Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wilderness Isolation

"I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am not afraid of the dark. I do not fear isolation. I do not fear being in the wilderness. I am not without fears, I have more than my share. I am not insane nor is my amygdala damaged. The amygdala is the part of the brain that plays a key role in feeling fear. Well okay, I think it isn't damaged. I mean I haven't had it assessed. Why would I? Okay let's forget the last two assertions and stick with the first three... dark, isolation, wilderness, not afraid, ya. The reason I mention them, or more specifically my lack of fearing them, is that under the August full moon I night hiked into the Presidential Range - Dry River Wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest to climb a peak I had never before visited, Mt. Isolation.

The trailhead sign at 10:45 PM. I start in on an all night hike to Mt. Isolation.

I parked in the Rocky Branch Trail parking area off New Hampshire Route 16. This is just south of Pinkham Notch where the well known Appalachian Mountain Club's Mt. Washington base camp is located. It was 10:30 PM when I pulled in. At that hour only one other car was parked in the dark and lonely lot. I had purchased gas and a six pack of Tuckerman's Pale Ale in North Conway on my way here from my home in Connecticut. As I geared up for the hike I drank one of the ales. I also packed another to drink later in the wilderness. I had never had Tuckerman's before, it is a good ale by the way. My plan was to hike the Rocky Branch Trail, Isolation Trail, and Davis Path to Mt. Isolation where I hoped to watch the Perseid Meteors, the setting of the full moon, and the sunrise. Originally I had planned on hiking in much earlier in the day than this so I could get some sleep on the summit, but with this late start it looked like I would be pulling an all-nighter. I can still do that despite my teen years being very small in the rear-view mirror of my life. I just don't want to do it very often.

A "Widowmaker." That's what they call fallen trees that have hung up and not reached the ground. At some point this one will continue to the ground and land on the trail. Hundreds, if not thousands, of hikers will walk underneath it before then. So I think you can see why they are called "Widowmakers"!

I finished off the ale, locked my car, shouldered my pack, and headed in under the cold light of a full moon and the colder light of my LED headlamp. The trip to Mt. Isolation would be roughly 7.3 miles one way. I had never hiked to this mountain before and I was hoping the trail bed would be a leg friendly smooth surfaced one. At first it was, and I made good time. Early on I passed (nervously) under an impressive "widowmaker." That's a tree that has fallen over the trail but has not fallen all the way to the ground, hanging up on other trees. At some point it will break free and the thousands of pounds of it will crash the rest of the way to the ground. When that happens, if a hiker happens to be passing under it, it might earn the widowmaker name. I can promise you that if a tiny twig snapped while I was walking under that tree, I would have instantly become an Olympic quality sprinter.

The start of the Rocky Branch Trail was an easy path and I made good time climbing the Rocky Branch Ridge.

One of my fellow creatures sharing the night under a beautiful full moon in the wilderness.

Allow me to lay out the landscape for you, albeit briefly. My target summit on this hike was Mount Isolation, a peak that was only named a little more than 120 years ago by William H. Pickering, an early AMC explorer. This bald knob peak lies on the 20 mile long Montalban Ridge that extends south of Mt. Washington in the White Mountain National Forest. It is dwarfed by old Agiocochoock (Mt. Washington's native name) and very few non hikers would ever have heard of it. To the east of the Montalban Ridge lies the Rocky Branch River valley and to the west lies the Dry River valley. Both of these rivers eventually empty in the Saco. As you can imagine by its name, it is one of the more remote White Mountain 4,000 footer peaks, with the shortest round trip from a road being 12.0 miles. That route is over the Glen Boulder Trail on Mt. Washington and is not the easiest approach since it requires climbing much higher than Isolation's summit on the way there and then on the way back again. The easiest path would be the one I was taking, which though nearly 3 miles longer, has much less elevation gain along its course. It is the usual route hikers take to visit this peak. Only Mt. Owl's Head and the Bonds in the Pemigewasset Wilderness are more remote from roadside trailheads.

The boundary sign for the Presidential Range - Dry River Wilderness Area. When I reached this point I still had a long way to go to Mount Isolation.

