Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Northern Presidentials Day Two

I will not include the rather lengthy technical/logistical details of this hike in this post, so if you are interested in those, refer back to the previous post on pre-planning and day one.

We left off in the previous post at about 6am the morning of day two. We got up, quickly packed up our bags, ate some granola bars, Cycleman and Coastie enjoyed some instant coffee, and we set off. We had climbed about 3,000' over 3.5 miles on day one, so we had another 2,700' or so to go to the summit of Mount Adams. Unfortunately, the path up from the Crag Camp, the Spur Trail, is noticeably steeper than Lowe's Path. It didn't help that none of us had fully woken up yet, either. On the way up, we came across a little trail that headed out to an overlook of King Ravine called Knight's Castle. We decided to check it out, and it was pretty cool, mainly because it provided us a view back to Crag Camp so we could get some perspective of how perfectly perched that place is on the ravine. Also, it was a rather encouraging sight since Crag Camp was much further away than we expected, so we were making good progress. We hung around at Knight's Castle briefly to shed layers and hydrate, and then we returned to Spur Trail. It wasn't much longer on the Spur Trail before we came across a sign posted by the US Forest Service welcoming us to the Alpine Zone and warning that "The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back NOW if the weather is bad." Well, luckily for us--truly lucky, as I mentioned earlier, the odds of us getting two back to back dry days were very slim--the sky was blue and the sun was shining. Even the undercast had broken up. We walked on, and indeed the trees began disappearing and were replaced by rocks, rocks and more rocks.

The view from Crag Camp at 6am with the undercast breaking up

The view back to Crag Camp from Knight's Castle

A warning: entering the Alpine zone

This part of the hike, the approach to Mount Adams above the treeline, was probably my favorite part of the trip. Something about being above the trees about as high as you can get in New England, with the sun shining, at about 7 in the morning is thoroughly satisfying. At this altitude, the trail blazes were replaced with cairns, large snow fields became common, and again, I cannot stress this enough, rocks prevailed. At this point in the hike, E and I began falling behind Jump, Coastie, and Cycleman. We were at a double disadvantage as E and I were carrying larger packs, but mostly we just weren't nearly as fit as they. Jump is a runner and now does CrossFit, Coastie is perhaps the most fit person I know, and Cycleman is, as you may have guessed, a cyclist extraordinaire. In recognition of their superior summitting abilities, E and I dubbed them the Mountain Goats. At some point, we had to switch off the Spur Trail to take a different trail to the summit of Mount Adams. Unfortunately, I cannot quite recall what trail that was (I am pretty confident it was Lowe's Path, but I'm not sure), but there are signs at the junctions that will direct you to the summit, and anyways, at this point, with no trees blocking the view, it should be easy to see which trail leads to Mount Adams' summit. As we began the final ascent, the trail markings became increasingly difficult to discern amongst the pile of rocks that is Mount Adams, so we may have been off the path occasionally, but with no vulnerable plants in this area, we weren't very concerned. After successfully navigating the rocks with our ankles intact, we reached the summit, which was...another pile of rocks.

A nice place to be at 8am (Spur Trail)

E rocking the Alpine zone

Mountain Goats

Rocks, rocks, rocks, and some snow

From the summit we had great views of Madison nearby to the north, Star Lake, which is a little pond on the ridge between Madison and Adams, Jefferson to the south, and the rather imposing, dark Mount Washington. We paused up there to drink, eat some granola bars/peanut butter crackers, take some photos, and rest. We had, after all, just bagged the second highest peak in New England. We encountered two annoyances on the peak of Mount Adams, however. First, and this just flabbergasted us, there are pesky mosquito-like bugs and bees that live on the peak. This just makes no sense to me especially because we encountered no bugs whatsoever in the hike up to and after that point. Of all the places bugs would thrive, the very top of an exposed, windy mountain with nothing but rocks, is just about the last place I would suspect. The only reason they are there, as opposed to having been blown down into the ravines, is the rockiness of Mount Adams that provides them little lees to hide in. They certainly did seem happy to have our company, though, much to our chagrin.

