AT 2017: Day 178, Pinkham Notch to Zeta Pass

Got to settle one old score and one small point of pride

Gravity climbs Wildcat Mountain

The Appalachian Trail from Pinkham Notch to U.S. Highway 2 in New Hampshire is only 21.2 miles long. When I decided to skip this section in order to allow my sprained ankle to heal, I wasn’t convinced I needed to come back to hike it.

I tried to tell myself this was only one percent of the entire trail. Skipping it wouldn’t diminish my accomplishment. I would have still hiked more than 2,000 miles.

In the end, I knew I was kidding myself. My wife saw through this. She also knew I was kidding myself and gently convinced me I needed to complete these miles.

I had to do this and I wouldn't forgive myself if I didn't.

DateSunday, October 8, 2017
WeatherCloudy and damp, with occasional light rain and a high temperature in the low 60s
Trail ConditionsExtremely steep climbs and descents, slippery rocks
Today's Miles8.6
Trip Miles2177.2

When we came to that conclusion I’m not sure either one of us immediately grasped the opportunity we had here, but we saw it before long. I would be able to finish my hike with my family.

Kim was not an experienced hiker. For her, hiking to the top of Mt. Katahdin on some of the most difficult terrain of the trail was not a question to consider.

On the other hand, the last two miles of the trail leading to the highway and Rattle River Hostel were said to be relatively easy. She could hike that to meet me after I descended from the Wildcat and Carter mountains, then walk my last miles with me.

Our two sons are Eagle Scouts and experienced backpackers, so this section would not pose a problem for them. They could hike over the Wildcats and Carters with me, then meet up with Kim for the final distance.

In this way, we’d all be together as a family when I finished. There could not be a more perfect or fitting end to a thru-hike, and thus a plan was formed.

Gathering at Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket

Once Stick, Tengo and I had descended from the summit of Mt. Katahdin and were reunited with our wives, we agreed to meet the next morning for a celebratory breakfast at Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket. Sir Poopsalot and Carrina agreed to meet us there too.

Stick and his wife Sandy were heading with a family friend to Providence, R.I., and so they were unable to stay long. Unfortunately, they missed a group photo Kim took of us in the cafe.

Gravity signs tile at Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket

One of the trail’s traditions is for thru-hikers to sign a ceiling tile at the cafe once they've completed their hike. I went ahead and signed my name, though I hadn’t yet completed my hike. I wasn’t planning to come back to Millinocket, and figured I could be forgiven for taking this liberty.

In our original plan, Kim, Logan and Landon would drive up to Millinocket and stay one night before meeting me in Baxter State Park. This changed when Tengo, Stick and I pushed up our summit day to avoid the threat of a thunderstorm. Rather than revising our motel reservations, though, Kim and I elected to keep them as originally set.

We stayed two nights in Millinocket, which gave me an opportunity to relax and resupply for the final two days of hiking. We then traveled to Lancaster, N.H., where we were able to get a comfortable, two-room suite. No rooms were available for Friday night in Gorham, which would have been closer for our start from Pinkham Notch on Saturday morning. Still, this turned out to be a good solution.

Landon, Gravity and Logan leave Pinkham Notch

The only problem with staying in Lancaster was it was farther from Pinkham Notch. We made it work, though. Kim dropped the three of us off so that we could begin hiking at first light, just past 6:30 a.m.

Pinkham Notch was where I had left the trail when I took a couple days off.

Lost Pond at Pinkham Notch

After crossing New Hampshire Highway 16, the trail followed a flat route past Lost Pond. This short section gave no indication of the kind of trail we would be soon following.

View of Pinkham Notch during climb up Wildcat Mountain

Immediately, the trail began a steep and rugged climb up Wildcat Mountain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I later learned this climb was the steepest on the entire Appalachian Trail.

Logan climbs Wildcat Mountain

The trail went up 1,000 feet in one half mile. It was about as vertical a climb as you will find on any hiking trail.

Gravity climbs Wildcat Mountain

In several spots, the trail made use of a crack in the mountain sidewall. I put away my trekking poles because they were only getting in the way.

