With my car loaded down as far as it could go, stuffed with all my belongings as I left my home to take up residence in the Granite State, Julie and I prepared for the craziest day hike of them all– the Presidential Traverse. Since Julie would be leaving New England only a few days later, and this would be our last day together after a long summer of spending pretty much every day with each other at the summer camp, she wanted to end her time in the northeast in style. We hadn’t done any hikes quite as rugged as the Presidential Traverse this summer, so I was a little wary of this idea. When the forecast turned into “severe afternoon thunderstorms,” I started to get really nervous.
|Boott Spur, Tuckerman Ravine, and Huntington Ravine from a little outcropping near the bottom.|
Rather than go with our original plan, which got bumped repeatedly when friends and other plans kept moving it around, we ended up driving only one car to Pinkham Notch just before sunrise on a cool Sunday morning. The day before had been brutally hot and humid, so much so that views from mountaintops had been cut down to only a few miles, so the chilly morning was just fine with me. Julie and I got ready quickly, carrying only a small amount of gear for the 18-ish mile day, and started out almost running up the Boott Spur Trail. With my Gossamer Gear RikSak and Julie’s REI Flash 18, our total pack weights with food and water came out to less than 16 pounds. It was pure luxury.
|Above treeline, and the sky almost looks like it’s going to clear.|
The Boott Spur Trail quickly became a stair-master climb, getting our hearts pounding and our lungs working harder than they had all summer. It was a wonderful feeling. And within less than half an hour we had clear views of the behemoth Mount Washington above us. The Wildcats and Carter-Moriah Range were silhouetted behind us as well, and the clouds that I had expected to be covering everything were still high in the sky. There was even a little blue poking out from the cracks in the cloud cover, giving Washington a cheery glow amid all the greyness.
|Because there are plenty of rocks, there might as well be huge cairns.|
It occurred to me as we climbed up to tree line that I’d only once climbed Mount Washington, and that was in a thick cloud while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Today, if we were lucky, I would have a view from the top. More importantly, I knew the area a lot better now than I did back in my less knowledgeable days of college and through-hiking. As we came up above the trees, I could identify many of the mountains around me, starting with the Wildcats and Carter-Moriah Range. For the first time, I was able to put names to faces with Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Boott Spur stood out like a knob above us. Once we arrived on top of the Spur, I recognized Franconia Ridge in the distance, Carrigain and Chocorua to the south, and many more. There’s something wonderful about knowing your surroundings. It almost makes me feel at home, especially since, at this point, I was without a real home of my own.
|Yes. We are that cool.|
A brisk wind cooled us off on our way up the ridge, but the clouds came and went. There was almost as much blue sky as grey, and I began to feel optimistic about our chances for finishing the day’s intended hike. Of course, if the weather turned we could head down any number of trails back to Pinkham Notch, but I wanted to at least hit Jefferson and Adams, which I had skipped on my through-hike in 2007, and Julie wanted to get every peak possible because this was it for her. We moved quickly along, finally starting to see other hikers once we got to the Crawford Path, where dozens of hikers were on their way to the top from Lakes of the Clouds. Still, despite the people we saw, it never seemed crowded up there.
|Surveying the peaks ahead– Jefferson, Adams, and Madison.|
Then there was the top. It’s a very strange experience to walk through the forest, the boulder fields, the high alpine terrain, only to arrive at a road teeming with… non-hikers. That will be my nice way of putting it. I know the auto road isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just a strange feeling, to hike all that and then wind up at what amounts to a tourist rest-stop. Julie and I got our obligatory summit-picture, then sat at the edge of the summit for some views of what we would soon be hiking. I noticed several Appalachian Trail hikers up there, as well (Pink Floyd, Rain Dancer, Jackrabbit, and Handstand, I think were their trail names), so I offered to take pictures and tried to get some stories out of them. They ended up leap-frogging with us for the rest of the day, which made me feel good on a few levels. First off, it was nice to have the company of fellow crazies, but it was also nice that Julie and I were able to keep pace with them without any problems, even after they’d hiked 1800 miles to get there.
|A little vegetation between Jefferson and Adams to break up the rock hopping.|
The rest of the day was glorious. After Washington, we descended to Mount Clay, and had perfect climbs over Jefferson, Adams and Madison. The weather stayed mostly cloudy with a cooling wind until we left the summit of Madison. I barely even broke a sweat. The conditions were as perfect as I could have hoped for. Aside from a medium haze in the distance, the views were vast. I was able to make out the Percy Peaks and Sugarloaf far to the north, comprising much of the Cohos Trail trip Julie and I had led only a few weeks earlier.
After Madison, we saw the summit of Mount Washington beginning to cloud over, but we were already on our way down the Osgood Trail. We’d be back to the cars soon, we thought. But I’d forgotten just how the AT from Madison to Pinkham Notch drags on. Almost as soon as we found ourselves below tree line, a light rain started to fall. Good timing, we thought. We had no idea.
|Mount Madison is a mighty pointy peak.|
Half an hour later, the War of the Worlds began. Rain began to pour down vertical, diagonal, horizontal, every which way. Lightning flashed almost constantly. The thunder was so loud and so explosive that it seemed to shake the ground beneath me. I felt pretty bad for those folks we’d seen heading up to Madison Hut late in the day. We’d seen three or four people trying to beat the weather. I hope they made it.
Julie and I slogged through the newly muddy trail, slowing down steadily as our energy petered out. The rain and thunder cleared eventually, but it was still wet and dark. The last miles seemed to stretch on forever, but we eventually wound up at the Notch around 7 PM, wet, tired, and starving. But the day was a success! I’d checked off two more peaks from my New Hampshire 4000-footers list, we’d had a gorgeous day of hiking, and neither of us had been hit by lightning. Sounds like a winner to me.
|Picking our way down the rockpile that is Mount Madison.|
The next morning I would be on my way to Keene to take up residence in my new home. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, the lightning and exposed conditions on the Presidential Range barely registered with my sense of danger compared to the terrifying experience of moving to a new town and setting up a new life. Yeah. That’s the real scary part.