Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Hampshire: Harsh, Beautiful, and Wild

As some of you might know, I'm getting married! In just over a year I will be wed to the love of my life. We are getting married in New Hampshire right by Franconia Notch. With rugged mountains as our backdrop, spring-blooming wildflowers in the fore. The planning and preparation gives us an excuse to go north and a)visit her parents b)get some planning/preparation in c)go hiking in the White Mountains!

This last trip I took the following week off to hike while Songbird had to, unfortunately, come home to go back to work. Flip also took the week off and came up to hike with me. Songbird, departed, and Flip arrived late the following day. We woke to a rainy Tuesday morning; undeterred and set on backpacking, we packed our things donned our rain gear and got a ride from Songbird's dad, Jim, to the trailhead. We were dropped off at the beginning of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, a mile from the Cog Railroad at the base of Mount Washington. The rain had stopped, but the sky was steely grey and we knew this was only a break in the storm, not a passing of the storm. We were hopeful, though as the following days forecast sounded better.
We followed a soft rolling trail for the first couple miles, along a river and over wet roots and rocks. The forest smell of damp and leaf decay both pleasant and familiar. The trees dropped their wet tears down our backs as we hiked full of care-free joy towards the base of the mountain. The streams and rivers did not seem overly swollen from the last day and a half of rain, I wasn't sure if we had any water crossings, but was thankful all the same that they weren't in flood stage! The trail traced close to the banks of the river at some points.
 Soon, through a break in the trees, we saw where our path was to take us. The easy jaunt through the lowlands about to end. We began climbing stone stairs, and the rain started to fall softly again. I put on the hood of the Packa, but stayed unzipped to keep heat exhaustion at bay. As we ascend and the air got colder the coat came on and I stayed both dry and warm.
As we neared tree-line the conditions worsened, the rain picked up, and we had to cross the river a time or two. The river crossings were harrowing, and would have forced us to turn back had there been more water. On top of slick rocks a few yards from a waterfall that fell down the side of the tallest mountain in the northeast, the trail precariously crossed these slightly swollen waters. This could be deadly in worse conditions.
Up we climbed and clambered. The trail crossing steep slick rocks, the trees becoming stunted and gnarled. We were in the rain clouds now. The wind picked up and started to swirl, sometimes those raindrops sounded a bit... heavy, more like ice than water. The clouds blew back and snow fields were visible as the trees finally gave up.
Up and up more. The wind picking up, the rain blowing in, over, under. My glasses making everything a blur, and the clouds obscuring everything beyond a couple hundred feet anyway. But, even in these conditions and under this strain, beauty stood out. Tiny alpine flowers, surrounded by a carpet of green moss hung on and thrived. The disparity of the wind-swept landscape to the micro-communities that stood hidden in plain sight belied the strength of life, and the beauty in the small things.
Not knowing how much further to the top of this hill, we continued to strain upwards. And there! A roof line! A shelter from the storm, a place to shed wet raincoats, if only briefly: Lake of the Clouds AMC Hut. We stumbled around the corner, threw open the door and came in to applause of the guests riding out the storm inside the warm comfort. The Croo hostess said, "Are you checking in? We have spots available." My gut instinct after being mauled by the elements while pulling myself hand-over-hand up the side of a steep mountain was to say, "Why yes I am checking in. I would love nothing more than to pay $125 to sleep on a wooden bunk!" Instead, after making eye-contact with Flip, I said, "Give me a minute to decide." So we ordered a bowl of warm soup, sat at the table and unwound. We dripped a bit dryer and the memories and shock of the vicious wind and pelting rain faded. After consulting the map, our watches, and each other, we decided to push on. We also decided to save the summit of Washington for another day, this wouldn't be a good one to be up there.
I will not rant about the AMC. I can say that the oasis of calm and brief respite was welcomed. The prices were high, but the people were kind. We chose not to pay for the luxury, but the fact that the Huts exist enable those that would not otherwise be able to see the grandeur and beauty of the White Mountains to experience it in slight comfort.
We put back on our packs and braced ourselves for another onslaught. We were surprised and hesitantly elated that the rain had died down. We headed south on the Appalachian Trail towards Nauman Campsite ~4 miles distant. The wind blew fiercely and then calmed. The clouds seemed to be thinning, only over us though. Suddenly: SUN! BLUESKY! What a treat. We were able to walk on this ridge top, this spine-of-the-world, with a circle of clouds obscuring the far views, but allowing us some sun light and some views of the mountains we trod upon. We even captured a glimpse of the Washington Hotel surrounded by its golf course down in the valley below.

We started descending into the woods again, back into the damp. Was it raining again or was that just dripping from the trees? Maybe a bit of both. On our descent we spotted a lynx flash across the trail and then we peered at each other before she gracefully disappeared into the thick sub-alpine woods. We arrived at the next Hut and the hostess ignored us as we walked in, continuing to cut up pieces of paper with her Swiss Army knife. There must not have been any room or other reservations coming in that evening so the pleasantries could be dispensed with. I enquired if this is where we checked in for the adjacent campsite. No, there is a specific campsite host in a tent. We walked over to the campsite and spoke with Dillon, the campsite host. He said he'd never stayed in a Hut, but they were real nice, they even let him come over the night before and hangout since they only had two guests. So the AMC hires a completely different host that must sleep in a tent, literally 50 feet from the Hut. That makes such little sense that I am boggled. We asked if it might be alright if we went up there to prepare our dinner out of the rain instead of inside our tent. He had no idea, he didn't really talk to them, but it might be worth asking. They did have a lot of guests though. Rather than being looked down upon like the homeless tent campers begging for scraps we prepared our meal at the tent.

