Friday, January 29, 2016

Day 136: No-good #*@ing trail....

July 21: I woke up early and hit the trail even before breakfast was served at the hut. As much as I enjoyed the dinner they served last night, and I'm sure breakfast was just as good, I did want to reduce my pack weight and eating my own food certainly helps in that regard. And--I wanted as early of a start as possible. I had miles to hike!

And once again, the trail proved to be extraordinarily difficult--far more so than I remembered from my 2003 thru-hike. I reached what appeared to be the edge of a cliff and would look around, wondering what happened to the trail, and then I'd notice the next blaze far down at the bottom of the cliff. WTF?!

I'd throw my trekking pole down the cliff--I certainly couldn't use it on such steep terrain. It would just get in the way. So I'd throw it down and then figure out a way to scramble down myself grabbing onto trees, roots and whatever else I could find to help lower me down.

Even when there were sheer, vertical cliffs to contend with, the rocks and mud along this section were legendary. My pace was agonizingly slow.

It didn't take long before I passed huge herds of southbound thru-hikers. I must have passed a dozen of them in the morning. The only northbound thru-hiker I saw was Jigg who caught up with me late in the day.

Most of the day, the weather was beautiful, but late in the day those mean-looking clouds started blowing in. By the time I reached the Rattle River Shelter about 14 miles in, it started raining.

But I was in the shelter, safe and dry. I kind of wanted to keep hiking, though. After my dismal 5.9-mile day yesterday, I was behind schedule. Another two miles ahead was a hostel, directly on the trail. I totally had the energy to do a couple of more miles, and even if it meant hiking in the rain, at least I could get indoors and dry when I finished.

I marched onward. In hindsight, I'd have waited an extra half hour because that's how long the rain lasted before it stopped. Just enough to get me wet. This trail was really starting to piss me off!

I checked into the White Mountains Lodge and Hostel. Although my clothes were only one-day smelly, laundry was included with the price of the stay so I had my clothes laundered. I chatted with other hikers, and the pizza delivery man became a regular fixture at the hostel arriving every half hour with more pizzas that hikers had ordered.

The hostel was quite crowded with people, and I was surprised that the southbound hikers seemed to outnumber the northbound hikers. While I was hiking northbound, it makes sense that I'd see southbound hikers more often, but even at the hostel they were outnumbering us northbounders! I didn't order pizza, but more than one hiker had ordered more than they could eat and gave away the rest which I ate from.

It was a great place to stay. Southbounders told horrible stories of what we should expect from the trail ahead, and us northbounders tried to scare them just as much with that they'd soon be grappling with. (And, we pointedly told them, that section between Pinkham Notch and US 2 is perhaps the most difficult section of the entire trail. #@*#!)

Numbers.... I'd first heard of Numbers back in North Carolina, and Amanda had actually met the guy while doing trail magic. I had almost met him at one shelter where he was being grilled along with two other thru-hikers by a troop of Boy Scouts, but I hung back in the shadows and just watched. So I actually saw the man in person, but never actually met him. He hadn't even realized that I was in shouting distance of him at that point.

Anyhow, I mention Numbers because this was the first time I had actually spoken with the man and it turns out, he had a rather ugly-looking injury on his foot in the form of a severe burn. He had started using a new pot to cook on, a pot with a metal handle. After boiling some water, he grabbed the handle forgetting that it was metal--a great conductor of heat--and attached to a boiling pot of water, and promptly burned his hand by grabbing it. That wasn't so bad, however, compared to what happened afterwards when he jerked his hand away and spilled the pot of boiling water on his foot.

He was wearing socks when the accident happen, but the boiling water still scalded his foot severely. I was stunned to learn that he was still hiking with it. At the very least, I'd have expected him to take a couple of weeks off the trail to give it some time to heal. It would be a lot longer than that before it would be fully healed, but surely with a burn that bad, he'd have to take at least a couple of weeks off the trail and see how it shaped up.

These two girls were out for about a week and were trying to hit all of the 4,000-foot mountains in New Hampshire. They've been working at it for a few years and are mostly done. I didn't know who they were or what they were doing when I took this photo since we were hiking in opposite directions. I just saw them stopped and admiring the views and liked the dramatic background with them giving the photo some scale. (That's Mount Washington behind them, in case you were curious.)

But no, he kept on hiking! He had burned himself a week earlier and was still putting in full days of hiking. He'd clean the wound and bandage the foot each night, and replace the bandage in the morning. He said walking in it didn't actually hurt so much because the foot didn't move around in his shoe all that much, but rather the most difficult part was just getting his shoes on and off each day. And pulling the bandage off at the end of the day. That, he told us, was what really hurt the most.

