As we carefully navigated down a narrow, craggy path — our bodies sopping wet and exhausted — my friend Davey’s dad asked the two of us what word best described our mountain hiking trip.
“Challenging,” I said.
“Extraordinary,” Davey offered.
But perhaps his dad captured it more eloquently than either of us:
Yes, our trip to New Hampshire last week included climbing thousands of feet of elevation and seeing more breathtaking views than I could count, but also lots and lots of rocks.
The three of us set out on the 14-hour drive to Gorham, N.H. for our four-day hike in part of the White Mountains called the Presidential Range last Saturday. It’s the first time I had ever hiked a mountain range, and the setting was not what I expected.
I didn’t realize just how different the terrain would be on top of mountains, not in terms of difficulty (I expected that), but simply the bizarre scenes of rocky wastelands or the foggy abyss when walking inside a cloud. I underestimated how unique the environment would be up there. Sometimes it felt like a different planet.
For the three nights we spent on the mountains, we stayed at huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club, where they gave us bunks to sleep on and served dinner and breakfast “family style.”
It was only a short hike up to the first hut, Mizpah, which was located below the tree line. We arrived early in the afternoon on the first day and thus had plenty of time before dinner for another trek — up to the top of Mount Jackson.
The most remarkable views came on our second day of hiking. We traveled from Mizpah to Lakes of the Clouds, a hut that sits at the base of Mount Washington, the range’s tallest peak. To reach the hut, we had two summits to climb and a mountain ridge to cross. Most of this route was above the tree line, and it revealed some spectacular views of the valley below. In fact, we had climbed high enough to start looking down at clouds.
After crossing the ridge, we at last climbed to the top of Mount Monroe and then descended from it to reach Lakes of the Clouds. Many say it’s the most popular hut in the range, and I can understand why. Through the dining room windows, we could see a stunning view of the valley below. And during dinner, we looked out as wave after wave of clouds drifted directly toward us.
That evening we watched the sun set over the mountain ridges in the distance and later star gazed into one of the clearest night skies I had seen in years. The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak, too, so we sighted a few falling stars.
After lights out that night, I stayed out a little longer looking at the stars and the quiet valley below. It was absolutely silent. In fact, the three of us remarked several times during the trip just how quiet it is on these mountains, aside from the occasional sound of other hikers and the wind. After reflecting a short while, I finally went inside to attempt sleeping.
The next day, our hike to the top of Mount Washington started with an ominous warning — a sign along the way indicating the trail ahead had “the worst weather in America.” Moreover, we had heard stories of wind speeds in the range of 60 mph and terrible electrical storms at the top.
But we lucked out.
We climbed to the summit in conditions no worse than overcast and winds of only 2 mph. Of course, our view was still obstructed by clouds (they say on a good day you can see Canada from the top, but we had nothing close to that). We posed for some photos at the peak, which stands as the highest in the Northeastern U.S. at 6,288 feet, and began our decent. It was all downhill from there.
The rest of the day presented some of the trip’s toughest hiking. We climbed several peaks, encountered harsh weather and had a long distance to go over rougher-than-usual terrain. It didn’t help that it started pouring right as we began climbing down from a summit. We had to slow down as we crossed boulders that had become wet and slippery. After about 8 hours of hiking, we finally reached Madison Hut. We arrived drenched, tired and just in time for supper.
Essentially all that remained the next day was one more peak then our journey back down into the valley. It was still a tough hike, but as we walked farther down the mountain, the terrain became less rocky and finally started to level out.
In total, we climbed up nine mountains* and walked about 28 miles on rough terrain. Along the way, we saw beautiful vistas, unique landscapes and clear night skies.
But after four days of rocks, it was nice to walk on grass again.
*The summits we reached were Mounts Jackson, Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson and Madison.