Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mount Washington – Part II “The Hike”

Based upon the results from my Mount Washington Run, I decided that maybe what I really needed to do was go a little further back and get a nice running start. So that’s what I did - three days later. I started way back at Franconia Notch, 21 miles (as the crow flies) west-southwest of the Washington summit. But this time, I brought reinforcements (my 18 year old son Casey) to keep me company during the trip. Plus, I figured this would be a great opportunity to spend some time with him before he heads off to college in the fall.

The plan was for us to start a Franconia Notch and loosely follow the Appalachian Trail over to Crawford Notch and then on to Pinkham Notch with a little stop a Washington (again) before we headed back down. We’d stay overnight at the Galehead, Mizpah & Madison Huts while stopping at the others along the way for lunch. And, as with the run, I went into this hike with 6 levels of goals. #1 - start, #2 - finish, #3 - hike the whole way, #4 – enjoy the scenery, #5 – enjoy my son’s company, #6 – Not kill us both. I figured that this time, despite carrying a 50 lb pack, there was a real good chance I’d be able to accomplish all 6.

Immediately following my adventure earlier in the week, I left a car at Pinkham Notch to use for our post-return trip. So when we headed up on the morning of our hike all we had to do was drive to the trail head and get started. As with the run, the temps at the start of the hike were very warm. But thankfully, there was plenty of shade in the early stages as we made our way up the Old Bridle Path to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. After about 2 hours of climbing we stopped at Greenleaf Hut for some “lunch”. For me, that consisted of a granola bar and some electrolyte infused water. For Casey, lunch was a handful of Goldfish. After a short break, we hit the trail again for the final push up to the summit. A scant 30 minutes later we were standing topside, enjoying the incredible 360 degree views on what turned out to be a crystal clear day.

The trip from Lafayette to Garfield was just as I remembered it from my Pemi Loop Trip - long, endlessly up and down with very little good footing. Even in the opposite direction (going down) it was no picnic. After 2 hours of riding that rollercoaster we scrambled up to Garfield. By this point Casey’s water was gone (despite my suggestions that he re-fill at Greenleaf) and his will to live was not too far behind. After a quick look around it was back down for the last leg of our day’s journey. On the way across the Garfield Ridge Trail we would catch glimpses of Galehead Mountain and the hut just beyond. But, it seemed like no matter how fast we hiked, we weren’t gaining on either of them. Finally, after 2 more hours of stumbling around, we pulled into the Galehead Hut just 5 minutes before dinner. Phew. After all that, I would have hated missing dinner!

After enjoying a well-earned dinner of 30 bean soup, alpine garden salad, vegetarian lasagna & homemade brownies, I wandered around the hut looking for something interesting to read while Casey went to lie down for a “little while”. But apparently, in the alpine zone, a little while means all night. Because Casey didn’t show his face again until the 6:30am wake up call the following day. Now if you’ve ever stayed in the huts you’ll know that the hut caretakers or “Croo” each have their own special way of rousing their sleeping guests in the morning. In previous stays I’ve been woken up with a banjo, a trumpet, an acoustic guitar and a cow bell. This time it was some lovely A Capella singing by one of the female members of the Croo - very nice. Casey however felt differently. He had spent a restless night in the top-most bunk directly underneath the huts roof-mounted wind turbine. And, as the storm came through overnight, the wind was howling right above his head. I guess I should have let him borrow a pair of my ear plugs. Oops.

Following a tasty breakfast, we headed out into the soup for our longest day of the hike - 14 miles along the Twinway, A-Z Trail and Crawford Path from Galehead to Mizpah. This was the day that I was most worried about, not just because of the windy and wet weather conditions but because we’d be doing close to 10 hours of hiking and with Casey’s lack of sleep, his breaking point could be just around the bend. Casey dealt with the stress of the situation by switching into “let’s just get there mode” which could have made for a long day, but it seemed to work for him so I just let him be. As we went along, he would power past me on the ups and I would slip by him again on the downs. By lunch time we had reached our half-way point (Zealand Falls Hut) and enjoyed a delicious serving of chili. This time Casey’s Goldfish came in real handy and we both reached the bottom of the bowl in record time.

By the time we got ready to start again, the skies had cleared a bit and we were blessed with a nice view down through a very secluded Zealand Notch. Or at least I thought it was secluded, until I saw a family walking towards us wearing all manner of sandals and flip-flops. Come to find out, there’s a very easy 2 mile “hike” to the hut from a parking area just off of route 302. Casey and I enjoyed the level ground of this trail for about a half mile before we were unceremoniously thrown back to the woods again onto a fairly un-used A-Z trail. It was later on this trail, after what seemed like miles of skirting around (and up and down) near Mt. Tom, Casey had by far the best line of the trip when he said, “Dad, this trail simply refuses to climb this mountain”! Well, eventually it did and then, once over the top, we ambled down the Avalon Trail to Crawford Notch.

At this point, after two full days in the mountains, things had begun to slow down a bit for us which made the sensation of seeing cars whizzing past on route 302 feel all the more strange. Casey mumbled something about “civilization” and wanting to breathe in some “carbon monoxide”. But before I could remind him that CO was odorless, he had made his way over to the Highland Center for a Coke. And, perhaps, a smile? Afterwards, the quick trip up Crawford Path and the Mizpah cut-off brought us to the end of our trek with time to spare. 30 minutes until dinner. More than enough time to wash up and look presentable after a very long day on the trail.