Gravity scales side of rock

In other spots, we could see white blazes that told us the trail went up a rock slab wall, but it was up to us to figure out how to scale this wall.

This was not hiking, it was rock climbing.

Pinkham Notch in autumn colors

Much of this trail was exposed, so the higher we went up, the more dramatic the views of Pinkham Notch below us became.

Ski lift on Wildcat Mountain

Wildcat Mountain has multiple peaks, identified by letters. After going over Peak E, we reached the top of Peak D at 10:15 a.m. By that time, clouds were beginning to thicken and it looked like we would get some rain.

I hadn’t noticed Logan was struggling or lagging behind, but he said he was having trouble with his ankle. He was concerned he might be slowing us down.

I certainly could sympathize with ankle problems, so we stopped to discuss our options and available time for today.

We discovered that the ski lift on this mountain was running today, so it would be possible for Logan to purchase a one-way ride down to the bottom. He was fortunate to have this option because it only ran on weekends this time of year. He decided heading back down was best for him and our plan to finish by tomorrow.

By this time Kim was heading back to Maine, where she would be spending the night with one of her cousins. We didn’t want to ask her to come back to pick up Logan, so I told him about a place he could camp. It was just up the trail on the other side of the highway, a short distance from the visitors center at Pinkham Notch.

He then rode the gondola down to the bottom of the mountain and walked up the AT in the other direction.

I was also able to get a cell phone signal from the mountain top and contacted Kim to let her know about our change in plans. We were able to work it out so that she would pick up Logan at Pinkham Notch. Then together they would travel to the the other end of the trail, where they could meet Landon and me.

Though this seemed like a complicated reordering of plans, the change was actually a relief for Kim. Now she would be able to walk with Logan tomorrow to the meeting spot I had set.

Clouds move in over Wildcat Mountain

As Landon and I continued on with our hike, clouds continued to thicken and surround the mountain tops. The trail took us over the other Wildcat peaks.

Peak A was the summit of Wildcat Mountain. It was completely wooded, so there were no views available there. The clouds by now were thick enough that there wouldn’t have been anything to see.

Carter Notch Pond

From the summit, the trail made a steep descent to a gap between Wildcat and Carter Dome, the first of the mountains in the Carter Range.

There were a couple of ponds at Carter Notch. As we followed a trail around the largest of the two ponds, a little bit of light rain began to fall.

Carter Notch Hut

Carter Notch Hut was located here. We stopped to warm up a little and get out of the rain. We didn’t stay long, though. The time was now pushing close to 2 p.m. and we still had a couple of climbs to make before reaching Zeta Pass, which we wanted to get to before dark.

The pass was only a little more than 2.5 miles away, but in this weather and difficult terrain, I knew we would need plenty of time to get there before dark.

Carter Dome

Once we left the hut, the trail took us up and over Carter Dome. At 4,832 feet in elevation, this was the highest mountain of this two-day section.

The top was rocky and above treeline, but there were no views to be had from here because we were in clouds.

Mt. Hight was the next mountain to walk over, and it too was enshrouded in clouds. The footpath was full of rocks, so I took each step carefully.

From there it was just a half mile to Zeta Pass, but the descent was steep on slippery rocks.

We arrived at about 5:30 p.m. It seemed later than that because the clouds and a dense forest made the place darker.

Landon and I spent several minutes looking for a spot to pitch our tents. I had been told by Stick and other hikers this would be a good place to stop for the night, but I discovered camping was prohibited in the gap because of overuse.

We found a spot that we thought was out of the no-camping zone, though honestly, I wasn’t certain. At this point, we did the best we could do.

This was the last night on the trail of my long hike. Tomorrow would be my last day.

I thought about that, but the thoughts were hard to grasp. It didn’t seem possible to finally reach the end.

My hike has been a wonderful experience. I was glad to reach the end, but I knew i would miss this life.

Gotta get to Tulsa
First train we can ride
Got to settle one old score
And one small point of pride


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