Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Return, Part 3: The Mirror of Misadventure

"Adventure is not outside man; it is within" - George Eliot
Author's Note: It has been sometime since I last wrote in this blog. For those of you who have enjoyed these tales and wondered at their absence, I apologize. For those of you who did not miss these poor scratchings, and who groan at the mere thought of their resurrection, I apologize most humbly.

View back to the summit of Mt Washington as we descend the cone on our way to Jefferson.
 Mark and I descended from the summit of Mt Washington along the northwest face of the summit cone. Our next objective was to join the Gulfside Trail, a section of the Appalachian Trail, which would take us toward the hike's third peak. The Gulfside Trail lies along the northwestern rim of the Great Gulf, a massively deep glacial cirque that cuts into the Presidential Range and runs roughly five miles along a northeast to southwest axis. A glacial cirque is a valley cut into a mountain range by the inexorable grinding of an alpine glacier. The mouth of the Great Gulf opens to the northeast, and the steep headwall lies to the southwest. There are few places in New England that can rival the majesty of the peaks, gulfs, ravines, and spurs of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. It is true that remarkable and arresting beauty can be found in the simplest of places, the smile of a child, the curve of a woman's neck, the effortless flight of the Swift. But the beauty of the wild lands is woven with the awe inspiring majesty mountains, and if you fail to be simultaneously enthralled and humbled by this world, then your spark of life has grown very cold indeed.

Crossing the high plateau of Mt Washington, we approach the headwall of the Great Gulf. The northern Presidentials stretch for miles across the gulf.
Our way lead across the high plateau of Washington, that remarkable flat tundra-like expanse below the summit cone. Across this alpine table-land runs the Cog Railway as it climbs from the valley below to the summit buildings. We would have to cross the railbed as we hiked toward the Gulfside Trail and Mt Jefferson. As we ambled we watched the cog train ascend the rail one more, slowly sliding upward as many pale faces peered out of the Cog's passenger car's windows. Reaching the railbed we stopped to inspect its construction of stout timbers and cold iron, and talked briefly about its makeup and how the design oddly fit in the chaos of the table-land's shatter stones and grasses. We did not know it at that point but we would get to know the rails and ties quite intimately later in the day.

As we approach the Cog Railway railbed, an engine and car slowly climbs up towards the summit.

We have crossed over the Cog railbed, and our trail, marked by cairns, runs along and just up from the headwall of the Great Gulf. Mt Dartmouth, Mt Deception, and Owl's Head (not to be confused with the 4,000 footer of the same name in the Pemigewasset Wilderness!) are some of the peaks visible in the distance.
Now on its descent, the Cog Train passes us, engine first. As we watch it crawl by the passengers watch us watching them.
The train edges over for the descent down Jacob's Ladder. At this point, it is only the cog gear below the engine grasping the central track of the rail that keeps the train from plummeting downwards and the passengers and their mortal coils from being parted!
Once it passed over the railbed, the trail then paralleled it as it approached the intersection with the Gulfside. As we traveled, the cog engine and car had descended past us on its return to the station below. Its passage had taken our attention away from the landscape, albeit briefly. Now we paused to take in the gaping maw of the Great Gulf. We stood at the top of its headwall and took in the crazy patchwork of greens, grays, and browns that clad the walls and floor of the gulf roughly 1,500 feet below. The sharply different greens were caused by the stands of different trees, dark green were the Spruces, Firs, and Hemlocks, while the paler greens were mostly Birches. Looking small and dark far, far below us in the Gulf was Spaulding Lake. The grays were the living stone of the mountain, either bare slopes too steep for vegetation to take hold, massive boulders, worn stone columns and massive boulders standing proud of the trees, long slashing scars from landslides, or the chaotic rubble of talus slopes. The browns were the spreading colors of Fall, as well as the rents in the forests caused by the more recent slides. Ranged across the gulf's far rim were the angular peaks of the northern Presidentials.

The Great Gulf and the northern Presidentials. The peaks are, from left to right. Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison.
Mark stands on a long splintered and eroded ledge above the gulf. While this looks dangerous, it was only risky for Mark. I was quite safe taking the picture. So no worries really!
Having taken in the breathtaking views from the headwall, we walked on. At that time I was feeling less than sanguine with regards to, well, everything. It was later in the day than it should have been considering our progress. I was feeling poorly, but Mark was not. Caution would have us descend and skip the considerable extension of time and effort to attain Jefferson's summit. That summit would be the only new one for me however, and that coupled with Mark's enthusiasm for continuing, over-road my better judgement (which admittedly is a fairly minor speed bump) and I determined we would push onward, not downward.

