Or, “Homo habilis: How a Pair of Tools Helped Me Walk Upright”
At 6,288 ft (1,917 m), Mount Washington is the premier peak of the famed White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had never climbed it, and neither had my younger kids, so in the depths of the last winter, when late-night fires burned low and promises were made to the smoke and semi-conscious children, I had vowed that This Would Be the Year! Come late June, and school is finally out of session, even after our many snow days. With a full schedule in the months ahead, making good on the promise required going NOW. The only slight problem was my swollen knee, “tweaked” though perhaps not torn or twisted about two months ago during an ill-conceived run down a trail in hiking boots. “Tweaked” has been enough to prevent jogging or other meaningful leg exercises or cardio for about two months. Rest is indicated, but a promise made is a debt unpaid and the trail has its own stern code (perhaps you’ve heard that one before?) So what to do? Buy some poles!
And here they are, being modeled near the Crawford Trailhead, a couple of miles below the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Mizpah Hut. For $9.99 a piece, I picked up a set of Mountainsmith “Pinnacle” hiking poles. I’d never used poles before, but I assumed from the price I paid and the comparisons I made that these poles had none of the features one would actually want in trekking poles–rubber grips instead of fancy cork ones, rubber bottoms instead of pointy graphite or whatever high-strength carbon the more expensive ones are made from. But I’m cheap, so I went with these. And I could not have been happier. The combined ages of the three other hikers on the trip added up to more than a decade shy of my advancing dotage, yet with the poles, even on a sprained knee, I was able to more or less keep up with the lads. I’ve never hiked with poles before, but after this trip I doubt I’ll ever go on a significant hike without them–they help to relieve stress on the knees, to keep balance, and to threaten young whipper snappers with a caning. Of course I’ve been told this before, but I’m a slow learner. Anyway: thank you Mountainsmith!
Above, you can see the three whipper snappers–Stuart, Ryland, and Maddoc–who were largely unimpressed by the poles being shaken in their general direction, “You damn kids!,” etc. The boys acquitted themselves very well on the 3 or so miles up to Mizpah Hut, which is shown in the background, and got even faster the second day (another key difference between young legs and old.) The lower photo shows some of the interesting people you get to hang out with when you invest the time to hike into the backwoods; left-to-right, a young couple from North Carolina, a young couple from Montreal, and, in the window, an Appalachian Trail section hiker who was wearing his winter gear in the sunshine because he’d lost so much body fat he was no longer able to keep warm. That is dedication, though with the food they serve you in these huts, I don’t see how anybody could lose weight.
We were up at 6:30 the next morning, breakfasted by 7:30 and on the trail soon after. The first day had seen us going up a moderately steep grade through mixed but predominately deciduous forests. This changed almost immediately, as the first 1/4 mile between Mizpah and the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (our destination for Day 2) goes nearly straight up out of the soft and gentle woods and first into the krummholtz and then into the Arctic-like felsenmeer, two words everyone should get to write at least once in their life that both basically mean landscapes shaped by snow, ice, and wind.
Here are the lads, ahead of me, either waiting or catching their breath after shouting to the old man to get it in gear. The Crawford Trail up to Mizpah, and then from Mizpah to Lakes of the Clouds, and even from that hut up to the summit of Mount Washington is steep in places and rocky everywhere (get some boots with steel shanks), but the terrain itself isn’t any harder than parts of Monadnock or Mount Katahdin. If you’ve done either of those, you can handle Mount Washington–at least the hiking part of it. What makes Mount Washington particularly hard is this:
This weather up there really, really sucks. This sign is not an exaggeration. The highest winds recorded at the summit were 231 miles per hour. Now that was an unusually bad day, but 60, 70, and even 80 knot winds are not uncommon there, you should even expect them. So, your feet might not feel any worse than on those other peaks, but you must-must-must carry gear to protect you against any weather, even in the summer. This makes the AMC huts a wonderful resource to use when trekking there, because staying in the huts eliminates the need for tents, sleeping bags or mats, and even food, which leaves you to fill up your pack with winter clothing you have trouble believing you will need when you’re standing in 80 F weather at the trailheads down in the valley. Trust me, you’ll need it.
