An Unforgettable Experience on Mt. Washington
by John Hebbe 9/11/03
Some readers may recall an old television show called Dragnet. Jack Webb opened it saying, “Facts. Just give me the facts”. Nearly every show opened with this statement. Following is the story of an event that occurred in the fall of 2003 around Mount Washington. It all started nearby Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire. And all I'm sharing are the facts.
The hiking team consisted of four members: Two experienced in hiking and in suitable condition. The third was conditioned but experienced –and proficient- in areas other than hiking. For example, kayaking. Number four was somewhat in question but acceptable for the planned hike. His experience had to do with trail maintenance with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in Virginia. Not many points higher than a couple thousand feet. At least he was familiar with the woods and the concept of hiking. Ex-military, he had been through survival training and all.
Normal morning start, tossing down a nice breakfast at Pinkham and ready to hit the trails by 8:30. Early start, early finish.
Head north from Pinkham. Life couldn't be sweeter. September. Clear, warmish day. Scheduled overnights at Madison followed by Lakes of the Clouds Hut near to Mount Washington and, finally, Mitzpah Hut. End up at the new, still-under-construction, Crawford Hut. Textbook plan. Of course Number Four hadn't read the book. He was new to the area and fully unfamiliar with the Presidential Range in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Full of confidence and stories of earlier military and trail experiences. Most of them believable.
On the map, it's a piece of cake. Head north from Pinkham on Old Jackson Road. Very little elevation change. Even easier continuing from 2-mile Post along Madison Gulf Trail to a brief busy area where the trails split near The Bluff. Take your pick: hard right towards Great Gulf Trail (east), a quick right and then a left onto Madison Gulf Trail, or left onto Great Gulf trail (west).
Route 16 is on the east side. Why go towards the east when your goals are on the west? Even without a map this is sensible. Of course, Number Four had no map. And no compass. And no clothes other than a couple short sleeve shirts and a couple long sleeve shirts. Extra shorts (with longer leg extensions). Plenty of water and snack goodies. Borrowed backpack. Not much else other than pride and over-confidence. Nevertheless, suitably outfitted for summer hiking. Out at 8:30, quit for the day by 3 PM. You might think of it as ‘cheap and easy hiking experience'.
Lots of smiles and camaraderie, the team jammed along fairly flat trail taking a brief break after the first hour and a half. Keep up the energy and keep the water levels up. #4 was a couple minutes late.
Following a short break, the group forged ahead with #4 hanging in there this time. Wonderful day and still a flat trail…easy to keep up. Besides, #4 had no real need for any kind of sit down break anyway.
During the second break at around 10:30, #4 took a swig of water and moved ahead. Didn't need to waste time taking a break. The faster crew members would overtake him shortly anyway. Nice day. Flat trail.
Flatter trail than he had expected, #4 transitioned from a cross-country way
of hiking stick action..left then right then left.. to a much faster, two-fisted
maneuver. Fast, long steps, using the
sticks a pair at a time. Flying. Next time the guys catch me we'll all be ready to share the break at the same time. No lagging. No embarrassment. So nice. So flat. So fast.
Had to briefly slow from ‘fast cruise' to ‘normal cruise' when the next intersection arrived. No hard choice here. Pick A or B. B was a hard right towards Route 16. Even a dummy knows east from west. He didn't remember but there might have been some sort of bridge on the right. Put there for hikers who wanted to jump onto the trail sort of in the middle. Cheaters. No problem. The wise choice was to continue straight ahead. Good trail. Well used. Lots of tracks. Nice weather. Early in the day. All of the good stuff.
No brainer: Move out straight ahead. There was probably a sign pointing towards Madison Gulf and Osgood Cutoff. Whatever. There was even the suggestion that straight ahead would lead to Mount Washington. Recognizable destination. That's why we're all here: take the summit. 6288 feet. Buy a sew-on patch to take home. Macho cocktail talk stuff.
Still flat. Nice stream on the right. Fast. Very fast. Making good time along the trail. They can catch me for lunch. I am #4 and will not accept being the lagger or the last guy. Pride. Keep your head up with pride. Still early in the day…maybe noon or so.
Even a novice can tell when the trail changes direction…and starts up a little more. I saw that early on. Map? Don't need one. Headed for Mount Washington. Saw it a few times on the Internet and once or twice before from the air. Wicked weather. I recall checking MWN (Mount Washington) weather that looked like zero-zero, with fifty mile-per-hour winds and a temperature of five degrees. Really wicked.