Star Lake and Mount Madison from Mount Adams summit

The group with Mount Washington in the background

Mount Washington

The other annoyance at the summit was a group of three hikers who came from Mount Madison. Now, I don't say they were annoying because I'm the type who prefers solitude on mountaintops (though generally I do, I am not as much a stickler for it as a lot of other hikers). In fact, they were mostly nice. I couldn't quite figure out the relationships, but there was an older man and an older woman with a younger man. Parents and son seemed obvious, but something about them made us feel like that may have not been the case. In any event, they offered to take our group photo and we talked a little with them. But then, the younger man saw me looking at my GPS, and said something to the effect of, "Ha, like you need a GPS on these trails...they're so hard to find," with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

First of all, I can clearly see the trails are obvious, but I like to take precautions. Second, the primary reason I am bringing the GPS is to record the trip to analyze and share later. Third, I'm sorry, but we just met, and I'd appreciate a little less sarcasm and a little more niceties from a stranger in this beautiful setting. That group set off down the trail we just ascended to head on to Mount Jefferson. Since they were going the same way we would be heading, we decided to hang out on Mount Adams for a bit to allow them to get ahead of us so we wouldn't have to overtake them later.

Mount Clay from Mount Adams with lots of snow patches

The descent of Mount Adams was far more treacherous for ankles than the ascent. On the plus side, E and I were able to bound down while the Mountain Goats, particularly Jump, were a little less sure of their footing. Apparently, E and I have excellent balance and sure footing going for us while the Mountain Goats have strength and endurance. E and I used the opportunity to build up a lead on the Mountain Goats (except Cycleman who went along with us) since we knew once we hit another ascent, the Mountain Goats would speed past us again. To continue on to Mount Jefferson, we took the Gulfside Trail, which is how the Appalachian Trail traverses the Presidentials.

Descending Mount Adams with Mount Jefferson ahead (the group of three is visible)

I am not exaggerating the rockiness

The clear blue sky with which we began the day started to give way to clouds, which at this altitude didn't go over us, but rather, we went through them. This led to a regular pause in our hiking to allow a member of our group, usually E, to either remove or add a layer of clothing because the sun made us quite warm but walking through a cloud was very chilling. Despite the lead we gave the group we met at the top of Mount Adams, we ended up passing them pretty quickly, and then we arrived at Edmunds Col which lies between Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson and overlooks the Great Gulf Wilderness which is the semi-enclosed area between Mounts Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. The view from there was pretty so we paused for a moment to take it in. I think perhaps E and I were further motivated to pause because from Edmunds Col, Mount Jefferson looms high above, and we were not looking forward to the climb ahead. As we left Edmunds Col, the trail began steepening a bit, and then we heard "whoa!" from Cycleman who had gone ahead a bit.

The Great Gulf Wilderness from Edmunds Col

Looking back to Mount Adams from Edmunds Col

As I climbed over a pile of rocks, thighs absolutely burning at this point, I saw what prompted Cycleman's exclamation--a huge pile of snow, directly in our path. This was a really cool sight for mid-June so we took pictures of ourselves in the path that had been carved through the eight foot deep snow. Also, and this turned out to be very lucky, the snowmelt had made some big puddles, which we used to replenish our water bottles (I'll talk more about gear in a future post, but my filter is the Katadyn Hiker PRO). It wouldn't be for many more miles through the most difficult part of the hike that we would again come upon a water source. As we left the snowfield, the group of three that we kept bumping into entered the snowfield and the younger man took off his pack, sat on it, and slid down the snow. I was truly concerned he was about to kill himself, but he was able to bail out of the slide before things got out of control. A very strange guy, indeed. Immediately out of the snow, the final ascent of Mount Jefferson began.

Big snow

E and I were growing exhausted, so while the Mountain Goats took the trail over the summit, E and I stayed on the Gulfside Trail which skirts around the peak. Even this relatively flat route was still pretty draining. Somewhere along the way between Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson, we really ran out of fuel, so we took a quick break and had a granola bar. That break really seemed to help, and as we rounded Jefferson, first we heard, then we saw, the Mountain Goats coming down the other side. Something kind of amazing up in those mountains is how well sound travels. They were probably a football field away, and we could clearly hear what they were saying. When we met up with them they told us we didn't miss much as the peak of Mount Jefferson was enveloped in a cloud. When we met back up we took a prolonged break at the trail junction to have lunch (mostly granola bars and peanut butter crackers). I really liked the look of this area, not really for striking beauty, but for how barren and Lord of the Rings-ish it looked with brown grass marked with prominent rock cairns. While we were taking our break a pair of guys passed by us, and judging by their pace, I'm guessing they were doing a Traverse, if not more.

Gulfside Trail on Mount Jefferson

Lunch break before everything went very wrong

Once we rested up, we continued onward to descend the southern slope of Jefferson's peak. The trail here, though plenty rocky, seemed a little easier than the hike from Adams to Jefferson. Our plan from here to the end was to hike around the west face of Mount Clay and descend via the Jewell Trail to the base of Mount Washington where we had parked one of our cars--about 3 or 4 miles. As we approached Mount Clay, which really did not look pleasant despite being shorter than both Jefferson and Adams, Coastie said, "So J, I have kind of a serious question." I expected a conversation about religion or future plans to ensue, but rather, he continued, "Are we hiking to my car?"

