Pinkham Notch, 2011

I convinced my friend Jay to join me on a camping trip in the White Mountains. He flew up from Atlanta and we drove up to Pinkham Notch and hiked near Mt. Washington. The original plan was to be out for two nights, but that got changed after a challenging first day.

Thursday September 8, 2011

I picked Jay up from the airport via T after work on Thursday and we navigated the MBTA back to my apartment, taking up three seats on the buses as it was easier for him to keep his backpack on than take it off and put it back on again. We walked down the hill to Union Square and checked out the Peruvian BBQ chicken restaurant there, Machu Picchu. It was good, though my mango milkshake was just milk and mango and not very rich. We tried to find Jay some not-a-cold medicine but ended up walking to Porter Square and the supermarket that was open there - everything else had closed at 9 or earlier and it was 9:05 by the time we started trying doors. I also picked up some Clif bars for trail food while we were there. We took a cab back, and since I had run out of time to finish packing, we finalised that after dinner, portioning out food and camping gear. He'd brought a military grade backpack and we found that the rocket launcher holder fit the tent perfectly. :) It was close to midnight by the time we were done, so I set an alarm for 8am to let us get a full night's sleep, rather than going for an earlier start (mistake #1).

Friday September 9, 2011

A quick breakfast and then I got out my folding bike and rode over to the rental place to pick up the car. They'd given me an upgrade, though I protested that I didn't need leather seats and auto-everything for a camping trip. It had a big trunk though, and all the gear (and the folded bike on the short drive home) fit perfectly. We were on the road by 10am, heading up a quiet 95 to 16 in NH. I'd checked the NH traffic pages for road closures due to washouts from Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene and adjusted the route for that, but we still passed some broken road behind pylons along the way. We stopped for sandwiches at a bakery in Bartlett I think, and then for a bathroom break at the Burger King up the road, and got to Joe Dodge Lodge at Pinkham Notch at around 1:30pm. The parking lot was pretty full, but I got a spot on the gravelled end. I hadn't eaten my bagel with cream cheese, but scarfed down the blueberry muffin while changing into my hiking boots, after getting the camp stove fuel sorted. We threw on our packs, got them settled, and walked over to the lodge to get an update on trail conditions and weather reports. No worries, though the guy at the info desk didn't say anything about our proposed itinerary being a bit ambitious for how late we were starting. It was "just" about 4 miles up to Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the header image was what inspired this whole trip), then another 3/4 mile to the camp site, and I figured that 6 hours should be plenty of time (mistake #2).

We started up the Tuckerman Ravine trail and Jay stopped to take a few pictures at the overlooks. We soon came to the Boot Spur trail heading off to the right, at 0.4 miles from the lodge and we struck off on that, leaving the heavily travelled trail for a quieter section. At one point we climbed up a ladder bolted to a huge boulder. The trail had some steep sections, but we were doing okay, if going more slowly than expected. Jay stopped checking out every overlook we passed, and I tried to keep my requests for breaks to a minimum. A guy in shorts and a tank top passed us going down, a trail runner with huge calves. As we reached the sign for the Alpine Zone, the trail got even steeper, and as we started to come out above the treeline, we ran into a group of guys who warned us that the wind was really high above us. I don't think they worded their warning strongly enough, or I didn't take them seriously enough, and we pushed on. The sun was dropping behind the shoulders of the mountains, shadows stretching across the valley out of which we were climbing and it was getting chillier. The trail was also getting steeper, climbing the side of Boot Mountain. Looking again at the map I had, I realised that I'd assumed the same contour gap as the last hiking map I'd used, but the contours were at 100ft elevation differences, and we were climbing a 10 storey building to pass each line. I'd picked Boot Spur trail because the elevation changes were more even throughout the trail, while Tuckerman Ravine had a section that was twice as steep, but yeah, that was another mistake. Then the wind hit us.