But here it is, a balmy, beautiful September day. Of course, you can see the handwriting on the wall at this point…Balmy went away.
On my way to the top. Gorgeous, awesome cascades of water crashing down along my right as I scampered across Clam Rock. At least I think that's what it was. Wide, bleached piece of rock where, if you were careless, you might stumble down to the right and tumble into some of the wonderful cascades. At that point they are less than beautiful and wonderful.
Aha. Slipped by that one with no trouble. Hope the guys behind me have it as easy.
Time? Still early. They'll catch up but I'm surprised that this ordinary trail has some challenging places like those I'm experiencing now. I can follow a trail. Been doing that for a long time in Virginia. Now I'm coming to something that is as in-your-face as a boat ramp leading into the water. Only 10-15 feet across.
But no obvious get-out-of-the-water continuation on the other side. Hmm. Check back over my left side and climb up into the woods to see if I missed the trail here somehow. Nope. Go back and stand at the stream-side for and few minutes looking for the rest of the trail on the other side.
Nothing. Mutter a four letter word. Look left and look right. Other side has scrumptious, untouched greenery. Where did I go wrong?
Nothing behind me (not even humans at this point). No way to continue straight ahead. Can't go left into the woods. Let me see here. What's left.
Crossing the stream, I decided to check up and down to find a continuation of whatever this trail was. Later in the day now and turning around to head back won't work since my pals have probably forged ahead –somewhere else- and Mr. Slow-guy here will never catch up. Heading for the same place (I'm thinking), it'll all work out in the end. Get together, have a beer, tell war stories and go on with life tomorrow. Who could ask for more?
What a dummy. Crossed the stream and headed upstream for less than twenty feet. There it was. The trail was there cutting off at a sharp angle so that you had to actually see to know it was there. Lucky for me I am so talented.
Don't be judgmental now! I only promised you the facts. Telling you like…well, you know.
On the other side, the tree canopy was full. The ground was moist and soft. The trail was well cut in to at least a foot. Tracks. Lots of humans by here at some point in the past. On the right track. Relax. Dinner time coming up in a couple hours. Amazing that this was the trail the other guys had picked out. Been on strange trails before in Virginia but none of them were like this. No blazes here. No marks of any kind. Just a few muddy prints once in a while.
Kicked along keeping my boots dry skirting around the muddy spots. Man. Who were these people so willing to mash down in mud 3-4 inches, slop, slop, slop. Not me. Keep these kiddos dry.
Fairly flat for a while. Nice. Cross over again to the other side of the stream. Lucky that there wasn't enough water to make it more of a jumper. Wet boots are no fun.
I'm looking at the map here (now). Didn't have one of those, as you may remember, earlier. It certainly is nice to look back and say…Hey, I remember that! The white rock actually had a name! Same for those beautiful cascades.
Couldn't do that on the 6th since I had no idea at this point of where I was. Pride. Not willing to admit the concept of L-O-S-T. It's too much like stopping at a gas station for directions. That's a girl thing.
If I go up, I will get to Mount Washington. Two or so now, it's too late to turn around and go back since I'll never find my buddies and have no idea where I will plunge out of the trees into civilization again. Logical conclusion…. Keep on a-going. Up is good. Besides, this still seems to be some sort of trail.
Saw a trio heading down an hour ago. Said to them, “If you see three other people farther ahead, tell them John is up here.” One girl said, “Three hundred people?” I thought, ‘Forget it' and moved on out.
Still a good trail but now later in the day. Only saw one other person after this. A runner. Amazing. Passed me going up! He mumbled something about getting to ‘mumble-where' and coming back down. “See you in a little while.” He nodded and sprinted along out of sight. Humans are like that. He was the last of the earth creatures I saw that day.
The map shows that I'm paralleling the West Branch Peabody River. Without a map it was just another beautiful downhill stream. Sharp as I am, I seemed to miss the intersections of Chandler Brook Trail, Wamsutta Trail and Sphinx Trail. Chalk it up to either bad trail markings or lack of something on my part. Hmm.
Getting later now. I had already figured out for sure that the other three would never re-appear in today's lifetime. There was the unmistakable notion of increase in elevation change. What I mean is, STEEPER.