We reach the intersection with the Gulfside Trail.
Soon we reached the intersection with the Gulfside Trail and turned onto it. The first peak along our path would be Mt. Clay. The Gulfside Trail skirts around the western flank of this minor summit but a loop trail runs across it. Considering the time of day, my physical state, and the distances we still had to cover, I decided we would take the faster route around the summit, rather than take the extra time and effort to cross over it. Mt. Clay is not one of the "4,000 footers" despite its height. It has to do with the AMC defined criteria for a 4,000 footer. So while I felt a pang at not crossing its summit, we were not skipping a targeted peak of the hike. Mt. Clay would have to await a return visit at some future date.

Mt. Clay. Really more a shoulder of Mt. Washington than a distinct peak.

The view from Gulfside Trail near Mt. Clay down into the valley that holds the Cog Railway base station. The railbed is visible along the ridge to the left and the base station and its approach road are clearly visible in the center.

The pace of a hike is determined by the condition of the hikers, the condition of the weather, and the nature of the trail. One of the slower trails to traverse is one whose bed is made up of large, angular, and chaotic stones. This surface requires each step to be carefully chosen and made. It is more tiring as well as being more time consuming. This is due to the additional muscular effort needed to maintain balance when one's foot rests not on a flat surface, but rather on an uneven angular surface that often is much smaller than your boot's sole. Thus did many minutes sift through the hourglass as we pushed on.

The intersection of Gulfside Trail with Jewell Trail. Jewell Trail would be our path down once we returned from Mt Jefferson. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Passing around Mt. Clay, we reached the intersection with the Jewell Trail, our planned descent path, and took a brief break near the trail sign. In my head I knew we had a lot of ground to cover before we were back here and could start downward. It was becoming clear to me that our pace had to increase if we were going to achieve that before darkness fell. I also knew Mark could easily increase his pace, and that it was me, being under-the-weather, that would have to make the effort to step it up. So with a growing sense of urgency within me, we set out while I felt a small but persistent tug from my better judgment. Oh how feeble better judgement is when pitted against desire! 

Mt Jefferson rises ahead!
I was thinking more and more that we were likely going to hike out in darkness. In and of its self, that is usually not a problem at all. But on this occasion Mark had forgotten his head lamp, and we were facing the undesirable reality of hiking downward on a boulder strewn trail with only one light between us. The possibility of a twisted or broken ankle was decidedly higher under that circumstance. So to speed our pace up, we decided to drop our packs in the vicinity of a gash in the western wall of the Great Gulf called the "Ravine of the Sphinx," and make a dash for the summit of Jefferson. And by "dash" I mean a slightly faster grind for me. So lightened in weight, we reached the final approach to Jefferson's summit, across the sedgy plateau called the "Monticello Lawn." A satisfying feeling of accomplishment lifted my spirits.

Monticello Lawn. With the summit of Mt.Jefferson behind us, we look across the lawn and the Great Gulf to Mt Washington. At the right edge of the image, in the distance, is the summit of Mt Monroe.

The summit of Mt. Jefferson is a small plateau upon with rise three little "peaklets," the tallest of which is the highest point and is thus the true "Summit." The plateau hosts the intersections of several trails marked by trail signs and robust cairns. Reaching the summit, we spent a little time enjoying the incredible views, the feeling of completeness caused by reaching all three peaks, and the wonderfully wild feeling of standing so high above the surrounding lands. A handful of summits are my very favorites in the Whites, and Mt Jefferson had found an unassailable place among those favorites.

Seen from the area of Monticello Lawn, across the Great Gulf, the Carter Range stands to the east. Beyond those mountains lies western Maine.
Mt Washington seen from Jefferson. Monroe stands to the right. The three peaks our hike traversed.
Mt. Adams, another of my favorites, as seen from the summit area of Mt. Jefferson.

Mark snaps a photo on Jefferson's summit.
A venerable cairn just below Jefferson's summit still harbors the corporeal memory of the Fall's first snowfall. Mt Washington in the distance.

