Sunday, August 15, 2010

Walk the Dark Sky

The Great Man is He Who Does Not Lose His Child's-Heart. - Mencius
One dollar. The fee for parking at Lowe's Store and hiking Lowe's path. When Lowe's Path  was first built in the 1870s, a nominal fee was charged for hikers who wanted to use it to ascend Mount Adams in the Presidential range of the White Mountains. Over 130 years later, on June 25th of 2010, I paid a nominal fee so my young friend Mark and I could do just that.

Starting Lowe's Path to Mount Adams
Hiking above treeline in the Presidentials has its risks
Mark and I have had bad luck on weather forecasts on our trips. So far, nearly every trip we planned saw a change in the forecast for the worse at the last minute. This trip had been the same. Our original plan had been to hike up to Gray Knob Cabin and spend the night and then climb Mount Adams and Mount Madison the following day. Now, with the morrow's forecast looking damp and in the clouds, we decided to climb the peaks this afternoon and evening. It would mean Mark's first night hike in the White Mountains.

Mark at the Trail Head
Lowe's Path starts in the Town of Randolph, New Hampshire, which lies on the north side of the Presidentials. Most of the trails leading up these northern slopes are maintained by the venerable and respected Randolph Mountain Club (RMC). This organization also operates and maintains several mountain shelters with colorful and history laden names. These shelters include "The Log Cabin," "The Perch," "Crag Camp," and "Gray Knob." Lowe's Path would take us past two of these, The Log Cabin and Gray Knob. We would be spending the night at Gray Knob after our hike.

The trip up started hot and buggy
It didn't take us long to realize the lower section of Lowe's Path was going to be hot and buggy this day. Everyone has heard of "Black Flies." Here in Connecticut we refer to them as "Gnats." Actually, Black Flies, as I understand it, is an appellation used for a number of Gnat species. Regardless of taxonomy, these little creatures are evil. Okay they're not evil, that's anthropomorphizing I admit. They just seem evil. They plagued Mark and me as we trudged up the lower slopes in the dank still air of a hot June day. I knew once we broke above treeline we would have a deliciously cool breeze, but till then we would be sweating buckets and feeding swarms of small black vampires. This made the lower hike less than usually pleasant, but the expectation of relief was kindled when we reached RMC's Log Cabin. Roughly two and a half miles up from the trailhead, we finally reached the Log Cabin and climbed in for a much anticipated break.

RMC's Log Cabin. Our first milestone on the hike up.
 We dropped our packs and relaxed for a bit. Mark can sleep anywhere, anytime. I envy that. While he power napped, I sat on the porch and ruminated. This was the fourth hike he and I had done together. He had impressed me on each one of those hikes. In some ways he was a better hiker than I was, but I had the advantage of experience and doggedness. It was the same the few times we had gone running together, he was undoubtedly faster than me but I could keep going longer than he could. I thought of these things on the porch of the Log Cabin, and I thought how much this young man had come to mean to me. He had become like a second son to me. His company was as enjoyable to me as the company of my own son, Ian. Well time was passing, it was already almost 5pm and we had quite a lot of hiking still to do, so I rousted Mark and we continued onward and upward.

Our first views on the way up
  Until we finally reached Gray Knob Cabin, our hike had been a long, muggy, buggy, walk upwards. Just before we reached Gray Knob the forest transitioned from mixed hardwood and spruce to mainly spruce. Gray Knob Cabin is situated at treeline on a northwest pointing spur of Mount Adams. It is run by a caretaker and hikers can stay on a first come first served basis. Hikers must bring their own food and should bring a sleeping bag. Pads and sleeping space are provided. Mark and I went inside and met the caretaker before dumping the gear we would not be taking up to the peaks. We also informed the caretaker that we would be hiking into the night and asked if it would be okay to return late. He told us it was fine but to be quiet and respectful of the other hikers who would undoubtedly be asleep then. He also looked a tad concerned about our being on the mountain in the dark. That was understandable, hiking above treeline in the dark does have its risks.

Approaching Gray Knob Cabin. Mount Jefferson is the peak behind Mark.

We stake out our sleeping spots in the loft
Having dropped our sleeping gear and food, we headed out and up. As Lowe's Path ascends the spur above Gray Knob Cabin, the cabin is lost  to view pretty much immediately and you really get the feel of being high and remote. I love that feeling, and starting upwards so late in the day meant we would have the slopes nearly to ourselves, another plus.

