Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Whites Continued... (Aug. 22nd- 24th)

"Most people are on the world, not in it."
          ~John Muir

So after an extended break on the top of Mt. Jackson, the three of us (FM, White Wolf and I) tore ourselves away and headed down to Mizpah Hut for lunch.  Mizpah was by far the most laid back hut and most accommodating to thru- hikers.  Doing my Work For Stay there would have been a much more relaxing experience than the one I was about to have at Lake of the Clouds.  We got there around 1pm, my dad was still there from the night before.  He was only going to Lake of the Clouds as well, and was hoping to get there by 4pm to secure some WFS.  LOC was a bit different, as it can't really turn away hikers due to it's location.  They only have six WFS spots like the rest, but for everyone else there is some type of dungeon bunk room you have to pay $10 for.  LOC is at the base of Mt. Washington, considered the 'deadliest little mountain,' so they can't really send hikers up and over it at night.  Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern US at 6,288 ft.  Up until 2010, the summit held the record for the highest wind gust directly measured at the Earth's surface, 231 mph, recorded back in 1934.  Due to the convergence of several storm tracks over the mountain, the weather is known to be very unpredictable and erratic.  In 2008, made a list of the 'World's 10 Most Dangerous Mountains.' Mt. Washington was #8, right after Everest.  So. Let's go climb it.

First we had to wind our way around Mt. Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe.  It was a beautifully clear day and we all took our time over the rocks, enjoying the view.  The AT over the Presidentials is almost entirely above treeline. In the 19 mile section between Webster Cliffs and Osgood Tent Site, there is pretty much no stealthing,  as the AT is completely exposed and rocky.  And by no stealthing, I'm not only referring to the illegality of it.  I mean there is nowhere to put a tent, as the stretch is a 19 mile boulder and rock mess.  Our only option was to stay at LOC, then get to Osgood the next night.  We arrived at LOC at around 4:30pm and a welcoming party greeted us when we arrived.  Pace, Hungus, Towelie and Cheesewater were all there. They had all stayed at Mizpah the night before and only hiked the five to LOC, deciding to save Washington for tomorrow.

I snagged the last WFS spot, securing a place on the dining room floor and avoiding the dungeon.  The 'dungeon' looked like it came straight from Auschwitz.  It was a tiny cement cell with plywood bunks stacked on top of each other, the bottom bunk literally being a piece of plywood on the floor.  It was also probably only two degrees warmer in there than it was outside. My tent would have been warmer. The huts won't allow us to set up our tents as it would "damage the alpine vegetation" (um, you put a building on top of it) and it would "look bad for the guests" I was told by one croo.  How witnessing people actually camping is offensive I do not know.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut
Regardless, we all had a somewhat enjoyable evening relaxing by the lake that is up there while waiting for dinner to be over.  This is where our hatred for the huts really set in.  Everyone else had done a few WFS, so they were prepared for the torture.  But it was the first for Meds, FM, Pants, White Wolf and I, so we weren't sure what to expect.  Apparently we have to sit around like starving dogs waiting for all the guests to finish eating, then for the croo to clear everything.  We didn't get to eat until 8:30pm.  That's usually when I'm in bed.  Pace and Hungus got to eat a bit earlier, as part of their WFS was to talk to the normies and answer all their questions about thru-hiking.  The huts usually arrange a naturalist to speak to the guests each night, and when they don't have one, they pluck out a few thru-hikers to talk as their WFS.  Only after Pace and Hungus started their talk were we allowed to go back to the kitchen and eat.  After spending the last few months hiking 1,850 miles over mountains, we had larger than normal appetites.  And we are not used to eating that late.  We were crabby and starved. 

Afterwards the dungeon people retreated to their cave while those of us who got WFS had to wait until all the guests left the dining room so we could put down our pads and bags and go to bed.  I think part of the frustration was that for the last five months we have had to abide by no one's schedule but our own.  And by our own I mean we didn't have one.  I slept when I wanted to sleep, ate when I wanted to eat, and hiked as far as I wanted to hike.  I never had to worry about a work schedule, being somewhere on time, having to abide by someone else's schedule was just not suiting me.  Granted, LOC was a bit more chaotic than the rest of the huts, it was the largest and most popular due to it's location.  Eventually the normies cleared off and we could finally go to bed.  Well we also had to wait for the lunatic croo member Andrew to quit playing his didgeridoo, then we were allowed to sleep in peace. 