This is Maddoc, AKA Beau Geste, posing with some arctic cotton near the summit of Mount Pierce. The kepi soon went back into the pack to be replaced with more suitable headgear as we ascended into moor-like terrain:
Yes, I hiked with Sherlock Holmes, shown here in his deerstalker and Columbia raincoat. The kid has style. This is near Lakes of the Clouds hut. I think you can see some of the lingering snow to the right.
Here’s a viewpoint on the Crawford trail, showing the classic U-shaped valleys formed by the glaciers that flowed through the area not long ago, in geologic terms. This is near where we heard and saw a lovely white-throated sparrow, one of the few birds that comes up so high, where the wind never stops and the resources are scarce.
The Lakes of the Clouds, which the nearby AMC hut is named for, are a series of small tarns (another word you should really try to use as much as possible.) Note the fog. The hike from Mizpah crossed several 5000+ foot peaks and we were shrouded in fog most of the time, with visibility getting down to less than 50 feet. It was noticeably colder here, though only 1000 feet higher than Mizpah. This far north the effects of elevation on climate seem to be greater than in the south. I’ve heard every 1000 feet in elevation gain is the same as traveling north 200 miles, but I doubt it’s this cold in Quebec this time of year. We heard many spring peepers by the tarns even though it was June 23. The peepers in southern New Hampshire were done with their mating calls in 2014 by mid-to-late April. We also heard wood frogs and saw one fairly large American toad. The AMC naturalist at the hut said he had never seen an American toad up there, and no one has explained what the toad was seeking at that altitude…
Inside the hut was warm, dry, and filled with coffee and camaraderie–in short, the typical AMC hut experience:
Triple-decker bunks, giant moths outside and marathon ping pong games–what’s not to like? The sunset wasn’t bad either:
Subtle, yet sublime.
The next morning the forecast was for a 90% chance of rain, and potential thunderstorms in the afternoon. This being the case, we rose early, despite having been kept up most of the night by an unfortunate snorer with sleep apnea. We were on the trail for the remaining 1.6 miles to the summit by 7:30. I would post pictures of the climb, but visibility was down to 20 feet or less, with high winds and wet surfaces everywhere. I wear glasses but the humidity and wind managed to fog my left lens and keep it fogged, so I ended up climbing that morning without glasses–being partially impaired in two eyes worked better than being totally blind in one. I don’t have pictures of the sea of rock, rain, wind, and fog, but if you hold up a white sheet of paper, you’ll have a good idea of what we all saw: white white white. There was no view at all, despite being on the top of the highest peak in the state. I’ve heard there rarely is.
Here’s Maddoc at the top, where the winds were probably blowing 50 knots:
I have more pictures of Maddoc than of the other two lads because Maddoc was my hiking partner and the other two paired up. That way no one hiked alone, but the teens got to do a faster pace and bag a couple peaks that my knee convinced me to take the path around. Maddoc was gracious enough to skip those peaks, too (thanks bud!) But we all summited Mount Washington, ending up at the top about 9:30. The wind and rain were raging, so we waited inside the state park building sipping hot drinks while we waited for the cog railway. Yes, that’s right. We hiked up the mountain, but took the train down. Again, this plan was made mostly for the sake of my knee, but also because, let’s face it, whoever saw a bumper sticker that said “I climbed DOWN Mount Washington”? There’s just no cachet in it. And the train was fun as well:
In the picture above you see the lads waiting to ride the first train of the morning down. The people getting out into the wind rode the first train up and all ran straight into the state park building. We were the only ones descending. Happily we were able to skip the four-mile hike from the lower train station back to our car by hitch-hiking with a hiker we’d encountered earlier, and happier still our car was still there. The kids were so tired on the way back that no one even argued over the music, but it was a good tired.
See you out there!