The next day dawned not bright but rainy. It had began raining in earnest over night and continued unrelenting as we broke camp as quickly as possible, trying to keep as much of our gear as dry as possible. We hiked out into the rainy morning with hopes it would stop any second now. The forecast said, "Chance of Showers" this day and "Chance of Showers" for the following 2 days. There was no chance, it rained continuously. At times it slowed, but then picked up. The bogs seemed to mirror our wet mood.

 Crossing over Webster Cliffs and bookended mountains we were blown about. As we descended Webster we got quiet. Thirty minutes of inner thoughts, just struggling not to fall down the rain-soaked rocks and slabs we both said what we were thinking, "Why are we doing this?". We are seeing no views, we are not enjoying any of this, we are endangering our bodies unnecessarily. We both knew if we continued on to the next Hut and began setting up a wet saturated tent and peeling off wet socks and shaking out wet rain coats, that we would not be able to resist the Sirens call. We would pay the $125, or $500 if they asked it of us, to stay in the Hut. The forecast for the following day was the same as this day, so would we wake to more pattering rain? Another all day slog through puddles and down wet rocks.

We each fell on several occasions. I wasn't hiking the AT anymore. I wasn't doing this to prove something. I was doing this for enjoyment. And my saturation level surpassed my enjoyment! We decided we would go back to Lovetts Inn, we would dry off and we would day hike the following day, rain or shine. Having a dry place to go to makes all the difference in the world. When I hiked the AT and there were days like that, I often found a way to be in a dry room. A wet miserable day drove me to Great Barrington to pay $250 for a bad room.
We finished our tumbles down Webster Cliffs (there might be nice views, but I can't tell you that for a fact!) and came to Crawford Notch. I had no cell service, which I knew was going to happen from previous research in the area. It had been raining too hard up top to get the phone out or take the pack off. I knew there was a shuttle service, and hoped there would be one coming soon. Otherwise a 4 mile walk up the road to the Highlands Lodge was in store for us. But I was completely prepared for that, It's happened before! The shuttle schedule had a shuttle visiting this spot twice daily. One of those times in 30 minutes! How fortunate. Of course, in typical AMC fashion, those four miles was going to cost us $10 each! But we paid. And we got to the Taj of Huts. More like one of the resort areas in the Shenandoah. Outside people played bocce ball in the rain, knowing a warm shower was only a few feet away. We used the 4G service to call Jim and he drove the 20 minutes over to pick the up the drowned hikers.
That night we celebrated! Alive and warm! A semi-successful hike. Under the circumstance we made the right call. The Whites will wait. The day will come that they will be enjoyed, not slogged through.
The following day we decided to hike the crown jewel of the White Mountains: Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge. The day began sunny and nearly cloud-free. What?! Same exact forecast as the preceding day. If I've learned anything it is to completely ignore the forecast for this region of the world, because it's wrong. This valley might have a totally different weather than that one. We packed up our gear and drove over to the bottom of the Old Carriage Trail, we made the steep climb up Lafayette, rock scrambling up steps and rock faces. Our light day packs enabling us to bound up the mountain, light on our feet and energetic. Views became apparent behind us and we could see for miles. What a difference a day makes. Clouds rolled in but stayed far aloft, leaving our views unscathed. In a short amount of time we came upon Greenleaf Hut. A very nicely situated hut nestled on the shoulder below the treeline of Lafayette by a mountain tarn.

We ate lunch here and let our sweaty backs dry before gaining more elevation and a lower temperature. The last mile was a few thousand steps, above treeline, the views are amazing, the hard granite wall rising above to envelope the sky in front. We reached the summit and had panoramic views all around us. A valley that looks untouched by the influence of man, the road in the Notch a thread hardly visible. Franconia Ridge looked like a shark fin breaching the waters of a green ocean, our path evident down the ridgeline. This bit of trail is on many of the best hikes lists, and again and again showcased in Backpacker Magazine. I agree with this. This was an amazing hike. Views draw your eyes up and outward from yourself. Consciousness expands with the views. There are other places like this on the AT, but the others aren't so accessible. Saddleback Range in Maine is as good, if not better. Katahdin is similar as well as Avery Peak also in Maine. Big Hump and Little Hump in Tennessee is incredible, but in a different way.

We traversed the Ridge and began down the Falling Waters Trail. Uneventful and easy descent over rocks and down stairs lead to an unexpected series of waterfalls. Of course, with a name like "Falling Waters" I assumed there would be waterfalls, but I wasn't expecting as nice or spectacular of falls. We crossed and recrossed the river multiple times, avoiding wet feet - barely! A very spectacular ending to an awesome 7 mile hike. After the falls the trail leveled out and we quickly made our way back to the car.

Songbird called and told me she had to hide from a tornado while at work. She came home to the majority of the big old maple in the backyard no longer standing. The house was not damaged fortunately, but the trees were a mess. I made the call that I needed to come home and clean this mess up before heading back to work, so we had to leave a day early from the New Hampshire adventure. We've a score to settle NH, I'm GOING to enjoy every bit of trails you've got to offer!!
Kaya is impressed, as am I!!

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