For the first trip of the summer season with my crew of summer-camp kids, I brought a slightly oversized group to the White Mountains, an obvious choice for a backpacking trip with a group. Since the group size was 12 including the two leaders, I chose the Appalachian Trail through the Whites due to its ability to handle huge amounts of traffic. The maximum group size recommended by Leave No Trace, and by most trail maintaining organizations of the northeast, is 10 people, so I was already breaking a rule that I had spent a year enforcing at the Green Mountain Club, but the AT in the Whites was the most likely place I knew that could handle a larger group, and it seemed like a big bang for our buck.
|Zealand Ridge from the Zealand Trail|
After a long van ride (any distance in a van full of junior-high kids is long) to the Ripley Falls trailhead and a tight parking job with our short bus, we began the short walk to Ethan Pond for our evening’s camping. Starting a bunch of kids out with overweight backpacks loaded down with an entire trip’s worth of food is a slow process. I had pushed the kids to pack as lightly as possible, but we could only work with what we had– large, heavy backpacks loaded with bulky oversized sleeping pads, giant synthetic three-season sleeping bags, and cumbersome group gear from the camp. None of them had ever been backpacking before, so the packs and the weight were a challenge. Our three-mile hike to Ethan Pond took just over three hours, which gave me a lot more time to enjoy the beauty of the forest in the area.
When we arrived at Ethan Pond, the sky was beginning to cloud over. We made our way to the campsite and found the caretaker, Seth, jovial and excited to take us on for the night. With the clouds rolling in, though, we got right to setting up our tents, and none too soon. Fat rain drops began to fall as soon as our packs touched the ground. Showers continued off and on throughout the night, some heavy and some light. Seth had set up a large tarp over the cooking area of the campsite, so the whole group crowded under there to cook dinner and listen to his caretaker stories. My co-leader and I were overjoyed to have a campsite caretaker who was so good at holding an audience. The kids ate up the stories eagerly, practically forgetting the rain and new discomforts of the trail.
As evening set in, a tremendous thunderstorm lit up the sky, but it seemed to be mostly in the distance, hovering over the Bonds. I hoped the rain would end before morning, knowing the second day would probably be our hardest.
My wish was granted, as in the morning there was barely a cloud in the sky. I left a little earlier than the rest of the group, since I had to make a trip into town to find iodine to replace the broken filters that we had been given by the summer camp. I ran back to the bus, cleaned out the Highland Center’s stash of iodine, then hurried along to the Zealand Road and hurried some more up to Zealand Falls Hut, expecting the rest of the group to be there already. I guess I’d overestimated their speed along the railroad grade trail from Ethan Pond, so after verifying that they weren’t at the hut, I continued back along the trail to meet them about a mile out.
|The easily recognizable view from… guess!|
The day continued to be sunny and clear, without even the usual haze of humidity in the air. We all stopped for a long lunch at the hut, taking some time to play in the pools at the top of the falls and enjoying the clearest view I’ve had from Zealand Falls. Though it was still a weekday, there were plenty of crowds at the hut. I saw two or three hikers who were starting the Cohos Trail, which made me a little jealous. There was also a guided day-hike group being led by an Appalachian Mountain Club tour-guide who told me that one of the two mountains visible from the porch of Zealand Falls Hut next to Carrigain was Mount Chocorua. This made me wonder what exactly the requirements are to be a hiking guide for the AMC. Maybe recognizing exceptionally distinctive peaks in the White Mountains should be one of them (the mountains are Lowell and Anderson, by the way).
It was a long lunch break, but we also had our longest planned day of the backpacking trip ahead of us, so we continued along from Zealand Falls in good spirits. After the easy grades of the morning, the climb up to Zealand Mountain was a killer for the kids, but I was more than happy to be on steep New England trails again. With the exceptionally clear skies, we were able to get phenomenal views from Zeacliff, again reminding the kids that, yes, the hard climbs are worth it. Along the way, I also took the side trail to Zealand Mountain, bagging a peak that I’d neglected on my through-hike four years ago. The kids came along, but complained that the mountain was pointless because there was no view. Not for me, I thought, but I let them just continue griping, knowing that there would be plenty of views ahead.
