29 Dec 2013

The Great White Hike

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Had it been a clear day this view would have included Mount Washington and the beast we hiked on the exact same day last year, Mount Madison. But after only several minutes of abuse from the wind and snow we made our way back down. Because sometimes the summit is only the halfway point of your journey.

I put together a minimalist soundtrack to accompany/enhance this experience, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

So back up from that animated gif three and a half hours to 10AM at the trailhead/parking lot.

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The forecast predicted about four inches of snow but since last year we hiked through about a foot of fresh powder (with no snowshoes) we really didn’t have any concerns or reservations. Other hikers recently reported quite a bit of ice, too, so we welcomed the precipitation. Leaving the trailhead two hours later than planned wasn’t exactly ideal, so we started with a fast pace.

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We moved so quickly that I had to shed my hood(s), hat, and big mittens. The elevation gain for this climb was 3150 feet over only four-ish miles. But by the first mile I was soaked in sweat.

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The air was 20 degrees fahrenheit and the trees protected us from a pretty intense wind that we would ultimately have to face at the exposed summits. The goal was to make it to the top of Eisenhower first, then turn around and hit Mount Pierce on a slightly different descent.

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We passed seven people (I think) by the second mile and didn’t see another living thing during the entire hike.

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We thought the snow started to fall harder and heavier but realized that we had left the tall trees behind. Without the comfort of branches above and around us the drop in temperature and increase in wind were extremely noticeable. I put my hat and hoods back on.

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We found ourselves at the junction with the Webster Cliff Trail (at 4250 feet). The Appalachian Trail merged with our Crawford Path route and that is what we took to the top. It was noon, two hours after we had departed the parking lot.

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This is where things started to get a little crazy. Like an idiot I left my goggles (and spare water) at home. The sunglasses I brought prevented my eyelashes from freezing, but didn’t help with the visibility at all. Pete led the way, only able to see one, sometimes two cairns ahead of us.

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We knew we were close but had no idea where the trail would lead us. Despite being only 1.6 miles from the junction, it took us over an hour to finally make it to the top. It was tempting to ditch the switchback trail and plow over the fragile alpine plants in a straight line toward what looked like the top, but we kept on the path. Also, only a few days before this, two hikers blazed their own trail on Mount Adams (just a few peaks north of us, also in the presidential range). They ultimately had to be rescued in the middle of the night, after losing their way. Stay on the trail, people.

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The summit: 4760 feet.

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The wind was intense. 50mph, at least, with snow in the air. We couldn’t see anything. I don’t think our stay was more than five minutes. No celebratory food/drink, just acknowledgement of the first leg of our journey and return back to the tree line.

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Despite our intention to do the Eisenhower Loop, we returned the way we came (in the interest of time).

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I knew the video from the summit would be almost unusable. So after hiking down about 200 feet I set my little Sony to video mode once again and did my best to capture our hike, and not slow us down.

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Food, glorious food. This was the first thing I had eaten since inhaling two donuts in the car in North Conway. I drank half a Gatorade and realized that my hands were numb (so were Pete’s, but he didn’t say anything about that until later). Even though our stop was only five minutes long, I worried that I paid for it with my fingers. Aside from being exposed to the elements for a bit, I think my sweaty mittens had cooled off. So sticking my freezing hands into something cold and wet didn’t help. They didn’t even feel cold, I just couldn’t feel them. But after about 15 minutes of hiking while blowing on my hands, the numbness turned to pain. Pleased that my fingers were still working, I took out my camera for more photos.

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I don’t think we stopped at the summit of Mount Pierce. We weren’t even positive that we were at the summit, but we were still on the AT (and now on the Webster Cliff Trail) heading toward the closed Mizpah hut.

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The hike down from here to the hut was challenging. It was steep and incredibly icy underneath the new snow. We fell/slid/baby-stepped our way down. It was a slow 0.8 miles.

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We found fresh footprints at the hut, but didn’t see anyone. I can only imagine how great this place is when it is open. According to AT thru-hikers (Pete completed the trail from start to finish a few years ago) it is a pretty hot spot.

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We took the Mizpuh cutoff to meet up with Crawford Path again, and made our way down as quickly as possible. I kept almost falling, unable to lift my feet high enough to clear the smallest of rocks. It was actually easier to move at a slow jog than it was to walk. We remembered that the bridge was near the start of the trail, which meant that our journey was almost over.

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Success. It was 4pm, exactly six hours since we had started hiking. More importantly, it was 9.8 miles of hard work. Most of the cars that were in the lot had gone, and daylight was about to go, too. We had a 2.5 (traffic, snow, blah) drive back before the trip was officially complete. I think I ate food for two of those hours.

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More pictures from this hike (if you can believe it) are in a Flickr set.

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If you enjoyed this I have another hiking adventure worth checking out. It is of a recent fall solo trip up Giant Mountain, in the Adirondacks. And last year’s hike up Mount Madison is on Flickr.