Ralph, Stick and I sat in a McDonalds in Gorham this morning and ate our breakfast without exchanging many words. It was too early for much conversation, even for Stick.
I looked up and was surprised to see a handmade sign proclaiming, “Lobster rolls are back!” This was the first time I had been in a McDonalds that sold lobster rolls.
That discovery was just a distraction, though. Mostly I was preoccupied with thoughts about the day ahead. For now, everything seemed uncertain.
After breakfast, Ralph drove us to the base of Mt. Washington, where Stick and I hoped to get a van ride to the top of the mountain. The weather made our chances look iffy. Unless the wind died down sufficiently, the auto road would remain closed.
Viewed from the valley, we couldn’t tell what the weather was like at the summit. Thick clouds hung low around the mountain.
|Date||Monday, September 4, 2017|
|Weather||Wind gusts up to 70 mph on Mt. Washington's summit. Cloudy, with winds decreasing and sunshine by noon.|
|Trail Conditions||Extremely rocky terrain |
Ralph was hesitant to just drop us off. He was heading home today, but he didn’t want to leave without knowing we would be able to get a ride to the summit. He went into the ticket office with us.
A TV screen in a waiting room displayed the weather conditions at the summit. The temperature was in the upper 30s. Winds were still gusting, sometimes at more than 80 mph, but the wind speed was gradually dropping.
Eventually we were able to confirm the vans would be running up the mountain today. With that news, Ralph said goodbye and left.
We rode to the top with Dove. She was one of the hikers who was at Lakes of the Clouds Hut when we were there the night before last.
I thought maybe Mona and Wolfdogg would be here too. They left the summit with us yesterday, but apparently they made good on their wish to avoid the high winds.
The time was past 9:30 a.m. when Dove, Stick and I began hiking. As soon as we opened the door to leave the Mt. Washington visitors center, we were slammed by a blast of wind. It blew at up to 70 mph, but at least that was down from 90 mph yesterday.
The thick, dark clouds we saw surrounding the mountain when we were standing in the valley were still here. This made visibility difficult. We could see no more than maybe ten yards ahead of us. The clouds were so dark it didn’t seem like daytime.
We tried to find our way from the visitors center to the trail, but ended up wandering aimlessly. We couldn't find any trail markers.
When we reached a wall of the summit’s viewing deck and saw we couldn’t go any farther, we knew we’d walked the wrong way. Stick went back into the visitors center, where he found an employee to come out and point us in the right direction.
The trail descended gradually at first, then more sharply down as it led us away from the top. The wind was still blowing hard, though slightly less than before.
Sudden gusts still made it difficult to avoid being pushed off the path. They also made it hard to take a step and be certain my foot would land where I intended to it to land, not on an ankle-twisting rock.
We were grateful to find rock cairns stacked up along the way. They made navigation easier through the thick fog.
Picking our way carefully down the mountain, we had to go extremely slow. The wind, rocks, visibility and uncertainty of where we were going all made the descent difficult. It took nearly 30 minutes to go only three tenths of a mile, which is where we crossed the tracks of the cog railroad.
On clear days, hikers are known to moon the tourists on passing trains. That wasn’t going to happen today, even if we had been so-inclined. The train wasn’t running yet because of the weather.
Our pace continued slowly and deliberately for a couple hours before we finally began to see small openings in the clouds. These gave brief glimpses of the trail ahead, as well as the valley below us.
Dove stayed with us during this slow descent, though she was much younger than us and could most certainly go faster. She seemed content to walk at our pace. That might have been because she felt it was safer to walk together.
For the same reason, I was glad to have two people with me.
After leaving the top of Mt. Washington, this section of the trail to Madison Spring Hut doesn’t cross any mountain summits. It passes by several peaks near their summits and it remains above treeline for nearly the whole distance.
The first mountain in our path was Mt. Clay. Despite being a named peak and standing above 5,500 feet in elevation, the mountain is considered just an arm on the northern side of Mt. Washington.
Not until we were well past Mt. Clay did we see the clouds finally lift away. By this same time, the wind had dissipated considerably.
With the sun shining brightly we could now see where we were going. We were also not being knocked around so much by the wind. Still, walking remained difficult because the trail was still extremely rocky.
In spite of the improved weather I was unable to go much faster. I was still struggling with the rocks, and at one point stumbled and fell after tripping over a rock.
It was difficult for me sometimes to keep up with Stick and Dove. I felt as though I was awkwardly plodding down the trail.
During this difficult section, a day hiker came bounding down the trail. She seemed happy-go-lucky as she practically skipped along. When she stopped to talk to us she said her name was Jaleesa and she was a croo member at Madison Spring Hut.
Jaleesa kindly suggested that we might want to get below treeline today because a storm was forecast for tonight and tomorrow.
