Now, when considering hiking to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest mountains on the east Coast, I envisioned before me a long, arduous challenge. Which is precisely why I choose to do this thing I suppose, for it’s a challenge and something you can look back upon with pride and a sense of accomplishment. However, what I was not envisioning as a major challenge was getting there. How was it that I could have estimated NH only five and a half hours from NJ? And how was it that on a Labor Day weekend, I did not prepare myself for increased traffic and all the honking and the slowing to a crawl and the jams and the cars?
So, to make this part of the story short — for telling of traffic jams and driving makes not for a good story — after a night of drinking until five in the morning, I staggered out of bed, left my house at noon and made what I thought to be a five and a half hour trip in eight hours. I arrived road weary at the family campground I found on the internet shortly after dusk and had to set up my tent in quickly dissolving twilight. This done, I fell right to sleep.
I woke at 5:30 am or so. The woods were quiet, no stirrings of squirrels or chipmunks or creatures of any kind. I attributed this to the ungodly hour it was and that nothing it its right mind should be up but park rangers and marauding black bears rooting through the dumpsters for the Taco Bell and Popeye scraps. I felt I shouldn’t stir, not wanting to intrude upon the quietude, but I was ready to get up and hit the mountain before the crowds. I started a fire, cooked myself a hot breakfast, and headed for the mount.
At the base of Mt. Washington there is an Appalachian Mountain Club center, a large log cabin that most folks visit first before starting their journey. The parking lot, and the center, was full of people this Labor Day weekend. I had expected crowds, (not traffic though, go figure!) so I had no problem with any of this. I parked a good clip from the center and began to pack my bags. Although it was a gorgeous day, my research and preparation for this hike warned of sudden and completely unexposed storms that can happen at any time and in any weather condition. So, as I stood in the gravel parking lot, I choose wisely from my truck load of supplies and packed into my bag a second pair of wool socks; a long and short pair of the polypropylene stuff; a pair of jeans; a sweatshirt; a rain shell; a fleece jacket; several snickers bars, a bag of home made trail mix, a notebook, five pints of store bought water; one quart container of self brought water; and a hip bottle of water. I wore two pairs of socks, my best boots, my best hiking shorts; a polypropylene shirt and a T-shirt, and my hiking hat. I felt a bit silly zipping my bag shut over all this cold weather gear on a perfectly hot summer day, but, striving to be a “Smart Hiker” I did so. I pulled the bag out, started closing all the doors of the truck and I stopped in thought for a moment. I thought about the night before. I thought about the fact that I was up all night and maybe I am not ready for this hike? Maybe I was not physically and mentally prepared for this endeavor? I thought that I had to relive myself. Unfortunately, I did. I will not comment on this situation in detail. I will just advise its always the smart hiker who brings two pairs of underwear to a hike.
So, after the change, I walked out of the AMC restroom at 8:00am, looking for direction in form of a good map, or a knowledgeable student working part time at the center to pay his or her way through National Park Information College, which I assumed, taught potential park rangers about map reading, giving directions to lost hikers and how to wake before all other campers in family campgrounds. I spotted an old man behind the desk under a sign labeled ”Information”. The center was crowded with visitors, hikers and many folks just milling about, but no one was talking to the man under the information sign. I started towards him, but was distracted along the way by a long list on the rear wall of the center. I walked towards it and got a macabre chill as I realized that it was a list of all those who have died upon the mount since 1849. The list detailed the date, name of the hiker, age, the trail, and the cause of death. “October 19, 1849, Frederick Strickland, Age 29, lost in storm; July 12, 1976, Robert Evans, age 22, Tuckerman Ravine, killed by fall; September 30, 1999, Graham Newmann, age 32, due to his drinking all the previous night, the fact that he was mentally and physically unprepared and that deep down in his heart he did not consider himself a hiker, he was found dead outside his car in the AMC parking lot. Apparent cause of death, fear of failure. Etc.” This was not the inspirational stuff I wished to read as I headed up this mountain.
I turned around and spotted the topical model they had of the “Presidential Range” in New Hampshire. You know the map I am talking about, it looks like something a student would build at an eighth grade science fair of a volcano or something. I walked around this trying to find the peak of Mt. Washington and the trails that led to its summit, but was not able to make out the names of the trails painted in the plaster. I remembered the old man behind the counter and quickly spun around to ask him.
He sat on a stool behind the small information desk. He wore a dark blue baseball cap, a thick fleece jacket and cut an apple to pieces with a pocket knife. A set of dark brown eyes peered sharply through thick glasses.
“What is the hardest, most difficult way to the peak of Mount Washington.”, I asked with not much confidence.
