Reaching the summit of anything has a certain sense of fulfillment. Doing so after hours/days of hard grueling effort is even more satisfying. But having to pass through a parking lot and throngs of tourists before reaching the “true” summit takes a little away from the experience. Or maybe it was just that we really wanted to catch a ride from someone to get back down the mountain!
I arrived in Boston later than expected on Friday thanks to a delayed United flight. That two and a half hours lost was unfortunate but not a deal breaker, and ultimately probably worked out just fine if not for the better. Once at the airport, my partner picked me up and we began the drive north to New Hampshire. It was an uneventful drive- ultimately 95 North looks the same pretty much anywhere north of North Carolina. That provides a nice sense of familiarity but it makes for a relatively boring drive. But it didn’t take long until we ended up on the backroads of New Hampshire, ultimately reaching the town of Conway , which is the last civilization before getting out to the mountains. It’s a very nice picturesque little town that I’d actually like to return to and visit.
But we didn’t stay long, and passing through was short. We finally reached our destination, the Pinkham Notch visitor center, around 5pm. This is a really nice spot- a fully stocked and well established visitor center and ranger station, with food and supplies and lots of great information about the mountain and the different paths up. We grabbed our reservation for the “camp” site at Hermit Lake, then got our gear set and set off around 5:30 or so.
It was an unwelcome surprise to find the trail starts out rocky almost immediately, it brought back less fortunate memories of the rocks up and down on Katahdin from last year. But it’s the same mountain range (Appalachian) and New Hampshire is the Granite State, so I guess the supreme rockiness shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. None the less, after a day of flying and then a long drive, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant hike in.
Our plan was to make the initial 2.8 mile hike to the camp site, which is situated more or less right at the base of the mountain and the congruence of the two main paths up (Tuckerman Ravine and Lion’s Head). It was at this point, on this initial hike in, that a reoccurring theme began: poor signage. There was a near total lack of either signs or trail markers to indicate that you were on the right trail, or even a trail. There were no signs with distance markers (which is a huge help when trying to compute pace and timing. This was key, since given the late hour we were somewhat racing against the sunset). Our exhaustion from the travel just to get up there (to NH) exacerbated the feelings, but still, I expected signs and markers at least akin to what we saw on Katahdin last year. Sadly, no.
We ended up making a little less than really good time, a bit over 2 hours to make the ranger station at Hermit Lake.
Once at the camping area, first step was to check in at the Ranger Station. The nice Ranger there gave us a quick overview of our sleeping options: ranging from a cabin to leanto to tent stand. We elected for the leanto. She (the ranger) also explained the bear situation to us. If I remember correctly, “we haven’t seen any bears or had any issues, yet.” Thanks, super reassuring! She also quickly quashed our route plans. Up until this point, we planned to take the Tuckerman path up, and then likely down as well. Once we told her this, she explained that some ice was still melting on Tuckerman and that it had been closed a lot over the last few weeks, and that it might be closed tomorrow. She said that we could take our chances, but that it was our call. Eh, we’ll discuss this in a little bit. First step, find the leanto.
We wandered our way around a bit and found our domicile for the evening, about as crude as one may expect. We got our gear set down, but decided to get our water filled. Luckily there was a potable well nearby, so we hoofed it over to fill up. We passed a beautiful lake on our way over.
On our way back to the leanto, we take a second to look up and discuss our plan for the morning. If Tuckerman was closed (or even may be closed), our best option was the Lions Head. This seems to be known as the harder of the summer routes up, and was even recommended to us as our best option as a warm up to Shuksan in August. So Lion’s Head it would be. This was our view of the Lion’s Head and our planned ascent in the morning.
Back to the leanto, we were quickly losing sunlight. It was a good time to get dinner going. My climbing partner (far more experienced in the skills of camping than I am) handles the food (thankfully!). This time we had a asian noodle/spice/beef concoction, which was actually quite ingenious. All the ingredients were divided up into two big ziplock bags. We then boiled water on a camp stove, and then poured the water and the contents of the bag into respective bowls. We then let it “cook” for a few minutes in the bowl. And then, voila! Excellent camp fare.
We pretty much lost sunlight as we finished dinner (and were heating with headlamps on towards the end), so once done we got our sleeping arrangements set. Since we had the lean to, we were covered in case of rain and raised off the ground (so a tad cleaner and easier). Thus we just setup sleeping pads and bags adjacent in the leanto. Easy. Got into our respective bags, talked for a bit…and then, sleep? No. Bugs. Flying bugs of all types attacking us and buzzing around us in our bags. It was more annoying than anything else; at least twice I had fallen asleep only to be awoken by the sound of kamikaze buzzing sounds past my ears. After an hour or so of this, we both awoke and decided to setup the tent, inside the leanto. Once in the tent, we were able to actually sleep minus the threat of bugs. Awesome. Sleep came relatively fast.