Weather-worn trail signs, and robust cairns, mark the trails across the summit plateau. Cairns are more than works of art, they are montane hiker's lighthouses, as-it-were, during poor visibility and foul weather.
 I always have preferred to spend a long time lounging any summit, unless driving off by conditions. If we had arrived 2 or 3 hours sooner, as originally planned, we would have. But the lateness of the day coupled with the distance still to be hiked, roughly 5 miles, had us quickly descending the summit and retracing our steps toward our outlet path, the Jewell Trail.

Mark and I leave Jefferson and begin the hike out.

Mark leaves Monticello Lawn. The lack of a pack is thanks to our "dashing" to the summit, and the long shadows being cast speak to why we were dashing. The peaks running in the middle distance are the southern Presidentials.
It was during the stretch between leaving Jefferson's summit and retrieving our packs that I started expressing my concern to Mark that we would have to share one light on the Jewell Trail, and that I was concerned about someone taking a spill. Mark remarked we should just hike down the Cog Railway since it was out in the open and would have better light for longer, as well as being a pretty straight course back to the car. I was immediately struck with the idea, and decided that we would do just that. It seemed an elegant solution. It wasn't.

The Cog Railway along the ridge ended up being our chosen road. Looked easy really. It wasn't easy. Not in the least easy!

Leaving the Gulfside Trail we head across the slope to hike down along the Cog Railway railbed.
Having committed, we left the trail and cut across the slope to the railbed. We thought there had to be a path alongside the rail for maintenance and/or access. Surely this would a doddle! When we reached the rail we found that no such path existed, and that the side of the railbed was a jumble of large stones. These stones were too large to rock hop without most assuredly taking a nasty injurious misstep or ten, especially in the gathering darkness. We also could now clearly see these forbidding boulders stretch down the entire section of rail visible to us. So there was precious little choice, it was either walk down on the actual rails themselves, or painstakingly retrace our steps all the way to Jewell Trail junction. Since we knew the last train of the day had already run, and slogging back to Jewell held no attraction at all, we chose to walk the rails.

Mark on the rails. This was taken earlier in the hike. And it is on the flat section of the plateau. As we descended the rails, the pitch became very steep and the ties between the rails become heavily smeared with grease and irregularly spaced and angled. It was a most tiring and unpleasant descent.
At first it seemed a good call. We were able, with caution, to descend upright, stepping from cross tie to cross tie. All too soon however we started the steep descent down the section called Jacob's Ladder. Here the rails rose as much as 20 feet on a wooden trestle over the rocky surface and the ties become irregularly spaced, angled, and covered in nasty grease and oil. With darkness growing nearly complete, we were often forced to use both hands and feet to stay on our slippery perch, going feet first like two ungainly four-legged crabs! The awkwardness and strain of the slick descent soon had my leg muscles burning, not to mention my hands being rendered utterly black with oil and grease. As we slowly "crabbed" our way down this now obviously foolish path, I saw clearly reflected in my mind's mirror of misadventure, that the Jewell Trail with one headlamp was looking pretty damn good now!

I could go on and on about how unpleasant and exhausting the hour was that it took us to crawl down the Cog railbed. I won't though. I'd rather not recall the awful specifics of what ended up being a mini Bataan death march. I didn't take any photos at the time to illustrate the folly of it. I should have, but then I just wanted it to end as fast as possible. It did finally, of course. When were nearly down the expected maintenance path did at last appear alongside the rails, and we gratefully climbed off onto terra firma (terra no greasa!) and limped our now filthy selves back to the car. After cleaning up as best we could we headed to dinner and then drove the long miles home.

As the saying goes, we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. I made several mistakes, or poor decisions on this trip. I chose to ignore my illness and push on even though my reduced pace caused us to be way behind schedule. I failed to ensure we had all the gear we should have before we started out, and we ended up being a headlamp short. We survived though, and Mark pointed out that our sketchy descent made a better story to tell friends. And it was more exciting due to the added risk and a small matter of technically being an illegal trespass. Ya, I guess it does make a better story. Especially since no one got hurt, or arrested! Not getting to answer questions from the authorities was most likely due to the fact that it was too dark to see us on the rails. I did lose my favorite jacket though, forgotten somewhere near the Ravine of the Sphinx. I wonder who is wearing it now...

