Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Epic Hikes: Mahoosuc Notch trail

I am searching through misted glasses in the dark for some sign of the next cairn or even better of the path.  It's a Saturday night at around 9:30 pm and I'm standing with the wind blowing freezing rain into my face on a bald granite dome at the top of Mt Success in New Hampshire. Miles from civilization.

And I'm thinking about my deck.

You see this weekend was one of several over the past few months since I borrowed the pressure washer from Bruce to wash down and then stain the deck.  I'd kept finding better things to do with my weekends and this, another long hike with John, had been a fairly easy choice.

John, standing near the last cairn we'd found and within earshot not too many yards behind me, might not have appreciated that I'd rather be drinking a beer after a few hours of deck washing.  I had been the one who decided that we should push on at 5pm when we learned that there were at least 3 hours to the summit and another few miles after that to the next shelter.

John likes to make up for lost hiking time when he goes off on multi-day trips and so when he suggested a 30 mile (48 km) hike over three days, I wasn't too concerned about it.  I expected it to be challenging but the breakdown sounded reasonable:  14, 9 and then 6 miles. 

I did spare a thought for the fact that 14 mi seemed a little long but it somehow didn't occur to me that on a multi-day hike I'd also be lugging a 35lb pack with me.

We spent Friday night in a Ski Lodge and got up at 5am to ferry the cars, my car to Rt 22 at Grafton Notch and John's car to the start of the Appalachian Trail section which is described as follows in a hiking guide:

Most of the Appalachian Trail in Maine is not recommended for novice hikers; Maine's 281 miles are generally considered the most difficult of all fourteen states. Even the strongest hikers may average only one mile an hour in some parts. Other parts require grabbing onto tree roots and limbs to climb or descend, and are especially slippery and hazardous in wet weather.
The western section is an area of extremely steep, 4,000-foot mountains, arguably the toughest part of the entire A.T. It includes the notorious mile-long boulder scramble of Mahoosuc Notch.

John had said that our hike included a section that was considered the hardest in the Appalachian but had not mentioned that the whole state has that distinction!  No wonder I found Bigelow hard!  In fact I could have done with a whole lot of mental preparation on this one, including reviewing the trail guide and elevations before we started the hike.

The 30 mile length, it turns out, has some peaks that are modest in height but the total accumulated elevation is 10 000ft which is more than the Presidential Traverse.

Day 1

We started hiking at around 9am and enjoyed a fairly easy ascent up Mt Hale, 2.4 mi to 2 555 ft.  On the way up we enjoyed a few views of the valley with the leaves just starting to turn. 

The path turned into some rocky slabs as we approached the top and I realized, as we started to descend and make our way up the next peak, that I had no idea how many significant peaks I was destined to climb that day. The second mountain (Cascade Mountain) at 2631ft was a more or less flat walk.  

We stopped for lunch after a fairly sustained uphill stretch over long rocky slabs and enjoyed a spectacular view.

The hike surprised me with the number of ponds there were.  We passed two on the first day,  They are always a strange sight for me up in the hills.

After 9 miles of hiking it was getting fairly late.  The weight of the pack was really making it hard for me to sustain a pace that kept us at the guide book speed (1.5 mph) and John was patiently following my lead (as he does on all these hikes) to avoid leaving me behind.

A feature of Maine hiking is sections of boggy mud where planks are laid out for you to walk on to avoid sinking into the mud.

We reached a junction in the trail that pointed up the last mountain of the day, Mt Success (3565ft) .  We sat down to take a breather and consider our options.  Foremost in my mind was the fact that whatever we did we had a total of 30 mi to complete and a weather forecast of rain for Sunday so it seemed to me we should push on at all costs.

The trail junction sign said that there was a campsite 0.2 mi away called Gentian Pond (almost 3 mi from the summit and 5 mi from our day's projected destination).

The weather forecast said rain after 8pm and I made a somewhat delusional assumption that we would make the 5mi at 1.5mph (around 3 hours) which would bring us in there just before the rain and not long after it got dark.  Not even the report by a young couple just on their way down (they had taken 3 hours to get to the top) dissuaded me from this conviction.  I wondered vaguely why they had walked so slowly...

The climb was not only steep and rocky but also took us over a series of false summits.  I was exhausted and at one point got this nagging thought that I might not have the stamina to finish the day.

