AT 2017: Day 146, Lakes of the Clouds Hut to Mt. Washington Summit

If you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind

There was one more lesson we learned from our work-for-stay experience at Appalachian Mountain Club huts. We made sure to request a job after dinner, not after breakfast. We knew our work wouldn’t start until the paying guests finished eating. If we worked after breakfast, we couldn’t leave the hut until 9:30 or 10 a.m.

Because Ralph and I worked last night, we were able to leave first thing this morning. Stick paid for his spot on the dining room floor, so he could leave early too.

We had to be packed up and cleared out of the dining room anyway, so we had no problem getting an early start this morning.

DateSunday, September 3, 2017
WeatherIncreasing clouds, wind and cold, with gusts up to 70 mph
Trail ConditionsContinuous climb up 1200 feet in elevation over rocky terrain
Today's Miles1.5
Trip Miles1856.9

The thing of it was, when we left Lakes of the Clouds Hut just before 7 a.m., we only knew we were going to the top of Mt. Washington.

Would we continue on to Madison Spring Hut or Osgood Tentsite? Could we continue on at all? We didn’t know.

These uncertainties were because of the weather. Looking at the forecast, it didn’t look good. Yesterday was beautifully sunny and pleasant. Today’s forecast was for high winds and rain.

Sometimes it’s possible to walk in conditions like that, but on Mt. Washington, it can sometimes be dangerous.

The mountain is 6,288 feet high, making it the highest peak in the Northeast U.S.

What Mt. Washington is most famous for isn’t its height, though. It earns its fame by having some of the worst, most erratic weather in the world.

That notoriety comes because of its location, which is at the intersection of several major stormtracks. Many storms moving west to east across the country travel over the peak. Those fronts often collide with weather systems moving south to north. This results in extremely violent weather.

The highest recorded wind speed on earth, excluding tropical cyclone winds, was measured here in 1934 at 231 mph. Wind gusts of more than 100 mph are not uncommon.

Starting out from the hut, the mountain looked benign. The wind was blowing hard, but without extreme gusts.

When I took a look back at the hut and Mt. Monroe, it appeared as though the sun was about to break through the clouds from behind the mountain.

The trail going up the mountain was filled with rocks and small boulders. It didn’t take long before Uncle Puck and Dancing Bear passed me.

This route wasn’t just the Appalachian Trail. The section is also known as the Crawford Path, which is the oldest trail in the White Mountains and is said by some to be the oldest hiking trail in the U.S.

The higher Stick, Ralph and I went, the more the views became magnificent. No matter what direction we looked we saw mountain peak after mountain peak. Clouds competed for attention with dramatic ripples and waves.

When sunlight was able to pierce the clouds, it splashed in narrow beams on the mountainside and valley.

The higher we went the harder the wind blew, with stronger and stronger gusts. One gust was so strong it knocked me over.

Soon, the entire Presidential Range south of Mt. Washington came into view when I turned to look back.

I could have stayed here for hours watching the sun and clouds and mountains change their appearance, minute-by-minute. But not only did I need to keep going, I needed to fight to maintain my balance against the wind.

The morning’s temperature was just above freezing. There wasn’t any of the rime ice we saw up here yesterday. There were only a few small patches of ice trapped between rocks.

As we neared the top of Mt. Washington, the weather began to change again. A thick layer of clouds began to move in from the west. It was coming in lower than where we stood.

When we reached a ledge just over a tenth of a mile from from the top, we stopped to take pictures of ourselves with this dramatic backdrop of clouds, mountains and valley.

I had to lean into the wind for my photo to not get blown over.

Where the trail turned to cross Mt. Washington's summit, we passed the Tip Top House. It was built in 1853, making it the oldest surviving building at the top.

The building now serves as a museum, but was closed when we walked by.

Nearby was a much larger building, with communication towers standing on and next to it. This was the transmitter building for a couple of FM radio stations. Other types of radio transmitters are also operated here. Until a few years ago, a TV station maintained a transmitter in the building.

From a weather observatory on the mountain, meteorologists monitor conditions and issue the forecasts we’ve relied on the last few days.

Once Ralph, Stick and I reached the summit, the wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to stand in place. We wanted to take pictures at the summit sign, but that was a challenge. It was a struggle just to reach the sign.

