Date Traveled, September 2009
I went with a group of about a dozen other hikers to spend a Labor day weekend in New Hampshire. Having gone just a few months earlier for the first time to New Hampshire and having hiked all the way up Mount Washington on that trip, I was very happy to get a chance to go back again. The weather during my last visit was foggy at the summits and the weather this time around was promising to look beautiful with bright clear skies. If so good but I was excited to go either way. The Webster cliffs After working out the logistics with the group leader, I ended up in a car pool with a couple of others also leaving from New York City. Most people in the group didn't know each other so it was fun to get to meet new people. But there is inevitable trouble about having a large group with different fitness levels and expectations for the hiking. The plan at the start of the trip was a democratic lets see what the group wants to do under suggestions from the leader but getting consensus on what to do led to some minor flare ups and the group splitting up after the first day, more on that further down.
Our lodging for the weekend was the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center Lodge at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. It is one the biggest lodges operated by the AMC (if not the biggest) and is a gorgeous lodge in an equally gorgeous location with super convenient access to so many trails. Crawford Notch lies very close to one of the major arteries of the Appalachian trail, the Crawford path to Mount Washington. It is probably the most common spot to start hiking the trails to the Presidential peaks in the White Mountains. These are prominent peaks in the Whites that are named after famous former Presidents of the United States. The famous "Presidential Traverse" is a long and grueling challenge that some hikers undertake. It involves bagging all the Presidential peaks in the Presidential range in a day. Crawford Notch is also a convenient place to start on other trails in the surrounding peaks as well and also has hiker shuttles to other trail heads further away. Needless to say, with all these conveniences AMC's highland center is a popular place to stay for hikers in the Whites. It features multiple accommodation options from luxury cottages to dorms with bunk beds, which is what our group was staying in incidentally. There is a breakfast buffet and dinner is family style in the common dining area with multiple courses. Trail lunches are packed and made ready as early as you need it to be. I seriously regret not taking pictures of the AMC lodge itself, I didn't realize I would be posting about this trip in a blog then ;-).
By late evening on the day before we were to hike, everyone had arrived in the Highland Center and in high spirits. After a group get together and introductions we were briefed on the plan for the next day's hike and eventually we all retired to our bunks with a plan to start early the next day but that didn't happen as the group took it easy. Still, after a hearty breakfast later and with a beautiful sunny morning and clear sky in front of us we set off on our first set of hikes for the day and had our first bickering.
We were going to hike the Willey trail and the peaks on it. The trail head was a half hour or so walk in the relaxed pace we were going in...which led to the first argument by a member complaining about the fact that we were hiking on the highway and not on the trail. The person wanted to take the shuttle or an alternate closer trail to maximize the available time. The leader however asked the person to just enjoy the walk which did not please the person. In any case, we reached our trail head and started hiking up the Willey trail. All was well at first until the hike started to get steeper and longer. The group was of mixed fitness levels with some folks not having much experience with uphill hikes, even for fit people, the Whites can be extremely challenging. This led to some members struggling and others worrying about being able to complete the hike and thinking about turning back. With a lot of breaks and the leaders patient coaxing the group eventually made it to the Mount Willey, our first peak for the trip. The beautiful rocky outcropping that was the summit surrounded by Alpine bushes was the perfect spot to take a break and take in the views. At this point the mood was once again cheerful and high spirited because the bulk of the hard ascent was complete and there was more ridge walking with less sustained ups and downs. And what spectacular ridge views. Directly across our ridge on the Willey trail was the Webster cliff trails and the sheer cliffs offered some stunning views for us. We walk along the ridge with a gentle ascent to our next peak, Mount Field standing 4340 feet tall, our highest point for the day and the perfect spot for a lunch break.
