Those who underestimate mountains do so at their peril. The Whites in NH have been promoted so much to tourists that they are seen by the naive as being as safe as Disneyland. And because Mt. Washington’s height reaches to only 6,300 ft., the elevation where most trails start in the Rockies, it is looked upon with some condescension. Beware. The weather in the Presidentials is the worst in the world, and every year they kill people.
It looked like a lovely day, puffy white clouds, temperatures in the 70s, a great day for a hike. The summits were in and out of clouds, but that is business as usual. We started out at 8:30 am at the Ridge of the Caps trail, hoping to get up to the summit of Mt. Jefferson and retreat back to the safety of treeline before any rain might develop in the afternoon. The trail is only 2.5 miles but is relentlessly up, with difficult stretches of scrambling and rock climbing. Plus once you get into the alpine zone you encounter the classic rock pile: Lichen encrusted, frost-blasted, sharp-edged rocks which are slippery when wet. The trail is marked by occasional bleats of yellow paint, and cairns, often with chunks of white quartz on top to increase visibility in poor conditions, which are what the Presidentials specialize in.
One of my hiking companions knew the trail. Paul Goudarzi-Fry had been up it before and loved the challenge. He was eager to join us on this assault so we set a date when he and my two sons, Max and Alec, could do it all together. Paul also takes excellent photos (his accompany the blog) so I was glad to have him. With the exception of Max, who was just along to humor the rest of us, we were all familiar with hiking the Whites. I’ve done all the other Presidentials, joined by Alec in climbs of Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce. So we thought we knew what we were doing.
We hit cloud cover about a mile up the trail. At the first outlook, impressive boulders with bowls worn into them from ancient glacial melting, we could catch glimpses of the valley below through the ragged, drifting mists, occasionally illuminated by brilliant sunlight. We continued up the trail looking back to see tantalizing glimpses of the view all along the way. Disappointing, but the weather can change quickly, and there was always the possibility of the clouds blowing away to reveal the full spectacle.
The weather did change. Badly. We ran into rain just below the junction with the Cornice Trail. It was just a drizzle, to be expected when walking through clouds. We dug out our rain gear and soldiered on. So far, it reminded me a bit of my climb of Adams with my other hiking companion, Mary Jolles. Wet, treacherous, but on Adams we were also dealing with near hurricane-force gusts when we reached the summit. The winds we were encountering on Jefferson were mild by comparison. And the visibility was much better; on Adams, Mary and I had barely been able to see from one cairn to the next.
We finally reached the summit of Jefferson, which others who have done it know seems to take forever due to the many teasing heaps of rocks which, once mounted, reveal yet another to climb. There was a ledge offering a bit of cover, so we hastily assembled a bit of lunch. Then the rain got worse, so we decided we’d best get on our way. That’s when we ran into the hail.
The rain had been hitting us with large, pelting drops which we realized were rapidly becoming solid, accumulating in the crevasses around us. We retreated to the meager shelter of the ledge. That’s when we started hearing thunder. It was truly an “Oh, shit!” moment. We waited in abject misery until the storm appeared to abate, and the thunder had retreated. Our shelter was wholly inadequate, accommodating three, maybe, with me stuffed up against sharp rocks and Paul pretty much exposed to the onslaught. So as soon as we were able, we headed out.
Here I was, a fifty-something woman, reasonably fit, but no athlete, hiking with teenagers. My son Max led the way, with Alec and Paul keeping the old lady going and occasionally yelling at Max to wait up. I was slow. My faithful hiking stick broke (damn you, Jefferson!) so I was doubly off-balance, terrified I’d slip and fall or bang my knee or ankle on those rough rocks. Plus I was kicking myself for getting us into this. Yes, we’d all agreed to go, and Paul had been all enthusiasm, but I was the (supposedly) responsible adult. It’s one thing to risk your own neck, and quite another to risk the necks of your kids and someone else’s.
Then the rain returned, and with it, the driving hail, like BBs hitting us. We kept going, struggling down slippery wet rocks with streaming rivulets, gibbering in panic (me, at least) with every rumble of thunder. The temperature had plummeted, although I at least didn’t feel it with the adrenaline and exertion. My fingers were numb from clutching cold stone in the freezing rain. I’d given my gloves to Max, and the others hadn’t brought any. Max, in fact, was hiking in Converse sneakers. Alec and I were both wearing Vibrams (a.k.a. “toe shoes”) which did not protect our feet from banging against rocks, but did give us a huge advantage finding toe holds in the scrambles.
The skies lightened and the hail stopped. The rain diminished to a sullen drizzle. We got past the Cornice Trail junction and began seeing trees again, short and no protection but at least affording handholds along steep slides. We made it down to the Caps and suddenly the clouds peeled back. The world was revealed in huge glory. Hiking in clouds you lose the sense of the space that surrounds you. When you see just how vast that space beyond you is, it is stunning. We stood, dripping and gaping at the vista laid out before us, Crawford Notch, Jefferson Notch, and all the mountains to the west, marching ridge after towering peak, and there we were. Alive. Drenched and battered, but we had made it.
We shambled the rest of the way to the car, getting back somewhere around 5:00. It had taken us roughly half as long to get down as it had to get up. I’d packed towels in the car just in case we got wet (ha!) so we stripped down and toweled off, got in the car and cranked up the heat. Oh, the righteous glory of having survived! As we were peeling off our rain gear a car pulled in. The fellow who got out asked if we’d been swimming or had run into rain. Oh, just a spot of bad weather, that’s all.
Paul’s camera, which suffered a bad soaking, nevertheless survived so that we do have documentation of our ascent (he buried it in uncooked rice overnight, which dried it out). No one was injured or contracted pneumonia, so the only casualty of the adventure was my hiking stick, which had accompanied me on all other 4K hikes and innumerable ones in between. I bear a grudge. Max, even more so than before, is thoroughly convinced this hiking business is nuts. Alec was somewhat traumatized by the adventure, although at the time he was a rock, shouting encouragement to me and making sure his brother didn’t get too far ahead. I must say, they all did a splendid job of keeping their heads under pressure. Not bad at all for a gaggle of geeks.
I still have nine more mountains to climb to complete my 4K list: Cannon, Garfield, Galehead, the Twins, the Bonds, and Zealand.
I think I’ll take a break for a couple of weeks.