Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Ascending into the mists: Leading a group up to the summit of Mount Washington—and yes, back down!

Shirley Merle followed by Patsy and Dave Beffa crossing the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River on Mount Washington.

For some in our group, the planned climb up Mount Washington would be a matter of faith.

This was not due to any lack of ability or desire. Rather, they couldn't be really sure the mountain was actually there.

Yes, last Saturday started out with a low, thick overcast—one of those mornings where even the trailheads were socked in by a wind-driven fog. The "Rockpile" itself was completely invisible—its existence a matter of conjecture for those who'd never seen it before.

Thus began my first-ever experience of leading a group of hikers on a round-trip summit adventure in New Hampshire's White Mountains. To prepare, I actually put together a basic medical bag, including Band-Aids, my Swiss Army knife, and some Gold Bond Medicated Cream. I was ready for any minor cut or bruise!

Would we make it to the top? Would we make it back alive? Read on.

Our route was one I'd taken before: up the very steep Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to treeline at the Lake of the Clouds Hut, then the historic Crawford Path to the summit. Going down, we'd follow the Great Gulf trail to the Jewell Trail, and from there make our long descent, circling back to where we started.

All in all, about 10 miles. With a planned start of 9 a.m., we expected to be back in the parking lot by 7 p.m. The forecast: fog and overcast to start, but a good chance that a cold front coming in from Canada would clear things out by mid-day. This, however, promised stronger winds and colder temps. In other words, it would probably still feel like winter up there.

In our party: David and Shirley Merle from Yonkers, N.Y., David and Patsy Beffa-Negrini from Nelson, N.H.—and me. We were all veterans of a successful trek to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa this past January, and also an epic trek to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal in 2011.

But in all their adventures, the Merles had never hiked Mount Washington. So their suggestion last month to come up to N.H. and do so set the wheels in motion for our one-day mini-expedition on Saturday, June 6.

Dave and Patsy are veteran hikers as well, but it fell to me to organize and lead this one based on my prior experience.

In fact, I had hiked this exact route five years ago, in July 2010, when I brought two of my dogs along. It was hot and sunny, and way too much for them. Also, Abby (then only 11 months old) cut her paw on the jagged upper slopes. When we finally made it home, she stayed under the bed in an air-conditioned room for four entire days.

Our 2015 adventure began on a positive note: we hit the trail slightly before 9 a.m., and made good time for the first mile, which covers relatively flat ground.

Though in the woods, the trail runs not far from the base station of the Mount Washington Cog Railway. From off in the mists we could hear tweeting and tooting of the railway's early morning steam-powered run (the rest of the trips use diesel locos), and it was no surprise when the wet air suddenly carried the pungent odor of coal smoke.

The rain held off. But a cold fog persisted as we pushed up the ravine, with occasional blasts of chilly wet air from the northwest blowing in behind us. Alongside us, the headwaters of the Ammoonusuc River gushed and roared, swollen from recent rains. It was a wet morning. The mossy, dripping environment brought to mind the landscape of Middle Earth: I expected Bilbo Baggins to come down the trail any minute.

Dave Merle and Dave Beffa at Gem Pond, with its scenic waterfall in the background.

But we had the route pretty much to ourselves until Gem Pond, where the steep section begins in earnest. Stopping there, we met several groups of hikers coming down and up, and so suddenly things got a bit crowded.

Not a problem, except when we started up the steep section, I was surprised to not find Patsy among us. Dave Beffa thought she'd gone ahead so as not to slow the rest of us down, but no one was really sure.

So on we went, but with no sign of her. After awhile, I became concerned enough to stop and suggest I go back in case she was still down at the pond and had missed our departure. As leader, however half-assed, I kinda felt responsible for keeping track of where people were.

But Dave was right: a bit further on, we soon caught up with her, and onward and upwards we all went.

Scrambling up the upper reaches of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.

As we ascended, the fog showed no signs of lifting, while the wind was picking up and making things seem getting noticeably colder. After crossing of the Upper Ammonoosuc, we all donned some cold weather gear as we began scrambling up ledges leading to the Lake of the Clouds hut.

We got to the hut at about noon, and stopped in to further adjust gear for continued cold weather above treeline. My big move was to replace a soaked t-shirt with my hooded fleece jacket. Inside, I produced enough steam for Dave Merle to remark that I looked like a tea kettle.

