Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Mountains: June 24-29, 2012

After dropping my son off at summer camp in New Hampshire, a family member and I spent several days hiking the White Mountains, mostly along the Appalachian Trail. We stayed in a series of high altitude huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Although staying in these huts is not inexpensive, the huts offer a bunk and prepared dinner and breakfast each overnight. It is a great way to experience this beautiful area! Here is an account of our trip.

Day 1 - Start to Greenleaf Hut - Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Brother-in-law Ed and I started out early on our first day, as we had to drop his truck at the northern end of our hike and take a shuttle to our starting point.  The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which operates all of the huts we would be staying at on our hike, operates a shuttle for hikers to get from one trailhead to another.  We arrived at the parking lot near Gorham and found it to be packed, but we were able to leave the truck right near the lot entrance, just off the road.

The shuttle took forever, picking us up at 8:40 and not getting us to our starting point until 10:50.  Because the sky was so blue and the mountains so close, waiting was tough!  Our starting trailhead was at the Flume Visitor Center, just off of Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch State Park, at the western edge of our hike.

Franconia Notch State Park encompasses much of the valley created by the Pemigewassett River, and is one of the most spectacularly beautiful places in the East Coast.  I briefly lived in New Hampshire many years ago, and still vividly remember the awe I experienced my first time driving through the Notch.  It is changed since then, with an interstate replacing the old Daniel Webster Highway, but the Interstate's design is amazingly understated.  And the biggest change is the loss of the iconic "Old Man of the Mountain," the New Hampshire symbol which fell off the mountain about a decade ago.

After exiting the van, we worked to adjust our packs.  Ed had a brand new Deuter pack purchased the previous day at the North Conway EMS store, and I was lugging an Osprey Kestel 48, used by my son the week before on a Boy Scout backpacking trip I led through Mt. Rogers in Virginia.  Throughout that hike, my son kept asking if the pack was leaning to the right.  I attributed this to a perceived desire that he be anywhere but on a trail, but as soon as I started walking with his pack, I could tell what he was talking about.  I really should take him more seriously!  It took me until the following day to finally get the pack riding right.

It was almost a mile along flat trails to get to the Liberty Spring Trail, which would take us up the mountain.  I chose the Liberty Spring Trail from several ascending options because it was also the Appalachian Trail, and because it would give us the option to take a short side trip to Mt. Liberty, elevation 4459.  I also wanted to experience as much of the spectacular Franconia Ridge as possible, and the Liberty Spring Trail met the ridge nearly 2 miles further south than the more popular Falling Waters Trail.  It turned out that there were two problems with this strategy, however.  The first is the fact that the shuttle we took dropped us at the trailhead so late that we had little time to dawdle if we wanted to make dinner on time.  And the second was that we discovered the spectacular parts of Franconia Ridge are all on the other side of the Falling Waters Trail anyway.

Posing at the top (almost) of Mt. Liberty.
We reached the ridge after hiking 3.8 miles.  The trail was rocky and steep at times (averaging a 22% grade over the upper two miles), and the only really interesting part was the Liberty Spring Tentsite, which is a series of platforms on the side of a steep slope for campers to use.  At the ridge, time was already a concern but we let a couple of other hikers convince us to drop our packs and do an out-and-back to Mt. Liberty, which was just south of our trail. They had just been down the ridge, they explained, and the different perspective that Mt. Liberty offers made it worth the detour.  We made the 10 minute side trip to an open summit, but the actual Mt. Liberty summit was on the other side of a short, steep chasm.  So counting Mt. Liberty among the 4000 footers we have climbed will have to come another day.

Returning to our packs, we continued north on the Franconia Ridge Trail through a forested ridge top, meeting Little Haystack Mountain 6.1 miles into our hike.  Little Haystack reaches 4780 feet in elevation, making it the first of our 4000 footers on the trip.  Several organizations maintain lists of all 4000 foot mountains in New Hampshire and in all of New England, and it is a big deal among many hikers up there to ascend all mountains on the list.  Little Haystack was above treeline, as was Mt. Lincoln at 5089 feet. 