The first stretch of trail I hiked was the Rocky Branch Trail, which climbs westward over the Rocky Branch Ridge, across the broad ridge top, and then downward into the Rocky Branch River valley. When it reached the Rocky Branch River I would cross the river and take the Isolation Trail northward till it reached the Davis path on Montalban Ridge. There I would turn southward till I reached the short spur trail to Isolation's summit. So you can see this is rather a round-a-bout way to get to Isolation. But there is no straight path to the summit from the east. As I climbed through the birch forest on Rocky Branch Ridge, the trail was fairly easy on the legs. The footing was easy and a decent pace could be managed even under the mantle of darkness. The biggest problem with hiking at night wearing a headlamp is that your only source of light originates very close to your eyes. This means the topography you view has no shadows since they are cast directly away from your eyes. This reduces your depth perception, making rocks and roots appear slightly lower than they actually are. Consequently there tends to be a few more stubbed toes and stumbles than otherwise would occur in daylight. Okay, a lot more.

A Tiger moth caterpillar found along the trail. I believe this may be Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja), an inhabitant of northern latitudes and alpine habitat.

When I reached the top of the Rocky Branch Ridge the trail started to pass through wet rocky meadows with dense grasses and sedges crowding the path. This made footing difficult to see and choose. I was soon stumbling and tripping frequently, which with my backpack's weight throwing me around as well, started to tire my legs and annoy me. It takes a good deal of strength and effort to recover from such mishaps without falling while wearing a pack. So the dark was adding quite a bit to the effort of the hike, and also slowing my progress considerably. My emotional state was still very positive despite this awkward hiking and my lack of sleep, for I was walking under a cloudless full moon in the mountains. It was a world of ethereal silver light, brilliant stars in an indigo sky, and fantasy.

The trail down the ridge into the Rocky Branch Valley alternated between open decent footing and densely vegetated wet rocky areas where I stumbled and frequently muddied my boots and pants. Unfortunately the wet rough stretches were longer and more common than the stretches that were open and leg friendly. Eventually I reached the Rocky Branch River and crossed over the dark water using rocks and boulders that stood above (or just below) the surface. My path to the mountain would cross and recross this river several times, and at periods of high water these crossing can be dangerous or impossible. But now in August, with the river still flowing well but much less than after the snow melt of Spring, they would be easy.

After crossing the Rocky Branch Ridge into the Rocky Branch Valley, I finally cross the river and pick up the Isolation Trail. Time to head northward.

After crossing the Rocky Branch River I turned northward along the Isolation Trail. I passed awkwardly through a very muddy stretch bordered by asters (probably Mountain Aster), Spotted Forget-me-nots, and Turtlehead flowers. It was a literal mud bath with several moments when I thought I would fall. It would have looked comical to anyone watching my gyrations. However there was no one there in the wilderness with me. So I could only laugh at myself.

The trail climbed slowly upwards, crossing and recrossing the river. I frequently encountered American Toads along the path, sometimes having to quickly adjust my steps to avoid stomping one. I was pleased that the white moths I had encountered on my last night hike in the Whites, the ones that kept flying into my headlamp (and eyes), were largely absent here and now. It was mostly just the toads and me among the mud and rocks this August night.

The Isolation Trail climbs northward in the valley of the Rocky Branch River.

An American Toad (Bufo americanus) peeks out from under Bunchberry (Cornus candensis). Bunchberry was omnipresent along the route of my hike and is very common throughout the White Mountains.

I was aware of the time as I hiked. I wanted to reach the open summit area as soon as possible to watch the Perseid Meteor shower which was peaking this night. The sky was cloudless at this time and I could see the full moon and brilliant stars through the forest's thinning canopy. Trying to push on faster only resulted in more stumbling, and more dramatic stumbles at that. I took few breaks along the way, trying to finish the trip to the summit as soon as possible. As the birch woodland began to be more and more mixed with conifers, I knew I was gaining significant elevation. The trail had finally turned away from the river and was now heading westward. The susurrus of the river faded and failed as I pushed higher into the hemlocks, spruces, and firs. At last I reached the junction with the Davis Path. To my right, along the Montalban Ridge, the Davis path ascended Mount Washington. I turned south.

The junction with the Davis Path. The last leg of my hike in was now before me.

Ridge walking is cool. Ridge walking above treeline is even cooler. I was not above treeline however, I was in a wet coniferous forest. But it was ridge walking never-the-less. I was walking along the Montalban Ridge away from Mount Washington and towards Mount Isolation. It felt great to know that the greater bulk of the physical effort and time involved in reaching the peak was done. What didn't feel great was seeing that the sky was no longer free of clouds. Indeed it had been clouding up for the last hour or more. The forecast had been for clear skies. So why were clouds obscuring the heavens above me? Because Washington was making them.

