We are treated like celebrities in Hanover. We stand outside of the post office, chatting with Foot Print, who is about to head out of town. La Copa and I are zeroing, so it is unlikely that we’ll bump into him again. A man comes up and says we are the first thru hikers he’s seen this year. La Copa tells him that’s because we are the first northbound thru hikers. He chats for a bit, wanders off, then comes back with cookies for us. As always, the generosity of strangers overwhelms me.
Our zero is filled with a busy schedule of eating, sleeping and shower laundry. With only 450 miles to Katahdin, it’s unlikely we’ll get another chance to relax, unless the snow or weather kicks us out of the mountains. I’m tired and need a rest anyway. La Copa checks the elevation gain for our “easy” first day out of town- we’ll be climbing over 7,000 feet over 22 miles. The AT is about to get a lot more challenging. I research snow levels in the Whites, and it looks like we will have plenty of excitement heading our way, although conditions are much better than I expected. Luckily, it’s not the Sierra or the San Juans we’re heading into.
I sleep poorly in town, despite my exhaustion. I stare at a ceiling blank of stars and miss the wind in the trees. Oh well. I can sleep in 450 miles, right? We get a later start, on trail by 7, and begin our day with it’s intimidating elevation change. It’s not so bad though- the climbs come easy, big enough that you can find a rhythm, but not big enough to tire me. The ticks are out in full force though- as we pass through low spots, I feel them jump from grass blades to my legs. I pull 8 off of me throughout the day. Enough of these swamps. We need to get high.
Smart mountain takes us up, in a climb filled with rebar and scrambles. We climb the firetower and see the Whites laid out before us- Moosilauke, just before, and Franconia ridge behind. There’s a cabin just below the summit where we’d intended to stop, but a shirtless man smelling strongly of beer comes out as we approach. His dogs bark at us. We stop to evaluate and filter water. He offers us beer and gets pushy when La Copa refuses. We don’t even have to talk to make a decision. The next shelter will give us a 29 mile day with almost 9,000 feet of elevation gain, but if we stay here, we might get murdered in our sleep. We show up at the next shelter just as twilight settles in.
I actually manage to sleep in after our late night, waking after 6 to La Copa sitting on the edge of the shelter, swinging his legs as he journals. I make coffee and we head out up Mount Cube. I hurt from the day before, chafe in uncomfortable places and tight muscles, but Cube is beautiful with it’s marble slabs and boulders, so it barely matters. We drop down again, yawning. At lunch, we decide we’re too tired for a big day: we’ll stop at the shelter at the base of Moosilauke for naps and get an early start. La Copa is a little in front, as normal, when we approach the shelter, and I see him walking back from it, shaking his head. There’s five guys there already, drinking beer and getting rowdy. There’s no way we’ll be able to sleep.
How is this happening for the second day in a row? It feels like the trail is forcing us to push on. All we can do is listen. The next place to camp is the next shelter: 7 miles and a 4,800 foot peak is all that stands between us. We start to climb and I find my second wind. Up and up, til the trees grow stunted and snow lingers in their gnarled roots. Then, we break treeline. Ahead, the Whites fill the horizon, ridges and peaks bare and rocky. Behind, the mountains of Vermont are lush and green. I feel something in my soul break free and soar. Nothing makes me feel more alive than standing on top of a mountain, feeling small and insignificant, the world laid out before me.
We snack on the summit, then push the last two miles to the shelter. We finally encounter the famous White Mountain monorail- a line of snow that fills the trail. We quickly learn to ride the ridge of packed snow in the center. Step off just a little and you posthole to your waist. I am not very good at riding the monorail and fall off frequently, to La Copa’s amusement. We finally show up to the shelter as it’s getting dark. The shelter is dirty with trash, but it is empty and has a fantastic view of the Kinsmen, our mountains for the next day.
The trail goes to hell in the morning. We’re up early, congratulating ourselves on a short 18 mile day today, when La Copa gets a message from Footprint. 16 of the 18 miles we are about to do took him 10 hours. Footprint is much faster than me. We are screwed. Our extra 2 miles aren’t easy either. The elevation profile looks like we fall off a cliff, and that is basically what we do, following a waterfall (not a river!) Down to the valley below. There are steps cut into the rock, rebar, ice and snow. It takes us two hours to reach the valley floor, where there’s a box of trail magic. I take a soda and worry: I only ever get trail magic when I really need it. What lies ahead that I need to be extra caffeinated for?
We soon find out. The trail climbs straight up and rides a ridge that doesn’t look bad on the elevation profile. The elevation profile lies. There isn’t an inch of flat ground and there’s some of the worst blow downs I’ve ever seen (and I hiked the CDT through beetle killed Colorado). Almost every up features a rock scramble, and most of the downhill do too. Sometimes the blow downs block the scramble. I contort myself in odd ways to get up- bracing off tree limbs behind me, leaning back and using counter pressure against rocks, and matching feet. Long legged La Copa doesn’t have to get as creative, but it’s still slow going. We don’t average our normal 2mph, and it’s frustrating.