The hand carving his apple with the Swedish knife fell quickly away, the blade tucked skillfully into seclusion, and an old, crooked finger pointed to a white dashed line under the plastic of the desk. My eyes followed his arm, past the elastic of the fleece jacket, past the liver-spotted back of his hand and spied the name “Nelson Crag Trail” just past the long nail of his middle finger.
Wanting to thoroughly understand his concept of ‘the most difficult’, I asked; “Is this the hardest because it is steep, or because it is technical, or because during some parts you are technically no longer hiking but climbing?
He brought his hand back to his apple and without the slightest change in his expression or tone said, “Yes”.
I looked at the description of the trail and noted the recommend allotted time of nine hours for a full circuit. It was approximately four and a half miles to the summit, just over an eight mile round trip. At two miles per hour hiking, I thought this was rather excessive, a grossly conservative estimate, but I accepted it and prepared to allot myself accordingly. I looked up at the old man and said, “I’ll see you in nine hours. Thanks!”, bought a map, and walked out of the center.
I unfolded the map in my hands as I found myself standing before a series of crisscrossing trails. Fellow hikers walked past (for its not hiking until they are on the trail!) and they all seemed to be heading the same direction. I found the trail which would lead me to Nelson Crag, Old Jackson Road, and fell in beside the throng. In only a moment, came the first main crossroads, a wooden sign with two trail names: Tuckerman Ravine Trail, with an arrow to the left, and Old Jackson Road, with an arrow pointing to the right. None of my fellow hikers were venturing to the right. Not a one. None. The trail started to look a bit ominous and frightening. The fact that no other hiker was veering right at the juncture I was planning on veering at was a clear sign indicating I was in for it. But, not able to turn back now I, as Robert Frost would say, “…choose the path less traveled, and this made all the difference.”
Here is where the thought first struck me: I really do not consider myself a hiker. Its not that I do not hike, for I do, I just feel that I could not classify myself under the “Hiker” heading. I am fit, in shape, have spent much time on the trail systems of many national, state and local parks, but as my feet carried me down the trail this glorious morning on my way to my first summit hike, I worried that I did not have what it would take get to the top. “What if my legs give out?” “What if I do not have enough water and get dehydrated?” “What about the buddy system? What if I fall, or get lost? I’m alone!?”. In the back of my mind I knew that I could always turn around if the trail was too hard. Actually, this thought was more in the forefront of my mind, and it was very comforting to have it there. I felt committed to the trail, but, you know me and commitment, they usually do not play very nice together.
These were some of the thoughts swirling around my head as I traveled along Old Jackson Road. And by the way, do not let the name fool you, it was by no means a road. And looking back at it now, the trail foreshadowed what was to come. Rocks. Rocks and more rocks. The trail was relatively flat, but there was no trail to speak of, just rocks I had to navigate along. There was a dry stream bed at one point, a few small climbs, but as I said, mostly flat until I reached Nelson Crag Trail.
It was 9:05 am when I stood before the wooden sign that read Nelson Crag Trail. It was steep immediately. I thought, “Is it possible I stand at the immediate base of this mountain? Is it all just up from here?” The answer was yes.
I was now hiking vertically, a position I would get used to quickly. The foliage was very dense, at some places the trail was no wider than my shoulders. Pine trees and much fern made visibility into the woods very limited. This, of course, did not alleviate my fears of encountering bears or other such wildlife. For all the way up here in the car, there were moose crossing signs at every mile marker it seemed.
The footing was treacherous. Thick, gnarled roots twisted themselves across the trail. Pine needles were abundant, and pure green moss covered the rocks. The earth was soft, and in some places due to the moss, the pine needles and the roots below, even hollow. It was not soon after I left my hiking stick behind. Not only was it getting stuck and caught into the ground and roots, I quickly needed both hands to pull myself up the trail.
It was thirty minutes later when I stopped for my first rest. I was winded and drenched with sweat. I tied one bandana around my head under my hat to stop the sweat from seeping into my eyes and looped the second bandana around my shoulder strap to have easy access to wipe my face. My left knee was a bit sore, it gave a sharp twang every now and then, but I was sure it would pass. I was about to sit on a nearby rock and grab a snickers bar, when I happened to look behind me. I was not ready for what I saw.
I had been hiking for only thirty minutes, and granted it was thirty minutes straight up, but I never expected to be so high so quickly without the use of anything illegal. I looked past the narrow clearing the pine trees allotted and saw one of the other mountains, possibly Mount Adams, across the valley behind me. The trail I was on dropped straight down beneath where I stood and as I followed it down, I saw an amazing thing: clouds! I had hiked above the clouds! Thick, billowing clouds floated past several hundred feet below me. The only other time I had seen clouds from this vantage point was in a plane flying to Utah. It was an awesome vision standing there on the mount: The green pines surrounding me, the clouds below me, and across the valley the steep mountain face etched against the rising morning sun. This is why I was here. I snapped my first photo.