The Davis path along Montalban Ridge. Though appearing deep in a coniferous forest, the path was actually following the spine of the ridge, with the Dry River Valley to my right and the Rocky Branch Valley to my left.

Mountains make their own weather. So while the skies all around were clear, Mount Washington was generating a cloud bank that stretched directly over the Dry River Wilderness as well as the summit of Mount Isolation. The northerly wind was being forced up over the summit of Washington, where it cooled and released moisture, forming a cloud mass on Washington's peak as well as to the south of her peak. Unfortunately for me, that was exactly where I was, hoping for clear skies and falling stars. So as I approached the summit of Isolation, I knew I would not be able to view the Persieds this night. Well at least the limits of the cloud cover did not reach to the horizons. So I would be able to watch the moon set and the sun rise.

I scrambled up the spur path to my 43rd White Mountain 4,000 footer and settled behind the summit cairn to break the wind. It was 4 AM. The sky was mostly clouds but the moon peeked out above the western horizon and the first dull glow of dawnlight could be seen above the Wildcat and Carter ranges to the east. I changed into a dry shirt and added a jacket, gloves, and hat since it was in the 50s with a steady northwesterly breeze. I also cracked open the bottle of ale and settled in. I figured I had about an hour before sunrise. The summit area of Isolation is a bald knob rimmed by firs and spruces. It was not the most comfortable place to stretch out but I was dog tired. I started to feel chilled and relented to the elements, pulling my sleeping bag out of my pack and wearing it like a cloak. Thus I spent the last hour before the dawn.

The moon sets. As dawn crept into the sky, the bulk of Washington's cloud bank shredded and melted away. Ironic timing.

I did manage a few dim Perseid meteor sightings around the edges of the cloud mass before the dawn scrubbed away the darkness. The moon was setting in the west and the eastern horizon was glowing red, fuchsia, purple, orange, and pink. I got to my feet and stared at the unfolding majesty. Here in isolation, on Isolation, alone, I welcomed the glory of the dawn and bid adieu to the sinking disc of the moon. It is at the seam of night and day that the spark of life burns the brightest.

The glory of the dawn returns to the White Mountains.

Standing on Isolation, looking south of east, I watch the the colors of the dawn usher in the Chariot of Apollo.
As the dawnlight chased away the shadows of the night, I watched intently for the moment when the disc of the sun would break above the slopes of the Wildcats and the Carters. And then it was there, suddenly a brilliant point of light on the horizon. Sunrise. The night was over. It had held no sleep for me but this I did not regret. Most people never have the opportunity to see what I saw this morn, the setting of the full moon and the rising of the sun from the summit of a wilderness mountain peak.

The moment of sunrise. Sol returns, peeking over the slopes of the Wildcats and Carters.

I watched the sun quickly rise clear of the horizon. The cloud bank that Washington had generated in the last hours of the night was largely gone but a lenticular-like cloud cap still sat on her summit and stretched away to the southwest. As the increasing light returned the color green to the world around me, I began my morning ritual, making coffee.

Though the bulk of of the clouds had disappeared, the summit of Mount Washington remained enshrouded.

I spent the next hour slowly breakfasting, drinking coffee, enjoying the solitude, and gazing at the world around me. From my perch I could see many peaks, including Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Jackson, Mousilaukee, Lafayette, Carter Dome, Pierce, and many others. I could see the dramatic cirque below Monroe and Washington called Oakes Gulf. The spiking peak of Boot Spur stood out 1,200 feet above me but 800 feet below the summit of Washington. Silhouetted in the distant east I could see some of the mountains of Maine. And all this beauty unfolded to the sound track of Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Juncos, and White-winged Crossbills.

Mount Carrigain as seen from Isolation.

Red Spruce (Picea rubens) on the summit of Isolation (Thank you Janet!). The bald knob of Isolation has enough exposure to create a small sampling of the krummholz and dwarfed spruces, including Black Spruce, that are far more common on the higher summits.

A closer view of a Red Spruce cone. Spruce cones hang downward while Balsam Fir cones point upwards.