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Return, Part 2: Storm Spirit

"Seems like such a simple thing
To follow one's own dream
But possessions and concession
Are often not what they seem"
From Days That Used To Be - Neil Young

Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Mount Jefferson is the left peak behind, Clay center, and Mount Washington rises out of frame right.
We reached the hut. The hut's season had ended and it was battened against the coming hammer blows of winter. The dark green shutters contrasted with the pale gray of the walls and roof. The walls and roof in turn blended into the grays and browns of the mountains as they awaited the snow and ice to come. The growing season in the alpine zone is brief, and it was well over as Mark and I dropped our packs and settled on the benches along the hut. The air was cool and quickly I felt the sweat on my back turn cold, without the body heat generated by effort it was time to put a jacket on. We would have a brief snack here before continuing on our hike.

As we had approached the hut, I had started to feel the discomfort and malaise return that had been troubling me for weeks. I didn't mention this to my companion at this point as I did not want to make him concerned. I am admittedly one of those guys who tries to grind out pain and illness rather than give in to it. This approach has both pros and cons. It is not the wisest behavior I know, but then I rather doubt anyone who knows me well would expect me to always do the smartest thing. And by "always" I mean "ever." So Mark and I discussed the hut while we ate a quick high calorie bite, and then we shouldered our packs and started the short climb of about a quarter mile of stoney trail to Monroe's summit.

We ascend the short climb to the summit of Mount Monroe. The trail is a bed of placed stones delineated by small cairns.

Looking back at the hut and the two "lakes" from the approach to Monroe's summit. These "lakes" are more accurately called "tarns."
Above the hut in this image, looking to the north, are three peaks of the Presidentials. From right to left are Washington with its masts and buildings, Mount Clay, and Mount Jefferson.

It was not very long before Mark and I reached the flat summit of Mount Monroe. This was a new peak for my companion. For me, it was a return to a summit I had last visited nearly twenty years before. My young friend had not even been born when I last stood on this perch. That day many years ago it was shrouded in a cold October mist, and no views could be had that day. Now the views spread out in all directions, peaks by the scores, valleys, lakes, and towns met our gaze from this lofty place.

Below the summit of Monroe, to the southeast, lies a broad open shoulder. In June this shoulder is festooned with wildflowers. The Crawford Path is easily seen crossing the shoulder.
My companion snaps a few photos from the summit of Monroe.

The southern Presidentials seen from Monroe. At right is Little Monroe, a little left of center barely more than just a high point on the sharp ridge is Franklin, the obvious dome at center is Eisenhower, the peak just to the left of Eisenhower is Pierce, and finally, further left and away is Jackson. The Three peak ridge beyond Eisenhower is, from left to right, Willey, Field, and Tom.

 Our stay on Monroe was brief. We had most of our hike still ahead of us and I was starting to think we might run out of daylight before we ran out of trail. So after soaking in the views and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with every summit, we headed back the way we came. We would backtrack to the hut and then head past the lakes on our way up Washington. The return to the hut was just a matter of minutes, going down hill is almost always faster than going uphill! But not always of course.

The lower "lake." This tarn is only slightly larger than an acre and just over 8 feet deep. In summer some of the many hikers and lodgers at the hut sometimes swim in the crystal clear, cold water.

The lakes were once called the "Blue Ponds" and "Washington's Punchbowl." Whatever name man chooses for them they are beautiful relics of the forces that have sculpted these mountains.

The silhouette of Monroe is a what is known as a "roche moutonee," or "sheepback." This profile was created as the glacial ice of the last ice age ground up the slopes from right to left. The inexorable grinding of the ice created the smooth slope of Monroe's northern face. As the ice crested the peak it ground downwards on the other side, gouging the southeastern face and creating the distinctive peak that remains to this day.

