After a day off that brought torrential rains all day, we were back on the trail at the north end of the Kilkenny Range. We had a beautiful day to start, with cold wind and thick, fluffy clouds blowing overhead. There was a slippery, fun hike in the Devil’s Hopyard, and distant views from Roger’s Ledge, as far away as the Presidential Range. After the wet, viewless hiking on the Cohos Trail, the well-manicured trail up to Roger’s Ledge, then down to Unknown Pond was pure luxury.
We set up our tarps at the Unknown Pond campsite– relaxed, in good spirits, and looking forward to good weather and good views from our first two 4000-footers of the trip. During dinner we saw flashes of lightning in the distance, complete with grumbles of thunder. Inevitably, this thunderstorm would crash upon us just after bedtime, dumping bucketloads of rain and shaking us with tremendous thunderclaps. I’ve been using a tarp instead of a tent for four years now, but this was only the second or third time I’ve ridden out a large rain in it– the storm lasted no more than an hour, and I stayed dry.
When I awoke in the night the full moon cast a bright light on the area, and I heard a moose wading in the pond. It was a good omen for the following day, I believed. I was wrong. For the tenth day of the trip, we walked eighteen miles in a cloud– completely viewless over The Horn, The Bulge, Cabot, Waumbek and Starr King. Luckily there was no rain for the entire day, only brief sprinkling at times. Two 4000-footers, no views so far.
The wet trail caused me to slip and fall twice, resulting in a bloodied kneecap, a small rip in my rain pants, and an ugly, fist-sized bruise on my thigh. These would be the first of several epic, if mostly harmless, falls on the trail.
Tuesday morning started with more light rain and a stop in the Applebrook bed & breakfast in Jefferson. The B & B and the town were beautiful despite the clouds, but our walk for most of the day wasn’t great for the dreary day. Pondicherry Wildlife Refuge was nice, but we had to walk through briars and one last snowmobile trail to get to the best part, and then through an area flooded by beavers to get out.
The high point of the day, both literally and figuratively, came with the extremely steep climb up the two peaks of Cherry Mountain– Owl’s Head and Mount Martha. Both of these provided spectacular views of the valleys, as well as some mountains to the south. The high peaks were completely clouded in, but with the fall colors burning brightly we were instantly in love with the little mountain. Another slip down a six-foot slab that left me with a long scrape on my elbow reminded me that we were still in the Whites, though.
Again, in the night a large, windy rainstorm blew into town. It stayed around for most of Wednesday while we walked up Mt Hale, our third viewless 4000-footer of three, and finally stopped while we waited for our friend at Zealand Falls hut. The sun came out for a few hours, but not enough to dry us out before the next torrential rains started to fall in the afternoon. We decided to stay at the hut rather than hike in the rain to Ethan Pond shelter.
Another day, another heavy rain in the night. The trails on Thursday were like rivers, so we were soaked once again. From Zealand hut we went up to the summits of Mt Tom, Field, and Willey, then down to Crawford Notch. Three more clouded-in, viewless 4000-footers.
At the Notch we got a ride to Don & Betsy’s house in Conway, where we would stay for two nights, slackpacking one day and recovering in the evenings. As we drove out of the Notch, the black storm clouds parted and gave way to a cloudless, yellow-blue evening sky. Apparently there had been no rain or clouds in town for several days, while the mountains were drowning in rain.
Friday was a pretty straightforward day. It was overcast and cloudy all day, but we were able to get something of a view from Mt Isolation. The trail was long, as is any trip to Isolation, but it was relatively easy, and very pretty. We took a route past Mizpah Hut, down into the Dry River Wilderness, then back up to Isolation and down the Davis Path. I’d never been in the Dry River Wilderness, and I was very pleasantly surprised at its beauty. The trail itself was in need of plenty of maintenance (as with most wilderness trails in the White Mountains), but the surroundings were lush and scenic.
After the fine views on Mt Isolation, we had diminishing views on Stairs and Crawford Mountains, and we made it to the road to meet Don just as the rain began again. Lucky us. Even luckier, the forecast for the next few days was that the rain would finally stop for a bit. I was looking forward to views from Mt Carrigain, since we’d been able to see the beast of a mountain for several days.
