The forecast for the weekend was cold and clear, perfect fall weather, so I had to get out. My friend, Moss, works as a campsite caretaker for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and she had told me to come visit her at Thirteen Falls on the few days she would be there. What better reason to get into the White Mountains than to visit a friend on a gorgeous weekend?
I tried to get an early start from Keene on Friday morning, but some leftover medical business and paperwork kept me in my house until just after 9 AM. The drive up to the White Mountains seemed so long. That’s something I’m going to have to get used to, given that the two hours to Lincoln is pretty much the shortest drive I’ll have for hikes up there while I live down in Keene. On the upside, the extra time in the car gave the clouds hugging the mountaintops time to clear a little. The forecast hadn’t mentioned any clouds, but it rained off and on for a while as I passed through Plymouth and Lincoln. I wondered if I was about to get punked by the notorious White Mountains Weather.
|This was the worst of the trail damage heading to Hancock. Not pretty, but not total destruction.|
Part one of the weekend was to bag a few of my last New Hampshire 4000 Footers, so I drove a little way into the Kanc, parked at a lot that I remembered well from one of my best days on the New England Trail, then started into the Hancock Notch trail like I’d been shot from a cannon. An ominous sign at the trailhead mentioned that the area had “not been assessed for storm damage,” but aside from a few small ruts in the trail where Irene’s massive downpours had scoured the trail you could barely tell there had been major damage to the area.
More shocking than the clouds and slight trail damage, though, was the cold. It couldn’t have been more than 45 degrees out, and with the dampness in the air from rains earlier in the day it felt positively wintery. The air bit into my exposed skin. Rather than stop and put on extra layers, though, I just stepped up my pace. Hiking alone and fast felt so good.
|Is that… a little bit of white on South Hancock? Also, can you see the old logging road scars?|
I realized that it’s been months since I’ve hiked solo, with only myself to keep track of and only myself to call the shots. I’d almost forgotten the feeling of freedom I get from walking in the mountains without any other human presence. Cruising along, almost running, the tensions and worries I’d built up from the past few weeks of living in a new home and starting a new job just bled away into nothing.
|Yep, definitely a little snow on the Hancocks.|
I raced along, vaguely recalling the trail from when Gary and I had walked by here on the New England Trail almost exactly two years ago. He had since come back to bag the Hancocks, which we had aborted due to his stomach issues that day. Now, back to see what I’d missed, I sweated my way up to North Hancock, where the clouds cleared just in time for me to get a fine view of Osceola and Loon. The view of South Hancock showed me that the cold weather was not just me being soft from a hot summer– the treed summit was white with rime. A biting wind chilled me some more and brought some fine snowflakes with it. I rushed along to keep my blood flowing.
|Looking up the East Branch of the Pemi, this must be Bondcliff. What a gorgeous evening.|
By the time I returned to the parking lot I was already in better spirits than I’d been in weeks. I jumped into my car and sped off to Lincoln Woods to start the next part of my hike. I loaded my Exodus and got on the interminable Lincoln Woods trail. The last time I’d been on this trail had been at the end of a day after bagging Owl’s Head Mountain. I’d been tired, sore, and in no mood for several miles of pancake-flat trail, and by the end of the day my feet were ready to fall off. Not so, this time. I was still fresh, despite the nine mile sprint on the Hancocks, so the old railroad bed turned into another speed-walk for me, punctuated by fine views up the Pemigewasset East Branch opened by the banks being washed out in the floods earlier this month. A few points on the old road were heavily damaged by washouts, but for the most part I just cruised along, hoping to make Thirteen Falls before dark.
|Lincoln Woods Trail. I can tell it’s an old railroad bed because they didn’t even bother removing the ties.|
The nearly nine miles from Lincoln Woods to Thirteen Falls are flat as a board, so I managed a good three mile-per-hour clip with only a few short breaks for water and snacks. Moss had just arrived and set up her caretaker camp, and the campsite’s only other inhabitants for the night had set up their tent nearby. I set up my MEC Silicone Scout tarp in no time, which made me proud because it had been over a year since I’d touched the tarp. For the rest of the evening, which became increasingly chilly, Moss and I relaxed in the campsite’s cooking area, trading stories of the summer and plans for the future, sipping hot cocoa and catching up on what we’d missed in the past several months. We’d hiked together just before she started her caretaker gig, but we’d barely heard from each other since, so I was glad to have little other company for the night.