Another look at Monroe from a little further up the trail. You can see why Monroe is so easily recognized from a great distance. Compare this "sheepback" shape to the nearby dome of Eisenhower in the earlier photo. Every mountain has a different face as surely as we do.
They call New Hampshire the "Granite State." There is a very good reason for this, because it largely is. And because of that, one could be easily forgiven for assuming Mount Washington is a massive pile of granite. It isn't. As iconic of the "Granite State" as Mount Washington is as the highest peak in New Hampshire (and the northeast for that matter), it is not granite. The "Rock Pile," as Mount Washington is apply known to those who walk its slopes of riven and chaotic stone, is primarily quartzite and mica schist. The difference means much more to geologists than hikers admittedly, but I find certain pleasant irony in that. Another icon of New Hampshire, perhaps the most iconic of all, the Old Man of the Mountain fell in 2003 and is no more. A deeper irony may be found in the fact that the Old Man was indeed granite, Conway Granite to be specific. We often see mountains as eternal and insuperable. Yet no mountain will survive the passage of time and the forces of nature that act to grind, splinter, and topple. To us, the mountains are eternal, but that is only because we ourselves exist so briefly by comparison.

Mark passes a cairn as he climbs towards the summit of the highest peak in the northeast.

The remnants of the early season snowfall still can be seen among the rocks of the upper cone. The Mount Washington Observatory mast at center was sheathed in ice from the storm that was slowly splintering and falling off in sudden loud rattling showers.
 It would seem a matter of course that the highest summit in the White Mountains would be the mecca of all those who hike these crystal hills. Indeed this would certainly be true, and admittedly it is true for a few, if not for the Cog Railway and the Auto Road. The history of Mount Washington since the arrival of Europeans is one of eco-exploitation, culminating in a summit that now has snack bars, restaurants, a gift shop, and flush toilets. These are hardly the things montane hiking is usually filled with, and not the things most who hike peaks want to find at the apex of their effort. Though these words may lead the esteemed reader to believe I hold some repulsion to this alpine outpost of humanity, I do not. I can not undo the history of this mountain, and I'm not sure I would if I could. I will say however that I am much happier among tumbled boulders and barren stone than asphalt and concrete.

We arrive. Seen from just below the summit, the mast speaks elegantly of the sudden immersion back into humanity that we are about to experience.

The summit of Mount Washington is a New Hampshire State Park. It is also a weather observatory, and in summer a restaurant, train station, and destination of an almost constant stream of cars and buses.

The Cog Railway embarks summit tourists for the return trip down the mountain.

The eastern face of the Mount Washington Observatory building.

The Mount Washington Auto Road and Cog Rail just immediately the summit. Note the cog rail's center strip where the cog engines' gear attaches and holds the engine firmly to the track.
 When Mark and I reached the summit we were met by a crowd of tourists who had arrived in cars and on the Cog Railway. All these people were looking about in wonder at the panoply of the mountains, and frankly many looked a bit lost and out of their comfort zone. It was much cooler on the summit than below, a good 20 to 30 degrees cooler, and it was pretty breezy. Mark and I were dressed properly for the weather and had gear with us for much worse conditions. But many of these tourists were under dressed and looked as if they were feeling the cold. One was even in pajamas. What is it with this new fad to wander about in public in sleepwear? I could hardly imagine a less suitable place to be clad in pajamas than the summit of Mount Washington. One nice lady in the crowd asked me if we had "walked" up. When I answered in the affirmative she remarked how nice it was that we were getting exercise. With jaws clamped firmly shut by discretion, I joined my companion and we went inside to grab lunch at the snack bar. When in Rome...

The turret of the Observatory on the observation deck. Several webcams are located in this structure and captured images can be viewed on-line.
 We ate some of the displayed sandwiches and people-watched while we did so. I was feeling quite poorly at this point, though I still tried to keep this knowledge from my friend. I knew we had a bit of a slog still to do before we could drop our packs for the day. It had always been part of my plan to decide when we reached this point whether or not to include hiking to Mount Jefferson on this trip. This would be determined by our physical condition and time on trail. Well, at this point Mark was doing excellently while I was struggling with feeling unwell. There are many human weaknesses, and I have more than my share of these to be sure. One weakness I often succumb to is to attempt to accomplish more than I should. We've all heard the sage advice, "listen to your body." Well I have ignored what my body has been saying for more than a half century, and this day would be little different.

