In August 2015, the travel publication Wildsam sent Dean Russell on a two week tour of unknown New England. Dean set out aiming to learn more about New England’s relationship with the elements, from lighthouse operators and lobstermen to fish processors and micro-farmers. He also found time to climb his favorite mountain, find a new favorite one-screen moviehouse and learn more about antiquing than he probably ever cared about knowing. Final tally on trip mileage? A total of 2,499 miles. “I have no idea why I didn’t just drive around the block for the extra mile,” Dean told Wildsam.
“All the country about him seemed a level, except here and there a hill rising above the rest, and far beneath them. He saw to the north, a great water which he judged to be 100 miles broad, but could see no land beyond it.”
– The Journal of John Winthrop, 1642, accounting the first-known ascent of Mount Washington by Darby Field and two Native Americans.
WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST, N.H. – It was 2:37 p.m. when the hail started to fall. I pulled up my hood and listened to the beads smack against the nylon. They jumped off the rocks, piercing the fog. I hoped they wouldn’t get any larger--there was no shelter on the ridge. Worse, with hail, comes lightning. Most hikers know how to manage an electrical storm. Get to an open field and lie down. Watch the thunderhead roll away. Advice that's no good at 6,000 feet. You can't escape the thunderhead if you are walking inside it.
The decision to climb Mount Washington was not a whim. I knew the only real way to understand the White Mountains was to attempt and I looked forward to doing so in August. I summited twice before in the winter, both times having trained. For this third climb in the mountain’s warmest month, I hadn't been out on a hike in months. I was working on hubris alone.
At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest in the northeastern United States. Globally, its size is unremarkable. Mount Everest, by comparison, is almost 5 times its height, at 29,029 feet. Though what it lacks in size, it makes up for in meteorological intensity.
Mount Washington sits at the center of three major storm tracks coming from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Northwest regions. Its summit is about 2,000 feet above treeline, providing no resistance to the wind. Add in the vertical rise of the Whites and the north-south position of its range and these factors make Mount Washington one of just a few places on Earth with the consistent combination of sub-zero temperatures, hurricane-force winds, snow and freezing fog. Up until 2009, it was the site of the world's fastest known windspeed, clocking in at 231 miles per hour.
By June, the still unpredictable conditions are better. Lingering clouds continue to obscure the summit--a disappointment for photographers. But the rime ice has melted and climbers trade in their ice axes for walking sticks. I had on shorts and a light pair of boots. In my pack I stuffed a few candy bars, my camera and a sweatshirt for the top.
There are several routes of varying difficulty. In the winter, I followed the trail to Lion's Head. Steep, but not impossible. It is generally the chosen path for novice mountaineers like myself. This time, with no snow, I decided to hike the lesser-known Huntington Ravine.
East of the summit, the trail gains about 2,000 feet over narrow, exposed ledges. There are several bridgeless river crossings and hundreds of trees, downed by spring avalanches. With some sections at a 70-degree grade, the ravine is not recommended for a wet day.
I checked the forecast. The morning rain blew over and thunderstorms weren't likely until that afternoon. I saddled my pack and, leaving behind the crowds, entered the forest of balsam fir and red pine.
Wet moss covered the rock trail, which turned upward about half a mile into a heavy spring. I stopped when I came to a pile of dead pines, blocking what I believed was the path forward. Two southerners, Patrick and Ian, came up behind me with the same issue. It was a few minutes before they saw the trail markings across the waterway. We jumped rocks to the other side.
The smell of evergreen is not borne out of candles. There is a natural reality where evergreen is ever-present. As the trail grew more difficult, my lungs filled with its toasted perfume. The branches painted my hands with its sweet sap. Sticky, but not unpleasant.
At around 3,000 feet, I got my first glimpse of the range. Rolling peaks of green curved up into the white sky and back down to the blue Saco River. I could see Lion's Head to my right. I turned around to see a break in the clouds, exposing the granite headwall of Huntington. Eight-hundred feet topped by a ridge called Nelson Crag.
For a moment, I could make out the pale silhouette of the summit. Though, as I took out my camera to capture the rare view, dark gray closed the break. I put the camera away. A gust blew. The temperature dropped. And I could hear a horn in the distance.
I kept walking.
(Read Part II)