All of a sudden what to my wondering eyes should appear…sorry. It was more like this:
As a surprise, I came upon a small, clear water lake. Aha! I know where I am but I don't know how I got here. This is the beautiful lake that leads up to Mount Washington! Strange. It didn't look so small in the Internet picture. Looked far more inviting. This one has clear water but it almost looks like it has festoons of algae ready to reach out and suck me in. The trail I was on was just a trace by this time. Hmm. I expected to find better.
Too late to head back. Trees getting shorter and more thinly placed. Okay. This is where the trees start to stop (great English!). I can expect them to go away altogether in a while and give way to low order vegetation. Starts with a ‘k' or a ‘z' I think; can't remember the word.
Sure enough. Maybe 2:30 or 3 now. Trees are gone and the lower shrubbery is behind me. Not much in front of me on the …where the hell is this trail anyway! Whatever. Good tracker, I'm picking up every little trace of earth-creature prints in the skimpy areas of dirt. Yup. Still there. Not totally lost. What time is it? Getting later.
Clear of the trees now, I can see to the left and to the right. And it looks beautiful but it doesn't look inviting. Maybe inviting at 10 AM. Less inviting at 3 PM. Make sense? Should I say this again?
Let me put it this way. Gather these things and put them on the kitchen table:
Nice, cheap teacup. Some spray adhesive. Handful of gravel. Red nail polish.
Figure out how to smash the cup so only one side of it is left. The whole side.
That's important. Now spray the inside of this with the adhesive. Lots
of adhesive and drop lots of pebbles on it. After they suck in and get firm,
soak it with lots more adhesive. Grind on some more gravel. Then let it sit.
Very near the
top, just for the conversation here, take the nail polish and touch one little piece of gravel… maybe a quarter of an inch from the top edge. Only one piece of tiny gravel. Let it all set up. In a moment I'll tell you just exactly what you did. Bear with me. I am the little red gravel.
Here's the situation: The skimpy lake that was supposed to be beautiful is now well below. When I turn around and look back out, there doesn't seem to be anything in the way of civilization. The climb is far more steeper. I've already shortened my hiking sticks and fastened them to the back of this borrowed pack. Cooler now, I pulled out the long-sleeved fleece shirt and slipped it on. Look to the left. Look to the right. Look at the watch. Turn around and look uphill. Way uphill. Way, way uphill. Check the watch again. Grumble. Looking down already looks like a long way down.
Don't even bother looking there to see if the other faster members of the group are catching up. By now they are in some other different world. They are ‘smart hikers'. Having fun. Drinking a beer. I am having less fun and drinking water from the stream feeding the algae lake. I am not a smart hiker. There is no justice.
All kidding aside, I'm at the point of making a decision. Keep going
up? It's after three and the far up bluff looks a long ways away. Start
down? Not a great idea since it will certainly be dark before I could ever make
it down and I do not have any warm clothes. Water. Energy bars. Light clothes.
Back pack. No tent (what do I look like!). No sleeping bag to go with the no
Conclusion: Keep heading up to wherever. Pick up speed because the end of the day is approaching and it's getting cooler and you do not want to be caught with your knickers down (or panty-hose down if you are a woman).
No brainer, right? So I picked up speed.
That's a laugh. How do you pick up speed going up a steep place and you are already sort of beat out. I'll answer that: you do it because you are becoming anxious to save your rear end. It gets cold around here at night many nights of the year. Hmm. Is it getting dark or is this my imagination.
Nope. Not getting dark, getting windier and cloudier. Within a few minutes, any concept of the top of this teacup is history. The world is changing from beautiful Technicolor to shades of gray. Shortly after this, any definition of the top of this mess had vanished. All that's left are a few gigantic large black masses surrounded by swirling gray stuff like fog. Is this what clouds look like from the inside? Yup. My partners may not make it here today. Hell, I may not make it here today.
Of course, the prudent hiker now makes a prudent decision [double prudent]: Better pick out a place to hold up and build a room for the night. So, being prudent, etc., etc. etc.
Found a neat place back down the slope less than twenty feet. Big rock out there and sort of a stony place in there. Just short of five feet to stretch out in. Shop around and gather some fist sized rocks to make the floor of my overnight room. Between a rock and a hard place (true pun). I can not stretch out in five feet.
The first bunch of fist-sized rocks were the seven stacked up neatly on the big rock. Hmmm. Almost like someone intentionally put them there.
The wind is maybe 30 mph and gusting. One side here is open and the other side is mostly open. Wind can't get through the rock at either the top or the bottom. I'm at least half safe.
