Sarah & Travis Go to the White Mountains

Last summer I sat on my dad’s front porch, ice cubes clinking  in our whisky glasses, after a day of deep-sea fishing – his first day on a boat since he’d landed in a wheelchair a few years prior (more on that in another post). I asked him stories about his adventure life. He’d traveled, worked, and lived all over the world, and he’s full of stories the world needs to hear. I asked him about the first time he left the country, and about how he met my stepmother. I told him I hoped to find someone to explore this world with me – someone who would share my passion for adventure and the outdoors.

He looked at me with a deeply-rooted sadness in his eyes, and said, “Good luck, kid.”

I don’t need to tell you he has been unable to find a partner who wanted the same life of adventure that he had.

At my day job – since outdoor gear doesn’t buy itself – I’ve been referred to as Mrs. Wilderness. In keeping up with that distinction, I’m usually out in the woods at least a few days per month in good weather, and on the slopes in winter. Fortunately, I now have a companion who not only loves the outdoors like I do, but I met on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, it follows that our first real vacation together would be right back out on another section of the AT. I told him he was in charge of this first half of our week-long adventure, which would take part on the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He’d wanted to do this hike for a while and had been doing some research on travel, lodging, and other considerations already.

Normally we carry everything we’ll need on our backs, but the area we were going to offered huts where we could stay, hostel-style, and have two meals per day provided, which would take a lot of weight out of our packs. I felt like that was technically cheating on some level, but also that it would be a pretty neat experience – kind of like the mule trip in the Grand Canyon. We had to book space at the huts in advance, so we chose our dates – the final week the huts were fully-serviced – and took the time off from work. Our three-day hike would begin at 730am on a Tuesday in September with a shuttle ride from our car to the trailhead.

Our actual adventure began at 930pm on a Monday night with a quick stop at Panera for food before we drove the rental car up through New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and finally New Hampshire overnight. During the drive we took turns napping and driving, talking when we were both awake. Shortly after crossing into New Hampshire, I opened my eyes and pressed my face to the window.

“Can you see?” He couldn’t. “Can you pull over?” The night was pure black with a wash of stars surrounding us. The Milky Way was crystal clear and there was no moon in sight. I hadn’t seen so many stars in years. We both gazed in awe at how small we truly are in this big world for a few minutes before continuing on.

“How common is it to see a moose?” he asked.

“I’ve seen a few. They’re kind of dangerous but I hope we get to see one so you can see them.” I’d grown up about 2hrs from our destination, where moose weren’t exactly common, but they weren’t foreign either. I kept wanting to jokingly call out “MOOSE!” for the rest of the drive, but I didn’t want to get his hopes up for a new experience.

We arrived at Pinkham Notch around 4am, in complete darkness and with constant winds over 45MPH blowing around us. It was so dark and so cold, we slept bundled up in the car for the short hours we had to rest. Upon waking we did one last decision on our gear – rain layers or no rain layers? The wind was so strong, we decided yes to rain layers as extra protection against it – and walked over to the shuttle. Only one other girl was on the bus with us. The shuttle made a couple stops on the way to the trailhead at the Highland Center, on the other side of the basin. We looked up at the range before us, wondering which mountains we’d be hiking. They all seemed so huge, and so far away. The shuttle took a little over an hour – and that’s just to get around the mountains.

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At Highland we shared a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and syrup, stretched our car-tightened muscles, consulted the map to review our path, slung our packs on, and walked out of the parking lot like we totally knew what we were in for. As experienced backpackers, taking 3 days to hike 22 miles sounded like an easy trip.

Perhaps I should have done more research instead of leaving everything in his hands.

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Our first day of hiking would be pretty challenging, and we knew that going into it: over 3,000ft of elevation gains in the first couple miles. I don’t always do well with altitude changes so I had ibuprofen and electrolytes handy. Travis was battling a muscular back injury at the same time, so we took our time. The way we saw it, we most likely wouldn’t be coming back this way again, so we wanted to enjoy the hike.

The first two miles were wet and wooded – unlike our travels at Harriman, which is notoriously dry. We actually had to sling the hammock up to put our packs in when we took a lunch break – the ground was too wet to set them down for any length of time. As we rose, so too did the temperature – at first, at least – resulting in some beautiful fog and fairy-like showers when a breeze would sway droplets off the edges of the pine needles. IMG_3881

Just over two miles into the hike we passed the split off to a hut we weren’t going to – Mizpah Spring Hut. We knew at that point we’d covered a pretty solid amount of elevation – close to 2000 feet, if I remember correctly. I was starting to warm up and reconsider whether we truly needed those extra rain layers we’d grabbed.

