Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Northern Presidentials Pre-Planning and Day One

Hike: Northern Presidentials (Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson Loop)
Location: White Mountain National Forest
Nearby Town: Randolph, NH
Elevation (Max): 5,774'
Elevation Gained: ~4,373'
Mileage: 14.9
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
Trailhead: To do the loop, as we did, park your car at a convenience store called Lowe's Store on Rte 2 (Presidential Hwy/Gorham Hill Rd) just after passing Durand West Rd. on the left. After parking, walk W along Rte 2 for about 500 feet to the trailhead on the left for Lowe's Path. To get to Lowe's Store from the south on I-93, take Exit 35 to merge onto Rte 3 (Daniel Webster Hwy). From the north, take Exit 36, turn L on Rte 141 (Butter Hill Rd), turn L onto Rte 3. Follow Rte 3 for about 12.3 miles, then turn R onto Rte 115. Follow 115 for 9.6 miles, then turn R onto Rte 2 (Presidential Hwy/Gorham Hill Rd). Follow Rte 2 for about 5 miles, Lowe's Store will be on the left.

Another option is to do a point to point hike using two cars to shuttle between the finish and trailhead. To use this approach, park one of your cars at the Cog Railway station parking lot at the base of Mount Washington. To get there follow the above directions, but don't follow Rte 3 all the way to Rte 115. Instead, turn R on Rte 302, and follow until you reach the Bretton Woods resort area, at which point you will turn L onto Base Station Rd. Follow that road until it ends. After parking one car there, jump into the other car and retrace your steps back to the intersection of Rtes 302 and 3. Take a R onto Rte 3, and follow the above directions to Lowe's Store.
Fees: There is no fee to hike in the WMNF, but there are some fees involved in this trip. Parking at Lowe's Store is $2/night. Furthermore, the shelters maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club charge nightly fees. Our stay at the Crag Camp cost $12 per person per night. Another camp nearby is the Gray Knob cabin, which charges the same fee. If you get a later start and need to make camp for the night before getting up to the Crag or Gray Knob cabins, then you can stay at the Log Cabin for $7 per night. You must have cash on hand to pay. If you do not have cash at Crag Camp or Gray Knob Cabin, then you will be sent down to the Log Cabin and mailed a bill. A caretaker goes to each shelter nightly to collect the fees.
Websites: White Mountain National Forest, Randolph Mountain Club, Mount Washington Observatory

As I mentioned in a previous post, the signature New Hampshire hike, the Presidential Traverse, was brought to my attention while reading Michael Lanza's New England Hiking. I immediately knew I wanted to do it. I tossed around the idea for a few months with friends, only half serious. As I got more and more into hiking, though, and accumulated backpacking gear that would be necessary on such a hike, the possibility of this hike started looking more realistic. I pitched the idea of doing some sort of a hike in the Presidentials as a post-graduation trip to some of my friends and I got a very enthusiastic response so my planning began in earnest. I did a bunch of online research: reading about other people's traverses, checking historical weather patterns to identify the best time to do the hike, researching trails to take, shelters to use, supplies we would need, etc.

I decided not to go for a true Presidential Traverse, which would be 20 miles from Mount Madison in the north to Mount Pierce in the south. Instead, after reading the AMC's White Mountain trail guide, I chose a point to point route that ascended Mount Adams, turned south bagging Mount Jefferson, went onward to Mount Clay, and then descended the western side of Mount Washington. In all, we planned for a 10 mile, two day hike. Next we needed to pick a date. E and I were restricted because we were traveling to Ohio, Michigan, and Maine beginning in the middle of June. We didn't want to do the hike too early, though, because the mountains can be very wet in spring time and snow storms have occurred in every season on Mount Washington, so we figured the later, the better. To reduce the likelihood we would be crowded out of cabins, we chose to begin our hike on Monday for a June 8-9 trip. This worked out perfectly for E and I, too, because we went on to schedule a trip up to our friend's place on Lake Winnipesaukee for the preceding weekend so we would already be 2/3 of the way there.

