By: Pam Fisher
As I get older (approaching 59), I am watching my aging parents and in-laws, helping them with their day-to-day activities, seeing their struggles, and it brings a little bit of panic to my world. As a result, in 2018, I decided I was going to challenge myself.
The ideas tumbled around in my head for weeks before I decided to ask a close friend if she would do a week-long backpacking trip with me. I wanted ladies only on the trail to make it even more of an accomplishment. The second rule was that it was going to be a trip through unknown territory, a different part of the country I had never before seen. I have hiked Georgia and North Carolina mountains, and paddled many Florida rivers. I settled on the northwest coast for this trip; however, the more my accomplice and I talked about it, our husbands became intrigued. Having been friends for over 20 years, I figured it might make for a good trip. They were all more experienced than I in the backpacking world anyway, so they would be a great asset and they could carry me if it became necessary!
I had eight months to prepare and the first step I took was to start attending a HIIT class three times a week at 5:30 a.m. to gain strength and build endurance. That was tough in and of itself, but I wanted to be in the best shape possible so I wouldn’t be the one holding the crowd up, begging for water and food. As we looked at trail options, we focused on one-day strenuous hikes so we would not have to haul as much equipment. For that sense of accomplishment that I was looking for, the obvious conclusion was to hike Mt. Washington in the White Mountains. It is the highest peak in the northeast and world renowned for its incredible climate changes. It is also known for the highest recorded wind speed at ground level at 231 mph in 1934. The elevation change is 4169 feet in less than 4 miles with the summit sitting pretty at 6288 feet.
"Be ready for anything,” is what we learned from previous hikers. Everything I’d heard about the hike made me nervous. The best source for information I found was alltrails.com, a great app for your phone, as well. Lots of trail reports of sudden weather changes and steep climbs, not carrying enough water or clothing, people having to be rescued!! Oh, my, what the heck am I doing?
Two weeks before leaving we went over all of our gear and I packed out my backpack to check weight. I knew I would need to have a day’s worth of food and water, a survival kit, a head lamp, a change of socks, gloves, rain gear and extra layers of clothing. Got on the plane with much trepidation. Didn’t feel ready. Mt. Washington was “for experienced hikers only.”
We watched the weather through the first two days as we toured Maine and felt that our best day for the big hike would be Tuesday. Only a slight chance of showers and 25 mile per hour winds predicted at the top. We went to bed early, got up before dawn, and drove to Pinkham Notch where the Tuckerman Ravine trailhead was on the southeast face of Mt. Washington. We were on the trail right around 9 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny day. Started out with a nice path. More experienced hikers were passing us within the first 20 minutes. It seems some people run this trail. What?
Although steady, the trail was climbing. The trees and mountains were beautiful, really capturing everything different about this part of the country. The smell of the conifers was incredulous; something we only get from a candle in Tennessee.
About 2 miles up we made it to the first and only shelter on the trail and grabbed some water thinking we had this one in the bag. Another “every weekend” hiker made the prophetic statement that even though we were halfway, it was going to take us twice, maybe three times as long to get to the top. What? No way. We’ve got this.
Getting back on the trail it became a much steeper climb and, at times, tenuous as we found ourselves on a narrow little path on the very edge of the mountainside.
We climbed parallel to a waterfall and then across it at the top, hugging close to the cliff. Turning gingerly (as I am scared of heights), the view was magnificent as we looked out over the surrounding mountains. Onward!
The verdant greenery we had been trekking through was getting less and less prevalent. After reaching the headwall, we found ourselves, quite literally, on what looked like the moon. This is where the trail poles became pointless and they were shoved into backpack loops to be carried. Also, a cloud had settled over us giving us a sight distance of about 25 feet at times. Thank goodness for the cairns which helped point us in the right direction.
Moving over small rocks, we soon came to nothing but boulders for a full mile. I was struggling but kept putting one hand, one foot in front of the other Our trail was now taking us at a 90 degree angle to what we thought was the summit which, at the time, didn’t seem like the fastest way to the top. It felt like maybe we were on the moon, eerie and gray. I was literally crawling like a crab and exhausted.
It was, by now, about 2 p.m. and we started meeting folks on their way down. We saw more than one lose their footing and just miss a bad fall. I didn’t even want to think about the climb down, which was in the plan, of course.
After bouldering for what felt like forever, I started to hear motoring traffic. Oh, my glory! It can’t be. We made it! I can see the sign signifying our arrival. Exhilaration and exhaustion all at the same time. Could it be true? Only to find we had to climb about a hundred wooden steps to get to the visitor center. Are you kidding me? Once at the weather station, visibility was very poor because of the clouds which was a little disappointing.
I was a wet noodle at this point and all I wanted was a cup of soup (which they have!) and my peanut butter sandwich that we’d packed that morning. Every muscle in my body ached as we took a seat with other weary, smelly hikers in the cafeteria.
In the visitors’ center there is a special plaque dedicated to all those who have lost their lives on the Presidential Range. Rest in peace. I am not one of them! The NH Fish and Game Department rescue 180 hikers a year on average. I did not need to be rescued!!
My husband and I opted out of hiking down. We took the “hikers’ transit” instead. Our friends chose to hike and returned to Pinkham Notch around 9 p.m., moaning that it was worse than the hike up, having to strategically plan each step through the boulders.
Lesson? Life, as they say, is short. If you don’t get on it, you may not have a chance to get on it. What will you do this year?