"Yes," I replied.

His response: "That could be a problem, because I think my keys are in your car."

Now, for those of you who have paid attention, we had parked Coastie's car at the end, packed into my car to drive to the trailhead, and left my car there. Our plan was then to basically hike from my car to his car. Instantly, the scene that clearly had just played through Coastie's mind began playing in mine. As we were packing up our gear to begin the hike, some people began handing me things that wouldn't be necessary on the hike to leave in the car, and one of the things I was handed, which I promptly stored in the car, was Coastie's car keys. That we both remembered this incident obviated the need for what would have been a furious search through his pack for those keys.

Luckily, this was a cool, calm, and collected group, so we didn't panic. We just started thinking about how best to get back to my car. One thing was sure: if at all possible, we would rather not hike back the way we came. We were pretty convinced there had to be a quicker and easier way down to the trailhead. I pulled out my map and we began looking for routes down. We eventually settled on hiking back a little ways to the south face of Mount Jefferson, taking a left to descend Mount Jefferson on the Caps Ridge Trail, and turning right onto The Link Trail which eventually hooks back up with Lowe's Path which we could take to my car. We had two main reasons for choosing this route. First, Caps Ridge Trail basically bombs down Mount Jefferson. Second, The Link appeared, based on our topographical map, to move northward to my car while hugging the side of Mount Jefferson without going up or down in elevation--the trail very rarely crossed between contour lines on the map.

And so, our revised plan commenced. We joined up with the Caps Ridge Trail, which should probably have been named Cliffs Drop Trail based on the number of enormous 50 foot high boulders we had to descend. When I saw Caps Ridge Trail on the map, I remembered a conversation I had with a salesman in North Cove Outfitters in Old Saybrook, CT. I told him I was going on a hike in the Presidentials, and he began telling me all about his adventures hiking up there. His favorite trail to ascend the mountains? The Caps Ridge Trail. After experiencing that trail, I'm convinced that man either sprouts wings and flies when he hikes or he is a masochist of the highest caliber. The numbers do a good job illustrating the intensity of Caps Ridge Trail. For the mile and a quarter that we were on the Caps Ridge Trail, we descended 1,700', or in other words, we descended at a 25% grade. The trail was pretty fun for us, though, since we were descending. An impressive feature of the Presidentials is the great variety of trails you can experience in a relatively small area. Lowe's Path is very wooded and nicely graded, the Gulfside Trail fairly flat and barren with short grasses and small rocks, the ascents to the peaks are extremely rocky, and then the Caps Ridge Trail was really just a scattering of large boulders, which made it feel a lot more like rock climbing than hiking. So after butt-sliding our way down the Caps Ridge Trail (for which we definitely needed the gloves we brought because otherwise our hands would have been destroyed), we took a rest at the junction with The Link to catch our breath, eat some granola bars, and drink some water.

And so we turned right onto The Link, which we expected to be the easiest part of the hike since the maps made it seem as though the trail was more or less flat along the west face of Jefferson before descending to Lowe's Path through Castle Ravine. Little did we know, the trail ahead would test us physically and mentally far beyond anything we had encountered. As we began, the trail seemed very nice. It was a bit more wild, with a narrower path, but it was shaded, and being in the trees was an encouraging sign that we were making progress descending the mountains.

Unfortunately, stepping over enormous roots, climbing over boulders, and avoiding plunging into deep, black holes in the earth (I'm still not sure what those were, my best guess is that thick groups of roots tangled together making them seem like the ground but every here and there existed a gap in the tangle which truly appeared bottomless, and falling in really would have been a problem) was thoroughly exhausting. So despite the fact that the trail never crossed between the twenty foot contour lines on the topographic map, we ended up constantly going up and down, over and around small hills, large rocks, big roots, fallen trees, and the sum of all that scrambling was far more climbing and enormously more exhausting than anything we imagined. In fact, looking back, I'm not so sure that was a trail. It would probably be an insult to deer trails to call it such; it was more like a squirrel trail. The Mountain Goats, being mountain goats, left E and I in the dust. I began to wonder if I would ever see them again. I really cannot stress enough how exhausting this trail was; in my memory it is all a bit of a haze. I do remember clearly, though, that at one point, E and I just laid down on the moss covered roots, and I said, "Has the thought crossed your mind that we should just lay here and let a bear find us?" Looking back, it's clear that I was joking, but at the time, I'm not so sure I was. Eventually, we caught up with Cycleman, Jump, and Coastie. They had paused at a nice stream/little waterfall, and I dropped to the ground delighted to be resting. We all agreed that The Link was just about the worst trail we could possibly take and decided we needed to find a different way down. Cycleman proposed we bomb down the trail that The Link intersected with ahead called the Castle Trail, which just shoots directly down Castellated Ridge to the bottom of the mountain, and from there we could walk along the Presidential Rail Trail that parallels Rte 2 to return to my car. We agreed to the plan, filled up our water bottles in the stream, and continued our trek.