About to lay out here, time to take stock. Already have on the fleece, long sleeved shirt over the short sleeved thing. Located and fixed the zipper shorts with the parts to make them long pants. Long does not mean warm. Tucked them into the Gaiters. Smart. Windy and getting colder. Put on the wind-breaker…wind proof, breathable, waterproof. Wonderful. Thank you, North Face. Never blew my nose on it so I could still use the bandanna over the head here with an ear cover I had thrown in as a joke. Topped this with my Shenandoah Crew ball cap with the bill on backwards. Pull the jacket hood over my head and try to get comfortable. Missing something. Yes. YES. No pillow.
Hell, the other guys might be worried about me. That's nothing. I'm becoming worried about myself. Who are they to hog all the worry anyway. No phone so I can't spread the good news…still alive here.
Getting darker. Getting colder. Fetal position isn't that great in the longer run. Okay for babies. Not okay for me. Pillow.
Ah, yes. Hiding in the back pack which has been converted into a wind breaker is a nice pair of moccasins w/socks. Take these and put them in a plastic bag like the one containing the sheet I wanted to use at Madison Hut. I love it when everything is coming together. Hope the socks don't blow away.
Used the pillow cover that came with the sheet to hold the moccasins. Great pillow. Hunker down. Dark. Cloudy. Breezy. Damp. Colder. But that's okay; I'm set as long as it doesn't rain.
Hell. Did he say rain? Did he say Doesn't rain??? The sound of a million small drops wetting the stony hillside is less than mesmerizing. Especially when the first hundred thousand are dropping on you. Time to think about keeping the wet away. What's left in the borrowed pack?
Ah, yes. Leader of the pack suggested lining the pack with a plastic garbage bag to keep funky stuff from ruining the inside of the pack. Less concerned about funky at the moment so I dumped everything in the plastic into the open jaws of the pack. And I did some other stuff.
At the moment, here is what the stylish, lost hiker is wearing on the mountainside. Headwall, I think it's called. A ravine. Don't ask me for the right name, I didn't even have a map. Remember?
From the bottom up: Trash bag over the two long sleeved shirts that I pulled
up over the boots and gaiters. Wrapped these around the legs and bound up everything,
on each leg, with the long
arms of the shirts. Wrapped the legs in the cotton sheet. That didn't do much good. Over the outside of this was the medium quality but intact thirty gallon trash bag. Love you, bag.
From the top down: the hood was over the PATC baseball cap which was on backwards over the ear-protector that held the bandanna on. Found the warm mitts that I brought along as a joke. Slipped these puppies on. Snuggled up in the (grumble) fetal position. First one knee was clamoring for a change of position and then the other. Didn't realize this because part of this body between the trash bag and the rainproof jacket were sending “I'm cold” signals. This part is called your ass.
Diving into the bag once more and feeling around, I came upon the rainy-weather back pack cover. Yahoo. Opened that piece of dryness and tucked it around my waist.
Wunderbar. As long as I keep the sheet tucked into the gaiters, the trash bag over the sheet snuggled under the backpack cover and that thing tucked under the rainproof jacket, I was almost windproof. Not warm, just windproof.
I knew it wasn't really warm because it was even darker and colder and wetter now and I started to shiver. But I was at least dry. That seemed very important. What time was it? Who the hell is stupid enough to check that one out right now!
Now I have to shift from left to right. Roll over. Readjust the trash bag. Readjust the bag rain cover. Readjust the jacket. Readjust the ear thing and the cap and the bandanna and the hood so I only have my nose hanging out in the wind. Keeping the only exposed part left (my face) hidden behind the mittens so that only my nose was free. Five minute exercise.
Change every thirty or forty minutes. Darker. Even colder. Gusty winds alternating from my front to my back. Shivering. Then not shivering for a couple minutes. Time to roll over again. Go through the ‘roll-over drill'. Then comes a new problem. I have to pee. Can't do it lying down. Don't want to try to do it lying down. Never wanted to pee in my bed even if it's a rock bed between a rock and a…oh, skip it.
Clever hiker. Stand up and drop almost everything…held off as long as an earth creature could hold off. Upright…planning so that I can pee downwind before the gusty wind changes direction once more. Success. Not only once but twice. Proud of that. Another latent talent.