Once we finished our gas station quality lunch we refilled our water bottles and headed out onto the observation deck. I pointed out some of the surrounding geography and topography to my young friend as we momentarily delayed the last leg of our hike. I looked at Mount Jefferson in the distance. I had never been on that summit, and a mild case of summit fever welled up in me and battled with my better judgment. I was feeling under the weather and we were behind schedule. We should just skip Jefferson and head down. Unbidden, Mark expressed his strong desire to continue on to Jefferson. I felt like hell, weak and tired. I had returned to a mountain I had last climbed almost three decades ago, a mountain that was the first I had ever climbed. Long before Europeans came to this land, this mountain was called "The Storm Spirit" by the early Americans. As I stood here once again, a storm of conflicting feelings churned inside me. On the one hand was conservative caution and a quick descent, and on the other was wistful longing to continue our walk among the clouds to visit a peak I had never been to. Longing quickly won of course, it seems it always does. So Mark and I adjusted our pack's straps and headed for the trail that lead to the next mountain. I was elated to be leaving the madding crowd behind and to feel the broken stone of the "Rock Pile" under my boots again. 

Sun beams stream through rents in the clouds as Mark and I leave the summit of the "Storm Spirit."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Return, Part 1: The Fish Place

You might get lucky some days, not a drop of rain
And you're too long on the town and you leave your trouble on the train
And then there's only doubt until you're on your feet again
There's only up or down
- From "Up or Down" by Patty Griffin -
September 18, 2011. It was looking like a nice day was unfolding, but the morning air was still cold. The western flanks of the Presidential Range loomed against the bright eastern sky. Those slopes facing my friend Mark and I were dull in their own shadow as we drove along the Cog Railway approach road. For Mark it would be the first time climbing the highest peak in New England. For me, it would be a return to a place I had first visited nearly three decades ago. I had not been back to since. In August of 1982 I climbed Mount Washington. It was the first mountain peak I had ever climbed, an experiential first I share in common with many hikers. Then I had been a young man, and alongside me was a pretty girl who would become my wife, mother of my children, and ultimately my ex-wife. I have traveled many paths since that long ago day, some figurative and some literal. Now it was high time to walk a path of return, and once again visit the peak the Native Americans called Agiochook. With me this time round was a fine young man who I am always pleased and proud to hike with. The first Autumn snow had fallen on the high summits of the White Mountains a few days before, and though it had mostly melted or sublimated, the weather on the mountains would be decidedly cooler today than during my last visit, 29 years ago. It was 95 degrees that August day, today it was more than 50 degrees cooler.

The western flanks of Mount Washington as seen from Mount Field in October of 2010. The hike Mark and I would be doing this September day would take us up those western slopes. Mount Field is named after Darby Field, who made the first recorded ascent of Mount Washington in June 1642.

We planned to visit three of the peaks in the Presidential Range on this hike, Mount Monroe, Mount Washington, and Mount Jefferson. The starting point would be the base of the famous Cog Railway in the Bretton Woods Valley. From there we would ascend the lovely Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail in the broad Ammonoosuc Ravine. "Ammonoosuc" is Native American for "Fish Place." Our ascent of the fish place would be the first leg of three on this hike. This would bring us to the Appalchian Mountain Club's Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the saddle between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington. From the hut we would briefly turn south and ascend Mount Monroe's summit before returning to the hut and thence north to the other summits. Once we had visited all three peaks we planned to return to our starting point via the Jewell Trail. That would be th third leg of the adventure. That bit of the plan would ultimately not be executed as expected, but more on that later. First, let's discuss just what the Cog Railway is, and just what "Peppersass" was, shall we? After all, though we didn't know it then, the Cog Railway would play a lead role in the final act of this hike. 

The steam engine called "Peppersass" on display at the base of the Cog Railway. The orange netting behind Peppersass is the blocked off Jewell Trail Cutoff bridge. The bridge was closed after being partially dislodged by the flood waters of Tropical Storm Irene.
In 1857, a self made man named Sylvester Marsh climbed Mt. Washington with his Pastor. The two men were met by terrible weather once above treeline and nearly perished, ultimately crawling and staggering into the early summit house/hotel, called Tip-Top House. As a result of this harrowing experience, Marsh decided to undertake building a safer way to the summit, and designed a cog railway to be built on the western slopes. His plan was considered fanciful (if not insane) and he was given disdainful permission to proceed all the way to "the moon" if he should like! Marsh persevered, and the first railway built to a mountain summit started commercial operation in 1869. The railway climbs approximately 3,600 feet along one of the mountain's western ridges to the 6,288 foot summit. The Ammonoosuc Ravine lies south of this ridge and Burt Ravine lies north. It is the second steepest rack railway in the world. The steepest section of the track, a trestle called "Jacob's Ladder," has a grade of over 37%.