Silhouetted against the dawn the many ridges and peaks to the east of Isolation. The conical peak dominating the right side of the view is Kearsarge North, elevation 3,268 feet. The horizon beyond is the state of Maine.

Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). A mat forming shrub of the alpine zone. Called Lingonberry in the Old World. Photographed on the summit of Mount Isolation.

US Geological Survey marker for Mount Isolation's summit. I actually sat on this unknowingly during my vigil for the dawn.

Looking toward Mount Washington. In the foreground the Montalban Ridge climbs towards Boot Spur. Mount Washington's summit is capped in cloud. Mount Monroe dominates the ridge of the southern Presidentials (left of center) with Mount Franklin immediately to its left. Oakes Gulf lies over Montalban Ridge and below Mount Monroe and Washington.

In the center foreground is Mount Jackson, a slight bump in the ridge line. Beyond that, seen as a dark line of peaks, from left to right is Mount Willey, Mount Field, and Mount Tom. On the horizon behind are Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette.

Mount Eisenhower as seen from Mount Isolation.
The sun was well up by the time I decided I was ready to head back out. I was not anywhere near as tired as I feared I might be, having stayed up all night. Still I had a more than 7 mile walk out to do. Footing would be considerably easier in the light of day, at least I hoped so. I was curious if I would encounter anyone on the trail. Isolation is not one of the  peaks that gets a lot of traffic but it was a beautiful Saturday. The weather forecast for the next day was heavy rain, so I thought I might well encounter some fellow hikers today.

The exit from the summit of Mount Isolation.
Much of the return trip seemed interestingly different in daylight. The areas of mud were quite familiar though, regrettably. During the night, under the artificial light of my LED headlamp, I had stepped on many "rocks" in the muddy stretches that had turned out be not rocks at all but illusions caused by the mud and dim light. Now at least I could see what really were rocks and what were not.

A "Bog Bridge" is a log split length-wise and secured over a muddy or environmentally sensitive area. This bog bridge is fairly rotten and in need of replacement, as many were on the stretch of the Davis Path that I walked.

In daylight  Isolation Trail looked much more open and airy than it had seemed at night. Then it felt close and tunnel like.

The trails in the wilderness need upkeep or the forest will reclaim them. This trail is far from a road and sees little traffic relatively speaking. Consequently the trail work is sporadic and sometimes lacking. This stretch is choked with fallen trees that require an axe or a chain saw to clear, but it is a long way to carry one to get there. Those who volunteer for trail maintenance are a generous and hardy lot.

One of the crossings of the Rocky Branch River.

The Rocky Branch River where the Rocky Branch Trail meets the Isolation Trail.
As I hiked out I started to encounter the birds of the northern forest. As summer moves towards Fall, birdsong falters and the woodlands grow less musical. I did encounter a large flock of neotropical migrants, Wood Warblers of a number  of species. These birds form large post-breeding feeding flocks. I spent several minutes looking through the flock to try to identify all the species present, not easy without binoculars. I also heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher call, surprisingly the only individual I encountered in these mountains this Summer.

A gorgeous mushroom along the trail. I am no mycologist, that's for sure, but perhaps one in the Amanita group? If you can offer identification help please post a comment!

The oddly shaped flower, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). This plant is found on stream banks and wet ground. Frankly I'm surprised I didn't find millions of these considering how wet much of my hike was!

A gorgeous Sphinx Moth caterpillar found along the way out. I believe this is Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis).
About halfway out I encountered my first inbound hikers, two women headed for Isolation. We spoke for a short while during which one of them said I must have made an early start to be headed out already. When I told them I had hiked during the night, skipping sleep to try and view the Perseids without success, one of the ladies spoke a very profound truth. She said, "Sometimes you can work really hard for something and it still doesn't work out." Amen to that. At least as far as the Perseids, in every other respect however, my hike had paid handsome and priceless rewards.

The widowmaker near the start of the hike seen in daylight. If anything it looks nastier by day, especially since I could see how little is keeping it from crashing the rest of the way to the ground.

I was nearly out when I encountered a man and his wife doing trail maintenance. We talked for some time as they told me about their efforts to maintain a section of the Rocky Branch Trail and about the path  their lives had taken. They were retired and had always been hikers of these crystal hills. In retirement they chose to move from southern New England to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As the man stated, "We decided to quit driving here every weekend and moved here instead." I deeply respect and appreciate the effort they and others like them make to maintain these trails on a volunteer basis. Hiking these trails is physically demanding. But it is no where near as demanding as maintaining them.