|Moss can’t get out of her hammock. Almost makes me wish I had one.|
By the time I went to bed in my tarp shelter, it was already cold enough to make my nose run steadily. But I was excited to test out my cold-weather sleep arrangement, which hadn’t had a good field test in far too long. Under my tarp was my Stateless Society Quilt, a custom made (for someone else, but of similar size to me) quilt that seemed like it would take temperatures in the low 40s quite easily. Inside the quilt, I wore my Montbell Alpine Light jacket and Down Inner Pants. The down jacket and pants inside the sleeping bag/quilt are something I discovered on the PCT last year, and I can’t recommend them enough. On very cold nights, the extra layers become crucial for lightweight backpacking comfort. You can get out of your bag/quilt in the frigid morning and still be perfectly warm in your down suit. It’s wonderful.
The next morning, with the temperature bottoming out at 34 degrees, I woke up mostly well-rested. My old Thermarest Ridgerest probably should have been replaced by now, and its insulating qualities were the weak link of the night. I had been warm and snug for the entire evening, except I could feel the cold ground through my sleeping pad. I guess I’ve been using the same pad since about halfway through the Pacific Crest Trail, so that one pad has close to two-thousand miles of use, which is apparently too much.
|Garfield, Franconia Ridge, and Moosilauke from South Twin. Camel’s Hump and Mansfield are far in the distance.|
Moss and I took our time getting ready to hike in the morning. I had already decided to cut my weekend down to one night instead of two in the wilderness, since I figured I should take Sunday to do grown-up things like grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, and such. With that in mind, I convinced Moss to hike up to South Twin with me, and after that I would head out. I packed my Gossamer Gear RikSak for the dayhike, and left my “heavy” pack in Moss’s shelter.
The trip up to Galehead from Thirteen Falls is surprisingly easy for a climb in the White Mountains, but I knew the next part of the climb would be a bruiser. We rested in the sun on the Hut porch for a short while, then began the climb up to the summit. Aside from a slip and fall (due to complete carelessness on my part, and resulting in a lot more blood than it should have), the climb was perfect. I love the strain of my leg muscles as I step up the jumbled stairway of large granite blocks. Because of that feeling I finished the Appalachian Trail as a stronger hiker than when I hiked the PCT, even though on the latter I hiked further and faster on average. Rather than the endurance test on the PCT, the New England mountains are a serious strength test.
|Moss likes snow on Washington.|
Atop South Twin we were greeted by cool air, warm sunshine, and some of the clearest views I can remember in the Whites. Sure, they were probably no clearer than my day on Franconia Ridge earlier in the summer, but it just goes to show how the photos never do the scene true justice. We saw everything from Camel’s Hump and Mansfield in Vermont to Sugarloaf on the Cohos Trail and, of course, the snow-tinged Presidential Range blocking the view to the east. Washington had reported an inch of snow earlier in the morning, and it was obviously the beginning of winter up there. We sat around on the summit, enjoying the company of some fellow hikers and soaking in the views, before I finally pushed Moss to get moving. I had a long hike ahead of me, then a long drive, and I didn’t want to get home too late.
|Looking over North Twin to the Nash Stream Forest and the Cohos Trail.|
We took our time getting back down to the Falls, but I had to hurry along after I got my pack back together. I left Thirteen Falls at 4:30, and expected night to fall in exactly three hours. I had about nine miles to go. Could it be done?
|The Falls at Thirteen Falls. They must’ve been roaring a couple weeks ago.|
I stopped only once to chug some water, but otherwise I flew down the trail, a man on a mission. During that water break, I explored an unmarked side-trail across from the Osseo Trail and found a tremendous view up the river. When I heard a pile of pebbles and dirt fall to the river below me, though, I realized I was standing on a completely undercut and eroded cliff about twenty or thirty feet high. All that was keeping me from plummeting to the rocks below was a few feet of unstable dirt and roots just waiting to cave into the river below. I scooted back to the trail and kept going toward the car.
|Somewhere on the lower slopes of West Bond from the Franconia Brook Trail.|
The rest is history. I got to my car just before 7, and by the time I drove into Lincoln to grab a sandwich and some caffeine for the ride home, it was dark. The long drive back home provided little excitement aside from fatigue nearly getting the best of me. I realized only after I parked my car that I had satisfied my goal of an epic weekend despite cutting down the number of nights in the woods. In 36 hours I’d bagged two peaks, hiked over thirty miles, and tested out the lower limits of my sleep system. It was a good weekend.
|Evening falls on Mount Hitchcock just over Lincoln Woods. A fine end to the trip.|