The building of Jacob's Ladder. From a stereograph by the Kilburn Brothers 1868. The New Hampshire Historical Society ( This image does not show the steepest section of the "Ladder", believe me!

Steam engines, specifically designed and built for the purpose, were used in building the Cog Railway. The first of these, called "Hero", was built in 1866. The vertical boiler of its engine bore a remarkable resemblance to the peppersauce bottles of the period. Consequently it wasn't long before "Hero" was replaced with the quaint moniker "Peppersass." When the railway was finally completed, Peppersass was used as an engine to move passenger cars up and down the railway, and it soldiered on in this role for 12 years before being retired. In July of 1929, Peppersass made one last run up the Mount Washington Cog Railway. It had been taken out of retirement and refurbished for one last ceremonial run up the Cog. Six train loads of VIPs and passengers made a procession climbing the Cog, the last being Peppersass which was towing a flatcar for photographers and journalists who would record the event. The original plan was for Peppersass to go no further than the start of Jacob's ladder. Considering the age of Peppersass, and the stresses the extreme steepness of the "Ladder" put on engines, this was a reasonable caution. The ascent went so well however that caution was abandoned and it was decided to continue upwards over the treacherously steep section of the Cog. Peppersass once again conquered the "ladder".

When the descent down the Cog was finally started, six people were riding Peppersass. After about a half mile of progress, and still above Jacob's Ladder, a loud crack was heard from the front of the engine. A tooth had sheared off from one of the gears. This caused the engine to dislodge from the rack, rendering the brakes useless. No longer connected to the central rack, and at the mercy of gravity, the engine immediately started to gain speed down the track. Peppersass quickly accelerated down the track towards the steep Jacob's Ladder. The engineer, with no way to slow the wild descent, yelled for everyone to jump for their lives. Everyone did so, except one man. Those that jumped were saved, including the engineer's son, though most were injured. The one man who did not jump, Daniel Rossiter, the official photographer for the New Hampshire Publicity Bureau and the B&M Railroad, clung with fear to the rocketing engine as it tore down the Ladder. Tragically, Rossiter was thrown to his death at the foot of Jacob's Ladder while the out of control engine careened wildly on. Peppersass's uncontrolled descent lasted nearly a half mile, damaging the structure of the railway as it plummeted, before finally toppling off the track and crashing among the boulders on the ridge. Its broken and scattered remains were ultimately recovered, and Peppersass was rebuilt for display at the railways base, where it remains to this day.

Mark and I took a quick look at Peppersass and the other railway equipment on display before we headed up the ravine trail. Tropical Storm Irene (mentioned in the previous post, "Three Girls, a Lake, and a Storm") had impacted the mountains a few weeks before, and the damage its rain and wind inflicted was soon apparent.

Trailhead sign at the Cog Railway Base.

Heavy rains and strong winds have three immediate effects on mountains, flash floods, rapid erosion, and blowdowns. All three effects were clearly evident on the Ammonoosuc Trail as Mark and I ascended. During Irene, the Ammonnosuc River had swollen into a torrent and had ripped up trees and chewed up its banks as it grew to many times its normal width. The signs of deep water swallowing up the trail were everywhere, with freshly turned earth, mud, gravel, and shattered trees piled well beyond the normal water course. As we walked we took time to stop and marvel at the force of the event and to try and imagine the chaos of the scene during the tempest. The ravine must have been a frightening and awful place to be that tumultuous day.

The Ammonoosuc River headwaters, swollen by the rains of Irene, tore the ravine trail and uprooted thousands of trees.
The woodlands along the river, normally far from the water's edge, is littered with debris from the cataract and the base of multitudinous trees were abraded and shredded by immersion in the flotsam laden flow.
The river, now returned to within its banks, is littered with the broken trees of Irene.
The Ammonoosuc Ravine is a broad ravine created through erosion, not through glacial action, as some of the ravines and cirques of these mountains have been created. When heavy rains fall suddenly in these ravines, the hydraulic forces that carved them are ramped back up and the erosive action is accelerated. Mark and I spent a little time looking at the damage wrought by Irene, but we had a long hike ahead.