At first it was refreshing, we stopped at an outlook that let us see the top of Washington and most of the Tuckerman Ravine and the wind dried my top in a trice. We were invigorated and ignored the complaints of our climbing muscles to hit the trail again. The wind really hit us once we got out of the trees. We started going from cairn to cairn, stopping in the lee of them to get a break about every other one. Jay had to help me put away my hiking poles, I was too upright and the wind was pushing me and staggering me a few steps if I wasn't braced. I'd drift over to the left edge of the trail, then take a few steps into the face of the wind to get back to the right edge, and repeat. It was like climbing two mountains at once, and the wind felt like a bully when it would change direction and shove again. We considered roping up, but thought it would be more dangerous. We were losing light fast and I shouted over the wind noise that we should turn back and get below the tree line, but Jay insisted that we wouldn't make it, we had to push on. I'm glad that he was able to keep me going. Scrambling on all fours, noses and eyes streaming in the wind, eyes straining to pick out a safe route among the tumbled boulders, my spirit reached low ebb. I knew I had to keep going, however slowly, and pushed on. I had my hood up, my magical Tilley hat wasn't even going to stay on in the gusts, and it kept blowing against my face and blocking my vision. Ledge after ledge made us think we were at the top, and my stomach was starting to act up (I hadn't finished my bagel until most of the way into the hike, though I was trying to take regular sips of water as the wind whipped away any moisture from my lips and mouth). We finally scrambled over the last ledge and the wind mercifully dropped, as we were in the wind shadow of the mountains.

The trail levelled out a lot, but the footing was still treacherous, with lots of loose large rocks. I called a short stop to dig out my headlamp, and when I tried to take a bite of a Clif Bar, I had to spit it out before I threw up. We finally figured out that the wind was making our noses run so much that post nasal drip was upsetting our stomachs, as Jay wasn't feeling well either. :/ Then he admitted that he'd turned his ankle and it was giving out if he didn't land a step right or the rocks rolled out from under him. Luckily the wind was much lower up on the ridge line, and despite a scary band of clouds moving in, it stayed clear with an almost full moon, and a lingering line of red from the sunset. Our headlamps would pick out the white stones on the tops of the cairns and we followed the Davis Path to Camel Trail to another one that finally connected to the trail to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. When I saw that we had 0.9 miles left I perked up, but it ended up being a bit of a steep drop into a depression that held the hut. Seeing the glowing windows and hearing a droning noise coming from it, after not seeing any humans for a few hours, brought to mind the hobbits arriving at Rivendell, the last homely house. And then I slipped on a loose rock and went down hard, landing on my hand and hurting my wrist. Jay almost had a heart attack, and went into full EMT mode diagnosing the injury. I tried to reassure him when I went down that it was just my wrist, meaning that I could still walk and we could go on, but that didn't seem to help. :) Luckily, after a painful minute or so, I still had full range of motion and the pain started to recede. He got me back up on my feet and we continued on. Edging along the rocks near one of the lakes also brought to mind Tolkein, and later in the light the area around the lakes looked like the Dead Marshes. We talked a lot about DND and fantasy novels on the trek. :) We also talked a lot about people we used to interact with in the old alt.gothic days, I caught him up on some weddings and babies that he'd missed. It was odd to realise that we've known each other for 14 years now. Anyway, my mood, oddly enough, went rocketing up after falling, possibly because I was aware we were taking turns keeping our spirits up (I'd had to ask him to tell me something reassuring as we were losing the light) and I actually quite like night hiking. My night vision is pretty good, and more often than not I'd spot the next cairn first, despite a weaker head lamp. Jay was a bit freaked out about my fall and his inability to easily spot the path. I was worried about his ankle but as long as he kept cursing rather than suffering in silence, he reassured me that meant he was doing okay.