The Franconia Ridge Trail showing
Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette.
From Lincoln to Mt. Lafayette the trail was spectacular!  On either side of the trail the ridge line dropped precipitously.  To our left was the valley we had come up from, and to the right was the Pemigewassett Wilderness and mountains all the way to the distant, but distinguishable, Mt. Washington.  We felt truly lucky to be on this trail on such a spectacularly clear day, especially since rain was forecasted for the following day.

We reached The summit of Mt. Lafayette after 7.7 miles.  Lafayette is 5260 feet high and is the highest peak in New Hampshire outside of the Presidential Range further east.  These were 7.7 tiring miles, and not just because we had climbed up from 1418 feet high, nearly 4000 feet in elevation.  These trails are more rocky than Virginia trails, and the process of climbing up, over and around rocks can make for a slow hike and sore joints.  We saw a number of hiking groups catering to members (often in mere sneakers) who were hurting from the trek, and these folks had yet to start the steep drop back down to their cars.

Franconia Ridge from the Greenleaf Hut
From the top of Lafayette we dropped steeply on the Bridal Path to the Greenleaf Hut, where we stayed for the night.  AMC's huts are spaced throughout the White Mountains on or near the Appalachian Trail.  Greenleaf is a mile by trail off of the ridge line (and A.T.), and is a popular overnight for families out with relatively young children.  Ed and I arrived at 6:03 PM, just as dinner was called.  Next to us at dinner was a group of French Canadian ladies, who reveled in the wine they had transported from their previous night's stay, at the same Galehead Hut we would be trekking to the next day.

Total hike numbers for our first day:  8.54 miles in just under 7 hours.  Elevation gain was 4,491 feet. We also dropped 1,745 feet, mostly at the end of the day.

Dinner at Greenleaf was stuffed shells, salad, homemade bread, and dessert.  It was fabulous!  Ed and I settled in after dinner with some bourbon and books from the Hut library while we watched the sky darken.

Day 2 - Greenleaf to Galehead - Monday

Looking back at Franconia Notch on Monday morning.
The next morning it was preparing to rain as we left the hut.  Mt. Lafayette was obscured by clouds, but some of the ridge was visible. Below, the notch was clear, even sunny in spots, but we were headed in the other direction.

We first retraced our steps back to Mt. Lafayette.  We didn't know it at the time, but the summit of Lafayette was our high point for the trip, at 5245 feet.    It was a steep climb straight up to the summit, with the last several hundred yards above treeline, in the clouds.  At the summit was a sign directing us north on the Garfield Ridge Trail.  We headed down the rocks on the north side of Mt. Lafayette, several times losing the trail and using my GPS to adjust our route by a few feet so we would end up back on the proper route. 

The Garfield Ridge Trail dropped back into the trees, though it didn't matter much to us, as the rain eliminated any views we would normally have enjoyed.  The trail was a series of ups and downs until we came to the steep climb to the summit of Mt. Garfield - essentially a rock scramble.  Dropping down the other side of the summit, we came to the Garfield Ridge Campsite, which was a series of tent platforms near the trail.  We met a couple of hikers here, and one told us that we were about to hit a really steep part of the trail.  Since he was heading in the opposite direction, we laughed at the idea that he had no idea what steep is, because he hadn't summited either Garfield or Lafayette. 

But that guy wasn't wrong.  The descent got steeper and we found ourselves essentially  dropping down a waterfall disguised as a hiking trail, with rocks and water everywhere.  Going uphill, we would ascend so steeply that I'd have to shorten my poles, then descending I would have to lengthen those poles again.  I did that until one pole gave out on this descent, causing me nearly to tumble down the trail.   That pole had to be stored in my pack from then on, leaving me down to one pole.

Bottoming out after Mt Garfield (both literally and emotionally), our trail intersected with the Gale River Trail then climbed again steeply to the Galehead Hut.  We were really sucking wind at this point, and I was amazed at how hard the day's hiking had been.  I could not be feeling too sorry for myself, though, as we were passed by a 60 year old Bostoner (Charlestown, actually) and his son, a professional diver living in Burlington, VT. 

We hadn't seen these guys the night before at Greenleaf, and we found out why at dinner.  They had hiked all the way from Interstate 93 in Franconia Notch State Park, bypassing our first night's lodging and going straight through to our second night hut!  These guys were a lot of fun, and we enjoyed their company through the rest of our hike.   

