A Three-Day Presidential Traverse

Clambering down the slopes of Mount Adams, with Mount Madison still ahead.

Clambering down the slopes of Mount Adams, with Mount Madison still ahead.

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.”

The first rule of hiking: the mountain will always be there another day.

The first rule of hiking: the mountain will always be there another day.

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.

Socked in by fog at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, near the summit of Mount Washington.

Socked in by fog at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, near the summit of Mount Washington.

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.

Watching the sun go down from the porch of Madison Spring Hut.

Watching the sun go down from the porch of Madison Spring Hut.

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.

No pain, no views.

No pain, no views.

Finishing the NH 4,000 Footers: Can I Do It?

Spring is in the imagination, if not quite yet in the air. I awoke this morning to find my hand reaching for the AMC guide that lives next to the bed.

Nothing beats a White Mountain vista on a fine day.

Nothing beats a White Mountain vista on a fine day.

Over the past four summers, I’ve hiked 29 of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot mountains. The big gaps in my list are those in the North Country — the Presidentials, the Carter Range, and Mount Cabot, which is not far from Dixville Notch (the remote outpost, population 12, that always declares its results first in any election). There’s also a couple of mountains I’ve avoided just because they’re known for being annoying hikes: Owl’s Head, whose only trail is a rocky slide that goes straight up the side of the mountain to a viewless summit, and Isolation, which, true to its name, has no convenient approach. (Also, there’s known to be a very hostile grouse on the path to Isolation, and isn’t afraid to lunge at hikers invading its territory. Angry birds may be a fun iPhone game, but they don’t make great hiking companions.)

Even with no view, a day of hiking brings a big smile to my face! [Photo credit: Paul Green]

Even with no view, a day of hiking brings a big smile to my face! [Photo credit: Paul Green]

With only 19 peaks left to bag, can I make 2013 the year I finally complete this goal? I think so. Here’s my plan:

June
Weekend 1: Hike Galehead and South Twin in one day. (31 peaks total)
Weekend 2: Hike Owl’s Head in one day. (32 peaks)

July
Weekend 1: Hike Isolation in one day. (33 peaks)
Weekend 2: Hike the Presidentials over three days. Day 1: Mt Madison (staying overnight at Madison Spring Hut); Day 2: Mts Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce (staying overnight at Mizpah Spring Hut); Day 3: Mr. Jackson. (41 peaks)

August
Sit at the beach and rest my quads. It’s August, after all.

September
Weekend 1: Tackle Wildcat D and Wildcat Mountain (staying overnight at Carter Notch Hut), before moving on to Carter Dome, Middle Carter, and South Carter. (46)
Weekend 2: Hike Mt Cabot Saturday and Mt Moriah Sunday. (48!)

Hope you brought your headlamp.

Hope you brought your headlamp.

Now, I do have some doubts about this plan. First, elements of this plan are contingent on there being space in the huts for me — they’re already filling up, so I’ll need to hop on that. Second, if I take all of August off, will I really be ready to tackle the Carter Range in one go in September? Likely not. So I might need to find another hike to do that month — maybe one in Maine, which would mesh nicely with some of my beach-sitting. Third, I’m a little worried about my knees. Most of my hiking the last couple of years has relied heavily on a mix of trekking poles, Advil, and ice. Are my knees really going to stand up to a summer of vigorous hiking? There’s only one way to find out. But if they don’t, that weekend on the Carter Range will likely get broken up into a few different outings. And finally, some of these hikes will be much more pleasant as traverses rather than out-and-backs, which means I’ll need my driver I mean boyfriend to come along, drop me off, spend the day fishing, and pick me up. But hopefully this isn’t too tough a sell.

Nonetheless, if all of these variables break my way, it should be a great summer of hiking — and of finishing a goal I’ve been working toward since 2009. I’ll keep you posted!

Maple Syrup Season. Awww, Yeah.

A balanced New England breakfast.

A balanced New England breakfast.

When the streams start rushing and the icicles start dripping, the sap starts rising in the sugar maples — which means it’s maple syrup in the north country.