As we continued upward, the already-slender trees were growing thinner and shorter – more like bushes. We played leapfrog with two women and two dogs who were day hiking to our first summit – Mount Pierce. A few hikers passed us coming down so we knew we couldn’t be too far away.

The trail seemed to flatten out and through the trees I could see the valley below. We stopped to peek through and take a picture and more people passed us, hopping on the rotted wood that speckled the abundant mountaintop puddles.

Suddenly, we rounded a corner, and the tree line gave way to a view to our left, all the way down the mountain we’d just climbed. Jackets were off due to perspiration, but our hats came back out, as the sound we’d heard was blowing wind, not rushing water.

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We continued forward and upward until we reached the actual summit, marked by cairns due to the lack of trees. Celebratory sips of whisky were passed between us as we enjoyed our first high peak summit together and realized the tough part was over.

Again…we were wrong. That initial ascent was nothing compared to the rest of the trip.

At this point we could see Mt Washington, which we would summit the following morning, and Mt Monroe, which we would summit shortly before reaching our home for the night – Lakes of the Clouds Hut. I wasn’t feeling any ill effects from the altitude and Travis’s back was doing well, so we continued onward. From here on out, we weren’t dipping back below the tree line very often. It was difficult to gauge what to wear for comfort. Travis kept his hat on but I got too warm with mine. I kept my gloves on for a while but even those were too hot as we continued to climb.

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The next peak we approached was Mt Eisenhower. From the trail I could see small wooden ladders built in, and not a single person up there. Of course we were going to go up! I had to take it slow and take breaks as the trail became more or less vertical. At one point I felt I was trudging through snow or mud, despite clear trails, due to how slowly my legs were moving. And then we got to the top.

Although we’d seen other hikers on other mountains on the way up, we couldn’t see anyone on any other mountains. We were so far from the valley below we couldn’t see any cars on any roads. Nobody was approaching us nor hiking elsewhere along the ridge. It was just the two of us…and 85MPH winds, doing their best to blow us off this 360* vantage point. We stayed up there for a few minutes, reinvigorated by the breeze, views, and sense of accomplishment we found in the solitude.

“Where is this hut?” I asked him, looking at my watch. We only had about 2.5hrs to get there before dinner – and the reservationist had explicitly told Travis dinner would not be held for late arrivals.

“I bet it’s just around that next peak. Want to bet?” Five kisses for the winner, and we began our descent from Eisenhower, the summit of Monroe looming across the ridge. Out of nowhere, fellow hikers appeared. We stopped to catch our breath near the side of Mt Monroe and were joined by a tall, silent, blond thru-hiker who sat down and had a granola bar a few rocks away from us. We were wearing our puffy jackets after the wind at the summit.

He was in shorts.

It reminded me that, although I may seem tough in my daily life, I’m still – for the time being – mostly a weekend warrior. I live for the days I spend outdoors, but good gear is expensive and doesn’t pay for itself.

The trail split near the  peak of Monroe. We could follow the Appalachian Trail or take a side trail up the summit. It was close to 5pm and the sun was beginning to go down, taking the temperature with it. Our legs were on fire and our bodies couldn’t decide whether to sweat or shiver. I didn’t want to let Travis down if he was hellbent on tagging on all three summits.

“Which way do you want to go?” I asked, attempting to muster some enthusiasm.

“Onward. We’ll follow the Appalachian Trail.” I don’t know whether he saw my relief, but I was grateful he didn’t want to push our bodies on our first day. As the shuttle driver had told us wisely upon exiting, “Walk, don’t run, up these mountains.”

Taking the trail to the right, we skirted the summit, and finally, in the shadows behind, we saw the Lakes of the Clouds hut, below a ridge where we’d seen people gathered minutes earlier. Travis won his five kisses and we dragged our tired bodies and bags into the warmth of the hut.

Full of other hikers – including a large group of high school students and another large group of thru-hikers – the hut was warm, with homemade snacks on the table for purchase, and we were finally able to set our packs down and change into dry clothing. We were treated to a beautiful sunset over the valley at the communal dinner table where we feasted on vegetarian lasagna.

After dinner we layered up and went outside to drink spiked hot cocoa and look at the stars. We didn’t last too long – maybe fifteen minutes – until we were inside, brushing our teeth, and crawling into bed. I can’t remember the last time I went to sleep at 930pm and fell asleep right away, but I also can’t remember the last time I covered so much elevation with my own two feet in one day.

To be continued…

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