I asked to take a photo of it--I'd never seen such a severe-looking wound on a thru-hiker before. I needed documentation! For those of you who like to scroll through all of the photos before reading this, you know what I'm talking about. For those of you who haven't scrolled to the bottom to see all of the photos yet--be warned, there's an extraordinarily ugly one at the one!

WTF?!!!! There were so many places like this cliff along this section of trail, it was infuriating. There's just no easy way to get up or down this type of stuff!

Just look at how steep and rocky the trail is! Argh! When will it end!

For as difficult as the trail is, the views were just as spectacular!

And with just a touch of rain, just to make sure we're good and wet before we quit for the day!
Amanda might have left, but it would appear that she left her mark on the way out of town after dropping me off at Pinkham Notch! (At least I hope it was Amanda. Otherwise, I have another stalker that I know absolutely nothing about!)

Trail magic at US 2!~Woo-who! Ice cold drinks!

White Mountains Lodge and Hostel--my home for the night.

Numbers had the ugliest trail injury I'd ever seen! This was about a week after he burned himself when he accidentally spilled a pot of boiling water on his foot.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Day 135: A tough, tough trail!

July 20: I took my time getting ready for the trail today. Amanda was leaving and I only had a measly 13 miles to the shelter ahead. I remembered the trail immediately out of Pinkham Notch climbing Wildcat Mountain being particularly steep and strenuous, but after that.... no sweat!

So that was the plan, but because it was such a short day of hiking, I took my time getting ready. Created a couple of last-minutes posts for this blog. We stopped for a quick lunch at Burger King then Amanda threw me out on the trail.

At the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, there's a scale for hikers to weigh their packs. I went ahead and weighed mine--which came in at a whopping and excruciating 50 pounds. But then, I was carrying 9 days of food to take me all of the way into Rangeley. The pack would get lighter day by day!

The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center--today, the weather was much improved over when I left it yesterday!

Amanda drove off into the sunset, and I started hiking. I had walked for all of about five minutes when I heard a SNAP! and one of my shoulder pads suddenly flew up. $#!^!!!!

I stopped to check out the problem and the buckle-thingamajig on my strap had broken. Fortunately, I actually carried a spare one. This particular piece on my pack seems to have a bad habit of breaking and it was the second time just on this hike it had snapped. When the first one broke, I finally replaced it with a new buckle from the EMS store Amanda and I hit a few days earlier. It came as a two-pack, though, so I still had the second buckle. I spent a few minutes replacing the buckle and kept hiking. It was a specially designed buckle that I could slip on and off without having to rip out any of my stitching or have to re-stitch it by hand which probably saved me a good half hour or more of time. Whoever invented that slip-on buckle has my eternal gratitude!

I replaced the broken buckle with the new one in just a few minutes!

climbing up Wildcat Mountain which was just as steep as I remembered it. A little way into it, a day hiker caught up with me who introduced herself as Mattie. She seemed pretty excited to meet a real-life thru-hiker and asked me all sorts of questions about it, the tone of which suggested that she might like to try such a hike someday if it ever became possible.

I made some sort of joke about that, that we could switch packs for awhile to know what it feels like, and she was totally excited about the idea. She was quite serious about it too, but I didn't have the heart to let her carry my 50-pound pack. It's an awful weight, and she was not at all conditioned for it!

We hiked the rest of the way up to the first peak of Wildcat Mountain together at which point she turned around to hike back down. I suggested to go down the gondola which was running at the time. It would be fun! But she wanted to hike back down.

The log near this pond had hundreds of tiny little frogs! Most of them jumped off this log by the time I got close enough to take this photo, but you've never seen so many tiny little frogs so jammed-packed together!

I plowed onward. I remembered the trail becoming easier after the gondola--not easy, but easier. I'm not sure what happened in the last 12 years, however, because it didn't get easier. It was steep, treacherous and slow going. Much slower than I had anticipated.

By 4:30, I had reached the Carter Notch Hut. I had completed a measly 5.9 miles--barely better than 1 mph. My goal for the day was another 8 miles ahead at the shelter, but at the pace I was going, there was no way I'd make it before dark. It was much earlier in the day than I wanted to stop, but there was nowhere else to camp between here and the shelter so I asked to do a work-for-stay.

Ironically, I remembered staying at this hut during my first thru-hike, and that also was unplanned. During my 2003 thru-hike, the weather had turned absolutely brutal. Bone-chilling cold, wind and rain and I stumbled into the shelter glad to finally be out of the elements. The elements today weren't so bad. In fact, most of the day was positively hot outside. But yet again, I stumbled into the shelter feeling like a tiny, broken man who had bitten off more than he could chew.