I sat down to regroup and asked John if I could have one of his small packets of GU to try to build up the energy for the last push.  

If you haven't come across this stuff before, you should know that GU is pretty disgusting.  You buy it in sports shops and squeeze it like toothpaste from a small plastic sachet.  It tastes like chemicals and has the consistency of jello made from toothpaste (if you can imagine that).  It is hard not to gag while you are doing this.   I washed the GU down with as much water as I could take and got up to push the last mile and a half to the summit.

We were well equipped (in general) for the hike.  I had forgotten my sleeping mat and had had to buy one in Gorham but had done the right thing as far as protection from the elements went.  So I was not too phased when it got dark and a light rain began to fall.

The rain seemed to me to be frozen as it fell but the ground was warm so there was no sign of this on the ground.  It is entirely likely that it was just rain but I became fascinated by how much of the ground was glittering. Little flecks of silica, probably. A moth swam in and out of my light stream and landed at my feet and its eyes reflected like small globes back up at me as I stepped over it.

As we came to the summit it dawned on me how bad this decision to walk on might have been if I was hiking alone.  It was really impossible to see the path or the next cairn and we had to move slowly and John recommended that he wait at each cairn until I found the next to avoid getting totally lost.

Small pines leaped out at me - looking like signposts till I got close enough to discount them - and after what seemed an age through my fogged glasses I'd see a pair of planks or a cairn and later the path clearly carved between the low vegetation of the summit.

The hiking from there to the Carlo Col shelter was fairly easy but included some slabs, which was where I took the first fall of the weekend.

I have this stash of savings that I call my emergency fund.  When I was a lot younger an emergency would be no beer in the fridge or the urgent need for a weekend away somewhere - but as an older guy, an emergency is what I imagined as my foot slipped out from under me as I took the first step off a five foot tilted slab and felt my heavy pack make sure that when I landed it wasn't on my feet.

Luckily I fell neatly and suffered nothing more than a grazed elbow.

Before the junction to the shelter we also came across two sections strewn with large, room sized boulders that you had to wedge yourself through, under and over - a foretaste of what was to come in the Notch.

It is incredible how relative distances are when you are tired.  The shelter is .5mi from the main path and it seemed to take an age to get to it down a fairly steep hill.

We arrived at 10:30pm and crawled into our sleeping bags in the shelter (waking a few of the hikers) after drinking some water, neither of us felt like food.  The GU kept my mind very active despite everything else in my body craving a deep sleep.

We had been hiking for 16 hours and had climbed 7000 ft!

Day 2

You can smell an AT through-hiker from about 20feet when he gets out of his sleeping bag.  The smell is like the armpit of the hiking shirt that I put on, damp the next day.  

Some of my gear had got a little wet during the rain the previous night - I really could have avoided this because I was carrying a cover for the pack and had just not stopped to put it on thinking that the rain was so light.  Fortunately I wasn't cold during the night and easily avoided the wet sections.

The hiker who emerged from his bag earlier was one of several who were hiking north but had made an arrangement with friends to move cars around and therefore did this section from North to South.

They said it had taken them three hours to do the famed 1mi section of Mahoosuc Notch which is in the middle of the section that we planned for the second day.  One of them told John that it was not a good idea to attempt this section if it was wet and the rain had come hard in the night and was still falling intermittently.

We had breakfast and set out at about 9am back up the .5mi path which felt like it took us no time at all.

The hike to the next shelter, half way through our second day's projected distance was relatively easy over a couple of the peaks of Goose Eye Mountain and introduced us to some very steep sections of damp rock.

I was increasingly losing faith in the traction in my shoes on the downhill sections and also on the long planks over the bogs which are slippery when wet.  I went down hard onto my back (saved by the pack) on one of the planks.

In some sections there are helpful metal or wooden ladders and in others just steep slabs that you have to make you way up or down relying on the traction in your shoe soles.

There is a fairly long section at the top of Goose Eye Mt that is pretty flat and the bog at the top had been fueled by the rain the previous night - some of the planks were 3 or 4 inches under water and each of us stepped by accident off the planks and sank deep into the mud.  In John's case right up to his crotch.  It is not easy pulling your foot out of the mud either, and pretty soon we both had sodden boots and socks.