That day, we ended up hiking 7.4 miles, which took 8 hours, 15 minutes.  It is not often that I average less than a mile and hour when hiking with adults!  This was not our longest hike of the week mileage-wise, but it took the most time of any of our hikes.  It took longer than any other hikes because we went from 4300 feet to 5200 feet, then dropped to 3600 before climbing back to 4400 feet again before dropping to 3400 then a final climb to the hut at 3800 feet.  In total, we gained over 2,600 feet and lost nearly 3,100 feet over steep, rocky terrain.  It was a rough hike, and numbers cannot do it justice.

The Galehead Hut in the rain.
We had read that Galehead is the most remote of the huts, and that it has a spectacular view of the Pemigewassett Wilderness. It certainly was not easy to get to! But we can't speak to the views; they never presented themselves. 

Also at dinner was a man we'd met the night before, along with his son (a junior in high school) and 12 year old daughter.  Those two kids were veritable trail runners, taking a full 90 minutes less time to cover the same distance we hiked. And we were able to spend some time with our roommates for the night (assigned by the hut crew), a young couple living in central New Hampshire while he is at med school at Dartmouth.  They were using Galehead as a base to check off summiting several 4,000 foot mountains off their list. 

There were several empty bunks in our room and we needed every extra hook for all our soaked gear.  Our roommates gave us newspaper, which we wadded up and placed in our boots to try to suck out some of the water from our boots.  With everything dripping, we created a small pond of runoff on the floor, and never did get everything dry before putting much of it on again in the morning. 
This elevation profile shows the portion of the hike between Greenleaf and Zealand Falls Huts.
The descent of Mt. Garfield was the toughest, but note the average grade for a large portion
of the South Twin Mountain climb was 35.7 percent.  Tough climbing!

Day 3 - Galehead to Zealand Falls Huts, Tuesday

We had to put much of the damp clothing back on in the morning, but it didn't really matter, as we were soaked anyway after just a short time on the trail.   No loss of heat in the rain, though, as we headed up steeply almost immediately, rock climbing the Twinway Trail from 3800 feet at Galehead to 4900 feet at the summit of South Twin Mountain over 8/10ths of a mile, about a 25% grade.  And much of that was over 35 percent.  As a result, we had a good sweat going very quickly into the day's hike. 

At the top of South Twin, we were able to get almost above timberline, where the trees were very short.  There were no views through the clouds and the rain.  From there, it was a general downhill hike along the northern edge of the Pemigewassett Wilderness to the Zealand Falls Hut
The view from the Zealand Falls Hut in the rain.
An easier hike than the day before?  No doubt.  But this was a tough day, too, as the rain continued, and due to the wet conditions I slipped off a slick ladder on the trail and tumbled onto some rocks leaving one of my fingers really bruised and painful for days. 

One of Zealand's bunkrooms,
with clothes drying everywhere.
I had to shake off the pain and the shock of falling off the ladder and keep going down the mountain.  This time, we generally kept up with the incredible hiking kids we had met the day before, and at one point we even passed them, before beginning the downhill to the Zealand Hut.  But it was because the signs we saw on the trail were confusing - Ed and I took the correct route because we followed my GPS, while our friends followed the signs and went the wrong way.

We reached Zealand after 5 1/4 hours on the trail, hiking just under 6.5 miles.  There was only an elevation gain of 1614 feet in this day's hike, and a loss of 2,762.  This was a much easier hike than the day before. 

The Zealand Falls Hut is the smallest capacity hut in the system and it was hopping when we arrived.  It turns out that many of the occupants of the hut were day hikers who were escaping the weather, which had been only damp earlier in the day but was raining hard when we reached the hut.  We found bunks and set our our clothes to dry before joining the visitors in the dining area. 

Included in the group was a man with three young children.  The youngest was still in a backpack, without a coat, shivering as the group headed it the door.  I hope they made it back to the trailhead in good shape. 

Mealtime at the Zealand Hut.
The Zealand Falls Hut was a delightful place and the others who stayed that night were wonderful company.  This was my favorite night of the trip.  We spent much time talking to a woman who had adopted a girl with family issues from gritty Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The woman had broken up with her partner and had only partial visitation with her daughter.  She told us that they had been to the Whites before to stay in huts, that it helped them bond, and that she treasured this time with her daughter.  She was an amazing woman.

