Ripley Falls Trailhead to Madison Spring Hut
Purple Rain White Mountains Camp to Frozen Nose Camp
AT miles: 18.5
Total miles: 1875.3
Elevation change: 8862ft gain, 5440ft loss
Although the weather forecast did little to inspire my confidence, the traverse of the mighty Presidential Range was as amazing as I could have hoped for. A passing cold front had dusted the highest peaks of New Hampshire with a fresh coat of snow in the night, and left a ferocious gusting of wind in its wake, even in the low forest where SpiceRack and I had spent the night. Uncertain of how far I’d be able to push safely into the epic wind-chill of the 12-mile stretch above treeline between Mount Eisenhower and Mount Madison, I started the day not sure if I would make it six, eleven, or fourteen miles. Or maybe I would get turned around, or need to bail back to the road on a side trail. But with clear skies predicted all day and rain the next, I was determined to give the Presidentials my best effort. Regardless of the outcome, I was sure that the day would leave me exhausted, exhilarated, and humbled. That’s my standard treatment in the high peaks. It’s why I keep coming back for more, and I expected no less from the highest and peakiest of the AT.
A great night of sleep capped off my restful zero day, leaving me refreshed and excited to dive into the next challenge that The Whites had in store for me. I was awake and alert before my early alarm, but not fool enough to truncate my time spent in a cozy bed. I lay awake in the warm embrace of soft things, watching the fast moving clouds change to fast moving clear sky as the day brightened and blued. The beech branches in view bobbed and bounced in the wind.
It was cold in the van when I finally braved into the world beyond the bed, but warmed up quickly after I started the water boiling on the stove. Soon, SpiceRack and I were nursing our mugs of tea while eating underbaked cookies and the leftover spaghetti we’d eaten for dinner. It was tempting to lounge longer once the bowl was empty, but the mountains were calling, and I expected that I would need all the daylight that I could get. I dragged on my nasty hiking clothes and packed my bag while Spice tidied my mess in the kitchen and bagged me up so cookies for the trail. At the usual time, the three of us were hiking down the road through a forest of glowing beech leaves.
We split after a road and river crossing and a hug, Spice and Tango to hike along the water, me to climb into the alpine. The trail wasted no time in guiding me higher, and I used all fours to scramble up slabs and roots when the steep stone stairs petered out. Wind savaged the treetops, first beech then pine, but I was protected, and warm from the effort of the climb. My legs felt rested and strong, ready for a long, hard day.
The grade mellowed out after reaching the long ridge of Mount Webster, and I picked my way over the dry humps of granite between overlooks of bare stone. At each one, the view to the south improved and my face froze a little bit more in the icy blast. Already I was getting pushed off balance by the wind. What would it be like on Mount Washington, the windiest place in the world? I was determined to find out.
On the top of Webster, which was little more than the highest open slab of granite on a gradual ridge, I caught my first glimpse of where I was headed. Washington filled the horizon with a wide, high ridge, gleaming under a fresh coat of snow in the bright sun. I doubted that the bare slopes of the mountain ever looked warm, but it was dressed to appear extra frigid today. As if chilled by the view itself, I threw on my wind jacket after noticing that my arms were cold enough to be losing the smooth control of warm muscles. With a shiver of excited apprehension, I dipped back into the short pine forest, headed for the snow.
The trail to Mizpah Spring Hut was a fun mix of rock slabs and damp boardwalks. There was almost no snow or ice left hiding in the shade, so I felt like I was finally able to make good time through these mountains. Some scrambles required hands and careful foot placement, but on dry rock, there was nothing to fear. The slippery wooden planks across deep puddles of mud were more treacherous. Other than stopping at the open spots to gaze at the slightly closer Mount Washington, I moved efficiently, and didn’t even notice that I had crossed the summit of Mount Jackson.
Before noon and feeling fine, I dropped my pack at a hilariously small red picnic bench and opened the door to Mizpah. The massive hut was out of the wind and bathed in sunshine, so it was actually warmer without than within. The place was deserted except for the maintenance guy/caretaker who was eating sardines straight from the can and nursing a steaming mug of something. After wandering around the empty hallways, I swallowed my pride and asked the guy if I was crazy or stupid for trying to summit Washington today. He couldn’t say for certain, but informed me of the reported conditions from the morning measurements. 70mph winds gusting to 100mph, wind chill to -1F. That seemed crazy and stupid to me, but the forecast was also predicting the wind to drop to 25mph by evening, and the day was warming up. Crazy and stupid as I am, stubborn too, I filled up my water bottles from the spigot and hiked on. I would walk until the wind made it impossible to do so.
