Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Day 126: Into the Whites!

July 11: When I got up to eat breakfast in the morning, Beast was already there and offered extra milk and blueberries for my cereal, which I happily accepted. Real milk! Not that powered stuff I usually had to use! And real blueberries--not some dehydrated fruit! It was a luxorious breakfast!

Then I hit the trail. The first couple of miles was relatively easy, trending uphill, but it was just a warm-up for, looming ahead, was Mount Moosilauke. It would be the first 4,000' peak since Virginia, and peaks well above that level at 4,802' above sea level. It's considered the start of the dreaded but beautiful White Mountains.

The climb up to the top isn't actually too bad. The trail climbs steadily and continuously without pause, but it's well-built and not particularly difficult to navigate. Views at the top were spectacular! I took an hour-long break near the summit. Not at the very top because it was so windy, but just a little way down behind a windbreak.

Other thru-hikers have heard about the Whites and tend to approach it with a certain amount of dread. How tough will it really be? When they reach the top, they're feeling pretty confident with themselves, thinking, that wasn't so bad! It gives them a false sense of security, though, because it's the downhill part that'll kill you.

The downhill part is considerably steeper than the uphill, and it follows alongside a stream for much of the way where--at times--the trail is actually steeper than the waterfall next to it! Lots of wooden steps and metal bars drilled into solid rocks to help with the descent, but it's a tricky place to navigate and the going is slow.

During the descent, I passed what seemed like hundreds of people heading up. They were everywhere! It was a beautiful summer weekend, however, which probably had a lot to do with the crowds. I hadn't seen so many people on the trail in such a short distance in quite some time, but most were day hikers just out for the afternoon.

None of this came as a surprise to me. This was my second time on the AT, after all, and I definitely remembered my first time over Mount Moosilauke. My biggest problem that time were the new shoes I'd been wearing that chaffed the backs of my ankles horribly. I'd been slackpacking since Amanda was there and my moleskin and other first-aid supplies were in my main pack back at the hotel so I had nothing to help myself with. I remembered the trail up being relentless and the trail down being treacherous, but at least this time I didn't suffer the crippling effects of new shoes.

At the bottom, at Kinsman Notch, the worst was over. Kinsman Notch was a parking lot of cars and humanity, crowds I couldn't stand, so I walked another mile or so up the trail before stopping to take a break where I took a whopping two-hour break. I had a mere 6.5 miles to the next shelter, which was my goal for the day. I didn't remember much about this section of trail so I figured it wasn't particularly noteworthy one way or another, and the elevation profile in my guidebook didn't look bad at all.

So I took a long break reading my Kindle and relaxing. A few people passed me during that time, including Bearfish, who seemed amazed at the treacherous descent from Mount Moosilauke.

Two hikers heading southbound passed me and said they had another companion behind them and wanted me to pass along a message that they'd be getting off at Kinsman Notch rather than their original plan of continuing on.

About 20 minutes later, their companion arrived and I gave him the message, but I felt really bad for him. He looked absolutely terrified, and perhaps he'd been crying earlier. He seemed greatly relieved when I assured him he was still on the right track and it was relatively close to the trailhead at Kinsman Notch. It was his first time backpacking--ever--and being alone on the trail I think was causing his imagination to run away with him. I kind of wanted to walk him back down to Kinsman Notch myself, except that it was literally a mile in the completely opposite direction I wanted to go. He'd be fine, though. I wanted to blame his two friends who ditched him, but to be fair, they might not have realized how rattled this guy had been hiking by himself and doubting his every decision.

So I ended up giving him as much encouragement as I could--you're doing great! You're almost there! In a half hour, you'll be at Kinsman Notch and hitching a ride into the Hikers Welcome Hostel! It's a nice place to stay, I told him, saying I'd been there the night before. (From Kinsman Notch, you'd have to hitch a ride to the hostel rather than just walk out and start hiking like I did.)

After two hours, I finally started hiking again. Mostly because I got tired of sitting around reading. I needed to stretch my legs!

The next four hours would be among the most horrible of this entire hike. It only spanned 6.5 miles, but the fact that I averaged 1.6 miles per hour over the terrain should give you some idea of how strenuous this section of trail really was. Even terrain I usually consider "difficult" I can typically do 2.0 mph, but not here. No.... It was a brutal, brutal trail.

The mud was epic. It was so deep in places that you had to try to find ways around it. Walking through it would just suck your shoes off! Although the elevation profile in my guidebook didn't look intimidating, it didn't show the countless scrambles up and down 20-foot cliffs. Fallen trees and rocks scraped at you. And the whole time I was thinking, "Why don't I remember any of this?!" And I didn't! It was a brutal nightmare, exhausting, and I worried if I'd even reach the shelter before dark at the pace I was moving. I was starting to wish I hadn't take that long, two-hour break!

I finally arrived at the Eliza Brook Shelter at 7:00, near dusk, and collapsed with exhaustion. I was the 8th person who arrived at the 8-person shelter. I was tempted to cowboy camp since no rain was expected during the night and I wouldn't be in such a crowded shelter, but I was just too tired to look around for a place to camp. There were maybe 20 other people set up in the woods nearby and it might take some time and effort to find an unoccupied location.

Bearfish a long, bloody gash in his leg that wasn't there the last time I saw him. "So what do you think of the Whites so far?" I asked.

He looked a bit shell-shocked, his mouth opened but no words came out at first. Finally he started saying words. Some of which included, "You could really hurt yourself out here!" and "This is not a trail!" He got the gash on his leg when he slipped on mud and banged it against a rock or something.

"That," I pointed back towards the trail, "was a hell of a lot more difficult than I remembered. And it took me a hell of a lot longer to get here than I thought it would!"

Which pretty much summed up the afternoon: hell.

But it was only my first day in the White Mountains. Hell was just beginning!

Views from Mount Moosilauke were wonderful! But there are a lot of big mountains ahead!

The descent from Mt Moosilauke was steep and treacherous!

Some sections were even steeper than the waterfall that was running just off to the left!

These sections were steep and slow to navigate, but they weren't sustained enough to actually show up on the elevation profiles of my guidebook. This kind of terrain is surprisingly difficult to get through!



Jaxx said...

"But it was only my first day in the White Mountains. Hell was just beginning!"

GREAT line, Ryan!!

If this was a book, I would have definitely kept reading into the next chapter


Karolina said...

Beautiful pictures! The treacherous descent would kill my knees.