One week before our trip we met at E's house in the morning for an orientation session. We went over the plan, what gear and clothing people would need to bring, what to expect in terms of terrain and weather, and so on. And, E being the wonderful friend she is, we did all this over chocolate raspberry muffins. One of the main issues we had to deal with in this meeting was who would go on the trip. We all wanted more of our friends to come (though it was not clear any more of them would be able to), but we decided to cap the trip at the five we had--myself, E, Jump, and our friends Cycleman and Coastie--mainly because shuttling between the trailhead and finish would require two cars for the first 5 people on the trip, but adding one more person would require two more cars, which seemed like an unnecessary hassle. After I felt I had adequately warned everyone about the dangers of hiking in the Presidentials (notoriously unpredictable weather, brutal cold, rare back to back dry days, and, at the time, the highest recorded wind speed in the world), and informed them that it had snowed there the day before, the meeting was adjourned.

Over the next week we all communicated back and forth about some minor gear and logistics details. I obsessively watched the weather forecasts because we were having a stubbornly cold and wet spring in New England. Knowing that Mount Washington rarely puts two sunny days together was worrying me because I really did not want to embark on a cold, wet, zero visibility trip, but it looked like we might get an opening for the hike. On Saturday, E and I headed up to visit our friend at Lake Winnipesaukee. We had a wonderful time up there even though--surprise, surprise--it rained one of the days. We enjoyed canoeing, swimming, visiting the Squam Lakes Nature Center, exploring the small towns in the area, and each others' company. On Sunday we went to the library in town where I checked the weather forecast for our hike, scattered showers and thunderstorms. I was worried, but I felt we were prepared for passing showers. On Monday, E and I woke up, donned our hiking clothes, packed our packs, said goodbye and headed onto the road. We had arranged to meet Jump, Cycleman, and Coastie at the base of Mount Washington at the Cog Railway at 2pm. The drive through the White Mountains was beautiful, though we were socked in under an overcast. As we approached and drove through Franconia Notch State Park, the beauty of the surrounding landscape intensified, and was further enhanced by one of the most beautiful of sights we could behold at that time--patches of blue sky and sunshine!

As we pulled up to the base of Mount Washington, the overcast filled back in, and we passed by Bretton Woods, which, for an economics junkie, was kind of cool. We pulled into a dirt lot where Jump, Cycleman, and Coastie had parked the finish car, packed all our gear into my car, got in, and began the drive to the trailhead. Though Google Maps says this drive takes about 45 minutes, I don't think it took us more than half an hour. We pulled into Lowe's Store, which had several other cars parked there by hikers, and went inside to pay our $2 for using their lot. We then put what we would not need in the car, donned our packs, laced up our boots, and began the walk along Rte 2 to the trailhead.

We quickly found the trail and turned left up into the woods along Lowe's Path, which is one of the smoothest, least steep ascents of the Northern Presidentials. After having warned everyone about the possibility of shocking cold, we all had on about three or four layers, and it only took about five minutes before we all stopped and stripped off everything leaving us in our short sleeves. The trail was pretty damp, which was unsurprising given how rainy that spring had been, but it wasn't too bad, and didn't really bother us. Not long after the start of the trail, we came across one of those signs posted around the Presidentials that make you feel cool and courageous, yet possibly foolish, warning that taking on this hike is not for the weak and may lead to hypothermia, getting lost, or death. At about 3,263', after 2.5 miles, we came upon the Log Cabin, a shelter maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. We poked around in there to check it out and took a quick break to snack and rest.

Hello, danger

The crew at the Log Cabin

It was a bit wet, that stream on the right was a trail up to the Log Cabin

We returned to the trail and continued our hike up the mountain. We soon began noticing the trees becoming shorter, and views opening up all around us. The Presidentials have alpine zones, which is uncommon for mountains of their height (~5,000-6,000'), but in this region, due to their prominence, high latitude, and horrible weather, the mountains have large alpine zones above the treeline exposed to the elements, which is part of why these mountains can be so dangerous. When we came to the junction with Quay Path, we were perched on Nowell Ridge overlooking a ravine with a view across to Israel Ridge and up to Adams 4, a shoulder of Mount Adams. We stopped to take in the view and snap some photos. Then, to get to our abode for the night, Crag Camp, we went left onto Quay Path.

