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10/01/02 trip report

October 11 2002 at 9:23 AM
Matthew DiBiase 


Response to Mount Washington, New Hampshire (6,288 feet)

 
MOUNT WASHINGTON
OCTOBER 1, 2002

I knew Mount Washington was going to be a challenge for me; not so much for its height as it is for its peculiar weather factors. I knew I would have to be prepared for whatever the mountain had to offer. Hiking Mount Washington was part of a larger vacation in the Mt. Washington Valley region, which included visits to Crawford and Franconia Notches, cruising Lake Winnipesaukee, riding the Conway Scenic Railroad, and visiting the Castle in the Clouds mansion in Moultonborough.

October 1 dawned warm and idyllic in its autumnal splendor. Although the weather in the lower elevations would be more summer-like than autumnal there was a crisp freshness to the air that summer weather lacks. I was staying in Jackson, south of Pinkham Notch and Mt. Washington. When I woke up I called the Mount Washington observatory to get the weather report. The weather would be perfect at the lower elevations. The summit would have occasional clouds and 40-60 M.P.H. winds for most of the day. After a quick breakfast, I suited up and was on the road by 8:00AM. Traffic was light as my silver Ford Escort SE climbed through the Valley towards Pinkham Notch. The radio was playing the Beatles Hey Jude, which provided an anthemic blood to brain rush that energized this highpointer's soul.

As the miles passed Hey Jude gave way to the Mississippi Delta moan of Bobby Gentry singing about Billie Joe MacAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge. (I hadn't heard that song in decades!)

Pinkham Notch loomed large in my vision to the left and I pulled in. The parking lot was relatively full. I had to park a slight ways from the buildings. Since my last hike I had bought new hiking equipment from L.L. Bean. To augment my hiking boots, I bought wool socks and sock liners (both of which kept my feet warm during the entire journey). I also bought a dark blue hiking jacket with a special liner to retain body heat. (I would need it when I reached the higher elevations where the winds would pick up).

Despite the heat I was wearing a flannel shirt and I had a T-shirt in my backpack. Just in case things proved to be too warm for me in the lower elevations.

Pinkham Notch AMC is a first-rate facility that offers hikers plenty of what they need to keep them going. The place hummed with activity. Hikers filtered in and out of the buildings. After making a quick pit stop, I was on the trail by 8:45AM.

I was taking the Tuckerman Ravine trail. Tuckerman is a wide, obvious trail, without blazes in the portion I hiked. At first it meandered but after I rounded a bend and crossed over a brook, it got steep very quickly. Afterwards, for the next 3.5 hours it was a long slog to the top. The trail is rock strewn with channels cut into it (for drainage?) every 15-20 feet or so.

After a half-hour, I took off my flannel shirt and changed into a T-shirt since it was warm on the lower elevations. I would change back when I got higher up. I maintained a good, steady pace. Surprisingly I met only two hikers on the trail: two middle-aged gentlemen whom I encountered between the turn-offs for the Huntington Ravine and Lion Head trails. After I had passed them I never encountered anyone else until I neared the summit.

I kept going onward and upward. The Tuckerman Ravine trail is a channel cut through a forest filled with dense stands of pine trees. Sunlight, save in rare openings, seldom, if ever filtered through the trees down to me. Views were rare. Two or three times I crossed over brooks trickling down the mountainside. Most of the time I was working my tail off going up the mountain.

I took three rest breaks during my hike. My first came at 9:45AM. While resting I was treated to the silent grace of the White Mountain National Forest. I was sitting alone, listening to birds singing, hearing a gentle breeze rustle the pine trees. Where I was sitting, the roots of the pine trees were thickly carpeted with moss. All in all, silence reigned as the thick vegetation absorbed the sounds of life around me.

Resuming my journey, I reached the turn-off for the Lion Head Trail at 10:00AM. I felt pretty good. I thought I was making good time. Little did I know that the Lion Head would be a tough road for me and that I still had a long way to go.

The Lion Head trail is smaller, narrower, and trickier to navigate than Tuckerman. My progress was much slower on the Lion Head. I started up and then quickly began to traverse on an exposed ledge.