Last year on Katahdin we got up for an alpine (or so) start at about 4:30am. This time around we felt a bit more confident in our abilities, so we got some extra sleep…going till about 6. So with a few extra hours of sleep, we set off around 6:30 towards Lion’s Head.
It was nearly immediately obvious why Lion’s Head was both harder and a better warm up for Shuksan- it’s a much steeper path. In fact, we were on our hands and knees probably 50% of the way up, contorting through small passes and up and over large boulders. The steepest sections were actually below the tree line, so while with peeks through the trees you certainly got a look at your altitude, there wasn’t much visual exposure along the path. This probably made it easier.
You get above tree line about three quarters of the way up Lion’s Head. The above photo was our first look at the crux, which is a rocky “summit” that takes a tad bit of skill to get over and has a fair amount of exposure. This point is roughly 5,000 feet, only 1200 feet or so to go till the summit. This is looking west/northwest, and the summit is essentially behind and to the right of this point.
The crux is, well, the crux, so it’s arguably the hardest point on the path up. We had long ditched (stowed) our trekking poles by this point in favor of hands on the rock. For this particular section, it was pretty key to ensure solid footing and good balance.
Luckily this section is short. We took a few minutes to look and plan the best route up and through it, but actually getting on and past it took maybe 10 minutes (and at least three minutes of that was waiting since it was one person at a time). Once above it, we were treated with level ground (for a moment) and some stellar views.
As mentioned before, the lack of sings was confusing and often aggravating. But there were only a few spots on the Lion’s Head proper where we had an issue, where it wasn’t entirely obvious where the path was. Luckily when the option is either “take your pack off and use hands to get over and around this boulder” to the left or “we need a rope for this one” on the right, we were confident picking the left. But once on the top of Lion’s head, the scenery changes. Here, you’re presented a relatively even trail to take, essentially walking along a slight ridge on Lion’s Head. There are enough cairns to get a sense of direction at first.
We knew from our research and discussions that eventually we would have to rejoin the Tuckerman trail- Lion’s Head doesn’t go all the way to the summit. The question we faced was when the trails would rejoin. Literally, no signs. Nothing. We didn’t have a map, and this was absolutely our fault (and pathetic that we both forgot to get one). So, with no signs and no map, we had to take some guesses. Nothing was going to lead us to danger, it was just one one path was going to be shorter (and more direct to Tuckerman and the summit) than the other. Unfortunately for us, as we later learned, we took the longer path. We broke from the Lion’s Head and rejoined Tuckerman earlier than we should have, and basically gave ourselves an extra hour or so of climbing. Even worse, we probably lost a few hundred feet (up around 5,200ft or so) in the mistake. Oh well!
We strolled along the ridge for a while before hitting Tuckerman. From here, at least the sings got both better and more consistent. And as is often the case, it was the last 800 feet or so that was the worst part of the ascent. Up until this point (especially below the tree line) we often had shade from the sun and a nice breeze to keep us cool. It definitely wasn’t a hot day by any means, but at that level of physical exertion you still get very hot very fast. But once we hit this last portion of the path to the summit, things changed fast. First, the breeze stopped, and any pretense of fluffy clouds to periodically block the sun had disappeared. We were tired, and the sun beating down on us didn’t make it any better. Plus, it was nothing more than climbing up a giant talus field, with rocks that were just barely too small to use your hands. So it was trekking poles to help with balance. It wasn’t particularly hard from a skills perspective (not at all really), just more annoying than anything else.
But this was the final section before the top of the mountain. There is actually a weather station at the top, and we could see the giant antenna and instrument mast from time to time. At a certain point, we could hear and even see cars. We knew we were close. Finally, we rose above the final ridge and we were there (around 11:30am). A parking lot. With cars, and people waddling around. The summit of Mt. Washington has a giant visitors center with a cafeteria and gift shops and train and weather station…basically a giant tourist trap. For $40 per person (!!!!) you can drive up a road on the side of the mountain. It takes 45 minutes of driving to get to the top. So of course we (and other climbers) are stumbling, dirty and smelly and hungry, right next to the folks in loafers and polos getting out of their cars. A group even remarked to us how impressed they were that we “climbed all the way up there.” Given their slow pace, I wasn’t sure they were going to make it out of the parking lot.