Orange Jewelweed or Spotted-Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis). Hiking the trails of the White Mounatins in Spring and Summer is always rewarded with beautiful blooms.
Saying goodbye to the trail volunteers I finished the last leg out to my car. It was now mid day. I popped open the trunk to stow my gear and get clean dry (not mud encrusted) clothes to change into. It had been a rewarding night hike that added yet another beautiful memory to my life. As I ruminated on this I shifted my gear in the trunk and saw the remaining Tuckerman's Pale Ales. They must be hot by now I thought. Touching one of the bottles I was elated to feel they were still cold from the night in the mountains. With a huge grin I popped one open and pulled a well earned hop laced swig. After all, it was 5 oclock somewhere.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Moonlight and Mad(ison)ness! Part 2

"Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness." - Allen Ginsberg

The Appalachia Trailhead. This trailhead is famous among those who tread the trails of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains.

The coffee was hot. More importantly it held that drug of wakefulness, caffeine. I cravenly welcomed it as the true supplicant I was. The day was getting on after the noon hour and it was getting hot. I was driving along New Hampshire Route 2 towards my next trailhead, Appalachia. It was at Appalachia that my second hike of the day would begin. I had started hiking at 11 PM the night before, and though I had taken a two or three hour nap on the summit of Garfield, I was feeling a bit drained by the 10 miles of that hike and by the lack of sleep. The next hike would also be roughly 10 miles but it would entail a more difficult hike with greater elevation gain than the last one. I knew this could be one of the toughest hiking days I would have in many years. That is not to say that hiking 20 miles in the White Mountains is a superhuman accomplishment, it surely isn't. But is is no stroll in the park either. Still, "Hope springs eternal," or "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Insert the most apropos cliche of your choice here.

When I arrived at the parking area for the Appalachia I saw it was full of cars and spillover parking was lining the road before and after the lot. This is not surprising as this is a very popular trailhead. So much for getting away from the crowds. Many Randolph Mountain Club trails can be accessed from this trailhead, which lies to the north of the northern Presidentials. The lot being still full at this hour, I also parked along the road and started to get my gear in order. The roadside was hot and dusty, and I was soon sweating just standing under the blazing sun. I reorganized my gear to go lighter on this hike. I did not need my sleeping bag, JetBoil Stove, extra food, etc. I just needed emergency gear, lots of water, and a little food. I could also get water along the way, either from the AMC Madison Springs Hut or from natural sources. I did take the rest of the wine with me though.

First decision point. I chose the Airline Trail.
My pack shouldered, it was time to hike some more. I walked along the road as many bikers with numbers pinned on their backs pedaled past. Some organized road race was clearly underway this day. Turning into the parking area I walked passed cars with plates from many nearby states. I saw Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire of course, Quebec, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A popular trailhead indeed. A local police cruiser moved slowly through the parked cars. Unfortunately this lot has seen many vehicle break ins over the years since the evil-doers know the owners are a long way off hiking.

After stopping to quickly photograph the trailhead sign, I entered the verdant and moist woodlands at the feet of the White Mountains once again. At this low elevation, and in the heat of the midday sun, I was greeted by only one singing bird, a Red-eyed Vireo of course. Very shortly into this hike, if you are going to ascend Mt Adams or Mt. Madison, you must choose which trail you will start upwards upon. I should have read the guide book about the nature and lay of the trails prior to this choice but I had not. I simply referred to the map and chose the Airline Trail based on its course across the terrain. It would skirt the eastern rim of the dramatic King Ravine, formed by a spur of Mt. Adams and spur shared by Adams and Madison, once it broke above treeline. I very much wanted to experience the view from the edge of the ravine. But it would prove to be a more taxing climb than I was mentally prepared for in my already fatigued state. However had I made my choice and Airline Trail it was.

A fascinating fungus of the genus Ramaria. I am no expect here. I believe it is referred to as "Coral fungus." If you can add info please post a comment.

