Mount Hight to Androscoggin River
Early Spruce Camp to General Tso Mosquito Camp
AT miles: 13.9
Total miles: 1904.9
Elevation change: 2621ft gain, 6545ft loss
As much as I hate to say it, I’m ready to be finished with all this hard stuff. The Whites have lived up to the hype in both their grandeur and difficulty, no doubt about it, and for that I am grateful. It has been fun, and admittedly frustrating, to get my butt kicked so often and thoroughly by these mountains. The views and awesomely rugged trails have been worth it, true highlights of the AT, but I’m tired. And I think that most of all, I miss the routine and rhythm of the easier days, when I could wake up, eat lunch, and go to bed at the same time everyday with 25-30 miles to my name. Both the strict camping regulations and fickle weather have blown away any semblance of my ‘normal’, and this has been an exciting challenge in a lot of ways. However, when I’m worn down and raw, as the grind of the trail will inevitably make me feel, having a routine to use as a crutch is such a comfort. I’ve started to miss that crutch and I’m ready to turn on cruise control again, if just for a day or two. No camping restrictions, no demanding weather conditions. Heck, the trail can be hard, but I just want to eat lunch at an appropriate time instead of when a break in the rain allows. As I exited the last of the big peaks of the White Mountains today, I still felt far away from the next cruisy day. Maine stalks nearer, yet almost feels further. There’s still a lot of notoriously difficult trail ahead, but I’m one step closer than I was when I woke up this morning. With iffy weather ahead, and a fire closure to navigate, that needs to be enough. One step at a time I move north.
My decision to camp near Mount Hight for the morning views paid off, but just barely. After a restful night of sleep, spent amongst the calm company of the dwarf spruce, I hiked out of camp onto the bare summit slabs amid a swirling cloud just in time for it to part, revealing the sight I had been seeking. The full sweep of the north Presidentials, from Washington to Madison, rose like a jagged row of teeth above a valley of cloud. They gleamed under the bright sun, looking more rugged and intimidating than they had when I was hiking through them. Maybe it was an effect of the cloud sea, which always jacks up the wild spirit of a landscape. Whatever it was, the view left me humbled for having been allowed to walk over and around those peaks with relative ease. What a glorious day it had been.
The cloud swallowed me whole as I followed the trail down to Zeta Pass over steep patches of ice that made me glad that I was still carrying microspikes. But I didn’t put them on. Oh no, that would have taken two minutes, and then another two to take them off again. Instead, I crawled slower than an ant, placing eat step with the precision of a mountain goat on the stones that poked through the slick surface. I lost more time than I would have by just putting on the spikes, but held firm to my pride and put on a good show for no one in particular.
I followed the trail a short distance back up to South Carter Mountain, and then along the ridge towards the rest of the Carter Range. A snow sidewalk covered the trail for most of the forested sections, but it was firm and supportive, just the way I like my matresses. Captured cloud gradually soaked my sleeves from brushing against the spruce needles that walled the narrow trail. Dimpled slabs of stone made up the other portions of the ridge, and I could only guess at the views they afforded until the clouds dipped again near Middle Carter Mountain. A white mist still billowed from the abyss to the east, but Pinkham Notch and the Presidentials where mostly clear to the west. I could follow my ridge back to Carter Dome and Mount Hight, and it seemed that I was patrolling the great border wall between cloud and empty air. Shapless gray splashed, poured, and vanished across the ridge, always resting amongst the trees, always restless.
I was back in the cloud for the trip up and over North Carter. The following descent was harrowing and left my nerves frayed and quads burning. With the damp still holding tight, the steep slabs were slick, and ice draped in the most inconvenient places. At one point I needed to hang from baby trees growing along the trail to swing across and down a tongue of clear ice flanked by featurless stone. I wasn’t the first one to maneuver past the obstacle in that way, I was sure. It was the only way until the ice melted.
I filtered water once the trail mellowed out a little bit, disgruntled and hungry. Then it was an uneventful climb back into the cloud that enveloped Mount Moriah. The sun began to break through and I saw my shadow once more as I followed two day hikers along slick boardwalks across mossy bogs. At first we overshot the spur trail to the summit, but then corrected our mistake, and clambered up the last major summit of The Whites for nobos, or so my guide would have me believe. The blue overhead had me optimistic for another view, so I sat down on the flat rock to eat an early lunch and wait. Shannon and Nathan joined me, and we shared some good words while eating our own snacks. Sure enough, Mount Washington appeared through the clouds, the other presidents just a moment later. Aware that this was likely the last best view of these mighty peaks for me, I gave them a long look, remembering the good ol’ days that we’d spent together.
I left the others to enjoy the fresh summit air, untainted with my hiker musk. The massive descent to the lowlands below was mercifully ice free, although the wooden boardwalks were almost as slick. I balanced through a couple stomach lurchers, but ended up on my butt once, and then fully starfished on my back when my foot slid out on a damp slab. Fortunately, my pack caught me comfortably, and with practice I was sure it would make a great technique for getting down some of the slicker sections.
The trail leveled as the spruce transitioned to glowing beech and maple along the Rattle River. The mosquitoes came out too, but I was feeling too fine and tired to care. For the first time since Vermont it seemed, I walked with haste, without caution for my foot placement. I barely remembered this speed. Near the trailhead, I caught up with a sauntering SpiceRack and Tango who led the rest of the way to Blackbird.
Although it wasn’t even 4pm, it was unclear if I would keep hiking after a quick resupply visit, or stay the night. A two-mile fire closure on the AT was just ahead, and disappointingly, the ATC had not been forthcoming with an alternate despite having over a week to come up with something. Perhaps I was wrong for thinking that finding reroutes was in their purview, but now I needed to figure it out for myself. But such important work could not be done on an empty stomach, so to Gorham we went to rustle up some grub.
I found an easy alternate route using my Gaia app while we munched on yummy bagel sandwiches at a cafe. Then an hour later, we headed to the Chinese buffet, loveably nicknamed “Die-nasty” by a friendly local who stopped to chat us up. I was a little disappointed that I could only handle two plates of glistening food, but was able to walk away under my own power and breathe comfortably. That was a win.
As the sky began to darken and the clouds began to brighten with color, Spice dropped me off back at the trailhead, and I roadwalked the mile to, and across the Androscoggin River. It was nice to settle my heavy belly in the cool evening air. It was even nicer to have a couch on which to rest once I caught up with Blackbird alongside a dirt road. We didn’t need to cook anything, so we brewed some tea and sat swatting mosquitoes well past dark. An episode of Love Is Blind wiped clean the slippery memories of the morning and my concerns for the next stretch of trail. If the hard stuff was going to continue, then at least I could forget about it for a night. What I couldn’t forget was the General Tso tofu, which gurgled, churned, and bloated in the best way. There would be no forgetting the General, just as there would be no forgetting The Whites.