Mount Willey and the plank trail to mizpah hut
The Webster cliffs
A gray jay
The afternoon saw the group bag our last peak for the day along the way, Mount Tom, before beginning our descent back to the Highland Center. By now everyone was still in high spirits but ready to end the day with a nice shower at the lodge. The descent down was memorable in how badly we all missed the estimates on where we were on the trail. We thought we were much further ahead but the trail seemed interminable and we were almost convinced we were lost before arriving at the lodge to a refreshing shower and family dinner. Post dinner though the on trail discussions on the plan for the next day came to a head with a minor argument between some who wanted to do more and others who wanted to take it easy with the leader favoring a relaxed holiday approach instead of an active hike. At least one member was vocal in their frustrations which led others to raise their voices as well. This ruined the otherwise good camaraderie between the group and the leader rightly said that anyone wishing to do an alternate hike should do so separately. While I found the whole flare up a little silly given that this conclusion could have been reached amicably, I did want to do an active hike at my pace. I decided not to join any other groups and do a first for me...a solo hike.
This was my plan, leave very early and hike the Saco lake trail right at the lodge to the start of the Webster-Jackson trail. Hike up the Webster-Jackson trail to Mount Webster and then onwards to Mount Jackson. From there the goal was to first reach the AMC's Mizpah Spring Hut for a water refill and finally hit Mount Pierce above the treeline. I figured by then it would be time to return as I had no idea how long this would take me. Also this was my first solo hike and was a little apprehensive about getting help in case I got hurt or something but I would realize, that the trails along the Presidentials are pretty crowded except maybe in Winter. I qualify the word crowded here, you are hiking steep elevations...you are going to meet people maybe every half hour at certain sections and maybe every 15 minutes at some, that's crowded for hikes but not like you're in line at an amusement park or something.
I started my hike up with a major goofup, I forgot to take my packed lunch. This had me even more worried because when you are clocking 3000 feet of elevation at a moderately fast pace, you need your energy. I didn't realize this till I was at a bluff maybe a few hundred feet higher than the lodge and overlooking it. I was enjoying the view and then it hit me. I took stock of what I had, a few chocolate bars and a couple of energy bars. I was concerned but decided to try my luck at the Mizpah Hut for some food.
The AMC Highland Center far below
Atop Mount Jackson
The view from Mount Webster
The mizpah hut in the distance
The first climb up I went fast not knowing how long things were going to take me. The miles on the trail map I carried were pretty meaningless to me with all the elevation and scrambles. The trail was rugged and there was enough parts of the trail where I definitely needed to scramble up rock faces. I was more concerned with not being able to reach Mizpah Hut in time so I kept going fast, until I reached Mount Webster. Here my confidence came back to me, the sun was now rising up and I had a glorious view. I now finally started to lose my apprehension and moved onward at a fast pace to Mount Jackson which I reached again with what I thought was pretty good time. From here I could see the Mizpah Hut in the distance and decided to press on. The trail from Jackson to Mizpah was full of wet muddy marshy ground with wooden planks built along the way. I was careful not to slip here but still kept going fast and eventually I reached the Mizpah Hut and the intersection of the heavily treaded Crawford path. I was able to buy more chocolate and energy bars at the hut but couldn't get any other kind of food. I was also told by someone there that I could easily reach Mount Pierce and get back if that was my goal, so off I went again. More fast hiking to reach Mount Pierce and what a sight that was...a clear cloudless blue sky showing the Crawford path all the way to Mount Washington, easily visible along with Mount Eisenhower and Mount Monroe along the way. I decided this was too good of an opportunity to miss, weather like that does not come all the time to the Whites and I continued onwards.
The trail is relatively gentle above the treeline until you hit the final climb to Mount Washington. However the other peaks have their own trails to allow you to summit them if you wish. I reached Mount Eisenhower standing tall at 4780 feet and began a steep and brutal ascent to the top of it. Elated, I stopped there for my chocolate and energy bar lunch. It was around noon and I had gone further than I had expected to in the 5 hours I had been hiking.
The trail to Mount Washington
The red lake below Mount Eisenhower
I was sorely tempted to go on and in hindsight I wish I did. At that time I was worried about how I would make it back to the lodge because if I went on there wasn't going to be enough time to return by the Crawford path as I planned to. I would have to head down some other trail and then find my way back. Like I said I should have done that because I had plenty of time. The hike back along the Crawford path was easy, it is extremely gentle and I was almost running downhill on my hike back. I was back by 3 and found the Highland Center staff waiting for me with my forgotten packed lunch...8 hours of hiking and tired of energy bars, that was a welcome reward at the end of it.