Lo, the visible moisture and dampness sort of vanished. A full, brilliant moon. The cold did not vanish. A million stars. I swear I could see Hotel Washington with all the lights…lots of lights. Still windy. Still very cold and still shivering a lot. Changing position. Peeing.
The good news at this point is that if I'm still here now, in the middle of the night, I'll probably still be here at daylight. Sun up. Sounded great. Sun means warmth. The plan du jour was to hunker down and suck up sunlight and warmth for an hour before even thinking of leaving home and hitting the trail again.
Whoa. Check this out. At one time, the second pee, there was enough moonlight and clear sky for me to actually see something lying down below me about ten feet on one side. Aha. Looked like a day-glo yellow pair of nifty binoculars. Have to remember to get up and climb down around the foot boulder and up behind it to pick these up in the morning. Then go back down again and come up…. Are you crazy! Leave ‘em there. Which I did. I'm no fool.
Flicked one eye open each 10-15 minutes to catch the first glimpse of morning…didn't try to read the genuine Casio watch because it could be too demoralizing.
Yes. YES. Dawn comes and chases the night away (Thank you, Omar Khayyham), and the plan is to suck up morning heat so I can stop shivering before moving on. Good plan. Only one problem. I can see all the parts of the world getting brighter and warmer and I'm in the shady part of the world. Bad planning and I'll never do this again.
Threatening the sun didn't work and it stayed relatively darker and cooler in my stone room so I resigned myself to get on with survival. Jumped up (that looked nice), repacked my bag and everything…noted that my water had not frozen. Therefore: never went below 32. Looked up.
Did I see the top of the ridge? Was I moments from seeing the top of the world here in New Hampshire? Was this going to be my lucky day? Stay tuned. First a word from my sponsor: God.
Totally clear. Clear and cold. I expected to stop shivering when I got underway and, lo and behold, this happened. Found a couple more of these stacks of rocks.* Trail markers (cairns, I later found out) leading up. No surprise. Ran out of these shortly and had the impression that at this point it didn't make any difference because I must be near the top.
Next question was this: Jumping up over the top, what does the lost hiker do if all he sees is ridge top to the left and ridge top to the right? Where to go. Well, figure that one out when you stick your nose over the ridge.
Less than half an hour. Nose over the ridge. Scary. Nothing but some things sticking up in the air. Hey, wait. These things are Mt. Washington weather things. Hobbling over the vegetation I get to the Cog Railway and then on towards the observation building. Happy day. No hot food for over a day. No sleep for over a day. No way to tell my pals that things are okay. Hips and knees not feeling their best. Put it all together and what have you got? One hiker who is happier than anything. Came up at the best place.
Signed the hiker log. Oops. Wrong one. That one was for the thru-hikers. Scratched out my entry and made one in the other log. I was too tired to really care.
Sorry. No warm food now until noon here. Cold drink? Cold sandwich? Sure, then chase it with an energy bar smothered with chocolate syrup. Right. Skulked around until I bought a ride back down to Pinkham Notch.
Sorry. Can't put you in a room until the cleaning crews finish…another couple hours. Found some grass and conked out.
Then I visited the Visitor Center and studied the large topographic representation of the Presidential Range there. Something wasn't right. What was it. Tuckerman Ravine. Comes up to the top. Yup. I did that. Over the ridge top and Mt. Washington summit was on the right.
No... Wrong. When I came over, the observatory was on my left. I crossed the cog train tracks and so on. I wasn't on Tuckerman overnight in summer clothes, it was Great Gulf Ravine. Looked meaner and taller than Tuckerman so I didn't feel like a stupid wimp after all. Just stupid. Never leave home without your map. Is that good advice or not. That and a good plan.
Although the story here is tongue-in-cheek, some of the trails including the one I spent the night on have been the locations of careless hiker fatalities. These usually came about due to the hiker being lost or injured while traveling alone. There are some crosses in place at various points, I'm told, that identify where these people were eventually found. What was fun for me was not fun for them. Helping me was the fact that the temperature bottomed out at around 36 degrees and never fell below freezing. Thirty five mile-per-hour winds…gusting up to forty seven according to the weather log at the summit…contributed much to the wind-chill factor. I'll admit that I did find some amusing things to think about at night making me smile but that wasn't very often. I bedded in at around 6PM and departed around 7:30 or 8AM. No charge for the room. Carefully restored the cairn before leaving in the morning. That was considerate. It was like leaving part of my bed…which it was.
Headed back to Virginia for my 70th birthday.