The next morning we got an early start– and what a start it was. The Signal Ridge trail was easy, pretty, and most importantly the clouds were clearing as we ascended. Once again, the White Mountains weather threw us a last-minute surprise. The clouds came back at us as we neared the top, and we had no views from Carrigain. Eight 4000-footers, one view (Isolation). We descended Carrigain via the steep, treacherous Desolation trail, then traversed the damp Pemigewasset Wilderness to get to Mt Hancock. Due to some stomach issues we decided to not climb Hancock, even though the sun had finally cleared the clouds by late afternoon.
Sunday, the day before Columbus Day, was a big day. It started the same as many other days in the past weeks: frigid, windy, and with shoes wet from the day before. After a quick walk along the Kanc, during which we had a full view of Osceola, we began our trip up the mountain. The temperatures hovered around freezing, with ice all over the steep trail and sleet occasionally hitting our backs. We had a few nice views from below the clouds on East Osceola, and then another icy walk over to the main peak, where we had one of the most beautiful views of the entire trip for about two minutes before the clouds fully enclosed the summit.
Our walk down to the Tripoli road was remarkable in that we must have passed over a hundred people coming up to the summit. We lost count, but there were definitely more people in that three-mile segment of trail than we had seen on the entire trip up to that point– hikers or otherwise. At the trailhead parking lot there were so many cars that they filled the lot and the road as far as the eye could see in either direction. Our next stop, at the Tecumseh trailhead, had only three cars.
By the time we summited Tecumseh, the clouds had cleared completely, but the air was still bitter cold. We made our way down to Waterville Valley and met VFTTer Andy Knight, who had held our food packages for us. He also generously drove us the short distance (we would have got lost if we’d tried this on our own) to the Livermore Road trailhead, and brought us some apples and snacks that we wouldn’t have packed otherwise. A big ol’ salami was pretty heavy, but it proved to be a fantastic treat while it lasted (which wasn’t as long as it should have).
That evening was the first time that we ended a day of hiking with dry feet and dry sneakers. It was a big milestone for us, since we had already spent over two weeks hiking through cold, wet trails that any sane person would hate. Of course, the White Mountains would throw us one more nasty party before we left.
The night after Osceola and Tecumseh was bitter cold– cold enough that we found ice crystals in our water bottles in the morning, and drinking any water throughout the day gave us instant ice-cream-headaches. But the morning, once we got our blood flowing, was the beginning of one of the best days on the entire trail.
We started up North Tripyramid early in the morning, with crystal clear skies and the foliage colors blazing in the valley. We had constant views from the slide across the Waterville Valley to Osceola, Tecumseh, Carrigain, and the entire White Mountains region north of us. It was a transcendent moment that lasted over an hour as we steadily trudged up the steep slide. Once we went back into the woods near the top of the mountain, we began to see mud that had frozen solid overnight. We had dry feet all day because the mud never thawed.
Our route for the day took us over the Tripyramids, the Sleepers, Whiteface, and Passaconaway before we dropped down into the valley of “The Bowl” to make camp. We saw only a few people during the day, a striking contrast to the day before, but the views were much more frequent, and much longer. Near the bottom of the Dicey’s Mill trail, we found our best campsite yet, with a roaring brook, plenty of flat ground for tenting, and easy branches for bear-bagging. We set up our tarps and got ready for our last day in the Whites.
During another frigid night precipitation began to fall heavily around midnight, starting as rain and ending as snow. We stayed perfectly dry in our tarps, but by the end of the day we were drenched more than we had been at any point during the trip. We began with an unpleasant road walk to the Bennett Street Trailhead, then a very nice hike up the trail. We passed several gorgeous swimming holes and cascades along the stream, but it never warmed up enough to even consider jumping in. Something for summertime.
As we walked up the mountain, the snow accumulated more and more, until there were about three inches of wet, sticky snow. We were coated with it as it fell out of trees onto us, and as it weighed branches down into the trail. The summit of Sandwich Dome was wet, cold, snowy, and viewless. We hurried down, hoping to get into a dry spot to camp early and stay warm. When we got close to the road, the clouds were still thick, so we set up camp and hunkered down, knowing that in the morning we would be leaving the White Mountains.