We finally made it to the hut, and saw another pair of headlamps moving toward the structure from the Dry River Trail. I'll admit to rushing a bit to beat them, hoping to take advantage of any cancellations (I'd checked when planning the trip and the hut was booked up that night). Luckily, despite a sleepy hut croo guy not being sure what to do with us, they found us a couple of bunks in the Hiker Refuge Room, aka the dungeon. It was $10 each and we also could get a bowl of soup for $3 each from the supper leftovers (I think the cook wanted to feed us for free, we must have looked pretty rough, but she was overridden). We got there at around 8:30 or 9 I think. They led us back outside and through an iron door into a stone walled room with six bunks. One was already full, we took the ones around him, and the other three were earmarked for paying customers who'd had to be moved down there (pad were piled against the wall). I got my sleeping pad and bag down on the board of the lowest bunk and dug out the warm layers that I'd want to wear to bed, pulling on one wool sweater to go back in for food (and bringing my camera and wallet). Jay was more security minded and grilled the croo about safety issues with the other three people, I had wondered but didn't have the mental gas left to do anything. No problem with them, but they had friction with other guests. We had our bowls of watery pea soup with quinoa, looked at the map and decided to cut the trip short and to head back to the car in the morning. At 9:30pm they put out the lights and we retreated to our bunks by headlamp. Some people were bunking down by the tables in the eating area. As we stepped outside, I blinked a bit thinking my eyes were going, but it was fog rolling in. We would have had a dangerous time getting to the camp site, I was very very glad that they could put us up. The three bunk mates had already returned and were in their beds, so we tried to be quiet and keep the lights to a minimum. They didn't return the favour throughout the night, at least one was snoring fit to wake the dead, one kept calling out to that guy to stop snoring, and one got up and had his head light on at one point. The droning we'd heard on the approach to the hut turned out to be from a fan that couldn't keep up with the wind speed, and it was right above our room. I finally dug out my earplugs and turned on my side away toward the wall and managed to get a few broken hours of sleep.

Saturday September 10, 2011

When the light started getting brighter, the trio and then the single hiker packed up and left. I tried to relax and get another hour in, but started to fret about starting too late. We packed up all our stuff and I dressed a bit more warmly (wool liner pants plus hiking pants, wool base layer on top, then a wool hoodie and my wind breaker). The view was amazing, it was crystal clear and sunny and we could see for miles (checking the weather station after the fact, visibility was listed as 150 miles). We could see the top of Mount Washington right outside our door, mountains and foothills walking off in the distance, and the lakes sparkled in the morning sunlight, ruffled by a not insane wind. My stomach, however, was still feeling a bit tricky, and I only had one of the pancakes from the breakfast Jay got for us from the kitchen. I made up a travel mug of my tea and that seemed to help. I turned on my phone to snap some picture and saw a text message from a friend asking if my parents were okay as she'd heard about the earthquake. ?!?! I was able to get enough signal to get a web browser up and find out that a 6.4 magnitude quake had hit near where they live. Without thinking about the time zone difference, I called them, and ended up waking up my dad before 6am his time. Oops. He'd sent an email to my other account that I couldn't pick up on my phone but was gracious enough to reassure me that they were fine. One last use of the running water to brush my teeth, and we set off. There was a trio of guys with huge mountain man beards, one passed us with his light pack, motoring along - he was wearing shorts too, I guess he planned to head down off the ridge soon. A pair of pairs of people started out at about the same time we did, but I think they headed up to the peak of Washington. We could see it, right there, but resisted the urge to do a "quick run" up to the top. :) It was really neat to see what we'd tramped through in the dark, and I was amazed that we'd navigated it without more spills, the rocks were very loose in places. The wind was a steady presence but not quite hard enough to push us around, most of the time anyway.

We climbed up to get to Tuckerman Crossover and made really good time to the top of Tuckerman Ravine. I almost missed the trail, until I looked down over the ledge and realised that, yes, it dropped right into the ravine from the top. I definitely had moments of vertigo while climbing down, especially when we were at the top of a waterfall. I still wasn't using my hiking poles as I'd often have to turn around to climb down facing the rocks. We had to help brace each other at points. There were a lot more people on this trail, helped by it being a weekend day as well, I'm sure. One pair had started up at 6:45am, I think it was about 11am when we got there, so it gave us an upper limit on hiking time. Lots of people speaking French, and I had a whole conversation with a pair of hikers when I offered to take their picture for them. Lots of dogs too, and Jay got to pet a few of them while I dodged the slobber. :) We also ran into a former Marine and they chatted for a while. It was an abrupt reminder to me that I was in the USA, I found out that I tend to think of "outdoors" as non country specific, and I'm only reminded of languages and nationalities when I run in to other hikers. It warmed up a lot as we got out of the wind and into the shelter of the ravine, and even more as we dropped below the trees. We stopped at the base of the big waterfall section to eat lunch, digging out the peanut butter sandwiches I'd made in Boston. The water was skirling down the smooth rock face in a sheer sheet, dropping in a stream of white to a rocky bed and then flowing quickly and quietly past where we sat. The sun was shining down on us, we were off our feet (Jay had tweaked his knee, he was nursing a not quite healed foot injury, and my quads were starting to complain vociferously) and the packs were off our shoulders and we were out of the wind. It was almost idyllic. :) Jay had cracked the display of his camera when he was (I think) staggered by the wind and landed on the wrong pocket, so we both took cell phone camera pictures to capture the location as well.