You encounter the alpine zone when you enter the Lion Head. The change is rather abrupt. One moment you're hiking in the woods and then, suddenly, you're beyond the trees and entering exposed ground with stunted trees and tundra grass.

It was in the alpine zone that I encountered the winds of Mount Washington. Fortunately for me it was not an obstacle though when I did take my second rest break I did change back into my flannel shirt and put on my hiking jacket. (Surprisingly I didn't need to wear my wool cap or gloves. I was warm enough to continue without them).

While I was resting up during my break, I was afforded some lovely views of the Mount Washington Valley. I could see Route 16 from my perch. I felt a little giddy that I had been able to get so high since I had started from the highway. I had been hiking for two hours but I still had a ways to go.

Throughout my hike, on occasions, when the wind was right, I could hear the whistle of the locomotives from the Cog Railroad as they were ascending or descending the mountain. The fact the whistles grew louder as I ascended gave me heart.

When I resumed my hike, I reached a level spot in the journey where I was walking atop the Tuckerman Ravine. In this section of the trail there are no blazes. The trail is marked with stone cairns, which is just as well. Since the mountain is socked in with clouds on a regular basis, hikers need something more visible to guide them on their journey. The cairns are more easily discernable.

Tuckerman Ravine was a jaw-dropper to my eyes. I couldn't imagine scaling the headwall of the ravine though some people do. Way off in the distance I could see solitary hikers making their way slowly upward from the ravine.

As I got higher, I began to get more tired. Lactic acid was building up in my legs and my pace was slowing down.

As the trail got steep again after the level part, I was wondering if I could make it all the way to the top. For a moment I had a notion of quitting but banished it from my mind. The late Vince Lombardi once said, "the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." I had come too far and had made too much progress to throw my chance for the summit away. Besides the weather had remained good. Although the summit was obscured by cloud I did not see any rain or thunder. Although I wasn't sure if I could hike back down after reaching the summit, I knew had other options for getting back down the mountain-which I could pursue once I reached the summit.

My legs were aching in revolt but I gritted my teeth and pressed on. Between my second and third rest breaks, I ran into a momentary flutter on the trail. I had reached a rock cairn when I was faced with a rock formation that blocked my view of the next cairn.

I was unsure as to which direction I should go. First I went right but saw no footholds or handholds. I tried the center but was again stymied. I was concerned. Surely there had to be a way. I looked to my left but couldn't really see a logical path through the formation. I waited, catching my breath while trying to think it out. Finally, I went back to the cairn and began to traverse the rock formation, going to my left. I thought I had spied a small opening to the left. As I made my way, I was able to find footholds to keep going. At last, I did find an opening and, there, I saw the next cairn.

That may have been my worst moment during the hike.

I took my last rest break at 11:45AM. I was walking stubbornly, mechanically. Again the train whistles were acting like a siren song, beckoning me upward. I was now enveloped in cloud with no views of the Valley below. I moved from cairn to cairn, all the while wondering which one would be the last one and when would I reach the auto road.

For thirty minutes I crept closer and closer. At times I could hear car engines and a weird hissing noise (which I later found out was the locomotives blowing off their steam). The sounds perked my blood up and I kept moving.

Suddenly, I saw a woman's head and called out. She kept moving. I moved forward and my feet touched pavement. There it was: modern civilization! Paved roads, people, cars! I had reached the summit region.

I asked the lady I called out to where the summit was, she motioned to a stairway barely visible in the fog.

I let out a whoop and began to climb the stairs. I was in the lower parking lot. The stairs led me to the Stage house and, from there, the Sherman Adams summit building and the true summit proper.

I went inside the Sherman Adams building to take stock. The winds on the summit were blowing colder and harder than it was on the slopes going up the mountain. Frankly, the summit was inhospitable. Almost everyone was seeking refuge in the building. The Sherman Adams building bustles with activity. One can find food, pay phones, souvenirs, post cards, a post office, and food.

I went to a pay phone and, on a lark, tried to call my mother. She wasn't home so I left a humorous message on her voicemail.

I asked one of the attendants where I could find the true summit. He directed me out of the building. I put on my wool hat and gloves and, braving the winds, trudged out and to my right. Beside the Sherman Adams buildings lies the true summit. There is a small wooden cross with a sign stating that it is the summit and Mt. Washington's altitude on it.