The Castle Trail was immensely better than The Link. It was wide, obvious, and more or less clear of obstacles. The downside? It was muddier and extremely punishing in its descent. Unlike the Caps Ridge Trail descent which relied as much on the use of our hands and butts as it did our legs, the Castle Trail was all legs. As we continued along the trail, our knees began screaming out to us in pain. Next to go were our shins, and when E and I paused to drink, Cycleman just walked right past us saying, through a grimace, something to the effect of "shins...knees...can't stop." Eventually the trail smoothed out as we approached the base of the mountain, and only one more challenge remained. To get to the Presidential Rail Trail, the Castle Trail crosses a river--no bridge provided. Luckily, the river wasn't too high (I would guess that crossing would not have been possible just a month earlier), and we were able to skip across exposed rocks, which sounds simple enough, but the even simpler act of standing was no piece of cake with our legs shaking from the abuse they just took descending the mountain. Having successfully crossed the river, in which Jump and Coastie decided to wash up a bit, we only had a walk along flat ground to complete our hike.

Cycleman, Jump, Coastie, and E on the Presidential Rail Trail

At this point, we were truly exhausted since we had hiked an unexpected extra 4 miles, but we made it to the car. The great thing about hiking mountains is you earn it all through sheer effort, and one of the most rewarding parts of the hike for me was walking along the Rail Trail and looking back up at the enormous mountains we had just conquered with satisfaction in the knowledge that we did that with nothing but our legs. We packed into my car and drove back to Coastie's car where Cycleman, Jump, and Coastie switched cars. Now, this may be a bit of overshare, but I feel it is a great illustration of how strenuous this hike was. After drinking 10 full bottles of water over the course of the two days, I peed only twice, and I believe everyone else had pretty much the same experience. Another illustration: I brought along 20 granola bars expecting that I would be able to share them with everyone. Turns out I ate sixteen of them, and needed every single one.

We stopped in Concord, NH on the way home to meet at Friendly's for dinner. It was only at this point that we noticed how tough that final descent had been when we found it extremely painful and difficult to sit down and stand up at our table. Furthermore, we realized we smelled awful, and I really hope we gave that waitress an extra tip for enduring our olfactory onslaught. After a filling meal, we parted ways and began the final leg back home. E and I were both extremely tired on the trip and switched off driving probably half a dozen times, and we eventually made it home. We were all more or less immobile for the next couple days as our legs recovered. It would be about a week before stairs could be painlessly dealt with. All in all, it was a great hike, and, as of now, is my all-time favorite. We plan on doing a reunion hike sometime this summer, and I expect nothing less than a great adventure.

Looking back
Below is the GPS generated route we took, and I apologize for the lack of photos from Caps Ridge, The Link, and Castle Trail. At that point, I was simply too exhausted to stop for photography.


  1. Ohhh, such a great post! And such a great hike! Can't wait to do it again!

  2. Enjoyed reading the post, and am jealous of you all for doing the hike. John, you write very well! -- Rob Ayer

  3. I'm so glad you posted that. Brings back good memories and now i was able to steal your pictures. One minor point: i wasn't among those that went to talk to crazy yoga dude.
    How did you possibly eat 16 granola bars? Was that the only type of food you ate? I feel like i'd be quite sick of them by about 8.
    I forgot about the general creepiness of those 3 people we met on adams. I'm not sure if i want to know what that relationship(s) was. Also i don't remember fearing for the guy on the snow. I don't actually remember that happening, but maybe i just didn't care about the guy's fate haha.

  4. I love the details you remembered! Like Eric's "shins...knees...can't stop!" I laughed out loud reading/remembering that.

    Ugh, the Caps Ridge Trail was the worst - I think even harder than the link for me - that guy is insane. It just proves the point that E and I would combine to create the perfect hiker - quick on the way up and graceful & speedy on the way down!