There were literally hundreds of people around, making hard to sit and relax.
We eventually found a nice area to sit and relax for a few minutes and chomp down on a great lunch: summer sausage and cheese, triscuts, gummy bears, and water.
The true summit (sign and all) was atop a small stone rise in the middle. Sadly there was a line 50 people deep to get a picture at the sign (note, none of the people were climbers or hikers, just tourists). Given our schedule we didn’t elect to wait in line. But you can see the summit sign in this photo:
Reveling in our success and good time to the summit, we topped off our water and ate some more food. After a quick look around we donned our packs and began the dreaded descent. Given the talus fields coming up, we knew that going down them would be painful. In my experience thus far, going down is faster but more painful. Having the knowledge that the car (and a shower) are at the end provide a steady stream of motivation, but the descent is hell on my toes/feet/knees. Through the talus field we actually made good time. But we quickly hit a decision point.
We had the option to descend down Lion’s Head. The advantage would be that we already came up that route, so nothing would be a surprise to us. The downside was that it was really steep coming up, and going down it seemed somewhat daunting. So, based on our own (faulty) logic and the (bad) advice from a fellow climber, we decided to take Tuckerman all the way down. We hadn’t seen the route on the way up, so we didn’t really know what to expect.
We cut back onto the path for a while, a section that we had already been on (once the Lion’s Head connected with it on the ascent). Soon, though, we past a juncture that was obviously new territory. First problem, the crowds. A lot of people were coming up, a bunch coming down. We couldn’t go more than a few minutes without having to stop and step over, or wait for someone else to get out of our way. It was all cordial and nice, but it slowed us down. The constant flow of people continued for a while, until a point (probably a few thousand feet down) where the crowds thinned a bit. This coincided with where Tuckerman get’s hard, the headwall.
The headwall on Tuckerman would have been hard coming up, but it was significantly harder coming down. We had lost a lot of altitude already, so it wasn’t an issue of exposure. Instead it was just really steep rock that you’re trying to go down carefully. A misstep would easily land you a broken bone if not worse. We ran into a few folks here and there around this section, and one or two groups leapfrogged us. Perhaps the biggest issue was the water: much of this section was wet, and there were waterways coming down the mountain that ran over and around this whole section of the trail.
Once past the steep section of the headwall it was more rocks to down climb, mostly just killer on the knees and toes and such. This section seemed like it went forever before we finally returned to Hermit Lake. We wandered our way back to our leanto. We actually left some gear here (mostly just the food and sleeping backs and tent), hence why we had to stop. It gave us a chance to fill up on water at the pump and chow down on some more snacks. Not wanting to waste too much time, we packed everything back up (and carved some initials on the wood frame of the leanto), and went on our way.
From this point on we were hiking out the same rocky trail we hiked in on. Of course, at this point we were tired (and really tired of rocky down climbing). It really seemed to never end. We tried to keep up conversation to keep our minds off the pain in our legs and feet, but that quickly faded as we just stared at the ground and tried to make consistent forward progress (which we did). The lack of signage was still super frustrating in this section, as we had little idea how much further we had to go.
The sound of running water at one point clued us into one landmark we knew from the way up: a giant waterfall that we just passed by.
Once we passed the waterfall we knew we had little more to go. Finally, the sight of people in the distance walking around in flip flops clued us in to the fact that we were near the Pinkham Notch parking lot.
At last we were there. We limped our way to the car and quickly removed our packs and got our boots off. Jumped into the car, turned on the AC and the radio, and made our way out. We were back at the car at 4:50pm- our goal was 5, so at least there’s that.
This was an all around success. First off, we made the summit in good time. Second, my new sleeping bag proved to work out very well (smaller, warm, and easier and better compressed for packing). Third, I personally felt that my physical performance on this one was better than our warm up last year on Katahdin (I just felt like I needed fewer breaks and was less miserable). And fourth, my new trekking poles were absolutely stellar. We had no problems (minus route finding issues) and beautiful weather. We literally couldn’t have asked for much more.
We returned to Boston and cleaned up, and quickly found ourselves at a local bar drinking good drinks and eating awesome fried food. The trip had two practical purposes, both of which I think were fulfilled. First off, as a warm up for Shuksan next month. We carried heavy packs all the way to the summit and back (unnecessarily, it was just for the practice) and reminded our bodies what the physical demands and pain will be like. Second, as a testing ground for our new gear, which was all good. It was an awesome climb.