Starting up from Gary Knob. The cabin is just below the knob behind Mark.
Across Castle Ravine, Mount Jefferson and Castle Ridge.
The weather forecast for today had been for clear skies with clouds coming in the next day. Well the clouds were already here and looked threatening. I had hoped to hike under a nearly full moon tonight, now I was concerned about rain. Still we were prepared, and I hoped we could make the summit of Adams before dark. My original plan to also hike over to Mount Madison was looking unlikely at this point. I didn't mind getting back to Gray Knob at 10 or 11pm, but 1 or 2 am would be pushing hiking etiquette waaaaay past what the other hikers would think acceptable. So we pushed on for Adams and would have to do Madison on another day.

Approaching gloom. Looking northwest.
I have talked about cairns in previous posts. They are piles of stones used above treeline to mark trails and help hikers avoid getting lost in bad weather with poor visibility. Lowe's Path above treeline is also marked with cairns. The cairns here also had the added feature of large chunks of white quartz used as toppers. These white stones can actually seem to glow at night. This is an amazing thing to see, and very comforting as well since cairns can simply disappear into the gathering darkness of nightfall. Yet again do I tip my hat to the cairn builders.

Mark leans against quartz topped cairn

The trail looking back. The cairns are topped with quartz.
Lowe's Path approaching Mount Adams. Again notice the quartz topped cairns. These would appear to glow during the gloaming.
The light was failing and the clouds threatened. I really wanted to make the summit before darkness robbed Mark and me of the spectacular views afforded by Adam's summit. I don't know if there is a more spectacular view in the White Mountains than the one from that frost riven pinnacle. The trail leading there is an easy one on which to sprain or break an ankle, however, with much rock hopping to do. And the summit cone is a splintered pile of boulders that offer ample opportunity for injury, so haste must be balanced with careful foot placement.

In the distance Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge
Just below the summit cone of Adams,  Lowe's Path crosses the major Presidential trail called Gulfside Trail. This intersection of several trails is famously called "Thunderstorm Junction." It is not called that for no reason, this is one place you do not want to be when lightning sears the heavens. At Thunderstorm Junction, a huge cairn has been built. I call this the "Mother Cairn." We stopped at the junction for a brief rest and snack. We were on the homestretch now and looked to beat nightfall to the summit!

Standing next to the Gulfside Trail sign at Thunderstorm Junction.
Budding Thespian?
Mark and the "Mother Cairn" at Thunderstorm Junction
Break over, we headed for the summit. The summit cone is a pile of massive boulders as I said and Mark and I took slightly different paths to the top. Once there however we both marveled at the views. It was the gloaming, that time that is neither day nor night. But what light remained illuminated the glory of the Whites, particularly Mount Washington across the Great Gulf, Mount Madison to our east, and Mount Jefferson to our southwest. I can not describe the feeling of being on that pinnacle in the gathering darkness. I am not religious, but that experience was spiritual. It seemed as if we stood at the top of the world and looked down on it falling away in all directions. There is a religious society that actually considers Mount Adams to be sacred, and that some sort of divine event happened on its summit. I don't subscribe to that myself, but surely we should treat such special places as cathedrals of our natural world, and preserve them for eternity.

Mark goes for the summit of Adams
On the summit of Mount Adams. Mount Washington stands above the Great Gulf Wilderness and Mount Jefferson lies across Jefferson Ravine.
Mark and me on Adams summit
Mark looks out at Mount Madison. Below in the col is Star Lake and the AMC's Madison Spring Hut. In the distance to the left of Madison lies the town of Gorham.
Mount Washington autoroad snakes upwards on Mount Washington. Center left is Wildcat Mountain with its ski slopes visible in the failing light.
We stayed and soaked in the grandeur as long as I dared. I did not want to descend the summit cone in complete darkness. My promise to Mark's mom to bring him home safely still rang in my head. The velvet silence of night fell as we slowly made our way back to Gray Knob Cabin. I was amazed at how long we could still see as our eyes adjusted to the darkness. It was not until almost 9:30pm that we finally put headlamps on. By the time we reached the cabin it was 10pm. We had eaten a simple dinner on Adams summit but we took time to heat up some dessert before ending our day. We did this outside the cabin to avoid disturbing the hikers who had already called it a night. I had Mark call his mom to tell her we had made it safely down and then he went inside to sleep. I talked to his mom for a while and soaked in the beauty of the night with the mountain above. It had been another great day of hiking with this young friend of mine. We had walked the dark sky. Tomorrow we would go over to RMC's Crag Camp cabin to see it and say hello to the caretaker there who we had met earlier on the trail up from Randolph. After that we would head back home to Connecticut, but not before stopping at Woodstock Station for food and Pemi Pale Ale. Some things are sacred indeed.

We head back down in the dark.
Mount Adams in the night.

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