It was just after 10 am, and we’d already summited Mt. Eisenhower and Mt. Pierce. We’d bagged Jackson, the southernmost peak in the Presidential Range, the previous afternoon. We took out the map to check how much further to Mt. Washington, and lunch. Ania was concerned. Ryan was not there to consult — he had already rabbited on ahead.
Book time for the day’s hike was 11 hours; breakfast at Mizpah Spring Hut, where we’d spent the night, hadn’t been served until 7:30 am, and dinner at Madison Spring Hut, where we were staying tonight, was at 7 pm. That didn’t give us much margin for resting, taking photos, having lunch, or enjoying the view. But I was bullish. The morning air was cool and misty. The views were spectacular. My legs felt springy and strong. “Listen,” I told my cautious friend, “By the time you’ve done half the range, you’ve already done most of the elevation. We’ll get Washington, have lunch, and it will be all downhill from there.”
And indeed, we made it to Washington right on schedule, lining up in the cafeteria with tourists in flip flops who’d ridden the Cog Railway to the top of the tallest mountain east of the Rockies and north of the Smokies. Standing there with my plastic lunch tray, the warning in my AMC guide seemed surreal: “Mount Washington has a well-earned reputation as the most dangerous small mountain in the world… If you begin to experience difficulty from weather conditions, remember that the worst is yet to come, and turn back, without shame, before it is too late.” Quietly hanging in a hallway across from the gift shop, restrooms, and — yes — tiny post office, I found the plaque listening the names of the more than 140 people who have died on Washington’s slopes, along with the cause of their deaths: drowning, falling, hypothermia, avalanches, heart attacks. Sobered, I tightened the straps of my pack and headed back out on the trail.
While Mount Washington is known as the home of the world’s worst weather — Antarctic-level cold, hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzards — the day of our hike was hot. Very hot. It was July and 100 degrees in the valley. The morning mists had burned off, and as we headed north up the ridge we had spectacular 360-degree views of Washington’s fearsome ravines. As the afternoon wore on, I stopped worrying about dying of hypothermia (as Paul Zanet and Judy March of Dorchester did in July of 1958), drowning (as happened to Oysten Kladstad of Brooklyn in 1929), or falling ice (as befell Sewall E. Faunce in July of 1886). I was worried about running out of water.
By 5 pm, we were dragging ourselves up the vertical boulder field that is the summit cone of Mt. Adams. It was the last peak before we get to the hut, to dinner, and to bed. Everything hurt. I was climbing using hands and knees and trekking poles and feet. I was keeping myself going with the un-Muir-ian mantra, “This mountain is an asshole. This mountain is an asshole.” It dawned on me (and I was suddenly aware that by now, my brain was not just exhausted but actually dehydrated) that I’d made a crucial mistake.
It is true that the Presidential Range is “downhill all the way” after you summit Washington. If in fact you are hiking the Presidential Range north-to-south. As any sane person would do.
But if you are hiking south-to-north, as we were doing, then you’re doing a gradual ascent all morning over the rolling green summits of the southern Presidentials and saving the mean, rock-strewn peaks of the northern Presidentials for when your tired legs are at their rubberiest.
We did not intend to be so stupid. But when Ania, Ryan, and I went to outdoors.org to book our stay in the AMC’s ridge-top huts, the only nights available were a Saturday night at the southern-most Presidential hut (Mizpah Spring) and the northernmost (Madison Spring). And in all the negotiations and permutations (this weekend, or that weekend? Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday? In our out? This or that?) our careful reading on the range had gotten pushed aside.
In the end, we made it to the hut around 8 pm, hopped up on Aleve and sliding down Adams on our butts. While the hut administrators had been very clear that dinner would be saved for no man, woman, or child, the hut “croo” themselves were much more sympathetic, and so we flung off our boots, found bunks, and inhaled every leftover. And we were far from the last stragglers to appear — there were lost hikers, late hikers, and some very beardy Appalachian Trail through-hikers who all stumbled in after we did.
The next morning, we strapped ourselves back into our hiking gear, scrambled up our final summit, Mount Madison, and then began the long, steady descent back to the car. Ryan shot ahead again and, by the time Ania and I stumbled giddily out of the woods, he was waiting for us with a tank full of gas and a six-pack of ice-cold Tuckerman’s Pale Ale. Our victory would not taste sweet; but rather, hoppy and lightly carbonated.
If you go:
Day 1: Fuel yourself for the steep ascent to Madison Spring Hut with breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. Get the lung-busting, heart-thumping climb to the hut out of the way, claim your bunk, and dump your pack. If you have time before dark, bag Mt. Madison before retiring to the Hut for the evening. Or just content yourself with exploring the nearby summit lakes.
Day 2: Struggle valiantly over the knee-destroying northern peaks before a late lunch on Mt. Washington. Spend the night at Lakes of the Clouds. If you’re not totally socked in, you’ll have the best view in the entire hut system. And if you’re too beat to continue, you can always take the cog railway down.
Day 3: Enjoy the grassy summits of the southern peaks and finish up at Crawford Notch. Grab celebratory beers and good food at Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery in North Conway.
And remember: if you run into trouble, remember that the worst really is still to come, and turn back, without shame, before it is too late.