The croo working this hut was here for one day only. They were a temporary croo while the normal croo from all of the huts got together for a croo party of some sort, so temporary staff was used to man the huts tonight. They were all former croo from previous years so they had done this sort of thing before, but they were coming out of retirement for one-night only.

This croo group was a family affair. The leader was a young woman, and her croo helpers included her dad and her boyfriend. For some bizarre reason, I forgot to write their names down in my journal and I've long since forgotten them, so I'll just refer to them as the girl, the dad and the boyfriend.

The dad was kind of funny, pretending like his daughter was really cracking the whip on them. They cooked dinner, which since I was doing a work-for-stay, I figured I'd help out with, but the girl kept pushing me off saying that they didn't need help at the moment, but later.

The only other thru-hiker at the hut was Fireman. He was hiking southbound so this was the first time I'd met him and would be the last time I'd see him. That's how it goes with thru-hikers going in the opposite direction as you! When I introduced myself as Green Tortuga, he jumped up and said he had heard about me. "You're the one that was looking for the dead body in the middle of the night, right?!"

How the heck did he know that?!

Turns out, he had spent an evening at a hostel with the Four Horsemen. I had e-mailed Superman the story of Milkshake getting lost, which he thought was interesting enough that he read it aloud to everyone else at the hostel including Fireman. Ah, well. That makes sense. =)

The trail up Wildcat Mountain is steep, difficult and slow!

Fireman also told me that the Four Horsemen were telling people that I was learning Polish--which was true. Previously during my long-distance hikes, I'd memorize long, epic poems to give my brain something to do. I didn't have a good poem to memorize this time around, though, and wound up deciding it might be fun to try learning a foreign language. I wanted to try something that I knew absolutely nothing about to see how much I could learn during a thru-hike and since I had a friend from Poland who spoke fluent Polish, I decided on Polish.

So it seemed that Fireman knew quite a bit about me, but of course I had known absolutely nothing about him until I ran into him at the hut. Fireman also told me that there was a girl on the trail (Lois, hiking with her boyfriend Clark) hiking southbound who actually does speak Polish and was excited about meeting me on the trail to talk Polish--I rather liked the idea of testing my pronunciation out on someone who knew Polish--but it turned out she slackpacked this section in the same direction I did. She started before I did and continued on past where I did, though, so I never crossed paths with her. She jump back to Pinkham Notch and continue hiking southbound, our paths never to have crossed. What a bummer. Perhaps the only Polish-speaking person on the entire trail, and I missed her!

Anyhow.... Later in the evening, the head croo girl told Fireman and myself that because they weren't the regular croo, they really weren't sure what we should do and that we could stay without doing any work at all. Sweet! I'm not complaining! She warned us, however, that if we stayed in any other huts not to expect the same no-work-for-stay system. The others would definitely put us to work! Not a problem for me--this was the last hut in the hut system I'd be passing. For Fireman, he'd likely be staying in more huts before he left the Whites.

Gorgeous views!

After dinner was served and cleaned up, the croo typically provides some sort of entertainment for the guests. A skit, or talk or whatever. In this case, the dad and daughter had a compare and contrast session of their time working as a croo memeber while the boyfriend played the role of a moderator asking questions. The dad had worked as a croo member back in the 70s or 80s or something while the daughter had worked it more recently--seemed like it was just a few years earlier.

When the dad worked it, there were no women croo members at all. Eventually, when the position opened up for women, they kept the women and men segregated in different huts so each hut had either an all-woman croo or an all-man croo. Nowdays, they're co-ed. The dad pointed out some fixtures that used to be used to light the huts using gas or oil or something, but now lights are solar-powered. (Except in the winter, they can still use the old lights.) They told stories of raiding other huts, how the huts were supplied, and so on.

It was fascinating and even more so to hear the comparisons between the daughter and dad's experiences working in the huts.

And eventually, everyone left to go to sleep. Including the croo. I made a nest with my sleeping bag on the floor of the dining room and studied a few Polish words before going to sleep myself. =)

This is Mattie... on one of the easier sections of the trail since they actually built these wooden steps into the rock!

Mattie would turn back at the gondola. I would continue onward, naively thinking that the worst of today's hiking was now behind me....
Wonderful views!

