Feb. 17: President’s Day in the Presidentials

Stop means go, right?

Ummm, right?

OK, I didn’t know that we were heading into a wind tunnel between Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Adams with 100 mph gusts that would knock Sarah to the ground. I didn’t know that snow would limit visibility to 25 feet. I didn’t know that Gulfside Trail would be buried under four feet of snow and that we’d have to cautiously wander forward wondering if we were about to fall into a ravine or were on the correct path, at which point Aidan would say to his father, ”I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Which made it all the more fun.

That morning when we woke in Gray Knob hut on the north side of Mt. Adams, we had been given a detailed weather report by the hut caretaker, Mike, a Virginia-native who’d lived on the mountain since August. It was -4°F atop Mt. Washington, the wind was blowing steadily northwest at 71 mph, visibility was 25 feet, and conditions were worsening.

As was broadcast over the radio:

… winds gusting well over 100 mph. The strong northwesterly flow will also be dragging significantly colder air in, dropping temperatures today and into the overnight hours. With even lower wind chill values expected, the wind chill advisory currently in place will expire at noon when a wind chill warning will go into effect and remain until Monday afternoon. … blowing snow and dense summit fog are currently making for white out conditions on the summit, a trend that will likely continue through the evening hours. … any Search and Rescue efforts that arise anywhere in the White Mountains will be very slow going or possibly delayed until safer conditions return.

Pretty much means: Don’t come crying to us, cause we’re not stupid enough to hike out there today!

The previous day had already been grueling. We woke at 4:30am in Canterbury, Conn., piled into a red Mazda minivan, and passed out while Uncle Steve manned the wheel. By 10am we were at IME in North Conway where Aidan picked up boots and crampons. By 11am we were at the Appalachia Trailhead in Randolph. And by noon we were trekking up the Short Line trail to connect with Randolph to connect with Spur to connect with Hincks. All was fine for the first half-mile. Then we hit a wall of unbroken snow 1-2 feet deep. Slogging through it in snowshoes was like wearing bricks on each foot.

This was meant to be a fun and encouraging introduction to winter hiking for Uncle Steve and his son, Aidan. The trek quickly became grueling as we gained about 3,000 feet over four miles to the hut’s at 4,300 feet elevation. That’s a steep ascent. In summertime it took me about two hours. But in these conditions, and wearing a 50-pound backpack, the same trek took five hours.

I think we each had our moments of staring into the neverending snow and thinking, How much further?

Finally at 5:30pm as dusk settled, Gray Knob appeared through the woods. ”That was the hardest thing I think I’ve done in my life,” said Uncle Steve (he’s also not the same sprightly 22-year-old who pedaled a bicycle across North America a quarter-century ago). Inside the hut it was a comfortable 40°F. A small wood stove took off the chill.

Dinner was slices of cheddar cheese and cured meat, instant soup mixed with diced carrots and celery, and almond-filled dark chocolate. Best of all was the bourbon. I think I’ve gotten a good handle on what to pack for trips like this, but I never pack enough bourbon and whiskey. We were in our sleeping bags by 9pm.

I woke at 7am to the Mt. Washington Observatory’s weather report crackling over the radio. But before we could heat up hot water for coffee and instant oatmeal, we needed water. I slid barefooted into my still-damp boots, grabbed a green 3-gallon jug and walked a half-mile down a narrow, curvy, snowy path to the water source. Another hiker was already there, staring at what we had expected to be a flowing spring. It was an iced-over puddle. We cracked an opening, but it was too shallow for the jugs. The other hiker returned to the hut to grab a scooping cup while I continued opening the puddle. The air temperature hovered around 0°F. I removed a glove so that I could reach into the puddle and pull out some ice chunks. My red hand throbbed. After 10 minutes the other hiker returned with shovel and cup. Several dozen cup-fulls of water later, and after a half-mile walk back with that 25-pound jug, I was back inside Gray Knob with my hand around a cup of Starbucks Via (which is the best instant coffee ever).

Mike, the hut’s caretaker, has been doing this since August!

We sat with hot drinks and considered potential hikes. We’d pushed it hard the day before, and today’s weather conditions didn’t look great, so we decided that we’d forgo any summit attempts. Another option was to take the Gray Knob Path to the Randolph Path to Edmonds Col, elevation 5,000 feet. From there we’d take the Gulfside Trail behind Mt. Sam Adams (not an official peak) to Thunderstorm Junction, elevation 5,500 feet. That’s higher than all but the four tallest peaks in the eastern United States, but it’s still several hundred feet below Mt. Adams or Mt. Jefferson, which are treacherously rocky. It seemed reasonable, and Mike agreed the hike was doable. We pulled up our snowpants and laced up our snowboots and strapped on our snowshoes and headed for treeline.

