Brackert Brook to Mount Wolf
Evening Cool Camp to Lumpy Camp
AT miles: 24.7
Total miles: 1817.1
Elevation change: 8353ft gain, 6621ft loss
Welcome to The Whites, my friend. That’s what I told myself today, a mile before Mount Moosilauke’s summit, when the dirt ended and the sky began. At the time, my statement was purely about the views, the abundance of air, the stunted pine, and the reaching the treeline. By the end of the day, they were still the right words, but they cast a different shadow, this one deeper with more hidden meaning. I’m exhausted, salty, hungry, muddy, and damp. I also feel alive. There’s no doubt about it, I am finally in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. With my first 4000ft peak behind me, I can say with confidence that I am going to get my butt kicked, thoroughly and frequently, for the next several days. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
Long before reaching Moosilauke, I woke up after a superb night of sleep, feeling rested and more myself than I had in 24-hours. My normal sharpness felt all the sharper for how dull I was yesterday, and I began the day proactive and excited. After eating as much of my huge bag of trail mix as I could handle, I packed up and put my feet back on the trail, leaving the damp coolness of the brook behind. As expected, the day was already warm, bordering on hot, as I glided downhill on fresh legs. The adolescent beech leaves were a little larger now, and cast dappled shade across the forest floor, but I didn’t think that their effect extended beyond the visual. Still, it was glorious to behold a forest of green after so many days and weeks of brown and gray. The birds were digging it too, and sang up a storm.
Those were the easiest miles of the day by a long shot. On the other side of a paved road, the trail climbed gradually up Ore Hill, which was nothing more than a wide lump covered in the same forest. The sweat dripping into my eyes tempered my appreciation for the finer things now, as I pushed hard to make it to the next privy. After stumbling around the overgrown campsite, I found what I was looking for, then kept moving. The air was still, so it was only by hiking that my sweat would earn me a chill.
I dunked myself in the next creek after a hellacious 100 yards along boiling pavement. Then it was more sweating up Mount Mist, which like Ore Hill, offered nothing but a change from uphill to downhill. The trail was easy enough, but the heat was suffocating, even though I was hydrated and feeling strong. If you believe my tiny thermometer, it was 85F in the shade, too hot for this kind of thing. However, the heat was melting the impending snow up high, so I tried not to complain. Besides, I was feeling a million times better than I had yesterday, which was worth celebrating.
I crossed another road and creek, then again climbed up the other side. This time, I had only to go a couple miles to Jeffers Brook Shelter before stopping for lunch. The complete shade of the towering pine trees was a soothing balm on my baked face, and I sat in total bliss, legs dangling from the shelter platform, hand deep in my trail mix. I was all alone, which was nice, and I let my mind rest along with my legs. The rest of the day was dedicated to the big mountain, so I was grateful for the final moments of peace before The Whites began in earnest.
Refreshed and full, but not too full, I left the small corner of paradise behind to see what I would see, to feel what I would feel, to embrace the struggle. 3500ft to the summit of Moosilauke in just under four miles. Woof. Almost instantly, sweat was pouring down my face, washing my sunscreen into my damp beard. The climb started along a paved road, which was a hot pile of misery. My poles clicked on the black asphalt, my sweat ran. The next portion of trail was not unreasonable, clearly popular and worn, with solid footing and numerous streams running across it. What got me was the heat. My heart rate climbed as I did, and I slowed my pace to keep it from redlining. With nary a breeze, I just couldn’t cool down. My face was drenched, and sweat collected in the crevice between my lips. I pffft it away, only to have it come rushing back. Eventually, I even started mouth breathing like a dog for the evaporative cooling in my throat.
Eventually, and after many short breaks, I reached the glorious shade of evergreens, and the breeze began to blow more liberally as the trail flattened out a little bit. The heat struggle, it seemed, had past. Now it was time for the ice. At around 3800ft, the snow transitioned from small, easily avoidable patches, into trail-width ice. At first it was easy to step from protruding rock to protruding rock, but eventually I felt ridiculous for putting so much effort into avoiding it the slick surface. I was carrying the right tool for the job, after all. Once I doned my microspikes, the going was easy. My first few steps were tentative, but the steel teeth held firm, and I soon kicked up the steep chute with confidence.
Finally, I reached the summit ridge. A sign, along with a cool breeze, welcomed me to the alpine zone, where trees are small, plants are fragile, and camping is restricted. From there, the ice turned into a wide sidewalk of cupped and dirty snow, flanked on each side by dense pine, no more than seven feet tall. Fortunately, even on the warm afternoon, the snow was supportive enough so that I didn’t fall through, and I crunched along the top, just beginning to catching my breath.
I pulled off my spikes when the trees and snow gave way to brown grass, lichen, and rocks. For the first time on the AT, I was above treeline, which, as long as the weather is fine, is my favorite place to be. And it was perfect up there. The wind was cooling, yet not chilly. The sun was intense, yet not hot. I hiked up the final quarter mile, cairn to cairn, in total awe and gratitude. On top of the wide, rocky summit, a sign told me that I was on Mount Moosilauke at 4800ft. Cool. The panoramic vista had no end, and I focused to the northeast, into the heart of The Whites, trying to figure out where I was going. There were too many ridges and mountains to make sense of, so I gave up and just enjoyed the wild peace of a wild summit. My pinwheel whirred with delight. If someone had told me that I could see all the way to Springer in Georgia, I wouldn’t have believed them, but I would have applauded their poetic capture of how this summit felt. Many more summits, and the big one, Katahdin, loomed ahead. What would that feel like?
Cheerfully, I headed down the north side. The snow started up immediately upon re-entering the trees, but an odd narrow sidewalk of icier snow kept me from postholing, mostly. Occasionally, I sunk to my thigh, always grateful that the landing was gentle. Unfortunately, the trail did not exactly loose elevation quickly, so I rode the snow for a while, and I told myself that it was actually easier than hopping over roots and rocks. It may have been, but the uncertain footing was unsettling. Then an ominous trail sign warned of a steep descent next to a waterfall that was not to be taken lightly, especially when it was wet or icy.
Well, today it was both. The cascade thundered with torrential snowmelt and I carefully picked my way down the steep slope next to it. An extremely unfortunate fall and tumble maybe would have ended tragically, but realistically it was pretty safe, or so I told myself. Regardless, it was an intense experience. The trail crossed lesser creeks on dubious snow bridges, and patches of ice bulged across the trail. Still, there were plenty of trees to use as handholds, and the few times that I did slip, nothing came of it except for a wet butt. Eventually, I did put on my spikes again, which made every step more solid and reassuring. At around 2800ft, the snow vanished, making way for steep stone steps and metal handholds. Foetuo, the rock here was dry. The cascade still roared over cliffs and slabs next to me, and I wouldn’t have trusted my shoes near as much on wet stone.
When the trail turned right, out of the gorge and away from the water, I let out a huge sigh. The warm air felt good on my chilled skin, the diminished roar letting my mind loosen its grip. I felt alive, oh so alive, and I laughed, in awe of what the AT had become. What an adventure. Now this was living.
Feeling powerful and riding high, I pushed hard for the final four miles to camp. The trail was steep and challenging, the air hot again, but I was up to it. A stunning sunset faded to night, and I found my camp shortly afterwards in a dense forest of fir. The ground was as lumpy as could be, but my tiredness would take care of that, I told myself. Ravenous, I ate so many things before squirming around to find a comfortable position. There were a few at least, and I chose one, sliding into sleep like the slippery ice of The Whites.