|Final push of the day to Guyot Campsite.|
The group was close to exhaustion when we climbed over the domed summit of Guyot and then turned down the Bondcliff trail toward Guyot campsite. The unnamed dome of a mountain next to Mount Guyot had even better views, encompassing the Presidential Range, Franconia Ridge, the Twins, the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and much more to the south. In the early evening light, I would have stayed up there a little longer, but the wind and late hour made me nervous that the kids would be too tired to cook their dinners. We enjoyed the views for a bit, then made our way to the campsite. I had a brief chat with the caretaker, another fine fellow, and then we packed our group onto one of the group tent platforms. Including us, the campsite was packed full for the night, and we had barely enough room to get into our tents. I hoped that the kids would pass out early from the exhaustion of the long day of hiking, but somehow they still had enough energy to be crazy kids until my co-leader and I enforced a reasonable bed-time.
I set my alarm for early o’clock, woke the half of the group that wanted to see sunrise, and the bunch of us set off to the unnamed peak to watch the day begin. Aside from toxic farts from the dehydrated chili mix the camp had sent us out with, the morning was downright magical. We sat down half asleep on the rocks of the peak, and watched the Presidential Range as the sky lit up a rich purple and orange, the sun eventually breaking out from the few clouds surrounding the peaks. After spending several days with a noisy and rowdy bunch of kids, the silence at the summit was almost surreal. It’s nice to hear the kids appreciate how gorgeous the scenery is.
|Good morning, Washington.|
We stayed at the unnamed summit for a few more minutes after sunrise, then went back to the campsite to wake the rest of the crew for breakfast. It was still a gorgeous morning from the tent platforms, the rising sun peeking through the dense forest, but the clouds that had hovered over the Presidential Range began to turn into a steady overcast. No rain since our first night, though. Things were pretty nice.
The entire group now climbed over the unnamed Guyot (the half-open peak on the AT is Guyot, the fully open peak on the Bondcliff Trail is an unnamed secondary summit, but has a better view), now with full packs and a cool breeze. I remembered the stretch of trail from Guyot to South Twin being remarkably easy compared to its surroundings, and indeed it was so. This didn’t stop the kids from their usual barrage of questions, demanding to know exactly how hard the trail was, exactly how many miles we had gone or had left to go, exactly how many steep sections were left, exactly if it would rain, and so on. They didn’t like my indeterminate answers, but there are no exact answers to be had. I think they were more annoyed at my aloofness than I was at their insistence on asking stupid questions, but I digress.
Atop South Twin Mountain, one of my favorite summits in the Whites, we had fine views with mostly cloudy skies. We took over the summit for snacktime, discovering that one of our white gas bottles had leaked into one of the kids’ packs, contaminating a jar of peanut butter and a bag of banana chips. Dang. The o-ring of the bottle cap had rotted away over the years, another piece of shoddy equipment that probably should have been replaced long ago. Oh well. The views were nice, at least.
|A crowded lunch at Galehead Hut|
Continuing on toward Galehead Hut, we planned on a nice long lunch break, but it took us way too long to get there from South Twin, and just as we arrived another large group emerged from the trail to Thirteen Falls. This turned out to be a school group from Maine, a massive group of seventeen. All of a sudden, my rowdy, overenergetic crew of kids seemed to me like paragons of excellence in the wilderness. Even though the other group’s leaders were very nice and pleasant, and had a pretty good handle of the kids, I felt a pang of guilt knowing that the two of our groups were both oversized and both crowding the trail to a large degree. Worse, we discovered we would both be heading for Garfield Ridge campsite, which would undoubtedly fill the campsite to capacity. Oh dear.
The news that the other group was heading to Garfield spurred my group to move faster than ever, intent on getting first pick of tent platforms. They cut their lunch short and practically ran down the trail, with no extra prodding from me. My co-leader and I were plenty happy about that. The extra speed continued until we began the exceptionally steep climb up Mount Garfield, which was worlds harder than anything these kids had done in their lives so far. The last half mile or so went by almost as slowly as the previous few miles, but we got into camp at a reasonable hour, met yet another delightful caretaker, and set up camp in a hurry. Between our group, the large school group, and several other hikers, the campsite was maxed out that night, shelter and all. I was proud to see my group enjoying their evening at low volume while the other, larger group yelled and shouted long after hiker midnight. I even heard a few of my kids whisper that the other group was a bit too loud for being out in the wilderness, which I thought was pretty hilarious, coming from kids who recently had thought a single day without a shower was completely inhuman.
|Kids discovering the steep, rocky AT.|
Just after dinner, a few of us managed to break away from the group and bookend the day by running up to Mount Garfield to watch the sunset, even though the summit was mostly clouded in. This was another 4000 Footer for me to bag, since I had neglected this summit while on the AT in 2007– stupidly, as the trail passes barely a hundred feet from the summit.