After my break, which consisted of a snickers bar, I lugged the pack onto my back and continued higher. As my hands, my feet and an occasional knee was called into action as I climbed, my thoughts drifted to wildlife. Hell, if I could barely stand on this steep incline, how is a big old bear going to be comfortable lumbering around on this slope? If anything, if figured, I would see a mountain goat or two, but I did not think these were indigenous to NH. As it turns out, I saw no wildlife at all. No squirrels or chipmunks, nothing. The only signs of life were the flies that ripped through the air around me like tiny chainsaws, which thankfully, due to the liberal layer of insect repellant I had covered myself with, refused to land upon and tear into my flesh. I did however, spot my first fellow hiker.
He was an older man, fifty five I found out later, who had been hiking the “Presidents” since he was fourteen. I asked him about the presence of wildlife and he told me in all his time here he had spotted a bear only three times. He asked me when I started the hike and when I told him about eight thirty, he commented, “You’re moving!” He was not the only person to say this to me. I was just moseying along at a comfortable pace, I replied. We spoke for a few minutes more, then he allowed me to pass. “I’ll see you at the top,” I said and continued on.
As I climbed on, yes climbed, for I was no longer hiking, I thought about his comment about my speed. I remembered when hiking in Wyoming and Utah, the Death Canyon Trail in the Grand Tetons, Angels Landing in Zion, etc. I had easily finished trails an hour or two quicker than the allotted time they specified in the hiking maps. They say one usually hikes two miles an hour. I always use this as a guide, but I know that I can always get closer to three.
I climbed on. Less roots and trees as I climbed higher. More rocks. Not only have I crossed the line between hiking and climbing, I felt now I had crossed the line between climbing and rock scrambling. My legs were holding out fine, my knee still twanged every now and then, but not to worry, I told myself. My arms, however, were now starting to feel the effects of this “most difficult” trail.
I had hiked for another hour, straight up. I was hot, sweaty, and feeling it. Every now and then I got a hot flash and felt a bit dizzy, a wonderful sign I am pushing myself (too far?). At these moments I stopped and took some water. I considered whether there was less oxygen in the air now than what I am used to? I supposed so, I mean, I was up there! I would climb a bit, stop for a moment, take some water, look behind me at the view, and climb again. I was tired, but inspired just the same. This pattern continued. My thoughts were less concrete, I was unable to concentrate on one thing at a time. I heard small rustlings in the woods next to me and conjured up visions of rodents and moose. I don’t know if I actually heard these or not, for I was also hearing the jingle of bells, random murmurs, car doors being slammed, the sound of beer bottles being cracked open, the screech of a modem, etc. I was experiencing audible hallucinations.
I pushed myself harder. This is what I wanted. I wanted to push myself to my limits. Harder. Higher. Keep going. No pain, no gain. A terrible thought hit me at this moment, “You can’t turn around now.” Oh my God, I was right. I stopped and looked back down the trail. There was indeed no turning back, I would never make it down this steep scramble. I have passed the point of no return. Thus my only hope was to get to the summit, and find an easier way down the mountain.
I climbed higher. Higher. There were less and less roots tangled across the trail, until there were none. The pine trees and other foliage too had fallen behind me. I now felt the full force of the sun upon my back and exposed flesh. The rocks were warm as I scrambled along, higher and higher still. More hot flashes, a fog horn sounded and I could have sworn I heard the slurping sound Samuel Jackson made as he washed down his Big Kahuna Burger in Pulp Fiction. I was getting lightheaded. Both my bandanas were drenched and could no longer keep the sweat from seeping down my face and into my eyes. My mind was blank, my limbs worked as if on auto pilot. I was just an empty husk of a man who’s sole purpose was to get to the top of this damn mountain. Arms reached for the next hand hold, legs stepped higher, knees flexed and carried me higher still. And then I saw her. I had looked up, searching for my next hand hold when through sweat blurred eyes I spotted a face floating above the rocks. A round, purely symmetrical white face with soft eyes and a perfect smile beaming right down at me. It was an angel. I paused, unable to move, staring up at the vision of beauty before me. I was no longer tired. My body no longer ached. Had I fallen? Will my name be added to the list in the AMC cabin next week?
