There is some uncertainty about how Mahoosuc Notch got its name. One source says it may have come from the Abenaki Native American word for “home of hungry animals.”
If that’s the case, the name fits its context today, when the notch is filled with hikers trying to find their way through a maze of boulders massed at the bottom of a steep canyon.
|Date||Monday, September 11, 2017|
|Weather||Mostly sunny with a high temperature in the upper 60s|
|Trail Conditions||Boulder field, followed by a steep, rocky climb and an easy descent|
Mahoosuc Notch is often called the most difficult mile on the Appalachian Trail. In truth, it’s not even a mile in length. Nevertheless, we knew before we entered it we would be in for a difficult hike.
That’s why we chose to stay at Full Goose Shelter last night. It is the closest spot to the notch where camping is allowed.
Despite its short distance, we had heard enough stories to expect we would be spending a few hours picking our way through the notch.
We had also heard a few stories of hikers making their way through it in 30 minutes. That seemed absurd, especially for three old men like us.
If you alertly noted I said three old men, the emphasis wasn’t intended to be on the word “old,” though to be sure, we are not young hikers able to make it through Mahoosuc Notch in a few minutes.
Instead, I’m saying Stick and I became a gang of three today. Tengo Hambre started walking with us.
It just happened without much discussion. We left the shelter together this morning and that was that.
Right after leaving the shelter, the trail made a short climb up Fulling Mill Mountain.
The mountaintop was a broad, rocky and alpine. Its multiple peaks offered some view spots.
Descending from Fulling Mill Mountain was rocky but not difficult. I continued my habit of taking my steps slowly.
As I neared the bottom, I saw Tengo and Stick had stopped to wait for me.
This was the start of Mahoosuc Notch, and they knew it would be helpful if we all stuck together.
Walking through the notch began easily enough. The trail at first seemed like any other trail in these mountains, with a short, rocky climb.
That all changed within a couple minutes. The trail entered what can best be described as mass chaos.
It appeared as though giant boulders had been haphazardly dumped in the bottom of a bucket. These massive rocks, some larger than automobiles, were lying at every possible angle. Wedged in here and there were a few small trees to add to the disarray.
There were times when we had no idea which way to go, and that seemed to be the point. You just had to look around and make a guess for which way kept you moving forward.
This often meant squeezing into an opening barely wide enough for your body, and certainly not wide enough for your body and your pack.
Carrying a large pack was definitely a hindering factor while trying to navigate through the notch.
At one point I stopped to collect some items, including a trekking pole, that had fallen off someone’s pack. I guessed they fell off the back as the hiker scraped against a rock.
Later, I caught up to Frodo and asked if these items were his. They were. He had no idea he had lost them, but was glad to get them back.
At other times, my only choice forward was to scale the boulders, though handholds were few or non-existent.
I was beginning to see how some hikers were able to get through Mahoosuc Notch much faster than I was going. They had to be much more agile than me, and probably weren’t carrying a large pack.
In a couple places, an arrow or two were painted on the rocks to help in finding a direction. I was uncertain, though, if these really were pointing to the best way to go.
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” as I approached one of these spots.
The boulder scramble continued ever so slowly.
At times it took me several minutes to figure out where I was going to go next. Sometimes I also needed a little extra time to summon courage to make the next step.
One such spot was where I stood on a narrow rock ledge. Below me was a gap in the boulders, which dropped about six feet to a pile of jagged rocks. Ahead of me was the narrowest of cracks, where I thought I might be able to get a foothold. Unfortunately, it was too far away to simply step over the gap to reach, and had no obvious place to hang onto when I got there.
After taking time to survey my options I only saw one way to do this. I decided I could leap over the gap and reach up and grab the top of a boulder before placing my feet on the narrow ledge.
The problem here was I couldn’t see the top edge of the boulder I was intending to grab. Was it rounded, giving me nothing to grip? Or was there enough of an edge to grip long enough so I could set my feet down without falling into the gap below?
With no small measure of foolish hope, I made the jump, grabbed the rock, and made a perfectly balanced landing.
Then I said to myself, “I should not have done that."
Moving on, I came upon another spot with a deep gap in the rocks. For this one I had to stretch my toes to reach into the next rock, hoping there would be enough room for my foot to stay wedged while I looked for the next step to take. I surprised myself when I was able to do it.
It should be no surprise that it took Stick, Tengo and me about 3.5 hours to get through Mahoosuc Notch.
When we reached a small tenting area on the other side of the notch we stopped for lunch. Frodo, Samwise and Gimli decided they were done for the day and planned to camp here.
We decided we had enough daylight and enough energy to get to Speck Pond Shelter, a distance of just 2.4 miles.
Just one thing stood between us and the shelter. That was a climb up Mahoosuc Arm, which is considered to be one of the steepest climbs on the Appalachian Trail.
We soon found out there was no reason to doubt this claim. In a distance of about 1.5 miles, the trail went up 1,600 feet in elevation.
In some places along the way the trail was nothing but a bare slab of rock. The angle was so steep it was impossible to walk up this rock unaided. The only way to climb this was to stay along one side or the other, using the roots that bordered the slab as footholds and handholds.
Later in the climb up Mahoosuc Arm, the trail was no longer solid rock. It was now a path of slick mud and a tangle of roots.
This might have been a demoralizing climb, especially after having already gone through Mahoosuc Notch, but my attitude was good and I wasn’t too fatigued.
When I needed to I stopped to recollect my energy, then pushed on.
It took us two hours to make the climb up Mahoosuc Arm. Once we reached the summit we were treated with a nice view of Old Speck. I was glad this was a mountain we would not have to climb until tomorrow.
The descent from the summit to Speck Pond, followed by a side trail around the pond to the shelter, were no where near as difficult to walk as the climb to the summit had been. This part of the trail seemed comparatively civilized.
Today was a day of extremes. It took as much energy and concentration as I could summon. And in the end, I was left with a feeling of accomplishment that was as big as any I have felt on the trail.