Climbing the White Mountains

"Mount Washington is the highest peak East of the Mississippi River
and has some of the severest weather to be found on the planet"
May 31 and June 1, 2011 -  A trip to climb the highest peaks in New
Hampshire's White Mountains had been in the works for three years.

At long last, a weather window opened and our schedules cleared enough
to allow us - Mike Monyak, brother Don, and myself - to head to New
Hampshire on Memorial Day.  Arriving at dusk at the parking area for the
Great Gulf Trailhead we quickly readied our gear and headed off with
headlamps at twenty minutes before nine to hike the first three miles of 
the trail in the dark to set up camp at an area known as "the Bluff".

A SLIDE SHOW of the start of the hike up to base camp can be viewed by
clicking the red link.  Map 1

The initial hike was moderate in grade as it took us up and away from the 
river, but was wet from recent rains and the remnants of spring runoff.
After about an hour and twenty minutes we arrived high and dry at our
primitive camp site at ten p.m.  Quickly setting up camp, we secured our 
food in a convenient locked bear box provided by the Forest Service,
unwound a bit, and settled in the sack by eleven.

The ground is always hardest on the first night of camping.  No one
slept well, but at least the temperatures were probably no lower than
sixty degrees and Mike was able to see a couple shooting stars from his
perch on a large boulder.  Out of the sack by 0530, we were on the trail with 
our day packs and enthusiasm an hour later, first easily boulder-hopping 
across Parapet Creek before beginning our ascent of Mount Washington 
along the West Branch of the Peabody River.