I blinked, and as the sweat was forced from out of my eyes and my vision cleared, I saw not an angel but a fellow hiker. She gazed down at me from a small ledge she was resting on. My smile in return shook me from my reverie and I continued on. When I reached the ledge she was on, I noticed she was not alone but with two of her friends. I smiled at them all and sat down on the ledge next to them.
They were from Ontario, hiking from New Hampshire to Vermont. The vision that kept them going was the Ben & Jerry factory at the end of their adventure. We admired the view together, Mount Adam and Mount Monroe across the valley above and clouds continuing to roll past below us. They too commented upon my quick pace up the mount, saying they set out nearly an hour before me. After a few more moments taking it all in, I wish them luck and told them I’d see them at the top.
The rock ledge we sat on hung just below the last cliff on the way to the top. Ten feet higher, and I stood amongst a field of rocks looking up at the summit. Above the tree line and without any protection, the path to the summit was littered with wind and weather shattered rocks. Mount Washington has the highest recorded wind speed in the world, 233 miles per hour at the summit. Looking across this mountainside of rocks, I could only image the natural forces that could rip trees from the earth, shatter boulders, waste an entire mountain top. It was awesome.
I found a large boulder and sat upon it and spent a few moments writing and scoffing down another Snickers bar. To my left, the other peaks across the valley, to my right, a sharp drop down off the summit into the valley. I watched clouds slowly march up the side of the mountain as if they were a surging sea, rising and enveloping all trees, boulders, rocks in its path. The white army of clouds marched up the mountainside and up the cliff walls only to be spun into tiny spirals by the swift winds sweeping down off the peak. It was an amazing thing watching the vast spread of clouds spiral and wisp away like a trail of smoke from the end of a cigarette. “Everything happens on such a grand scale up here”, I had thought.
Twenty minutes later, I set out for the summit. One and a half miles to go. I gazed along the trail which snaked its way across the mountainside, marked by four foot high pyramids of rocks. As I started along, I found myself thinking about the summer days as a youth spent at Long Beach Island. One of the things I loved to do was to walk out along the jetties. Stepping along from one rock to another until looking down between the cracks I saw no sand, but only water. I would walk out as far as possible, until the rocks became too wet and slippery, or until the waves became too large and threatened to wash me into the sea. As I struggled to walk along the trail towards the summit, with the sun beating down hard upon me, I remember wishing that the rising clouds I watched earlier really were the sea and that I would soon feel the cooling spay of the Atlantic as it broke upon the rocks under my feet. Oh how I wished for the cooling splash! I began to hear the rushing water, the rushing waves. The “whooossshhh” was unmistakable. I looked around me, then looked up expecting a tidal wave crash upon me, but was surprised to see a glider in the air circling the summit, almost within my reach. The whoosh was the sound of the wind rushing past the glider’s yellow wings. No engine, no mechanical sputtering of any kind, just the wings tearing through the air. Still lost in thoughts of my youth, I wanted to reach up and grab the glider like I would the balsa wood versions I use to buy at the local five and ten. I stood still and watched the glider rise and fall with the shifting wind currents and eventually disappear behind the summit. Oh yeah, the summit!
It was one o’clock when I stood at the summit. From the moment I stepped out of the AMC cabin and into the woods nearly five hours ago, it was all woods and nature and solitary contemplation and personal challenge. At the summit, it was a different story. Car horns sounded, buses coughed out black clouds of exhaust and beeped as they backed up, people yelling and shuffling about and the cacophony of clicking cameras and trampling feet as tourist flocked together and ran for the best position to snap the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the tourist train, billowing thick black clouds of its own, as it clanked and screeched up the hillside on its iron tracks towards the large visitors center/gift shop. Had I had a previous vision of the scene at the summit, I would turned around after hiking above the tree line. “God I hate humanity!”
I started my descent immediately. I chose the easiest way down, for my legs, knees and arms were spent. Of course, everyone else chose this way as well. Like driving in rush hour traffic, I hiked and stopped and hiked and stopped due to the narrow trails and the travelling throng. I was forced to take many short breaks. My legs now ached, my knees suffered from uncontrollable spasms, I had shin splints. The last mile and a half I stopped to rest nearly every fifty feet. For those of you familiar with the pipeline in the New Jersey mountains, this was the condition of the trail for the remainder of the hike. For those of you who don’t, rocks, rocks and more rocks. This is the only trail in the world I would recommend paving.
I walked onto the front lawn of the AMC visitors center at four thirty and threw myself down into the grass. Forty five minutes later, I awoke. “I did it,” I thought. “Eight hours, up and down the highest mountain on the East Coast.” A satisfied smile stretched across my face and a warm and fuzzy feeling tingled my belly.
“I did it… simply because it was there.”