Stick and I glanced at each other before replying. We’re slow, we explained. At the rate we're walking, there is no way we can get below treeline before dark. We told her we would have to stop at the hut tonight.
Jaleesa didn’t appeared to be bothered by this answer. She pleasantly said she would see us later, then left, bounding lightly down the trail.
Dove continued to hike with us, but that began to worry me. Now that the weather was nicer, she didn’t need to remain with us. I wondered if she was now hiking with us out of sympathy or because she didn’t want to feel guilty for leaving us.
I didn’t say anything, but this concerned me.
The trail wasn’t getting much easier as we passed by Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Adams. Through here, I stepped on a rock badly and twisted my left ankle, not the right as I’ve usually injured.
The sprain didn’t hurt as badly as when I sprained my right ankle while leaving Lonesome Lake Hut, but this was annoying. Now I had two sore ankles when I was trying to go faster.
With the clouds gone, we were able to enjoy beautiful views, much like we had the last two days. I wasn’t enjoying them much though. My focus was on the ground to make sure I didn’t step wrong again on a rock. It was demoralizing.
Stick wasn’t going much faster than me. Seeing this, I shouldn’t have been concerned I was slowing him down, but I still felt that way, just as I worried I was slowing down Dove.
When my ankle gave out from under me and I fell one more time, the fall was more than just my body hitting the ground. My mental and emotional strength, which has carried me through all the difficult challenges of the trail so far, also dropped. I plunged into a pit of frustration and self pity.
I’d had enough. “That’s it!” I said. “I can’t do this any more.”
These words surprised me, but I knew they were mine. I was sure it was time to quit fighting through the pain and fatigue.
Attempting to control myself so Dove wouldn't see me get emotional, I turned to her and suggested she go on without us. It was okay to leave us, I said. She didn’t have to stay with us. Stick affirmed what I sad.
After hesitating just a moment, Dove agreed too that it was probably best she hike on ahead.
When she left she was soon out of our sight, confirming for me that she didn’t have to walk at our speed.
I had always had confidence in myself and always thought I would finish, knowing that only something I couldn’t control would stop me.
Nearly 20 years of dreaming, planning, training and testing gear had gone into this hike. I had completed more than 80 percent of it, yet now I was ready to quit. I told Stick that as soon as we reached Pinkham Notch I was going to hitch a ride to Gorham, then find my way back home to Tennessee.
As soon as I uttered those words, I knew they didn’t sound right. They felt as you feel when you're driving a car and make a turn onto a different street, then immediately realize you’re going the wrong way.
In that moment I realized I didn’t want my hike to end. I couldn’t let it end.
Yes, I was having a hard time controlling the swelling in my right ankle. It was not stable and I was overcompensating for it.
Yes, I was tired, feeling worn down and beat.
But no, this was not time to stop. This was a situation I thought was out of control, but I could control it. I didn’t have to quit. I needed to see this hike through to the end.
This was an unexpectedly empowering feeling.
Stick and I had expected the climb tomorrow over Mt. Madison was going to be difficult, so we knew we wouldn’t reach Pinkham Notch until the next day. From there, the trail makes several difficult climbs over rugged mountains. It should take two more days to reach Rattle River Hostel, which is just off the trail near Gorham.
I told Stick I had a change in plans. When we reach Pinkham Notch, I want to get a ride directly to the hostel and skip the section that goes over the Wildcat and Carter mountains. If I am successful in repairing myself there, I can continue on with him when he reaches the hostel.
Stick was supportive of my plan, even though it meant he would have to go alone over some of the most difficult trail in the White Mountains.
My decision felt like a weight being lifted from me. Nevertheless, we still had to finish walking to the hut over rocky trail. The hut finally came into view at about 5:30. We reached it at about 6 p.m.
As soon as Stick and I walked in we were greeted by a croo member named Zak. He asked if we were interested in a work-for-stay. We didn’t have to ask for it. Jaleesa then greeted us and she too asked if we wanted to do a work-for-stay.
Stick and I figured out Jaleesa and Zak must have discussed us when she got back to the hut. It seems they planned to hold work-for-stay spots for us. The hikers who arrived before us were not given jobs and a couple of them ended up having to purchase bunks.
Dove wasn’t here. She apparently continued up and over Mt. Madison.
Once the hut’s paying guests were done with dinner, Stick and I finished off the leftovers, which included beef tips, peas and couscous. Almond, coconut and chocolate baked bars were for dessert.
We were assigned the job of washing dishes and scrubbing pans. As a thank you for the croo’s thoughtfulness, Stick and I made sure every pan was scrubbed to a shine. They were happy with our work.
This was a physically and emotionally exhausting day, but in it I discovered something about myself.
The determination and desire I thought I had lost was still within me. This discovery gave me new strength and resolve to finish my hike.
I will need it. Maine isn’t going to walk to me.