The trail started to climb on a gentle slope but I was soon sweating heavily in the cloyingly warm humid air. My mind wandered while my legs mechanically pushed upwards. If you can still daydream while you are hiking than you are not in bad shape. It is when can't think of anything but the physical discomfort afflicting you that you are starting to get burned out. At this point I was thinking about the upper stretches of the hike, the area above treeline. The weather was excellent and the views should be spectacular. This region of the White Mountains is called the northern Presidentials. It consists of an arc of the highest summits in these crystal hills. Starting with Mount Washington as the southern anchor, these peaks fall in a crescent shaped arc with the open end being the Great Gulf, which points roughly northeast. The other peaks working along the arc away from that penultimate peak, are Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Today's target was the terminal peak Madison, elevation just under 5,400 feet. With Jefferson, Madison was one of two peaks along this arc I had never visited.

My wandering mind was slowly recalled to the present as the trail started to increase in steepness and ruggedness. The trail bed was mainly large splintered and tumbled boulders. My already tired legs were starting to burn and I was now using my trekking poles aggressively to transfer as much effort to my arms as I could. Think of climbing a staircase for an hour or two, a staircase where each step varies in height and each tread is broken, angled every which way, and often slippery to boot. It's tough to get old. It's tougher to get old and hike 20 miles in the mountains! The first time I hiked these hills I was 23. That was some 29 years ago...

The Airline Trail gets steeper and rougher. At this point my joie de vivre was starting to have its feelings hurt.
Onward and Upward I plodded. I passed no one and no one passed me. My energy waned as the day grew older and I sweated heavily. I started to wonder if I was up to completing this hike after having already hiked up and down Garfield. I have long known that my expectations of what I can accomplish sometimes exceeds what I should attempt. But how does one know when too much is indeed too much? I looked at the time and decided to set temporal goals. If I did not break above treeline by a certain time I would turn back. This is what I told myself anyway. Sometimes when you perceive the end to a task, the task becomes easier, finite, more "doable." So I had given myself an out, and that made me feel better. Mentally at least.

I had been grinding upwards over the shattered bones of the mountain for almost two hours when I met my first downward bound hiker. A gentleman in his sixties, or maybe even seventies, was slowly clattering down the stony trail. I say "clattering" because the that is exactly the sound trekking pole tips striking stone makes. When he drew nigh we had a brief conversation. After saying hello he asked my intended destination and route. When I told him I was planning on summitting Madison and then hiking back out again he looked a bit dubious. I wondered if I looked that badly thrashed! He passed the judgment that if I set a good pace I might make it before dark. I didn't care if it was dark when I finished or not actually. I just wanted to finish...

Mercifully the trail's angle of ascent moderated and the trail bed become more friendly.
After passing the elder hiker I soon hit a stretch of trail that was less steep and actually had dirt instead of jumbled stone for a bed. This was most welcomed by my burning legs and wounded psyche. I was now also being passed by more and more downward bound hikers. This is a sure sign the day was getting on towards evening and hikers were heading home. The more friendly stretch of trail soon failed however and I was scrambling upwards on boulders once again. As you approach the treeline on the higher peaks you usually encounter USFS signs warning of the dangers of high, exposed elevation in the Whites. Many people have died on these mountains and not many years go by without more fatalities being added to the roll call. More often however, hikers get injured and need rescuing by dedicated Search and Rescue personnel. Fatigue often plays a role in hikers getting disabled and I was mindful of my fatigued state.

Standard USFS warning of the dangers inherent on the high slopes of the White Mountains.
It was when the trees along the trail's route become predominantly spruce and fir that I knew I would soon climb above treeline and be rewarded for my efforts. Words simply cannot convey what it feels like to be on a mountain trail above the line where trees no longer can survive the exposure and harsh winter clime. It is a transcendent feeling, as though you have entered the world of the gods. Why the Greeks chose Mount Olympus as the home for their deities is very clear once you have walked lofty montane slopes yourself.

Finally the trees became stunted riven shadows of their lower elevation kin. This is known as "krummholz," literally "Twisted Bent Wood." As I entered this last band of forest, which was mostly shorter than I was, the panoply of the mountains lay before me. To my right was the headwall of King Ravine, and above that, Mt. Adams. To my left, rising along the mountain spur upon which I was treading, I had my first view of my goal, the summit cone of Mt. Madison.

Amongst the krummholz I get my first view of King Ravine and Mt Adams.

