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.

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