Our final full day on the trail was going to be a big one. A hard rain fell through the night, but stopped before we awoke, just like our first night on the trail. Lucky us! The only rain we had happened while we were safe in our tents. Alas, Garfield and Franconia Ridge were still fully socked in with clouds in the morning.
|Mount Lafayette in July, doesn’t seem so much like summer.|
We finished the steep climb up Garfield, then down, then back up to Franconia Ridge. This took quite a while, but was mostly uneventful. I kept my fingers crossed that the clouds would clear a little on Lafayette, as the only other time I’d been up there had been in a cloud as well. We walked on and on, finally arriving at tree line and stopping for lunch just before we entered the fully exposed ridgeline. Still in a cloud, wind still blasting like a hurricane. We huddled as best we could, cold but happy. We were down to the last day’s worth of snack food, so I taught the kids that strawberry jelly, like peanut butter, didn’t need bread to make a tasty treat. One of the happiest moments on the entire trip was watching three kids follow me in filling their mouths with jelly from the squeeze bottles. Yum!
The walk up the ridge to Lafayette went slowly but steadily. The wind howled, knocking kids over from time to time and keeping everyone bent over as we plodded along the rocks. I loved every minute, but I knew the kids weren’t quite as ecstatic. Communication was impossible, even shouts at close range disappearing into the wind. We moved a few hundred feet at a time, then hunched down to regroup. This went on for almost two hours as we covered just a few short miles, and finally we summited Lafayette, still clouded in. Dozens of other hikers milled around the summit as well, this being a weekend. We didn’t stick around long. We got our triumphant summit pictures, then started down the other side.
|One of the best times to be on a mountain, as the clouds begin to clear.|
Just as we started down, however, a most glorious thing happened. The clouds disappeared magnificently, and the day went from completely clouded in to clear and stunningly beautiful. The views in the distance were less hazy than I can remember seeing them anytime in the past. The kids went crazy with excitement. The wind still blasted, but the sun counteracted all the cold we’d felt earlier.
There were still pretty large crowds hiking along the ridge all day, but everyone seemed in fine spirits, with good reason. Despite my group’s obnoxious singing (Found a Peanut, and 100 Bottles Of Beer, which the kids went through at great length), I’d say it was a fine afternoon. The pictures should speak for themselves.
|Franconia Ridge in all its glory.|
The day ended with one last bit of excitement that I wasn’t exactly thrilled about. We arrived at Liberty Springs campsite tired and happy, ready for a long evening of relaxation. We had notified AMC’s Group Outreach coordinator to let all of our campsite caretakers know we were coming, and so far this had worked out fine. The large school group the night before had also, so even though they were largely oversized, at least the caretakers had been forewarned. Not so at Liberty Springs. We arrived to find the campsite so overpacked that the caretaker had to turn away even a single hiker on his way from the Kinsmans. Three massive groups, including one group of twenty Boy Scouts, had arrived early in the afternoon and packed the site to overflowing. Of the four groups that arrived that day, only mine had notified the Group Outreach coordinator, and mine was the only one to be turned away. Needless to say, my group became somewhat grumpy immediately, and the BSA didn’t win any friends that day.
|Finishing up on Little Haystack Mountain|
We continued down the trail another few miles to find a stealth campsite, luckily finding a pretty good one just before sundown. A quiet last evening on the trail, and then an early exit from the trail in the morning. I don’t know how we got so lucky with the weather and general conditions on this trip. Even with the clouds on Lafayette, the rest of Franconia Ridge was a jaw-dropper. The only view we really missed was on Garfield, and even that wasn’t much of a loss when you look at the rest of the trip.