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!"


Karolina said...

The squall story reminds me of the infamous Windsday on GR20...

Ryan said...

They were fairly comparable. *nodding* I'd say the wind was stronger on our hike, but the visibility was actually a little bit better! In both cases, though, the storm was severe enough that I stopped taking photos! The only two times all year I did that. =)

Unknown said...

Sounds like a typical day in the Whites! Sometimes nature has to remind us who's boss I guess! Great adventure!

Unknown said...
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