We start the climb up the Kinsmen, two twinned mountain peaks. Surprise, surprise, we scramble, up roots and rocks and wet slabs. Still, this feels like we are making progress. We summit as storm clouds race across the sky and the wind almost knocks me off my feet. We try and run down to the interstate, but we can’t. Everything is a scramble again, and we are frustratingly slow. The rain starts in ernest as we hit Lonesome Lake Lodge and we duck into their woodshed to don rain gear. It’s another long three miles to the interstate and a bonus mile to the parking lot, where we are picked up, soaked and exhausted, by our hostel.
There’s a hiker at the hostel who we know has been doing a good bit of blue and yellow blazing (hitchhiking and taking easier side trails and roads). I sit and fume about this for most of the night. He’s another almost triple crowners (most of the people this early are, a fact that makes “rookie” La Copa proud) and while his shortcuts don’t diminish my accomplishment any, it is so frustrating to watch him sit around drinking beer and boasting to the day hikers filling the hostel, while I limp around, exhausted and starving. Every time he mentions to someone new that he’s an almost triple crowners, La Copa chimes in that I am too, and that makes me feel a little better.
We head out around noon, when the rain is supposed to stop. It’s still drizzling, but we climb up to Franconia ridge anyway. It’s steep and I’m much slower than La Copa, but he waits for me at the top. And then we enter blow down hell. We ride along the ridge, but there are fallen trees every 30 feet or so- frequently multiple trunks are piled on top of each other. It’s frustratingly slow and difficult to navigate. There are a few spots where I wonder if turning around would be smart. We long for the two miles above treeline that we know are coming up.
We hit treeline in a cloud. The wind is howling up here, blowing mist at us, soaking everything. I move as fast as I can, slipping on the wet rocks. We crest Mount Lafayette, and then we’re moving as fast as we can, running for treeline as the wind almost blows me off my feet. We’re almost there when we hit a slab of wet rock. I feel gravity take me and let it, sliding down feet first, unhurt. Behind me, I hear La Copa yell out, so loudly I think he’s broken a leg. He’s pretty beat up, but no broken bones at least. We stop at treeline and try and patch him up, but nothing will stick to his wet hand and I’m getting cold. We need to get to the shelter.
It’s a struggle. At least below treeline we are out of the wind a little more, but we are plagued by blowdowns and ice, covering the trail on the steepest downhill. It’s too steep for microspikes to grip, so we grip the trees along the side of the trail, trying to stick to the rocks. I slide and fall a few times but never far. We reach the shelter just before nightfall, battered, bruised and with holes in everything. We’ve done 11 miles in 7 hours.
It’s not much faster in the morning. The trail follows a waterfall down- this time the trail is the waterfall. We climb back up the steep trail to South Twin, and lunch in the sunshine. Then, the ridge walk of my nightmares. We posthole for two miles, to my upper thigh at times. I fall over and flounder in the soft snow, unable to get back up. The snowy nightmare only ends when we duck above treeline for a second.
I stop for a break and cry a little on the way down. I’m tired, my knees ache and I’m so frustrated with our slow pace. I wonder about taking time off, but the snow isn’t even the main thing slowing us down. The Whites are kicking my butt. We stop at a fancy hut and clean the kitchen in exchange for a warm place to sleep for the night.
In the morning, the trail is easier. It’s the break I need. At the start, this would have been rough trail: roots and rocks and marsh. But I’m doing over 2mph, and after the last few days, this feels like flying. We drop down to a notch, then climb up to Mitzpah hut. We get there before 2, but we have to stop. The next hut is still closed for the winter, and it’s a long way to the shelter after that, over Mount Washington. La Copa is antsy and wants to push on, but I know we’ll be pushing darkness and hiking in poor conditions on a mountain famous for bad weather.
It turns out they are having some sort of training at the hut, so we can’t sleep there. We pitch our tents in the rain. The cloud seeps under my tarp, and in the morning, everything I own is soaked. I head out before La Copa as the mist blows across the stunted pines.
I hike 5 miles in the clouds, buffeted by the wind. I’m wondering if it’s smart to climb Washington in this, when the weather starts to break. The sun comes out above, but the clouds stay below. I’m above the clouds! I yell out in sheer joy and take plenty of photos. Except, it turns out I should have been paying more attention to the trail and less to the views. I follow cairns around the side of Washington, waiting for the trail to go up. Except it doesn’t. I see the other side of the mountain, and I realize something is wrong. I get out Guthooks and see that I am far off trail. I’m maybe 500ft below the summit and a mile or so off course.
Now I have a problem. I can backtrack, but I’ll miss La Copa and never catch him. I can hit the AT and keep going, but then I’d miss Washington. I’m almost to where the trail meets the AT. I can hook around there, southbound to the summit, and then backtrack. I find the AT, climb to the summit and find La Copa there. We take our photos and get ready to tackle the rest of the Presidentials.
Everything else goes without incident. There are a few snowfield to cross, and dark storm clouds build overhead, but we get down below treeline safely and without getting lost.
We slackpack in the morning, over the Wild Cats. We check the elevation change and it looks ferocious. 6000+ ft of gain and over 8,000 of loss. My knees ache just thinking about it, but it’s not so bad. There’s some steep scrambles up and down, but only a little snow and a few bothersome blown downs. The weather and the views are good. And at the end of the day, I’m officially done with the Whites, and less than 10 miles from Maine, my final state.