I’ve always wanted to go on a “sugaring season” weekend in New Hampshire or Vermont, and last weekend I had just that opportunity. It was “NH Maple Weekend,” which meant that sugar shacks across the state were holding open houses. I visited three.

The southernmost, Benton’s, offered a heaping breakfast of maple baked beans, ham, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, and coffee, as well as a look at their sap-boiler out back. If you’re only going to visit one, this is the one I would choose. The Benton family has been sugaring for five generations. Their dining room offers delicious comfort food served on paper plates with plastic forks and a big smile. A long line develops quickly — they’re only open on weekends, and the staff is minimal, so get there as close to 8 am as possible. Avoid the pancakes, frankly; no pancake is as good as the flapjack you’ll have at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, further north. But if you want to get something “mapley” try the maple baked beans which are insane (sorry vegetarians, they come with bacon mixed in). Next time I go, I’ll also be giving the French toast a try. No matter what you order, it’s the perfect way to load up for your day of skiing or hiking. I know I didn’t need to break for lunch after breakfasting there. And my grand total came to all of 12 bucks. Oh, and yeah: they had a bluegrassy guitar player singing in the backroom.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple "experiences" in March and April.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple “experiences” in March and April.

Further north, the Rocks Estate was offering a more comprehensively educational look at sugaring in New England. I sat through about a thirty-minute presentation of the history of maple sugar in the region, including a homespun video. From this I learned a) that maple sugar was originally called “Indian Sugar,” because Native Americans in the region had long ago learned how to harvest it from maple trees, and b) that in the 19th century, Abolitionists advocated using it because, unlike sugar cane from the South, it was produced without slave labor. Also, c) that it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to get a single gallon of delicious maple syrup. I also got the opportunity do try a classic New England combo: a plain donut, warm maple syrup, and a homemade sour pickle. OM NOM NOM.

At Benton's in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

At Benton’s in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

The Rocks Estate also offers hay rides, a gift shop, the chance to tap a tree yourself, and cooking demonstrations. I, for one, saw the chef from the Sugar Hill Inn explain how to make maple creme brulee. Mm hmm, that’s gonna happen. The one downside: the ticket for the “NH Maple Experience” (as they call it) was 15 clams. Anyhow, I definitely want to go back in the summer. The estate at one time had amazing formal gardens; I don’t know if they’ve been restored, but they’re close enough to Polly’s Pancake Parlor that I figure it won’t hurt to just…check.

The most remote sugar shack I explored was Fuller’s, which I had convinced myself was the BEST. Only, it wasn’t. I’m sure their maple syrup is lovely, but there was no sap to be had that far north — it’s still too cold, so no boiling demo — and no breakfast and no activities. However, they did offer me free sugar on snow with a pickle, a classic New England treat from my childhood. I was also recommended a few sugar shacks further south, notably Parker’s, which is close enough to the Massachusetts border that it could probably make an easy day trip for any Boston-bound person. However, I dallied a bit too long in the north country and didn’t make it down there before close.

In the end, what I learned was this: it’s best to go to the sugar shacks with a) food, or b) activities. The ones without, “authentic” as they may be, and delicious as their syrup may be, just aren’t as much fun to visit.

I broke up the weekend with a visit to Littleton, NH, where I picked up some new ski bindings at Lahout’s (knowledgeable staff, always a great price) and had a delicious lunch at Miller’s Cafe, right on the river. The Yankee pot roast sandwich was a great addition to my uber-Yankee weekend. I also had a surprisingly good dinner at the Coyote Grill in Waterville Valley, NH. I’d been there before and, at that time, wasn’t terribly impressed — it was over-priced and not very well executed. This time it still felt over-priced but was excellently executed, and they had a small but carefully chosen beer list. Rumor has it there’s a new chef. Just don’t be put off by their location — in the Waterville Valley athletic center. Also, penny-conscious patrons be advised: there’s a cheaper bar menu. And of course, I skied — you can’t spend an entire weekend mainlining maple syrup and not get a little bit of physical activity in. Right?