This is the only hut that obtains electrical power by water - the rest use a combination of wind and solar.  And those locations getting power from the sun had to be very penurious with their power during times of extended rain (like when I was there!).  But because the Zealand Hut is at the bottom of a waterfall, they divert some of the water through a tube, allowing them a constant power source.  As a result, this was the only hut where we were not told that lights out would be at 9:30 PM.

The rain was really getting to everyone at this point.  We heard stories of many cancellations at other huts after some solid days of rain, and Ed and I decided to change our future plans by replacing our last night's accommodations from the distant Madison Hut to the closer Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  I had reasoned we could make it all the way to Madison from the Mitzpah Springs Hut, but the weather was wearing us out.

Notice the 2nd hiking pole, sticking out of my backpack.  
It was at the Zealand Falls Hut that I had my biggest boost of the week when I found my new outdoors camera in a hidden pocket in my pack after thinking I had lost it.  As a result, I started taking many more photos than using the cheapo camera I'd gotten as a temporary replacement a week earlier.  Losing and finding cameras appears to be endemic to the Whites, as I had done the same thing the previous time I hiked up this way.  


Day 4 Zealand Falls Hut to Mizpah Springs Hut Wednesday

After breakfast, we packed up our stuff, put on our wet clothes, and headed steeply down the trail.  We had to be at the AMC's Highland Center by noon, when we were scheduled to meet another brother-in-law, Chris.  It was really hard at this point not to feel like we were coming to the end of our journey, as we were returning, though briefly, to civilization, and the rest of the the hike was over a route we had hiked before.  But it was all new to Chris. 

Some of the stream crossings were a little difficult.
The hike was relatively easy compared with what we had seen.  After dropping down from the hut, we passed a couple of ponds and then turned onto the A-Z Trail.  We then split off of the Appalachian Trail for the first time on our hike.  Not much steep elevation gain during this part of the hike, but several dicey stream crossings over waterways swollen by days of rain. 

After cresting the ridge where a side trail lead to Mt. Tom, I turned on my cell phone for the first time since finding my real camera, to get updates from Chris.  We met some folks heading the other way at the ridgetop, and while talking to them I fell off the trail and bent my remaining hiking pole.

We came strolling into the AMC's Highland Center at 5 minutes after noon and found Chris next to the fireplace, exactly as planned.  Chris got to meet our friends, and we got to make calls home and briefly charge our electronics.  

The Highland Center is a hotel run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, and it wasn't at all what I expected.  I felt like we were wild, funky smelling AT thru-hikers wandering into the Waldorf-Astoria.  It was a much less outdoorsy clientele than I had expected.  The best part about being there was the small store in the hotel, where I purchased a replacement set of hiking poles and 3 pairs of socks, guaranteeing me my first pair of dry feet in days that evening.  My old poles went into Chris's trunk for later disposal.

After a quick trip to Chris's car to dump off some particularly stinky clothing and extra snacks, we headed back into the woods, up the Crawford Path, the self-proclaimed "oldest continuously-used mountain path in America."  Ed struggled up this hike, and stated that it was tougher than he remembered it from 3 years ago.  As he slowed down, Chris and I speeded up the mountain, intent on reserving bunks for the three of us.  It turned out to be a good move, as Chris found us an empty bedroom hidden off the main hall, which we had to ourselves that night.  Lots of room to spread out wet clothes; clothes that now started to have a real funky smell to them...

Total distance hiked this day was 8.5 miles, in 6 hours, 38 minutes (including time spent shopping at the Highland Center).  We gained over 3,200 feet in elevation, but also lost just over 2,000 feet in elevation.  Perhaps there was a point to Ed's struggle, as it turned out that this day saw our biggest elevation gain, other than the first day.

Day 4  Mizpah Springs Hut to Lakes of the Clouds Hut  Thursday

I think that if we weren't meeting Chris, it would have been pretty hard to keep going, but in the end, I was really glad I didn't cut the hike short.  Still, we heard stories at Mizpah about families that had tried the hike from Mizpah to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut through the alpine zone that day, groups that had to turn back because of dangerous wind gusts.  It wasn't without some trepidation that I put on damp clothes and dry socks (finally!) and headed up Mt. Pierce towards our last hut.

