Last weekend, for one of my final Appalachian Trail mapping expeditions of the summer, I set out to conquer three major ranges in the White Mountains– The Presidential Range, the Wildcat Ridge, and the Carter-Moriah Range. I had two and a half days. I’d done all of this before, and I knew it would be challenging. But I could handle it. I’m a rugged, badass hiker, right? To make a long story short, I made it 40 miles in two days, but I feel like I’ve been bowled over by a wrecking ball. Everything hurts. It was a great weekend.
The weekend started with an early drive from Bethel to Crawford Notch. I tried to arrive as early as I could, hoping to hit the trail before the real heat hit, but even by 8 AM the mercury was rising fast. And, as anyone who has hiked in the Presidential Range knows, the trails rise pretty fast, too. Right from Route 302, the Appalachian Trail climbs the seemingly vertical Webster Cliffs Trail. I remember the first time crossing 302 on the Appalachian Trail, and looking straight up at those cliffs, thinking “there’s no way we go up that!” But up we go. It wasn’t so bad that time. I’m not in that kind of shape anymore, though.
That was the theme of the weekend– The last few times I’ve been in the Presidential Range, I’ve been pretty used to crushing the trail. This time, I hiked hard and fast, but a combination of heat and incredibly rugged trail put me through the meat grinder. Climbing through the southern Presidentials, I could move fast enough to stay on some kind of schedule, but I was pouring sweat like it was my job. I tried to chug as much water as possible and push on.
By early afternoon, I had walked over Mounts Monroe and Eisenhower, finishing my New Hampshire 4000 Footer peakbagging list that I’d started in 2007, and was on my way up Mount Washington. The crowds at Lakes of the Clouds hut and at the summit were incredible, but not surprising– the first really sunny summer weekend in three weeks will draw tourists up the auto road and Cog Railway faster than free food draws AT hikers. I met one really great AT hiker in the morning, and the only part of the day that seemed to dampen his spirits was the throng of people on Washington.
After a long break on the north slope of Mount Washington (the only quiet part of the peak), I reluctantly continued on. My legs ached, my stomach refused to take any more food, and I was almost nauseous from the heat. I basically stumbled along for the next few miles until I could turn downhill toward The Perch, one of the Randolph Mountain Club‘s campsites in the Northern Presis. I didn’t get in until about 7 PM, eleven hours after starting the day, but I was shocked to find the shelter empty. A few tent platforms were full, but otherwise it was the most peaceful and relaxing part of the 17-mile day.
Day Two began with a much cooler walk through clouds over Mount Madison, but as soon as I got below the clouds on Osgood Ridge, the humidity was back with a vengeance. From Madison to Wildcat, the Appalachian Trail stays low for several miles, going through what felt like a jungle. The only cooling I could get was dunking my head in the several rivers that the trail crossed before Pinkham Notch. Then, at the notch, there was the wonderfully air conditioned basement hiker room (actually, there were dehumidifiers running, but it was close enough). I couldn’t stay long, though. I still had miles to go.
The climb up Wildcat Mountain is one of the steepest parts of the Appalachian Trail, but once again I remembered it a little differently than the last time I’d been there. In 2007, I had started a short day with the climb, totally refreshed after a nice night in town. Last weekend, I started the climb already tired and overheated. The trail starts out with a 1000 foot climb in half a mile. After that, things mellow only a little. The clouds were clearing, which made the heat even worse, although the views were nice. Eventually, I did get a breathtaking view across Carter Notch, before descending steeply down.
The Carter Range, again, was much harder than I’d remembered. Another brutal climb in the heat, but more gorgeous views. The Wild River Wilderness to the east looked so quiet and untouched. I haven’t spent much time there recently, but I was reminded that this will be my playground in the Whites once I move to Portland this fall. I’m pretty excited about that.
Hiking the last miles over the Carter Range was a bit of a death march, especially with the final grueling descent from North Carter. It was all worth it, though. After nearly 14 hours of hiking and 22 miles, I arrived at Imp Shelter with three northbound through-hikers, and met the caretaker and one weekend hiker. The small crowd was great company– everybody in high spirits and just loving the trail. That’s the best kind of ending to a rugged day of hiking.
Day three was just a climb to Mount Moriah (beautiful, wonderful mountain), and then a long walk down the Rattle River Trail to Route 2. It was, once again, unbearably hot. I hitchhiked from Gorham back to my car in Crawford Notch, a process that took just over two hours. Little did I know, it was over 90 degrees that morning, and my body felt like it was being put through a fryer. But I made it back earlier than planned, and enjoyed a few hours of glorious, glorious air conditioning in the car. After the beating I put on myself over the weekend, I was still sore even on Wednesday evening.
No rest for the wicked, though. After this trip, I now only have two sections of the AT in New Hampshire and Maine to map for my iPhone apps. Tomorrow morning I leave for northern Maine to start hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, and that will finish up Maine. I’ll be out of contact for over a week, taking it a little easier than last weekend.