I think my exact words when I reached this point were, "WTF?!" (I didn't abbreviate it, though!)
See that lake down there at the bottom? That's where the Carter Notch Hut is located. So the trail goes a long way down, then immediately climbs back up to the top of the ridge behind it! My original goal was somewhere on the other side of that ridge, but it took me much longer to reach this point than I had planned on so I called it quits at the hut.

This is the lake you could see in that last photo.

The Carter Notch Hut. The guy sitting outside is the dad who had worked in the huts decades earlier and is back for one night while the regular croo was off at a croo party.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Day 134: The Brutal Whites!

July 19: Amanda and I headed back up to the top of Mount Washington where I would continue my hike. The weather didn't look great, but I'd already taken a zero day the day before and had so many short days recently, I really wanted to keep going.

The morning started foggy and cool!

When we arrived at the auto road to the top, the road was closed. We'd arrived too early, but it opened 15 minutes later at 7:30 and by 8:00, we were at the top and I was starting the day's walk. According to the sign at the gate to the auto road, visibility was a mere 90 feet. Which, down low, seemed ridiculous because it was actually quite sunny! But at the top, it proved to be true. A little cold and blustery as well, but at least it wasn't raining.

We took photos at the summit marker--no line this time around--to have a comparison with our photo there two days earlier on the beautiful, clear day.

Then I waved goodbye to Amanda and headed into the fog.

The trail stayed in the fog for about an hour or so, passing over the cog railway which I could barely see. No trains were running yet--not this early in the morning--so I couldn't participate in that old thru-hiker tradition of mooning the passengers on the cog railway. Anyhow, it was too cold to be pulling one's pants down in this weather! And too foggy for anyone to see you anyhow.

So I skipped that tradition and kept on marching. After an hour or so, the trail fell below the cloud level and I was out of the fog. For the most part! It would occasionally dip down then blow away, and patches of low-hanging clouds would blow through, but for the most part--views were nice if slightly obscured.

Crossing the cog railway

After an hour or so of this, I watched an increasingly alarming-looking cloud blowing towards me. Dark, large and menacing. It took all of about five minutes for it to envelope my location and had me wishing I'd taken another zero day. The blustery winds turned into a hurricane-force punches knocking me over repeatedly. Rain, which had left me alone until now, came down in torrents--although coming "down" is somewhat misleading since the rain was actually horizontal and not vertical like it usually is. The large, fat drops pummeled my face, stinging quite badly as if it were hail. It wasn't hail, but it hurt!

I pulled my buff out of a pocket and slid it over my face which help reduce the stinging pain of the rain, and I quickly put on my light shell jacket to help break the wind and rain and keep me marginally warmer. Between the substantial increase in wind velocity and the rain, it felt like the temperature plummeted 50 degrees in just a couple of minutes! I really needed to put on my fleece jacket, but that was buried deeper in my pack and I didn't want to stop long enough to pull it out. I hadn't expected to need it so unexpectedly!

I started shivering, and stopped for a minute behind a large boulder that broke the wind and rain (for the most part). I took a couple of photos then put my camera away. There was no way I'd be able to take anymore photos in this weather!

Normally when it rains, I depend on an umbrella to keep at least the upper-half of my body dry, but that wasn't an option with this wind. It would have shredded the umbrella in seconds, so I was exposed to the full force and might of the weather. The cold rain seeped into my clothing. Through my hat down to my toes. None of my gear could keep out this wet or cold.

I continued hiking--I had to to keep warm--and visibility dropped substantially. Cold and wet is dangerous, but I hoped to hike hard enough to generate heat that would help keep me warm. No, as visibility continued to drop, my sudden, number one concern was visibility. The trail was a rocky jumble and not clearly defined. The only way to see where to go was to follow large cairns piled up alongside the trail. If visibility turned so bad that I couldn't see the next cairn, I could be in a lot of trouble.

Once I started getting under the clouds, views started improving dramatically!

And there were moments when a thick patch of fog did hide the next cairn. I'd see it, then poof! A second later, it was gone--disappeared into the fog. I remembered where it was and kept walking to it, and a few seconds later, I'd be able to see the cairn again. At least until the next patch of thick fog obscured it again.

A couple of miles ahead was the Madison Spring Hut, an actual building along the trail where I could get out of this weather, and it became my entire goal for the day. If only I could get to that hut. I needed to get to that hut and out of this weather. Not to sound melodramatic, but if things got any worse, my life could depend on it!

I stumbled ahead on the trail, weaving back and forth along the trail like a drunk as the winds pounded me. I remembered hearing stories of people who've died in the White Mountains after getting lost, then rescuers would find their bodies later a mere 10 feet off the trail. I didn't want to think about stories like those, but I couldn't shake them.