Dave Merle's photo of me in all-green cold weather get-up. I look like the figure on a walk signal who tells you its okay to cross now.

Dave Beffa pulled out a guest book from 1975 and found entries from when he was part of a group that through-hiked the Appalachian Trial that year. Crazy that it could be found right there, 40 years later, as written by a much younger version of himself.

Blowing clouds and fog persisted, and some of our fellow hikers seemed dressed for full-on Arctic conditions.

We bagged a possible side jaunt to the summit of Mount Monroe. Instead, we pushed on from the Lake of the Clouds Hut to the summit through steady winds, staying close together and navigating by cairn, the blowing fog limiting our visibility as we rock-hopped our way up.

And then, even as the winds kept up, the light suddenly changed. We looked up, and there it was before us: the summit, sparkling in the bright sunlight and framed by a deep blue sky!

And then the clouds rolled back over us—and it was gone.

Still, the glimpse was enough to prove that there actually was a summit, and we actually were heading in the right direction.

As we rose, we gradually emerged from the rolling cloudbank we'd been in since the start, and found ourselves in bright sunshine for about the last half-mile.

We reached the summit at about 2 p.m. To the east, skies were completely clear, offering spectacular views all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It being colder than usual, the place wasn't nearly as mobbed as I expected on a Saturday in June, which was a nice break.

Dave Merle snaps a summit shot for another group of trekkers.

There was some discussion of taking the Cog Railway back to the base, but the improving weather (and the $46 one-way fare) prompted us to stick with our original plans.

The official summit photo of Patsy and Dave Beffa.

After a meal of chili in the summit cafeteria, we geared up for the cold march down the Great Gulf trail and across the exposed ridge to Mount Clay. After crossing the Cog Railway tracks (look both ways!), we ambled along the dramatic cliffs overlooking the Great Gulf Wilderness far below, as the Northern Presidential peaks stood guard. (Some slopes still harbored patches of snow!)

I had the camera out and accessible during this stretch, which offered the day's most dramatic scenery. So here are some pics.

Just a few steps back, Shirley, and it's the perfect shot!

And then it was down, down, down on the endless Jewell Trail, made longer by the sight of our parking lot far below never seeming to get any closer.

Despite the knee-rattling descent, all went well, and I thought we would make it without incident.

And then Shirley had to use the bathroom.

Because we were close to the Cog Railway base station, I suggested that she and I take a side path over there (for modern indoor plumbing) while the rest of the party continued to the parking lot. Shirley and I, after using the facilities, could then march down the road and meet everyone.

And so Shirley and I broke off. The trail seemed longer than I thought it would be, and then we encounted a crudely made and barely legible wooden sign saying "Trail Closed Bridge Out."

"They can't be serious," I said. "If the bridge was really still out, they would have posted that at the junction," I said.

Famous last words. On we went, on and down, only to find the bridge really was out. And not only that: the gushing Ammonoosuc River was clearly uncrossable, cutting off access to the Cog Base station and civilization just on the other bank. To add insult to injury, a couple of Cog visitors stood on the other side looking slightly amused.

So, in a move that might have dire consequences, I suggested we try bushwhacking upstream to find a spot to get across. We did this, only to find the brush thickening and the ground rising to the point where we were on steep cliffs probably 40 feet above the river, which at this point was a roaring cataract below.

Undaunted, we circled back and tried downstream. Not far below, we came to a spot that almost looked passable. Trying a one-rock-at-a-time route, I found a spot that required a single mighty leap to make it across the widest spot. I jumped and made it, landing on all fours.

What about Shirley? She got as far as the "launch" rock, but then showed good common sense by hesitating.

She finally decided she would try. But to increase her chances, she first threw her pack over to me.

And then she leaped, and she made it as well! Phew!

We then had to scramble up the banks and climb over a massive pair of pipes to emerge on the Cog's manicured lawns—only to find the base station building closed and locked up tight!

A short stroll on a paved road got us to the parking lot, where the rest of our group had arrived about 15 minutes earlier. (Thankfully, the trailhead parking lot also has bathrooms.)

The time was 6:30 p.m. Behind us, the summit of Mount Washington loomed, its western slopes in the clear and glowing in the warm sunlight of an early June evening.

We'd been up there, and made it back. All of us!

Not sure if anyone will be looking at the summit guest book 40 years from now, but if they do: we did make it to the top, and down.

And a good time was had by all.

And here we all are!

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