And to my left, my intended target this day, the summit cone of Mt. Madison. Another mile or so of rugged trail still to go before I stand there.
The exhilaration of the moment was mixed with worrisome concern. I still had a rugged mile or more to go to the summit and I was much more fatigued than I expected to be at this point. One should never put oneself in a position to need assistance in the mountains. That is selfish and foolish. At this point in the hike I started to lack the confidence that my legs could carry me safely back out. One slip and I could be rendered disabled and needing rescue from the mountain. With advanced leg fatigue comes greatly enhanced possibility of that slip and disabling. There are rescues needed in these mountains many time each year. I had to make damn sure I would not be one of them.

As I continued along the trail I soaked in the tremendous beauty of King Ravine and the mountains around it. I also constantly worried about my legs. I had been hiking so long and for so many miles that they felt burned up and worryingly unreliable. It was time to take a serious assessment. So I scrambled off trail to the edge of the ravine and sat. While I peered into the ravine I ate a bit and decided to drink the rest of the wine I carried. So much has been made of the restorative power of red wine that I thought, why not try it? Across the ravine, perched on the far edge, I saw Crag Camp, the Randolph Mountain Club cabin. I had visited that storied shelter last year with my young friend Mark.

The headwall of King Ravine below Mt. Adams. Believe it or not there is a trail that ascends that headwall. I have never hiked it myself but, if the gods are willing, I shall one day.
My break lasted about 20 minutes, and after eating, drinking the wine, and contemplating my situation, I decided I would continue upwards. I was feeling better and I knew I could take as long as I wanted to complete the hike. I had my headlamp in my pack and if I needed to I could set an easy pace, with much rest time on my way out. Daylight was not a limiting factor. So I slung my pack and stood up. That was when it hit me. I was a little dehydrated and certainly very tired. My physical state combined with the wine, not very much mind you, maybe a glass and a half, had rendered me a bit drunk! I could not believe it! Well that was an unexpected twist. Between where I was and the AMC Madison Spring Hut lay a fairly level, if rugged, bit of trail. So I drank some water and hiked-under-the-influence. I took my time knowing that I had imbibed so little wine that this should soon pass.

A chunk of quartz gleams in the sunlight. The cairns of Lowes Path, which I hiked last year with a friend, are topped with these white orbs and gleam in poor light like ghostly mountain beacons.

I reach the trail junction that points the way the hut and the summit beyond.

Mt. Madison's summit cone above the Appalachian Mountain Club's Madison Spring Hut.
As I approached the hut I felt the temporary drunkenness fading. Despite this I knew I needed to "sober" up totally before the summit cone. These northern presidential summit cones are simply enormous rock piles and they require sure footing and careful foot placement to traverse safely. The hut offered me a place to take another break and to eat a bit more. The summer staff, known as "croo," also offered me the opportunity to ask whether another trail would be an easier path to take out. There has been an AMC "hut" here since 1888. It was the first high mountain hut for the AMC. The current building is new, rebuilt just last year. The site it occupies is a truly dramatic one, with Mt. Adams and Mt. Madison towering above, the montane tarn called "Star Lake" nearby, and three spectacular features on the slopes below, King Ravine, Great Gulf, and Madison Gulf.

The newly rebuilt Madison Spring Hut. For nearly one and a quarter centuries an AMC hut has been standing on this lofty and glorious perch.
Once at the hut I went inside and sat at one of the long communal tables in the dining area. The croo usually have fresh food and drink available for a small fee to passersby. I bought some fresh lemonade and ate some of my remaining trail food while watching the comings and goings. This break and sustenance finally swept the wine spun cobwebs from my normally addled brain and I was soon ready to carry on. However, before leaving I inquired of the croo whether an easier trail than Airline was to be had for the descent. Without hesitation they said "Valley Way" was much easier to use. This welcomed information did much to buoy my spirits. It was with a feeling of emotional rebirth that I exited the hut and started on my last climb of the trip.

Madison Spring Hut and Mt Adams seen from the base of Mt. Madison's summit cone. The peak in the foreground is known as JQ Adams.

Looking upward along the cairn marked path towards the summit.

