Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Opportunity Knocks and An Adventure Begins

Appalachian Trail, White Mountains, NH – 8/17/12 – Crawford Notch to Nauman Campsite – 6.4 Miles (8 Hours)

Opportunity knocked and I answered:  My hiking friend Judy (Heartfire) was working on another long section of the AT, conquering Massachusetts and Vermont, having a great time, she messaged on Facebook.  Was she heading through New Hampshire?  For years I’ve wanted to hike the AT through the White Mountains but couldn’t work it out.  Here’s my chance!  A few phone calls and emails, Judy’s willingness to rearrange her itinerary, a couple of days to think about it, a click of the mouse for a plane ticket, and New Hampshire, here I come.

If I have learned anything about hiking, especially with Judy, it is to be flexible and ready to change plans.  (Read about our infamous boat shuttle experience.)  I flew into Manchester, NH, on a Thursday.  Judy picked me up and we drove to Crawford Notch, looking for a campground to pick up her resupply package and spend the night before beginning our 5-day section.  Well, the campground people did not accept packages from the post office, did not give shuttle rides to the trailhead (we had to turn in our rental car) and did not seem all that interested in us even staying at their campground.  Plan B:  find a motel, eat a nice dinner, and arrange for a cab to shuttle us in the morning from the car rental dropoff to the post office and then to the trailhead. 

On Friday morning the logistics worked out smoothly, Judy got her resupply package with food and warmer clothing, and we found ourselves standing on the side of Highway 302 at the Webster Cliff trailhead at 9:00 a.m.  Let’s pause for a moment while the intrepid backpackers are still fresh and eagerly anticipating their adventure.

Mt. Webster, 3,000 feet straight up in 2.8 miles.  We can do this.  People do it all the time.

The trail started off in a dense forest, stepping over thick roots and some rocks, and moderately climbed, getting steeper but okay.  The first mile climbed 1,000 feet in about an hour (Judy’s altimeter helped us gauge our progress.)  Not bad – we can do this.  If it’s all like this we’ve got it made.  Just a matter of one step at a time.  The effort was heating me up plenty, with sweat dripping off my nose and elbows. I had heard that when thru-hikers get to the White Mountains they slow down from their 20+-mile-per-day pace, but this seems doable.

Yes, it’s a trail

So far the view looks like the Smokies

At the first big rock outcropping we met a couple of young AT thru- hikers.  I missed the woman’s name, but the guy was a young African-American who called himself Mr. Fabulous.  He wore a knit cap into which were tucked long dreadlocks.  We had a nice conversation, and as they moved on we wished everyone luck and we’d see them later on down the trail.  But…I’m sure they got further than we did and we’ll never see them again.  The randomness of briefly connecting and then disconnecting on the trail is mysterious and awesome.  I don’t remember everyone, but because I made a note and am writing this blog entry I will always remember Mr. Fabulous.

First overlook where we met Mr. Fab
And THEN…We faced our first wall of rock, maybe eight feet high, maybe not an impossible pitch, maybe not so bad if you didn’t have a 30-pound pack on your back.  We muttered under our breaths as we got up the first one, stepped up some big rocks for a few dozen yards, and then met our next wall of rock.  Time after time, relentless, scaling small walls.  I put my poles away once, but then wanted them back and they were impossible to retrieve from my pack without help.  When I wanted them out of the way going forward (upward? downward?) I collapsed them down and let them dangle from my wrists.  Sometimes we threw our poles up over the wall before climbing, holding onto tree roots and branches, even handfuls of spruce branches. 

Oh, and then we’d encounter a wall that we had to descend – throw the poles down and then scoot on our butts down to the bottom.  How long is this interesting and entertaining?  Not very long.  But we made it over Mt. Webster, check it off the life list, never goin’ back again.