We arrived at the Goose Eye Shelter at 2pm which was an hour or so later than we had originally planned.  Another AT hiker told us not to try to hike the Notch in the damp.  John took an executive decision to stop - not that I had anything else in mind than crawling into my sleeping bag to warm up and doze away the afternoon and evening.

It is amazing how good these dehydrated meals taste when you are out hiking.

Day 3

Cutting the second day of the hike short meant we were in for a long day and I had sworn that I'd wake at 5am to be ready to start early.

The weather forecast had called for a bright, sunny day on Monday so when we woke at 7am in a murky overcast post-dawn my heart sank.  Not only was it not sunny but it was probably going to be damp in the Notch as well...

The hike was fairly uneventful leading up to the Notch trail and we made fairly good time.

The first view of the mess of broken rock came not long after.  The wide angle lens doesn't do justice to the size of these boulders.  They are all between the size of a small car and the size of a bedroom, with fairly sharp edges.

One description reads: "The Notch is a very narrow pass between Mahoosuc Mountain and Fulling Mill Mountain. It is a glacier-carved gash bounded by 800-foot high cliffs on either side. Immense blocks of schist have cleaved from the cliff sides over millions of years of freeze-thaw cycles. Thus, the 100-yard-wide space between the cliffs is filled with an incredible and otherworldly jumble boulders and rocks ranging in size from that of a Volkswagen to a house. The giant boulders are piled to an unkown depth."

Some of the places force you to crawl through and drag your pack after you.

In one other place you have to step up onto a sloping foothold and reach up high and to the right for a pretty good hold from which you can heave yourself over to the top of the next boulder.

As I reached forward and put pressure on my hand my foot slipped and my hand slipped in my glove.  I fell backwards with my leg wedged on the other side of the foot-hold.

I am pretty sure this is the same place that a hiker fell in 2009 and ended up having to be rescued by a team over what took hours.

John says that the price of a rescue helicopter is around $10 000 and after getting up and checking on my limbs, I counted myself lucky (again) that this was not going to be the cause to dip into the emergency fund.

The hike through this section was pretty awesome actually.  I wish I had not been as tired or as concerned about my footing - I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  I resolved then to come back and do it over four days when the weather prediction is excellent.

We spotted what looked like the end of the Notch section and I took a photograph.  There were actually two more strenuous sections before we really were out of the boulder field.

After the Notch was a hike up the last peak for the trip was Old Speck.   The terrain followed the pattern - very steep slabs, sections of high boulders that we had to scramble up and ladders.

The weather didn't lift and we started to feel a chill develop as the wind picked up.

After a while I was hiking uphill with my outer shell on and my fleece layer under it and started to notice that there were frozen drops on the pine needles.

We came across several birds crowded together and reluctant to fly away in the cold.  They let us pass without too much of a fuss.  I think that they were Ruffed Grouse.

We passed one more cold pond with the mist and the strengthening wind before we started up towards the summit.

The path up to Old Speck includes some exposed rounded granite extrusions that must offer spectacular views on nice days.  

On this day the wind was blowing so hard from the side that it was threatening to topple me each time my pack was exposed to it.  

Once over these we were back in the trees with relative shelter from the wind. The rime build-up on the trees was strong evidence that the air was pretty cold. 

Old Speck is actually a 4000 footer (in Maine), but I didn't know this at the time and after climbing up more long steep wet slabs of granite we came to a junction that offered to take us to the peak at a distance of  0.3mi or go down to the car and we elected not to take the side trip.

The trip down involved numerous slabs - in some cases very large ones.  I was pretty sure I'd slip by now so went very carefully.  Not long after pointing out to John that slipping where he was walking would be pretty bad, he slipped too (I guess I inadvertently jinxed him) - he was on the wet section above a large granite protrusion that had a sheer drop at the end.  I had him pose on the dry section after he recovered his footing and made his way down and then I went along the edge near the trees to avoid the same experience.

The last couple of miles of a hike like this seem never to end but we did enjoy a few scenic moments.
and a waterfall

And at the end the discomfort of sore joints and cold, wet, aching feet that just wanted to be put up somewhere comfortable.

So why smile, you ask?  I think John may have mentioned that there was a place to eat some good food nearby.  I had spaghetti bolognaise.