There are many ways to climb Mt. Washington.  Most are short and steep,
and frequently crowded.  We chose to approach from the north through the
Great Gulf Wilderness, a basin carved out during the ice ages of the past quarter million years to form an impressive cirque with a headwall that climbs 1600 feet in the final 0.8 mile of the climb. From our base camp the climb would cover a distance of 5.2 miles, taking about four-and-a-half hours. The trail was wet and rocky, carved through the thick undergrowth - not a good place to bush-whack. We spoke to a trail maintainer at the Six Husbands Trail junction, but saw no one else on the ascent. Only one other tent was set up along the trail. An occasional moose track and droppings reminded us that this trail was theirs; we were just visitors. A SLIDE SHOW of the Great Gulf Trail to the summit of Mt. Washington at 6288' can be viewed by clicking the blue link. Map 2 We hung around at the top for half an hour to recover from the effort up the headwall. The consensus of opinion was that this was more of a climb than any of us had imagined. The Rocky Mountains have nothing on these hills. After a bite to eat and refilling water bottles we proceeded south to conquer the next peak - Mt. Monroe at 5371'. We dropped down the opposite face of Washington for about 1300 feet to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, one of a series of hikers' huts on the Appalachian Trail (which we were now hiking on). The trail was still rocky but relatively easy with switchbacks. After filling up again with water at the Hut we climbed Monroe for a brief view back at the domineering Mt. Washington, before again retracing our steps and climbing back up over Mt. Washington. A SLIDE SHOW of the climb down Washington and up Monroe can be viewed by clicking the pink link. Map 3 From the other side of Mt. Washington we continued to follow the Appalachian Trail, coinciding with the Gulfside Trail, as we proceeded along the ridge in pursuit of further summits. A decision was agreed to that we would summit Mts. Clay and Jefferson and then downclimb on the Six Husbands Trail to get back to camp by dark, leaving any remaining peaks for the next day. Biting insects were beginning to be a nuisance with temperatures somewhere around eighty degrees. Tired bodies and sore feet cemented our decision to end the day after Jefferson. The hike along the ridge over Mt. Clay at 5533 feet and Mt. Jefferson at 5712 feet was without much strain, other than my right hand becoming exhausted from swatting blood-sucking mosquitoes. We hung out a few minutes on Jefferson before beginning our descent on the Six Husbands Trail. (If there was a certain woman who loved this trail and insisted that her husband accompany her frequently on her hikes, I can see how she could go through six of them. There has to be a good story with a trail with a name like this.) The hike down started gentle enough through the treeline before crossing a long snow field. Mike tried to glissade on his butt, but the warm temperatures had made the snow rotten enough that he didn't get very far before just sliding down with the rest of us on our feet. Six Husbands was pretty much straight down to the creek below. They must not have invented switchbacks when this trail was made. Had I had a hang glider I would have jumped, in retrospect. We managed to get down with lots if careful foot and hand placements and finally were able to follow the footpath along the stream back to camp. A SLIDE SHOW of the ridge hikes to Mts. Clay and Jefferson with the down climb on Six Husbands Trail can be viewed by clicking the purple link. Map Don and I made it back to camp by a quarter to nine in the evening before the need for lights became necessary, though we carried flashlights. Mike preceded us by a half hour, then came back to share the last few hundred yards together. After fourteen hours of humping the hills for approximately fifteen miles we were all quite spent, but managed to grab something to eat before hitting the sack for a much deserved repose. The Six Husbands Trail was quite a severe downclimb, testing legs and mettle the whole way. With several ladders one could say it was an American version of "via ferrata" climbing. I personally enjoyed the demands of free climbing, splayed across open rock faces, hanging on by fingertips and the tips of sore toes, all the while not thinking too much about the exposure and what "could" happen with a slip. We all made it without incident to the bottom of the climb. The rigor of this downclimb is rare on the fourteeners we have experienced in Colorado. In terms of classification, many pitches were above 5.0, while exposure never really exceeded 3. I didn't think any climbing the next day could be as challenging - I was wrong. The night passed comfortably without any precipitation. We arose with the expected soreness, but not quite as early as we had the day before. The sun was already shining over the peaks and the day looked like it would be better weather than forecast. Yesterday was as perfect as it gets on Mt. Washington. One climber we spoke to said that for all the times he had climbed in the White Mountains, yesterday was the first clear day he could remember. We had picked a perfect day - warm with no wind to speak of. Could it be that the second day would be as pleasant??? Mike and I planned to go for Mts. Adams and Madison while Don decided to hike closer to camp, but not climb all the way up. Another hiker told us he had seen a bear on a trail above our camp just the day before, so we were all vigilant for bears and moose as we headed out on the Osgood Connector Trail. The weather changed quickly as we hiked only a mile before lightning and thunder accompanied a good downpour, turning us back to camp to hole up for the time being. Rain turned to a pelting hail storm before it was over. It wasn't a half hour after returning to camp before the sky cleared and what portended to be a continuing storm abated for the time being. I made a judgement call to go for it again, as I couldn't see any point in climbing into my small tent to hang around all day. Mike and Don said they were staying behind. After reviewing my wet maps I decided to take the Madison Gulf Trail up to the Madison Hut, evaluate the weather there, then make a plan of action as to what to climb. I headed up Madison Gulf solo, suspecting that Mike would follow at some point, probably up the Osgood Trail. The weather looked promising with the sunshine, but I knew it can change on a dime, so I was always watching. The trail quickly climbed a hogback ridge between two streams with lots of cascades and water crossings. I felt good, climbing about 1300 feet in the first hour. At 4000 feet the trail hit a plateau for awhile before going into a precipitous climb straight up a stream bed over boulder fields that were anything but a trail. I watched closely while crossing braided streams because it was not clear whether the trail crossed, whether it followed the stream up, or whether it cut back against the stream. I often had to pause to ask where I would build a trail. Somehow I figured correctly, but it sure wasn't obvious. Again, I got into Class 5+ four-point climbing with some healthy shin-ripping exposure - nothing too dangerous, I guess, but then I never look down until the top. This climb was every bit as severe as yesterday's downclimb, and I was relishing the opportunity to solo up such a challenging trail. Given the challenges, however, I would not want to descend this route, especially with a pack. I got up to the ridge where the Madison Hut is located in two hours of sustained free climbing and was feeling pretty good about things. I could feel yesterday's effort in my legs, but was aiming to do both Adams and Madison after filling up my water bottles at the Hut. I could see a front of thunderclouds to the northwest, coming out of Canada, so I asked some of the volunteers at the Hut what they heard about the weather. The consensus was that another serious light show was on its way. Figuring I didn't have time to safely do both Adams and Madison before scooting back below treeline, I opted to bypass Adams and quickly summit Madison and make it a short day. It was no surprise to run into Mike atop Mt. Madison at 5367', arriving from opposite directions at the same time. It was still great to share the moment, however brief, before hobbling down the long ridge on the Osgood Trail to gain cover before the approaching storm. Winds were at least 40 mph, with gusts of at least 70 mph, in contrast to the day before. The sun was intermittent and the clouds were gaining the upper hand. I am terrified of lightning when exposed in high country and was anxious to get down. Mike descended to the Madison Hut, collected some water, then circled Madison to catch me on my descent on Osgood. The hike back took longer than the climb up. My feet were sore, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting high in the Whites one more time. ASLIDE SHOW of the climb up Madison Gulf Trail to Mt. Madison can be viewed by clicking the orange link. Map 5 The graphic above is a good relief of the altitude variations we encountered. We bugged out after we returned from Madison, hiking back down the trail to the car, then driving home, knowing we were probably in for a wet night and a colder day tomorrow. The mosquitoes were harvesting too much of our good climber's blood so it was time to go. We were lucky to have met with such fair weather. Only a day later Mt. Washington would have sustained winds over 100 mph, temperatures no higher than 37 degrees, complete cloud cover, and a trace of snow. Good timing was everything. The climbing expedition was a success in that we summited five of the highest peaks east of the Rockies, crossing off another dream from our bucket lists, and no one got hurt. The climbing was a preamble for Mike and I as we prepare for our Colorado adventure in August. It should be easier going than New Hamphire, all things considered! But I'm not counting on easy, or I wouldn't be heading back to the mountains!