The view toward Israel Ridge from Nowell Ridge

Approaching the treeline

Looking up to Adams 4

Jump and Cycleman at the junction with Quay Path

E and I on Nowell Ridge

Not long after getting into the thicker woods of the Quay Path we saw something behind some trees so we bushwhacked to get a closer look, and it turned out that something, in the second week of June, was a big pile of snow. We were impressed, and somehow I ended up getting snow down my back, pretty sure I can blame Coastie for that. We continued along the path and walked by the Gray Knob cabin, where we could have stayed, but we knew Crag Camp had the better views so we continued on. Between the two cabins we came across a spring, so we stopped to filter some water to replenish our bottles. Not long after, we came into a little opening overlooking King Ravine, and there was Crag Camp. The view was truly incredible. At this point, we had successfully climbed above the clouds so while we were enjoying the beauty of clear skies around us, we had a complete undercast below us at which to marvel.

Hello, snow

The view over King Ravine from Crag Camp

We entered the cabin, which was beautiful with three sleeping rooms and one main large room with counters for cooking, and a few large tables. We found that one of the large rooms was already full of stuff, the other large room was empty but for one sleeping bag, and the third room, which is smaller and only had four beds, was empty so we put our stuff in there, and enjoyed some sour gummy worms that Cycleman had brilliantly brought along. We cooked our rice and beans dinner, which always tastes good after a hike, and enjoyed the views out the large windowed wall overlooking the ravine. We signed into the guestbook, the caretaker arrived to collect our fees, and we repeatedly went outside to enjoy the breathtaking views of clouds moving in and out of the ravine, mountains pushing up the undercast below us, and the sun's changing light constantly making the view look new. The large group arrived, and we learned they were part of a university course on New England writers that goes around New England hiking and learning--sounds amazing. As the darkness rolled in, the guy to whom the single sleeping bag in the second big room belonged returned to the cabin. We planned on asking him if he would mind switching rooms with us, but he immediately went outside, stood on a ledge over the ravine, and began doing yoga. We passed the evening playing cards by headlamp while we waited for our friend to come back inside. When he finally did he snuck in the back door and went directly into his room, so Cycleman and I went over to his room and asked him if he would be willing to switch, and he was, though he probably had no idea what was going on since we had headlamps which surely blinded him.

Crag Camp interior, with sleeping rooms on left

Watching the clouds drift in and out of the ravine

Crag Camp exterior

Group shot outside Crag Camp

Across King Ravine to Mount Madison

Perfect undercast

Mmmmmm, arroz con frijoles

The view from Crag Camp's main room

The undercast at twilight

Two lower mountains make waves in the clouds

We moved our stuff over into the new room, which has two levels of wooden platforms for sleeping bags. Cycleman and Coastie took the bottom level while E, Jump, and I took the top. I have a horrible time sleeping in silence, I always run a fan when I sleep at home, and this was no exception. Sleeping in the mountains means sleeping in dead quiet, so every slight twitch by someone in a sleeping bag is noisy enough to keep me awake. I brought ear plugs, but that just made my breathing and heartbeat too noisy for me to sleep. At some point in the morning, my exhaustion finally won, and I got a couple hours of rest, but our alarms went off at 6am so we could get an early start on day two.

Stay tuned for the next post on day two, which includes summitting Mount Adams and Jefferson, negotiating rocky, ankle-threatening trails, and making a terrible realization causing a major change of plans leading to a scramble down 50 foot boulders, a grueling struggle through what just might be the most horrible trail in New Hampshire, and a knee/shin busting descent. Furthermore, the next post will include the map of our GPS-generated route and elevation profile.

1 comment:

  1. Such a great post!! Those pictures wow me every time, and I love the cliff hanger at the end. And the best part? You didn't exaggerate anything!! Dun dun dun...