The summit cone is a jumble of jagged boulders, some the size of cars. The official trail is marked by cairns which can be a little difficult to spot, a small pile of stones in an enormous pile of stones. I followed these cairns as best I could but mostly I concentrated on picking out my next step. It wasn't long before I was on the summit of Mt. Madison. The views were breathtaking, and they were 360 degrees. To the south stood Mt. Washington, once known as Agiocochook to the Native Americans. Between Madison and Washington lay the deep expanse of the Great Gulf Wilderness. Below the summit, along the arc of the Presidentials, lay the tarn "Star Lake" and Madison Spring Hut, and beyond that rose Mt Adams, the second highest peak in the White Mountains. To the east lay the Carter and Wildcat ranges. Northward lay the Pilot Range and Kilkenny ridge with Mt Cabot and Mt Waumbek. In every direction the eyes were rewarded with the natural splendor of northern New England. To stand on one of the summits of the Presidentials, and to fail to be deeply affected, is to be dead of spirit. 

Wildcat Mountain seen from Madison's summit. The ski trails are clearly visible, as is the base of the Mt.Washington Auto Road. To the left of Wildcat is part of the Carter Range, with Carter Notch between.

Across the Great Gulf is Agiocochook, Mt. Washington. The scar of the auto road can be seen snaking up its flank.

Mt. Adams as seen from Madison. Below is the tarn called "Star Lake". To the right of the tarn, hidden by the boulders, is Madison Spring Hut.

Osgood Ridge on the southeastern spur of Madison. Across Pinkham Notch lies the Carter Range with Moria, Middle Carter, South Carter, and Carter Dome.

To the northeast of Madison is the town of Gorham in the Androscoggin River Valley.

Summit Sign. To the left, in the distance is King Ravine, and beyond, way down in the valley, is New Hampshire Route 2. I still had to hike back down to that road before my boots could come off.

The summit area of Mt. Madison. My 42nd White Mountain 4,000 footer. 6 still to go...
Lingering on summits is what you do. Once you have gained the peak, only lightning will drive you off quickly. I have been on summits with howling winter winds and very little visibility. I have even had my clothing freeze to boulders I leaned against on a winter summit. Still you linger. It is a very spiritual place to be, though I am not religious. So tarry I did. I spent roughly a half hour sitting among the rocks. I did speak with a few fellow hikers and took a few photographs for them, but being on these summits is a very personal experience. With a long mental sigh I finally gathered my gear and started on the final long leg of this hiking trip, the return to the Appalachia parking area and my car.

Heading back. Looking down on Madison Spring Hut and King Ravine beyond.
As I passed the hut several people were stretched out relaxing on an open area just north of the building. Several of them asked me to join them, ladies admittedly. I jokingly asked if they had cold beer and when they said no, I responded that couldn't stop until I reached cold beer. Actually I wasn't really joking. I quickly found the trail junction that lead me to the Valley Way trail and started down. I had a long way to go and my legs were already starting to be sore with lactic acid buildup.

The beginning of Valley Way trail.
The rest of the hike was a long slog down. My body was battered and sore. The trail was distinctly easier than Airline in that it was much more of a continuous slope instead of steep boulder strewn pitches followed by long flat pitches. Those steep boulder pitches can be deadly to tired legs and aching knees. Many an injury has happened on the descent of those steep gnarly boulder pitches. I was very thankful for the respite that was Valley Way.

The friendly road, Valley Way trail, on my way out at days end.
Though the trail was easier on my body, it still seemed overly long in my fatigued state. As I have said before, I always set a very fast pace on the last leg out. However I had hiked so many miles at that point that my feet actually hurt. This was a new experience. My knees hurting? Not unusual. My legs hurting? Ditto. My feet? Rarely. Well they hurt now. And my arms. I had been using the trekking poles so aggressively to lessen the work of my legs that that my triceps were already sore as well. And I'm a weightlifter, so they are use to work. Just not this much work, or for so very long.

Literally the light at the end of the tunnel. The Appalachia parking area lies ahead. The day of hiking, or two days of hiking actually, are done.

When at long, long last I saw the end of my hike, the Appalachia trailhead, I knew I was done. Done as in hiking, and done as in physically spent. When I reached my car and took my boots off I found my feet were red and swollen. I had hiked roughly 20 miles over 20 hours and had ascended two White Mountain summits, and they being far apart from one another. By the time I reached my home in Connecticut, and my head hit the pillow, I would have been awake for nearly 38 of the last 40 hours. Yes that is a bit mad I know. But a bit of madness can sometimes be a very good thing. It had been this time, under the full moon, and on the mountains called Garfield and Madison.