Rock cairn at Mt. Webster, 6 feet tall

View from Mt. Webster

A little rest beside the white blaze

Judy was not amused by the amount of bouldering we encountered.  Her pack felt heavier than normal and unbalanced from her resupply.  She was concerned about the precarious footing and the possibility of slipping on the rock walls.  I was not having much fun either, but wasn’t hating it as much as she was.  I hoped to find reassurance that this was the worst of the trail and a good night’s sleep would help her regroup and regain her confidence.  We slowed down through this obstacle course and began to rethink our hike plan, agreeing to stop at the Naumann Campsite at the Mizpah Spring Hut rather than looking for a primitive site farther along the trail. 
Layers upon layers

Nearly 5 miles in we reached the summit of Mt. Jackson, a busy place with several groups passing through via the AT and different side trails.  A large church group of men and teenage boys was taking a break.  Judy had run out of water and they shared some with her.  (I ran out too by the time we reached Mizpah Spring Hut).  The trail mellowed out for a while with the occasional rock wall scramble, but it still required 1.5 hours to hike the remaining 1.7 miles to our day’s end. 

A bog on top of the mountain

Note that the trail signs don’t always indicate the AT (sometimes the symbol has been carved onto the signs).  Hikers need to know the names of the local trails that follow the AT route.

Mizpah Spring Hut

We arrived at Naumann just before 5:00 p.m. (remember the 9:00 a.m. start?) ending our 8-hour, 6.4-mile day.  The tent sites are all on raised wooden platforms, thus real estate is precious so don’t even think of spreading two tents over a six-tent platform.  The energetic young camp cop said they expected to be filled to the max.  So Judy and I found a platform where a nice man named Ian had already pitched his one-man tent on one end sliver and we set to work setting up ours.  (Ian and Judy discovered they had mutual friends in the AT long distance hiker community, i.e. small world.) 

But how to put up my Lightheart tent that requires tent stakes?  Fortunately I had the tent maker herself there to teach me.  Judy showed me how to tie guy lines to the stake loops, run the thin ropes under the platform board and secure them using the stakes as wedges.  I am a visual person so a verbal explanation was useless, but a demonstration was all it took.  I was tired and hungry but tickled to death to learn something new and valuable. 

Next we walked up to Mizpah Hut to fill up with water for drinking and for cooking – their water is already treated.  As we prepared and ate our meal, Ian gave us the scoop on what was ahead of us, as he was hiking southbound and had just covered the section we were beginning.  He did not paint an attractive picture.  He had hiked over from Madison Hut to Mt. Washington in a thick fog and struggled to go from cairn to cairn over the rocky terrain.  He also clued us in to the emergency shelter at Lake of the Clouds Hut (where we could not get reservations for the main bunk rooms), that the cost was $10 per person per night and the accommodations, although rough bunks in the “dungeon”, were better than hiking past the point of pain to get to a legal camping spot (it’s illegal to camp above tree line in the White Mtns.)  We noted all that he said and began to revise our plans for the rest of the trip.

After dinner we walked back to the far end of the camping area to store our food bags in the bear boxes provided, and along the way I slipped on the path and fell hard, flat on my back, with no backpack to soften the blow.  I had the wind knocked out of me and when Judy asked if I was okay I couldn’t speak.  After all we had done today, I can’t believe I fell down in camp!  My neck was stiff, a little touch of whiplash, for the rest of the trip.

Before calling it a night, Judy shared a little of the brandy she always carries and we toasted the end of the first day.  I was in my sleeping bag before 8:00 p.m., ready to crash, and I heard little tiny raindrops pitter-patting on my tent.  I hope it’s not raining in the morning.


Sharon said...

Wow, Sharon, what a tale!! IMHO, there's no such thing as a "bad" hiking trial, but we learned many lessons about trails in New England on a long trip this past spring/summer. Returned home with a whole new appreciation for our trails here in the Smokies. I suspect you did too. Can't wait to hear about the rest of this hike. Don't keep us in suspense too long.

Danny Bernstein said...

Hikers don't die. They just move to the south. I remember all those rocks in New Hampshire. Glad I'm here.

Linda W. said...

I'm loving your latest hiking story. Yes, isn't that the way things go, you hike through trecherous stuff all day and then your worst fall is at camp? (Kinda like me - I ski all day and my worst fall is in the parking lot!!) Can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip.

Vera said...

Ah, Judy (Heartfire) was right, you do tell a good tale. Glad she shared this so I could read all about your (and her) journey! Daunting...prolly will never do it. Looking forward to next chapter.

RedHat said...

Excellent! usually folks are too scared hanging on to get pictures in sections like these... great writing and I'm also looking forward to the rest...