt. As such, you’re very deliberate with every move. Your mind is constantly engaged. If you’re doing it right, you think then move, every time over and over until you reach the bottom. It’s so hard to keep that routine up for so long. So far, the footing below treeline has always been wet compounding the potential for a slip or fall. How to describe the angle of descent? The best way I can think to describe the descent angle is this. Picture standing on a hiking pole that is sticking straight out over the descent. Now picture someone standing below the tip of the pole and the tip being even with their head. For a steep descent (most of these have been), that is a typical angle you’d be looking down for several hundred yards until the Trail bent a little left or right. The longest steep descent I’ve gone down the last 4 days is 2,800 feet. The descents are composed of rock of all sizes and slab sheets. There is no soil to step on… it eroded away. Most of the time you’re climbing down rocks piled on rocks.  The rocks are wet and you depend on your judgement of which ones look the least slippery. The distance of the step down ranges from a normal sized step to step downs easily 3-4 feet. For the deep steps, you bend way over and find secure spots to plant your hiking poles and cautiously shift your weight to a foot hold (remember you’re one planted foot is still on a wet rock) then plant the other foot. You try avoid slamming your foot because it increases the chance of a slip so you’re as gentle and fluid as your legs will allow you. They get tired hour after hour climbing down so it gets harder to control your movements. For steps that are deeper than 3-4 feet, you scramble to the trail side and look for roots and trees to help lower yourself to the next rock. The most dangerous descents involve slab sections. If you did slip, there’s nothing to break the fall until you’re over the slab… that could be 50 feet almost straight down…you’d tumble and roll down the slab… and obviously hit hard. When the slabs are steepest, trail maintainers have either put in rebar to climb down or 5×5 inch wooden steps that are cut and pinned into the slab. Remember how slick I said wet wood gets? I’m telling you… the pucker factor is way up when you’re putting your foot gently on these narrow wooden steps. There is nothing to grab a hold of; you’re slowly and deliberately working your foot to the next step… your 2 feet and 2 pole tips are the only things making contact. The steps don’t always go straight down; they shift you left or right at times around the slab. I’m always so relieved to be off slab descents. The descents really best up the knees. I’ve been more fortunate than many that are having big problems with their knees. So far, my knees are doing real well.

I’ll reserve judgment regarding the Whites until I at least complete them while on the AT. For now, I plan to be careful with my feet, take my time, and enjoy the well deserved views when I reach each summit.

Until next time…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s