We were woken bright and early by normies milling around the dining room waiting for breakfast.  The hikers in the dungeon and those that already did their WFS decided to forgo leftover breakfast and get the hell out of there.  Unfortunately me, my dad, Roller and Sunkist agreed to do our work in the morning, so we had to wait for breakfast to be over and for everyone to clear out of the hut so we could sweep the dining room and bunk rooms.  After our chores were done, we were given leftover cold breakfast.  I scarfed it down ready to get out of there.  Sadly, Mt. Washington was covered in a cloud.  It was windy and freezing, but there could have been a tornado on the mountain for all I cared, I didn't want to spend one more second at this hut.  My dislike of the huts existence was justified by this experience in my mind.  I walked out of the hut and Washington loomed in front of me.  Now or never I guess.

Going up Washington

I started my climb up, and the whole thing really wasn't as bad as I expected.  That or I was just prepared for the worst.  There wasn't much of a trail as it was all rocks, we just had to follow cairns.  It was so cloudy I could really only see from one cairn to the next.  Sorry there really are no pictures, that would have involved me stopping and taking my gloves off, which I was unwilling to do.  Eventually I found my way to the top, the whole thing was in a cloud and I walked around a bit aimlessly at first trying to find everyone.  Finally some buildings emerged from the clouds.  I became pretty horrified by what I found.  Buildings and people everywhere.  I knew there was a road and a train that went to the top for those that didn't want to risk hiking it, but I didn't expect to find an entire plaza of consumption.  People everywhere, in T-shirts and flip flops trying to experience Mt. Washington without having to take more than 10 steps.  I found my way inside to a room reserved for backpackers.  We could stash packs and charge phones.  I saw everyone's packs and after dropping mine, went in search of them upstairs. The plan was to wait a few hours to see if the weather cleared before climbing down.  Unfortunately, the cloud never cleared, and our threshold for dealing with stupid annoying people was a lot smaller than our threshold for physical discomfort. 

We made our way over to the summit sign which was next to the eating and buying building.  There were tourists galore, trying to maneuver their way up the five foot rock pile to take a picture with the sign.  White Wolf took one look at the disgusting scene, said fuck it, and started hiking down.  I was about to follow suit, but my dad really wanted a photo.  And you know what, it took me two days to climb up here from Crawford Notch. I was taking my picture with this stupid sign.  We waited patiently for our turn, until a woman behind us called out "How about people wearing T-shirts and shorts get their picture first!"  Every thru-hiker near that sign paused to slowly look at her with disgust.  We were just waiting for someone to say it.  Finally Roller responded with "How about the people that actually climbed this mountain get their picture first while you go back to the car and get a jacket?"  ......we all got our pictures and quickly made our exit, walking away from the clusterf*ck to the more peaceful experience of climbing down Washington in a cloud.  

After three miles, we were far enough below Washington to be out of the windy cloud.  Once you got off the summit, it became a wonderfully clear day.  The 6 mile stretch down Washington, up Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson, past Edmonds Col, up Thunderstorm Junction and down to Madison Spring Hut were glorious.  All above treeline, miles of nothing but splendid views to wash away Lake of the Clouds and Mt. Washington.  We were truly lucky with how good the weather had been.  I can't imagine doing any of this trail in a storm, or even rain.  We were always completely exposed and the rocks would be very slick.  Most of the people would just stay at their huts, but we wouldn't really have a choice but to keep hiking, so I thank you weather gods.

I took a quick break at Madison Spring hut, but wasn't keen on lingering long.  I guess Gribley, Daystar, Dances with Flies, Honest Abe and Warrior had all tried to do WFS here the night before but got turned away.  The nearest place to camp was at Osgood, three miles away, up and over Mt. Madison.  They said they didn't need to eat, they just wanted to sleep on the floor, the porch even, but the croo said no.  Refusing to night hike down Madison, I guess they quietly cowboy camped behind the hut.  After climbing up and over Madison, I honestly can't believe they expected them to do that at night.  Leaving the hut, the climb up Madison was the usual rocky scramble, but the two and a half mile descent was the longest two and a half miles on the entire trail for me, and for many.  Hungus later told me it was the most elevation loss in one swoop on the entire trail. And the whole descent was rocks.  Walking steeply down misshapen basketball sized rocks.