Dinner ended up to be quite interesting, as Casey was stuck between a wall and a hippie dude who talked endlessly about organic shopping and life back home in Seattle. As he went on, my son’s conservative point of view became more and more evident with each flowery, new-age discussion. At one point, Casey had to physically restrain his eyes to help keep them from rolling up into his head permanently. Later I remarked how great it would be to spend an entire summer working one of the huts. To wit Casey responded, “Why would I want to waste my summer vacation stuck up here in the middle of nowhere”? Clearly, he and I saw things quite differently.

In the morning, breakfast was followed by an ominous weather report for the higher summits. Fog and drizzle to start, then thunderstorms, heavy rain and wind guts upwards of 70 – 80 miles per hour. Not a good day to be exposed along the highest mountain ridge in the east, which was our original plan for the day. So, needless to say, we had to re-evaluate our day’s itinerary. After some scheming, we decided to head back down to Crawford Notch and catch the hiker’s shuttle over to the other side of the ridge for a quick hike up to Madison Hut which was our stopping point for the evening.

No sooner did we board the shuttle, than the skies opened up and completely drenched everything in sight. Thankfully, we were warm & dry and enjoying some good, old-fashioned, public transportation complete with stinky passengers and a creepy bus driver. By the time we reached Valley Way the rain had slowed a bit and we gratefully made our way over to the trail head. At this point I should mention that Casey was using my old backpack and he had stuffed it so full that it looked like a giant ball glued to the back of his shoulders. And, once he put on his black pack cover, his trail nickname was secured. Unfortunately, “8-ball” didn’t appreciate my humor and proceeded to power hike the entire 3.5 mile trail up to the hut. Less than 2 hours later, once he reached the top (well ahead of me) he informed me that despite his “ghetto” pack, his preferred trail name was “the ascender”. And, with a performance like that, I figured it was a well-deserved moniker indeed!

Morning came quickly, but not before I was able to climb to the top of Mount Madison and see the sun greet the brand new day. Overnight the skies had cleared and the winds had calmed. It was barely 5:30am but could already see that it was going to be a glorious day on the Presidential Ridge. Casey greeted the day’s adventure with a new feeling of purpose and excitement. He said it was because after 4 long days in the wilderness, he could finally go home, take a nice hot shower and fall into his own comfy bed. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part, but I sensed that despite his claims to the contrary, he was actually beginning to enjoy himself up here.

As we skirted along the Gulfside Trail, the air was crisp & clean and the views were spectacular. We quickly looped past Mount Adams and on into Thunderstorm Junction. Thankfully no squalls were forecasted for this day and we rolled on towards the Edmonds Col and Mount Jefferson. Along the shady northeastern side of Jefferson we encountered a 20 foot long section of un-melted snow. And, after a hair raising traverse of our one and only snow field (with the summit to our right and a steep ravine to our left) we were on our way through the Sphinx Col, past Mount Clay and on up to the Grand-Daddy of them all - Washington.

Despite the fact that each of the peaks we’d traversed today were well over 5000 feet high, none dominated the landscape nearly as much as Mount Washington. With its imposing mass and observation deck crown “Agiocochook” (as it was named by the Abenaki) rules the valley like a king upon high. And all roads, trails and rails lead to its sovereign summit. Breathlessly Casey and I made our way to the top to pay our respects. Unfortunately, reality interfered with the solemnity of the occasion as dozens of “tourists” crowded around the summit sign for a quick photo op before ducking back inside the cafeteria for a cup of cocoa to await their cushy ride back down the mountain.

A bit deflated, but never-the-less happy to finally be on top, Casey and I paused a bit for some lunch before moving on to begin the final descent of our journey. The Lion Head Trail was a bit tricky in spots and definitely steeper than I’d remembered. This 4.2 mile path to Pinkham Notch seemed to take forever to traverse. But, once we got near the bottom, it began to widen up and level out. As a result, Casey and I were able to hike side by side for the first time all trip. Just before we reached the Crystal Cascade, Casey spotted a moose and we both moved in for a closer look. Grazing on one of the lower slopes, this massively mild animal barely raised an eyebrow as we snapped a couple of souvenir shots before slowly moving on down the trail.

Once we reached the bottom, and the end of our adventure together, we both wearily collapsed onto a wooden bench overlooking the welcome grounds of Joe Dodge Lodge. After a bit, I went inside and grabbed us a couple of cold ones (ice teas, that is) and we toasted our good fortune, and the great time we had together. Later, on the ride home, we cranked the tunes (and the AC) and very much enjoyed the creature comforts that only a man-made, carbon-monoxide-spewing automobile can provide.

Only time will tell if this trip has changed the way that Casey and I relate to each other. In a few short weeks he’ll be on his way to some altogether new adventures, without his “dear-old” Dad. I’d like to think that the time we spent on the trails together will help prepare him for what lies ahead. Whether his path be rocky or smooth, clear or stormy, I hope he’s got the strength to stay the course and see the voyage until its end. And, if these past 4 days in the woods with me are any indication, I think he’s going to do just fine.

1 comment:

  1. Great report, Mike. You have to see Toy Story 3 before sending Casey off to college.