Most of us establish a routine in our daily lives that creates a comfort zone to shelter us from the stress and anxiety bred by change and uncertainty. This patterned world of our existence provides us with a safe and worry-free environment but, ultimately, it inhibits our personal growth and risk tolerance. Today I was given an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and it will forever change my perception of what I’m capable of accomplishing.
All eyes were on the morning weather forecast as the Croo member posted it on the clipboard hanging inside the hut. The bad news included temperatures in the lower 50s, winds 40-50 mph with gusts to 80 mph, and afternoon thundershowers capable of producing heavy rain and hail. As far as Mt Washington is concerned, this is not unusual. Mt Washington holds the record for the highest directly measured surface wind speed in the Northern and Western Hemispheres for a 231-mph wind gust measured on April 12, 1934, and hurricane-force gusts are recorded here on average of 110 days per year. Still, it was not what I was hoping to see.
The tension in the hut was palpable as hikers clumped together in small groups to discuss their options. One option being bandied about was to take a “zero” at the Lake of the Clouds Hut in the hope that the weather would be better tomorrow, but the forecast for tomorrow didn’t lend much credibility to that fantasy. The most popular alternative was to leave immediately, based on yesterday’s experience of the really bad weather not arriving until late in the afternoon. Peanut and Shiver, believing this to be the case, suited up and were the first to walk out the door into the howling wind and limited visibility.
I began discussing the weather with a hiker named Sweetheart who I had first met yesterday. Sweetheart, who is in his 30’s, is from Germany and has accrued considerable alpine climbing experience in Europe. He has had first-hand experience in how quickly the weather can change when above the treeline and has a healthy respect for the mountain’s ability to kill those who are unprepared for its fury. We were in agreement that the relatively high temperature was the bright spot in the weather forecast, and we decided to attempt to get over the summit of Mt Washington before conditions got any worse.
Wearing my full set of rain gear, I left the comfort of the hut and began the 1,200-foot climb to the 6,288-foot summit of Mt Washington. The climb was spread out over a mile and a half, so the only difficult part was trying to walk against the battering winds. Malt and Jukebox soon caught up with me and we climbed together as we neared the summit just an hour after leaving the hut.
In near zero visibility, the manmade structures on the summit began to reveal themselves as if in a surreal dream sequence from the Twilight Zone. The first structure that we came upon, indicating that we had indeed made it to the summit, was a large red and white tower with its top hidden in the clouds. As the tower disappeared behind us, a building that appeared to be the weather observatory slowly materialized from the mist. Once past the weather observatory, we could barely make out the not yet opened Tip-Top House snack bar on our left when we found the signs directing us to the Trinity Heights Connector Trail leading to the summit.
With the blowing wind making it difficult to stand upright, Walt, Jukebox, and I found the iconic Mt Washington summit sign and took turns there taking pictures of each other. With that ticket punched, Walt and Jukebox took off down the trail while I ducked into the relative calm of the lee side of the Tip-Top House to check the security of my pack cover before continuing ahead. The Trinity Heights Connector Trail led me to the Gulfside Trail that the A.T. would follow for the remainder of the day. The Gulfside Trail soon reached the track for the Cog Railroad where I climbed across, not seeing any other alternative, and hiked parallel to the track for several tenths of a mile. The first cog train in the morning is powered by the historic coal-fired engine and leaves the lower station at 8:00 am. I could hear it chugging past and could smell the burning coal, but I could not see it 100-feet away through the clouds.
For the next six hours, I struggled against the elements for five miles along the Gulfside Trail, bypassing the invisible summits of Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, and Mt Adams. Most of the trail consisted of little more than a seemingly endless sea of rocks and boulders. Rock hopping through this section would be challenging on a dry day, but now the arrival of sheets of rain made the traverse downright hazardous. At times, the wind was so powerful that forward progress was impossible. All I could do was to lean into the gale while bracing myself with my trekking poles (or jam myself between a couple of boulders) and wait for the fury of the wind to pass. Even when I could move forward, taking each step was a deliberately calculated maneuver designed to adjust for windage so that my foot would reach its intended target instead of the ankle-breaking hole between the rocks. The rain assailed my body as though I was being sprayed with a 1,500-psi pressure washer. For once, I felt fortunate to wear glasses because the rain hitting my face felt like being painfully jabbed by thousands of tiny needles.
For hours, I picked my way carefully across the rocks while the other hikers passed me on the way to the next shelter. Every once in a while, there would be a short 30-second break in the clouds which gave me a brief glimpse of the surrounding chasms and provided a sense of scale to the area. But for the most part, I felt as though I had been left alone on the hostile surface of another planet. At no time did I feel afraid (probably not enough good sense for that), but the thought did cross my mind that if I became injured, I would be on my own until tomorrow. But my gear was protecting me and I knew that all I had to do was to keep moving forward. I had already survived the worst that the mountain was going to throw at me today, and it felt exhilarating.
Late in the afternoon, I reached the warmth and safety of the Madison Spring Hut. I don’t know how I appeared upon arrival, but Sweetheart took one look at me, asked if I was OK, and said, “We were beginning to become worried about you!” I just sat there staring ahead for the longest time as my body adjusted to not having to strain against the wind. Meanwhile, Sweetheart went to the kitchen, bought a bowl of potato soup, added some diced chicken (he had packed out from yesterday’s work-for-stay dinner), handed it to me and told me to eat. “It will make you feel better,” he said. Now I know why he must be called Sweetheart. I must have been going into a mild shock because I started to shiver, so I quickly changed into dry clothes and ate my soup. It was just what the doctor ordered.
Just prior to dinner the storms temporarily stopped, the clouds parted, and everyone at the hut was treated to an amazingly spectacular sunset. Folks clambered outside during this short break in the weather to escape the confines of the hut and enjoy the view outside, but I began to feel a sense of sadness. Today’s section of the A.T. through the Presidential Range was one of my “big three” to experience in good weather, but circumstances had conspired to prevent that experience from happening. Everyone had been talking about the awesomeness of the Presidentials since we left Springer Mountain in GA, but today I am feeling robbed and this evening’s titillating display of what might have been only reinforced that feeling. I vow to return someday to see what I missed.
Even though I’m feeling a bit traumatized by my experience today on the trail, I also am thankful for the gift that was bestowed on me by that experience. By choosing to continue my hike in the face of severe climatic conditions, I found myself totally out of my comfort zone. Yet, not only did I face the challenge, but I prevailed against it and, as a result, my confidence in my ability to survive under extreme duress has grown immeasurably. I am Superman.
Date: August 5, 2017
Starting Location: Lake of the Clouds Hut
Ending Location: Madison Spring Hut
AT Miles Today: 7.2
AT Miles To Date: 1,862.6