After about 15 minutes of this insanity, the squall had passed through. The rain gradually stopped, the winds died down, and visibility improved dramatically again. It was the scariest 15 minutes of the entire trail, but it was done. For now.... There were still dark and angry clouds blowing in, and I didn't know when the next squall would strike.

But I was still cold and utterly soaked through to the bone, and couldn't wait for the dry warmth of the hut ahead.

After another hour or so of hiking, I reached the hut. The beautiful, wonderful hut. The proverbial oasis in a desert! (Although it was actually a shelter in a storm!) The hut had about half a dozen people in it, several of them clearly wet and cold and had suffered much like I did. Others were dry and clearly had ridden out the mini-squall in the hut. Lucky SOBs....

I finally pulled out the fleece jacket from my pack and put it on, rubbing my arms vigorously to warm up.

Just as I arrived, it started raining again and another storm struck. This time, I was glad to be in the hut and was perfectly happy to wait it out as long as needed! The winds pounded the walls, but they were designed to withstand such brutal conditions. At one point, I looked out a window and realized that it was actually hailing outside. Yep, definitely glad that I made it into this hut just before it hit!

Again, the squall lasted only about 15 minutes, but I waited for about an hour before deciding to continue onward. There were still dark clouds on the horizon, but they didn't look as menacing as the others that had been passing through and there was actually quite a bit of blue sky off on the horizon.

I finally went out. The trail immediately climbed over 600 feet to the top of Mount Madison. Near the summit, I stumbled and banged my shin which hurt but I didn't think much about until a couple of minutes later when I noticed red blotches on pants. I had banged my shin hard enough to draw blood. I took the obligatory photos of that to show off later and continued hiking.

The weather was remarkably nice during this period. The sun came out and a gentle breeze drifted by. The views along the ridge the trail followed were stunning--absolutely breath-taking! And I really started enjoying the hike. As long as this weather continued, I'd be happy!

This next section of trail, down from Mount Madison, is just a heap of random boulders that they call a trail. I wouldn't call it difficult per se, but it required a lot of hopping from rock to rock and scrambling. I used my hands as much as my feet to navigate through this boulder field, and I was barely covering 1 mile per hour over the terrain.

Even got a little blue skies! Things were really looking up!
 The trail steadily declined in elevation, eventually ducking back into the trees. About this time, mean-looking clouds appeared and once again, it looked like things might turn ugly soon. At this point, I wasn't too concerned about it. I was down below tree level and no longer directly exposed to the wind and rain, although if there were strong winds and rain, I might have to worry about tree toppling onto the trail or--much worse--toppling onto myself. But all things considered, I'd rather be in the trees during a bad storm than directly exposed to it.

As I neared Pinkham Notch, I could hear thunder rolling down the mountains. It was a good time to finish and I picked up my pace.

I arrived at Pinkham Notch at 4:40 in the afternoon, about 40 minutes later than I had planned on. Amanda was greatly relieved to see me when I walked out of the woods because due to some sort of miscommunication, she had expected that I would finish at around 3:00 and was growing increasingly concerned when I was more than 1 1/2 hours late!

"It was brutal out there," I told her. "Absolutely brutal. Get me out of here!"

We drove back into Gorham. I changed into dry clothes at the hotel then we went out for dinner. For most of the evening, lightning lit up the town and thunder cracked through the air. It was quite a show! Torrential buckets of rain turned the gutters into small creeks. I was never so thankful to be in civilization! =)

Then it started getting a little darker again....

Then it started getting a lot darker....
And then the rain and wind became so bad, this would be the last photo I could take--behind the protective cover of the rock on the left. At least until the squall blew through....

And then 15 minutes later, the squall blew through and things started brightening up again!

The Madison Spring Hut is visible in the distance, just under the summit of Mount Madison. (See the AT, snaking its way up the mountain just to the left and behind the hut?)
Madison Spring Hut--safe, at least, from the elements!

Once again, I found my old register entry from my 2003 thru-hike. I'll tell you this--this time, I certainly COULD (and did) complain about the weather this time around! =)

Hiking up Mount Madison and looking back to the hut.

The sun was coming out, but it was still chilly!

I hadn't realized I hurt my shin so bad as to draw blood until I noticed the blood stains on my pants!

Nothing that a little band-aid couldn't fix up!

Following this ridge down so slow going, but it's actually one of my favorite parts of the trail. Absolutely stunning views along this stretch!

This sign just made me laugh. If "ice smart" means "running away from giant chunks of ice rolling down the hillsides, then don't worry--I definitely plan to do that!"