It was beautiful. Visibility was minimal, and what should have been a great view of Mt. Jefferson was instead fog, but it was obvious that the wind and snow was obscuring something massive in front and below us — kind of like swimming in the ocean at night. Now above treeline, the wind gained enough strength to lean against. The terrain leveled and became rocky as we entered Edmonds Col. I pulled out the map. “We want to head that way,” I yelled above the wind. “We should soon be in the lee of Mt. Sam Adams and shielded from the wind.”

Instead, the wind only picked up. I hadn’t realized we’d actually gain another 500 feet before turning behind Mt. Sam Adams. It became difficult to walk straight, and I was blown sideways. Gusts approached 100mph, on par with a Category 2 Hurricane, toppling Sarah to the ground.

Every quarter-mile or so we’d huddle behind a boulder to get out of the wind and shout words of motivation, which for me was yelling “wahoo!” and exclaiming “This wind is incredible!” Last year while hiking up here, our friend Jeff referred to a similar boulder atop Mt. Jefferson as “cower rock.” As we cowered now, Sarah looked at me and said sternly, “I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to get down.”

After another half-mile, which seemed much further, we curved behind Mt. Sam Adams and back into tropical storm-level winds.

But now there was another problem. The trail markers had disappeared beneath the snow drifts. I stopped, peering around for the next cairn. Nothing. “We have two options,” I said, as the others approached. “We can go back to the last trail-marker that we saw and reorient ourselves, or we can head in this direction, which I think is correct.” Sarah and Aidan voted to return to the previous trail marker. We started to retrace our steps, which wasn’t so easy since the wind and snow was quickly covering our tracks, when I thought that I could see the trail. I yelled and motioned for them to follow. As I walked forward I sank to my waist in snow, obviously not on the correct path, but still trying to push forward confidently.

We huddled together again. “Did you see a cairn?” Sarah asked. “No,” I said, “but I feel like this is the right direction.” Sarah looked skeptical. Aidan turned to his dad and said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” I pulled out the map and pointed to how the contours showed us now walking at a level elevation until we reached Thunderstorm Junction, which meant we had to go this way. I hiked forward, thinking “this must be the way, there must be a cairn.” After 10 minutes, which felt like much longer, a 5-foot tall cairn miraculously appeared. I patted the rocks lovingly.

As we rounded Mt. Sam Adams the wind picked back up. We didn’t linger. “Head for the trees!” yelled Uncle Steve. We descended Spur Trail to Crag Camp to admire the hut’s organ — a functioning pipe organ that was lugged up the mountain piece by heavy piece years ago. Back on the trail we soon encountered our first sign of life that day: Mike, the long-bearded and long-suffering caretaker of Gray Knob. “Where’s your fourth?” he said to me, as Uncle Steve was a few paces behind. “We left him atop Mt. Adams, couldn’t make it,” I said. Mike stared at me. “He’s right behind us,” I added.

Uncle Steve was glad to hear that at least Mike was looking out for him.

Back at Gray Knob, Aidan and Uncle Steve fired up the camp stove to prepare hot chocolate. Sarah and I grabbed the 3-gallon water jugs and headed for the “spring.” By the time we returned the sun was about to set, so Uncle Steve and I skipped out to a nearby lookout point. The fog had lifted, the White Mountains had reappeared, and the sky had turned into a milkshake of orange and yellow.

The next morning, after breakfast and another water run and a thank-you to Mike, we all stopped at the lookout, awed to see Mt. Jefferson now towering above us at 5,712 feet. Somewhere up there was Edmonds Col and “Cower Rock” and “Mircacle Cairn” and Thunderstorm Junction where we had wandered aimlessly. Visibility the previous day had been 25 feet, according to official data from the Mt. Washington Observatory. Today it was 100 miles. The wind had also increased slightly to 76 mph while the temperature had fallen nine degrees to -13°F.

Aidan was not deterred. Uncle Steve sent me an email days later: “Went to bed last night reading the AMC guide and thinking about the next adventure. Aidan and I will be out there somewhere during April vacation.”

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