So finally yesterday I got to the top of Mt. Washington. Not from Springer Mountain, but from a parking lot at the bottom of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail with 4 cohorts of various experience and ability, one of whom brought her dog.
Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is not one for the faint of heart, I found. The upper half is... Well, the AMC White Mountain Guide uses the word "arduous," strong language for this objective handbook which may describe a trail as "easy" or "difficult" but not often with an emotionally-charged word like "arduous."
Three of us (and the dog, over whose head I could almost see a conversation balloon bearing the word "Whatever")made it to the top of Mt. Washington. The other two, an older couple, lagged behind to hike at their own pace. We were to wait for them at the Lakes of the Clouds hut. We waited for an hour. I used 25 minutes of that hour happily scampering up and back down neighboring Mt. Monroe; another 15 chatting with a former thru-hiker, who encouraged me to hit the trail: "No matter how doubtful you feel now, it's something that will change your life. You will always be glad you did it." Eventually one of my companions got a cell-phone signal and discovered that the older lady had started feeling ill and she and her husband were on their way back to the car. So Sue, Allison and her dog, and I resumed our hike towards Mt. Washington.
We picked our way half a mile across rock fields (even on the "Trail", you have to do this in the White Mountains), uneasily eyeing thickening clouds and deepening fog over the summit. Mt. Washington has the notoriety of producing the vilest weather on earth, capriciously changing the menu on a moment's notice. Fog poured in; wind shook us around; cold mist sanded any exposed skin. I didn't like this. I've heard and read too many stories about hikers getting lost and frozen in fog, even in summer. If this got any worse, we wouldn't be able to see from cairn to cairn to find our way either up or down. We turned back to Lakes of the Clouds.
We kept looking behind us towards the summit, and up at the sky. Clouds were, however, ragged, not solid; we began to see the summit again. Even if we returned to the hut to wait it out, we might have to wait all night, for which we were not prepared, having neither reservations nor sleeping equipment. It looked better. We turned around again and started back up.
It took about an hour to go the mile. Rocks, rocks, rocks. But I find myself more sure-footed with every trip I take into these mountains. My ankles are more stable. I misplace a few footfalls, come home with skinned shins, but I feel sturdier. I saw my husband waving at us from the top and we finished our climb. It was misty, wet, windy and nasty up there, but the obscuring fog that an hour earlier I had thought could turn dangerous, had blown away.
Inside the visitors' center at the summit, there is a framed document bearing the names, ages, and circumstances of 159 individuals who have died in the Mt. Washington vicinity. As noted in an accompanying explanatory plaque, almost all met their ends due to an error in judgement: a wrong turn, trying to beat the weather, hiking too late in the day, not wearing enough clothes, not being prepared for emergencies -- all the things I was afraid of on my backpacking trip last week, things I wanted to avoid today, especially being more or less the ringleader of our little group of 3. Although we ended up making our way with clear vision to the top, I still don't think I was being unreasonable in announcing to my companions that the weather looked bad, that I didn't like it, that I thought we should retrace our steps and stay at the hut until it cleared. Even if that meant tomorrow.
We had originally intended to cross on Gulfside Trail and take the Jewell Trail back down, but with worrying about our ill friend, the false weather-alarm, and the varying degrees of preparedness even among the 3 of us (I've done the most hiking of the 3), we decided to take the low road and let our husbands drive us down the auto-road. (It turned out that the lady who was ill was just plain incapable of the "arduous" climb. She got better once they started down, thank goodness.
I felt good. Last week, with my 30# pack on my back, I'd skirted the Mt. Washington summit to plod on to Mt. Jefferson and hopefully to The Perch tentsite, which I never made, camping instead illegally in an alpine meadow (better than possibly spending the night with my leg between two rocks and my sleeping bag, had I been able to reach it, makeshiftedly wrapped around my torso.) It was only a 4.5-mile hike this time, but it was rugged, and it did it for me for the day.
And yes, I still want to thru-hike. Over mountains and more mountains, often 15-20 miles per day. The prospect often seems unlikely, as if I can't really see myself doing it. But I keep collecting pieces of gear and information: a bag or bottle here, a book there. I keep studying maps and doing dayhikes. I want to get in at least one more overnight backpacking trip this summer, especially here in the White Mountains where the Appalachian Trail has so many access points. I hope to hike with some of this year's thru-hikers, hear their stories, learn their lessons.
As well, I am looking for hiking partners for next year. Women more or less my age, about 40-60. Any takers?