The lower stretch of this trail is an easy grade, and we made good time despite the still wet conditions that made much of the trail muddy and slippery. Some sections of the trail were very badly eroded by the waters of Irene and will need some tender loving (read that as hard, back breaking) trail maintenance.

Before long Mark and I came to a beautiful little pool called Gem Pool, formed by a tributary of the Ammonoosuc. Here the trail crosses the brook and turns up the ravine becoming much steeper than here-to-fore.

Gem Pool. This marks the end of the easy trail grade and the start of the steep ascent to the saddle between Washington and Monroe.
The morning was warming up. Mark and I had stripped off outer layers as we worked hard climbing the boulder path. Step up, step up, step up, was the mantra of the climb. Each footfall has to be quickly assessed and chosen among the chaotic geometry of rock, root, and gravel. Quite soon, or so it seemed, we came to a spur trail that went off to the right, or southward, to an over look into a narrow water carved slot in the ravine called the "Gorge." We took the spur to the view point and soaked in the marvelous gorge, carved in the bones of the mountain by millenia of water erosion. The Gorge is just one of so very many exquisite features of these ancient hills.

Falls in the "Gorge"
The Pool in the "Gorge". The characteristic blue-green color of the water is clearly visible here.

Mark takes some photos of the Gorge.
The Gorge view point also offered a view out to the ravine. In this photo is the ravine with the far ridge which forms the north wall of the Ammonoosuc Ravine. The ridge line of that ridge is where the Cog Railway lies. On the far side of the ridge is Burt Ravine. At the center of the photo is a "blowdown" of trees from Tropical Storm Irene.

Here is a zoomed shot of the blowdown in the previous photo. At some point during the passage of the storm, strong winds combined with topographical effects to create a sudden high speed windburst that laid all these trees over in an instant. It would have been a bad place to be at that moment.
After experiencing the marvel, Mark and I returned along the spur path and continued our ascent. As we gained altitude, the deciduous trees, which were primarily birches, soon began to give way to more and more firs, and spruces, with a continued presence of hemlocks. Views to the Bretton Woods Valley below occasionally opened up through the canopy of trees. We knew that much more dramatic views awaited us once we were higher up, but these early views offered us (mostly me me admittedly) an excuse to stop and take a breather. I had been feeling unwell on and off for weeks, and I was starting to feel weary and drained already. I did not mention this at this point to my hiking partner, I didn't want him to be concerned. Instead I just "toughed it out," but it did slow me down a bit as we climbed.

The steep trail ascends toward the saddle between Washington and Monroe.
Mark ascends the only ladder on the trail. Ladders are fairly common on montane trails. They can be formed in wood, stone, iron, or even concrete. They are often much longer than this mini-version Mark is climbing.
With the increasing elevation, the height of the trees became less and less. The upper elevations of the White Mountains are tough places to grow. The winds, ice, and snows of winter are brutal masters. And winter is long up here. Mark and I stopped to explore a beautiful open ledge with water sheeting down over its face. The thinning and failing trees also allowed us better views to the valley below and to Mount Washington towering above us to the northeast.

Mark explores on open ledge as we near the saddle which is the home to the Lakes of the Clouds.
The head of the ledge held a small low cave with water cascading down the wall above. Here Mark takes a closer look.
As we near the top of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail the vistas open. Across the head wall of the ravine lies the ridge that the Cog Railway is built upon. If you enlarge the image you'll notice the train is ascending along the ridgeline, pushing an orange passenger car.
We reached treeline. Above us stood Mount Washington to our left and Mount Monroe to our right. The air was cool and delicious. Small patches of the snow that had fallen days earlier clung to frozen existence in nooks and crevices, or snuggled in shaded patches of the grasses that grow among the rocky mountain terrain. We pushed onward. At last, the largest of the AMC huts, the Lakes of the Clouds, stood starkly gray above us.

As we near the end of the Ammonoosuc Trail, at the saddle where the Lakes lie, Mount Washington still towers high above.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut. The end of the "Ammo" trail is in sight as we approach the saddle between Washington and Monroe.
 The first leg of our hike was all but done. We would soon drop our packs and have a bite to eat on the benches next to the hut. Then it would be time to return to a place I had last stood three decades ago. I felt a thrill at the thought of the long delayed return.