On top of Mt. Pierce.
The trip started out calm, as can be seen from the photo of Chris and me on top of Mt. Pierce.  But as we neared Mt. Eisenhower, a steady wind of probably 40 mph was hitting us.  I was concerned about stopping in the wind, as I was wet to the skin and did not want to risk hypothermia.  

In a sheltered spot along along the trail.
The trees made a huge difference in the wind!  Our trail would be in the full force of the wind when walking over bare boulders, but then it would dip down into 6 foot conifers and the wind would blow over us.  A difference of 10 or 15 feet in elevation and some 6 foot trees would mean the difference between a stiff wind and a still one.  We made sure to time our water stops in the trees or shielded behind a boulder.  And I was relieved when we reached the Lakes Hut just before reaching 4 hours on the trail.  No superhuman numbers today.  We hiked 4.5 miles.  We gained 1,594 feet in elevation, and lost 364 feet.  We did not take any of the side trails over Mt. Eisenhower or Mt. Monroe, so we could stay as much out of the wind as possible.  And we arrived at the largest of all the huts on the cusp of a "no vacancy" evening.

View from the Lakes Hut, Thursday evening.
What do Lakes patrons do when there is no view?  Hang out.
We ended up sharing our room with a man and his two sons, one of which slept constantly after their hike directly from the Highland Center.  And we spent much time looking out the dining room's large picture window in wonder at the world as clouds slowly began to give up their grip on the mountains.  

Day 5  Lakes of the Clouds Hut to the car  Friday

Friday morning started with much promise that the rain might be finally over - promise that seemed to end with a 7 AM rain shower.

Every morning as a part of the breakfast "entertainment," the hut croo who cook and serve breakfast also read the weather forecast created at the weather station on top of Mt. Washington.  On our final morning in the mountains, the official weather forecast was for unstable weather until the afternoon, when a cold front would move through the area.  The skies had cleared again, and we made sure to get on the trail quickly to take advantage of the blue skies for as long as they would last.  We opted not to make the mile trip each way to the summit of Mt. Washington, as each of us had been there before and we didn't know how long the blue skies would hold out.

Last day posing with friends outside the Lakes Hut.
Mt. Monroe is in the background.
Looking northwest from the trail.  The smoke from the Cog Railway chugging up to Mt. Washington can be seen.
We needn't have worried.  By the time we were a couple of miles out, between the basically nonexistent Mt. Franklin and Mt. Eisenhower, we could tell that the cold front was coming through and the weather would be beautiful for the rest of our hike.  A fitting bookend to the terrible weather after our first day on the trail!  and we ended up back at Chris's house in the Boston suburbs at 7 PM, so it is probably just as well that we didn't try to do Mt. Washington.
The Presidential Range, including Mt. Eisenhower and Mt. Washington, in the background.
Looking southeast towards the town of North Conway.
Friday numbers: 7.1 miles in just a hair over 5 hours.  Elevation gain: 666 feet.  Elevation loss: 3,798 feet.  

Total numbers for the week: 42.4 miles in 36 hours, 6 minutes.  14,245 feet gain in elevation.  13,783 loss in elevation.

Despite the rain, it was a great trip.  Every hiker should hike the Whites at some point.  But remember that there is nothing in Virginia that can really prepare you for the trail conditions up there.

Thinking back on the trip, I am really glad I did it, despite the weather.  But it caused some changes.  I now wear a base layer tee that is specifically made to dry quickly and not stink.  I have a new rain shell.  And I think that when I go back, I will wait until the last minute to reserve hut space, as prior to the 4th of July, the huts remain pretty available during the week.  Next time, I am going to make sure the weather looks promising, then reserve a couple of days at the Galehead Hut, using it as a base to grab some more 4,000 footers.  I can't wait!

3 comments:

  1. What a blast. Dan and his son Buddy were a lot of fun.

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  2. Great post! My parents live about 15 minutes south of Franconia Notch. Adam and I are planning a similar hut-to-hut hike for next summer.

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    1. Thanks for your post. What amazing luck to have family that close! Definitely try to do the Franconia Ridge while up there - nothing like that in Virginia.

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