To avoid getting knocked over by wind gusts, we took turns holding the sign while one of us crouched low to brace against rocks and take the photo.

A sign near the top warned of the dangers of being on the mountain in bad weather. It said “many people" have died here, but that almost seems to underplay the risks. More than 150 people have been killed on this and the other mountains of the Presidential Range since record-keeping began in 1849.

And then, in a few short minutes, the entire moutaintop became engulfed in a thick cloud. Visibility dropped to a few yards. The wind was blowing harder and rain began to fall, so we decided to go inside the visitors center to reassess our situation.

There was a snack bar there, and we bought some snacks to eat while studying a monitor that displayed weather information direct from the observatory.

The forecast didn’t look good.

After discussing our options, we decided to get off the mountain. If the weather becomes more favorable tomorrow, Stick and I will return here and get back on the trail.

Ralph will not be going with us, however. His time in New Hampshire was finished because he needed to get back home for some family commitments.

The three of us had a couple options for getting off the mountain. One was to take the cog train down. As a railroad buff, this seemed to be Stick's preferred mode of transportation.

The train has been running tourists up and down this mountain since 1869, and lays claim to be the world's first mountain-climbing train. There’s only one other train, which is in Switzerland, that climbs a steeper grade using the rack and pinion system in the track and locomotive.

Though it would have been fun to ride a piece of history, this would be an expensive way to go. We would have to buy a roundtrip ticket for the ride down to Bretton Woods, which is where Omni Mt. Washington Resort Hotel is located. Then we would have to buy another roundtrip ticket tomorrow to get back up the mountain to resume our hike.

We elected instead to go down by way of the Mt. Washington Stage. If that sounds like riding a horse-drawn wagon down the mountain, it’s exactly what the ride was at one time. Today, of course, 15-passenger vans are used.

The ticket office was located near the visitors center, in a building that dates back to when horse-drawn wagons were used. The stage is now operated by the same company that owns and operates the auto road to the top.

Not only was the ticket price lower for this ride than the train, but our same ticket will be good for a ride back up the mountain tomorrow. That assumes, of course, that bad weather doesn’t keep the road closed.

Our driver, Alexa, delivered us to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at a few minutes before noon.

We knew we could get a ride from here to the hostel. Ralph called and arranged for a local shuttle driver to pick us up, but the driver couldn’t do that until 2:30.

This was fine for us, though, because the visitor center had a lunch room. We had plenty of time to eat lunch.

While we were there, JP arrived after hiking down from Osgood Tentsite.

We also saw Yung Gandalf, who told us he had made the climb over Mt. Washington yesterday when the weather was so beautiful.

He said there was a long line of tourists waiting to take a photo at the summit sign. He hated to do it, but had to rudely cut in line to take a photo of himself. He knew his daylight was limited for reaching a place to stay and he didn't have time to wait his turn in line.

The shuttle driver Ralph called arrived on time. He then took all three of us to The Notch Hostel. We hoped if there were any vacancies, we would just stay there. Unfortunately, Bookie said there were no bunks available.

So after another decision-making discussion, I called around to find a room. The first couple motels I tried were full, but a low-cost motel in Gorham called Royalty Inn had a room with three beds. That was perfect for us.

We made the long drive to Gorham in Ralph’s car and checked into the room. After getting cleaned up we went to dinner at a restaurant called SAaLT Pub.

The restaurant was a much nicer place than hikers would normally go to, but at least we had showered first. We didn’t feel out of place. In fact, our waitress was a former hiker, whose trail name was Base Weight.

Though Ralph was beginning a long drive home tomorrow, he continued to be the helpful friend he always is by taking us to Walmart after dinner. Stick and I were able to resupply for our next section of the trail.

The only question now was, could we get back on the trail tomorrow? We’ve learned to keep a constant watch of the weather on Mt. Washington.

Will it be sunny and nice? Windy? Icy? For all we know, it could be all of the above, and change by the minute.

Some come to laugh their past away
Some come to make it just one more day
Whichever way your pleasure tends
If you plant ice you're gonna harvest wind

From "Franklin's Tower" by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead)


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.