Onward and downward, but now both my big toes were covered in big blisters. We stopped to try and doctor my feet, but the tape that Jay had bought (brand new) was defective and couldn't be used to reduce friction in my boot. I think the main problem was that my new orthotic inserts have a fabric top rather than the smooth leather of the old ones, so there was more rubbing when I would put my foot down on an angled rock and my foot would move a bit in the boot. I swapped out to a pair of dry socks and it was a bit better, along with the ointment to reduce friction between my toes and socks. I was still watching where I was putting my feet, and needing a few breaks when the pain got too much. Stretching had helped Jay's knee but his ankle was still twitchy. Luckily we had lots of daylight to burn and despite a long part of the trail with no landmarks but the slowly spacing out contour lines, the descent went quickly. I would not want to climb it though. We stopped for a short rest at the Hermit Lake shelters and I used the bathroom there. The intersecting trails started to come faster, and we shook our fists and cursed at the Boot Spur trail for being so hard yesterday. :) My one goal in life was to take two steps without having to step over big rocks in the path, but that didn't come until we reached the lodge again and an actual side walk. :) One more bathroom break, where I stripped off the extra wool layers and then we threw stuff into the car, I swapped to running shoes, and we hit the road. It was around 2pm I think, maybe 2:30.

We stopped at a Subway for sandwiches, chips and drinks, then for ice cream next door. We dropped into the army surplus store but didn't find anything we wanted (Jay's knife had disappeared from his checked pack during the flight and we were hoping they'd have a replacement - we relied on my swiss army knife on the trail). I think we made a straight shot from there, swapping between songs on my phone and Jay's mp3 player, arriving at around 9. We cleaned up quickly, Jay braved the foam roller to get out a few knots, I covered my blisters in moleskin and we walked down the hill to get food (though we considered going to Inman Oasis to soak as well, the time would have been tight for the last community tub entry at 10:30, since we'd have to get Jay swim trunks first). The Independent was bustling with a hipster wedding party, and my caipirinha was mixed without sugar (they took it off my bill when I complained since I had barely touched it). The mac and cheese without bacon was quite good though I could only finish half of it, as hungry as I was. My appetite had came back at about lunch, thankfully, I always worry when I can't eat.

Sunday September 11, 2011

Jay volunteered to make breakfast from the remnants in my fridge, I'd concentrated so much on buying camping food that I'd let my home cooking supplies dwindle. There were enough eggs for him, and I had more granola. And lots of tea. I showed him a couple of eps of Long Way Round, and we both could relate to the hardships the group had in Mongolia, near despair at the difficulty of navigating the breathtaking landscapes. He carefully repacked his stuff into the duffle bag, though we couldn't get the sleeping pad in there in the end and it had to go on the carry on day pack. We took a walk around my neighbourhood and managed to limp up the stairs to the tower at the top of hill to see the view over Boston (it's nicer at night). I decided to minimise stress and took him out for lunch at Precinct instead of going grocery shopping for lunch ingredients. It was delicious (I had eggs florentine), and dessert was rich enough that I think we were both finally full (I had zabaglione (mostly custard) and Jay had something called a Mound: frozen cheesecake, coconut chocolate cover on an oreo crust). We took another walk to let dessert settle and then I drove him to the airport. Traffic was a bit annoying, but I got there and back with only minor heart attacks, and it was much easier than taking the T with his big pack. Hopefully it'll be sooner than 2 years before we can visit again, and next time I won't try to kill us in the mountains. :)

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