Although the distance is less than ten yards, it was rough going. Violent gusts of wind knocked me off balance. Two couples were already on the rise trying to get their pictures taken of themselves. The winds were knocking me iggy sideways. The fog was impenetrable.

When it was my turn to mount the true summit, I was so distracted by the weird conditions that I forgot to say my trinity of prayers of thanksgiving. It wasn't because I didn't feel thankful. (I was and remain very much so). It was the oddness of the situation. I did get someone to take my picture of me holding the U.S. and New Hampshire State flags. I also snapped a picture of the survey marker, which is right beside the summit sign.

The wind was so loud I couldn't hear what people were saying. It was nonsense to remain outside in this so I returned again to the Sherman Adams building.

I spent several hours inside the building recuperating and composing my notes for this report.

I encountered many interesting, friendly people inside. There were Keith and Graham from Nottingham, England. They had hiked in from the Ammonoosuc trail on the western side of Mt. Washington. I had a lovely chat with them about hiking in Great Britain. Next came Bruce and Evan from Middleboro, Massachusetts who had ascended via the Tuckerman headwall and were curious about descending via the Lion Head trail. I told them all I could about my experiences on the trail.

There was also a nice woman from Ontario, California who chatted with me shortly before I left the summit.

The weather was starting to clear. Again I went outside to take more snapshots and shoot some video footage of the summit area. I saw the cog railroad operating. I walked the observation deck. Periodically clouds would roll in and obscure any views, but there were moments of clarity where one could see the other mountains in the Presidential Range and Route 16 below. The winds never stopped gusting though.

All during my stay atop the summit, I was figuring how to get back down. Hiking down the way I came was strictly out. My legs felt like spaghetti. I wasn't about to risk having a fall in the fog. I had two choices: either I could catch a shuttle bus ride back to Pinkham Notch offered by the Mt. Washington mountain staff or else I could hitch a ride with someone who was going past Pinkham Notch. I was optimistic about my chances and felt no compunction about doing this.

It was 3:00PM when I asked an attendant about catching a shuttle bus. For the record the Mt. Washington staff do offer shuttle bus rides for hikers back to Pinkham Notch AMC. The service is based on weather conditions and there is a fee of $22.00. (The best $22.00 I ever spent!)

I was told that there was a shuttle bus heading down at 4:00PM and I could purchase my ticket at the Stage building, which I promptly did.

I waited another hour before heading over to the Stage building. My chauffeur was a cute blond young woman named Jeni. She took a British couple and me back down the mountain. It was 3:54PM when we left.

The drive down is a vivid, sometimes edgy experience. The roadway is rather narrow in places with no shoulders to speak of. When one encounters a car coming up, the road tends to get very narrow and makes for some interesting emotions. Jeni was an experienced driver and kept us moving. As we descended Jeni gave us a running commentary about the flora and fauna of Mount Washington and its other activities.

I was struck by the exposed terrain of Mt. Washington's upper regions. One has to get down to the lower elevations before any semblance of cover begins to appear. The further down we went the more robust were the trees and vegetation.

After Jeni dropped off the British couple at their car, she drove me back to Pinkham Notch. Back on the road it was fine summer weather. You would never suspect that the opposite was true on Mt. Washington's summit. I laughed at the contrasts. It was 4:19PM when Jeni pulled into Pinkham Notch AMC and dropped me off at my car. I thanked her profusely.

After packing my car, I drove off leaving Mt. Washington behind. And so I have bagged my 16th highpoint.

Having neglected to say my trinity of prayers when I reached the summit, I would like to give thanks to God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen. I want to thank all of the nice people I encountered on the summit that day. I want to thank Hertz for my silver Ford Escort SE, which took me everywhere I needed to go and got me safely back again.

Most of all I want to thank Jeni for driving me safely down the mountain and thus saved me from an onerous hike down the mountain. I want to thank Mt. Washington Weather Observatory for their weather reports that helped me decide when to climb the mountain.

My next highpointing adventure won't be until September 2003 when I go visit Arizona. It is there where I will make my first attempt at a high point above 10,000 feet. It will be my first shot at the big casino. God willing, I hope to make it.

See you at the High Points!

 
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