I gained confidence in my decision when the trickle of day hikers thickened to about a dozen. Most of them were headed up Eisenhower, none to Washington, but it was comforting to know that there were other people out here. And these people were hiking for fun, not because of a larger obligation to hike through anything like we thru-hikers carry. Not that thru-hiking isn’t fun, just that fun is a frequent bonus rather than the main motivation to live in the woods and hike thousands of miles. Contrary to what many believe, thru-hiking is not always fun, but I was hoping it would be today. So far so good.
The views as I crossed into the alpine world above treeline near Eisenhower were as good as I’ve seen on any AT summit. The bare peaks of Monroe and Washington loomed ahead across a wide ridge of rock and brown grass. Following Washington’s wide shoulder to the right, the snow faded to the dark emerald of conifers, then to the bright green of new spring in the hardwoods. Continuing my twirl, numerous peaks unknown to me rose and swooped under a blanket of the same green mosaic. I thought that I could maybe recognize Franconia ridge in the distance, but it was just the edge. I would need to climb higher to be certain.
The trail was easy to follow cairn to cairn, slab to slab. It was rocky, but well defined and stable. Even the wind wasn’t that violent anymore, and mostly did not knock me sideways, though my pinwheel was almost constantly whirring. I hike with just my thin wind jacket for warmth, which was a perfect compliment to the warm sunshine. On the protected slope of Mount Monroe, I hunkered next to a sunny boulder for a quick lunch break and weather check. With a belly full of jalepeño chips and no change to the forecast, I pushed back out into the wind. Washington was next and I hoped that I was not about to be embarrassed for feeling so confident.
Lake of the Clouds Hut was still shuttered for the season, but I wandered around it anyway, ogling the views and trying to imagine what it would be like to weather a vicious storm under its roof. Awesome, no doubt. When I turned back to the trail, it was just Washington a mile ahead, 1000ft up. The new snow had melted significantly since my first view of the mountain this morning, but long fingers of rime ice still sprouted from the sides of rocks and cairns like thick white whiskers. I churned uphill, amazed by my luck for having the trail all to myself under relatively benign conditions, following a solitary track of footprints in the fresh snow.
A final hop up some steep boulders deposited me next to the massive radio antennas and observation buildings on the summit. The wind all of a sudden doubled in speed, and a large chunk of ice broke free from the tower above. This was not a place to overstay my welcome. I wandered around the buildings, wondering what they were all for, snapped a selfie at the icy summit sign, then gawked at the tremendous panorama from the wide, concrete platform. The rest of the Presidentials struck an intimidating figure ahead of me as they rose and fell in a steep rollercoaster around the Great Gulf, which was a really deep valley with a cool name. Behind me, I could easily make out Franconia Ridge, the Kinsmans, and maybe Moosilauke to the south. Everywhere else, unrecognized hills and summits faded to a distant horizon. Just the hint of high cloud hung in the endless sky. I felt lucky, and oh so grateful to be right where I was.
With plenty of glorious miles to hike ahead of me, I found the AT hidden behind an icy building and carefully made my way down the icy boulders on the north slope. The wind calmed back to a flapping roar and the ice melted away as I dropped lower to the saddle before Mount Clay. On the traverse around the rocky summit, I was filled with Colorado CDT vibes. There had been plenty of this exact same terrain out west. Towering ridgline for days, cairns disappearing into the distance, an icy gale straight from the arctic. Those were cold, hard days, and stacking them back to back to back wore me raw in the best way. The Presidentials were doing the same, and I thanked them for it.
Around the north side of Mount Jefferson, there was a single, sketchy snow traverse that gave me pause. Soft footsteps across a snowfield turned icy in the shade, and looking at the long, steep slide into jagged rocks turned me around. I put on my microspikes and returned, this time confident in each, bighting step.
Fortunately, that was the last of the drama for the day. The steep boulder hop up and over Mount Adams was a final challenging flourish to the most epic of days. Again, like Washington before it, the wind howled on the summit, keeping the ice solid and my hood cracking. The views back to Washington and beyond in the evening light were all the more satisfying for the knowledge that I’d done it all. I hadn’t touched every summit, but I knew the swoop of that long ridge intimately now. I was proud, grateful, and tired.
I found Madison Spring Hut right where I expected it to be, on the col between Mount Adams and Madison. Unfortunately, it was still shuttered for the season, but a flat patch of grass next to the propane storage was all I needed. I set up my tent, mindful of the wind direction, next to a friendly pair of Quebecoise. In this cold, I needed to get under my quilt asap, so I did just that. While my couscous soaked, I ate my final chocolate chip cookie and a handful of Oreos, then some peanut butter. I got up for the final splash of red sunset across the clear horizon, then bundled up again for a deserved night of rest. All the while I repeated in my mind how incredible the day had been. How could so much uncertainty yield such perfection? Somehow it had all worked out. The trail provides. The ancient proverb repeated in my fading consciousness. The trail provides.