Cogg Railway

The worst part was that there were so many false summits, you couldn't see all the way down.  It would flatten out (the rocks were still there) and you would get to the edge, just to be confronted with another long descent.  Over and over this happened.  You had to take such careful steps, all the rocks were so unstable, the entire descent turned into a giant controlled fall.  I was just biding my time till I face planted.  And face plant I did.  I tripped on one of the stupid rocks and flew about 10 ft face first into some tiny alpine bush.  I laid there for a minute, assuming I was broken, mangled and dead.  That was it, I'm not moving.  I live here now.  But I slowly got up and quickly realized I was perfectly OK.  My knee was going to have a wicked bruise on it, but all my body parts appeared to be in the correct place.  I looked back up at my trekking pole standing stiff, stuck in the rocks back where I tripped.  I couldn't believe how far I went.  I think it qualifies as flying.  I then looked at the bush I landed in.  It was the only bush among the sea of jagged rocks.  I tripped, flew, and somehow landed on the only spot that wouldn't result in pulverized bones.  So.  That happened.  I went back to get my pole and continued down the 10 ft. section that I had just 'air-blazed.'  I have had several scary falls, including one where I successfully punched myself in the stomach with my trekking pole, but that one just took the top spot.

White Wolf on top of Madison

I shook it off, thanked the bush for saving my life as I walked by, and continued my never-ending climb down this impossibly long mountain.  Eventually I was transported below treeline and the rocks smoothed out, giving me false hope that I might be somewhere near my destination.  But every once in awhile, I got a glimpse through the trees....I was still really high up on the mountain.  Are you kidding me. What was happening? How is this taking so long?  For fuck's sake, I'm not sure what kind of president Madison was, but his mountain was starting to piss me off.  Finally, around 6pm, I arrived at the side trail to Osgood tent site.  It was the only campsite off the AT in the Whites that didn't have a fee. It was bound to be crowded.  

FM, Meds, Towelie, Cheesewater, Pants and White Wolf were all there.  Roller, Sunkist, Pace, Hungus and my dad were still climbing down the miserable beast.  I squeezed my tent on a platform between Towelie and Cheesewater and went to the fire to make dinner.  The rest of the crew rolled in just before dark, looking as exhausted as I felt.  The Whites were wearing on us, and we still had the Wildcats to contend with.  The next morning we were all pretty excited to get to Pinkham Notch.  Pinkham was our first 'emergency exit' out of the Whites so to speak.  There was a lodge type thing at the notch with a restaurant, store and coin-op showers.  It was also an easy hitch into Gorham from here.  Meds and FM were planning to go into town and take a break for the night.  The rest of us were going to grab a hot meal, a small resupply from the store and continue through the Whites, going into Gorham in three days from US 2.  My dad got hiking at the crack of dawn, hoping to go into town to get a full resupply and get back to the trail.  The rest of us got a later start, as it was only 4.8 miles to the notch and we had no town ambitions.  We just had a small climb up Lowes Bald Spot before arriving at the notch.  

About a half mile before the road we were surprised with yet another blast from the past.  Strolling down the trail towards us was Spools.  He was a hiker I knew way back in TN and VA, and hadn't seen since.  He had apparently took some time off the trail and was now doing a flip flop.  Flip floppers start as NoBos, then at some point in their journey, flip up to Katahdin and hike south to the point they got off.  The main reason for doing this is the running out of time. Baxter State Park in ME closes Oct. 15 due to weather.  It is the only real 'deadline' the trail imposes on hikers.  If you aren't moving fast enough to make that deadline, you need to flip up and go south, since SoBos have no such deadline, no other part of the trail actually closes.  It is still most definitely considered a thru-hike, though I can't imagine not finishing my hike at Katahdin.  Spools flipped up at Waynesboro, VA, before the halfway point, so he had some miles to go. We finished catching up, got word on hikers behind us (you always know whats going on with the hikers ahead of you from the registers, but no clue where the people behind you are), then made our way to the notch.

Hiking down Madison
 Meds and FM got a ride into town from Broadsword and Snakegirl - two hikers who had already summited, but Snakegirl had skipped part of the Whites and was back finishing this section to complete her thru hike.  While I was in the restaurant eating with everyone, my dad arrived, getting a ride back from town with Trail Momma.  (Not sure if I've explained before - Trail Momma is slackpacking her husband SOS the entire way, she's not actually hiking, but has become such a part of the trail for many).  We all milled around Joe Dodge Lodge for a bit, procrastinating our climb up Wildcat Peak E.  We weren't going far, it was only three miles to the top.  We were hoping to stealth on the summit, there was a ski gondola that ran in the summer as well, and when it stopped at 5pm and the worker man went down, we were hoping to set up our tents and stealth in the grassy area next to it.  I contemplated getting a ride to the gondola, sending my pack up, then hiking up the mountain packless.  Or maybe sending water up so I didn't have to carry it (we had to carry a lot as there would be no water on top). Or maybe the first person up could take the gondola down and get water for everyone else (there was a restaurant at the bottom).  After about an hour of scheming ways to make this climb easier, we all agreed we just needed to get up and actually climb it.  I adorned my stupidly heavy pack (water why you so heavy?) and ventured into the Wildcats.  

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