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...