Sometimes you settle in for the night and a thought creeps into your mind, a hill-walking thought, a “mountain itch” if you’d like. And once it’s in there you can’t get it out, no matter what plans you had for the next day. You can rest assured that they won’t happen. You just got a calling from the mountains, and that my friends can’t be ignored.
This was the case for me last Sunday, as I watched the game on TV. For some reason, I started dreaming of the high tops, and before I knew it, I was rummaging about my gear, pulling maps out, and checking weather forecasts to see if I could make an adventure for Monday. BINGO! The weather looked splendid, and the image in my head was mighty Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Whites. It was calling me, and I had to go!
After a long drive north, accompanied by my coffee, I was in Pinkham Notch for an early start. I pulled into the AMC center car-park to be greeted by a handful of already empty, parked cars. A testament to the early birds who probably suffered the same itch I did.
With butterflies tingling in my stomach, I strapped on my boots quickly, and rechecked my pack to make sure I had everything I might need for a long day out on the mountains. The excitement of what lay ahead was giving me a heady buzz. I wandered off through the low lying forests that blanket much of the notches, and pressed on up the trail, stopping briefly to admire the peace that surrounded me. The woodlands were quietly readying themselves for the coming of winter. Not a creature made a sound.
Mount Washington and I had met once before, on the westerly slopes. This time the decision was made to take Boott Spur Trail. Not like the “boot” you wear but like Dr. Francis Boott (1792–1863). Boott Spur stands on the shoulder of Mount Washington, above the south side of the headwall of Tuckerman Ravine.
It proved to be a fine path, steep and rocky. Ascending the summit first through woods and scrub, and then in the open above tree line, providing excellent views. It gave me the opportunity to gaze back down to the notch below me. Each time I emerged from the forest to perch on one of those outlooks I would feel the power of the wind. I almost felt like a mouse peeping out from its hidey hole, only to be sent scurrying back to its cover, as the cold wind snapped at my face. I laughed at the thought. Happy to be here in this wild place, I pressed on.
After covering the first couple of miles, it was time to leave the forest and emerge out onto the exposed flanks of the hillside. I already knew the wind was gusting, so I quickly changed out of my sweat soaked top and into a spare, instantly I felt re-energized. This was a trick I had learned from my hiking chum Les and its worth its weight in gold. Feeling warm and dry now, I marched out in to the wind and headed up to the summit of Boott Spur.
I have always had a fond appreciation for the wind. In the past, I have called it pet names. Some names were friendlier than others, but I have always loved to listen to its stories, and smell the fragrances that it carries. Subtle offerings, beckoning you to faraway places.
Today brother wind was in fine form, screaming at me one minute, and then whispering stories the next. I sighed, and settled into my hike, comforted in the knowledge he would be my companion for the rest of the day
For the remainder of the hike up, Boott Spur was giving me tantalizing views, of Mt.Washington. To the north of me, its massive bulk still looked so far away! My mind started to do what I call mountain math. That’s calculating time, distance, and hours of daylight left. This thought process was definitely killing my hiking high! I decided not to look at it anymore until I was on the Davis Path Ridge above me. With my head down, and determined, I moved on higher aiming for Boott Spur itself.
Once on Boott Spur, the views all around opened up, and the splendor of those mountains was revealed. I never grow tired of those views. Mountain views, any mountain view in fact, is awe-inspiring. The vastness of it astounds me. The snow underfoot was thicker now that I was on the ridge-line, and with it brought an element of rhythmic sound to my journey. The crunching noise I heard with every step, through the brilliant white, frozen ground, kept time with my labored breathing and boisterous brother wind. The ultra-cold air filled my lungs, while I wandered on towards the huge pile of rocks that are the summit of Washington itself.
Keeping to the left of the lip of Tuckerman’s Ravine, I arrived at the bottom of the rock pile. There is usually boulder hopping that’s involved here, that can be a bit tricky, but the snow had gone ahead of me and filled the holes on the uneven trails, making for an easier climb. With an appreciative nod to the mountain, I wandered on, and headed higher to the collection of buildings at the summit, known as the weather observatory.
Having an access road to the top of this mountain can at times turn it into a bit of a tourist attraction. Not today. Today was eerie and desolate. As I leisurely walked past the boarded up man-made structures, complete with snow drifts, a feeling of welcoming isolation crept into my bones. I felt like I belonged here, alone on this mountain. My peaceful solitude didn’t last long. A loud crash on my right side startled me as I spun around just just in time to see a sheet of ice, from an antenna tower, smash to the ground. Brother wind was up to his old tricks.
I customarily touched the summit cairn and snapped some pictures, before finding a spot to enjoy my flask of hot tea and a cheese sandwich. I surveyed my lofty “kingdom” and found a sheltered spot with a view. Nearly the very instant I settled down, brother wind decided to take a break as well. He still let out an excited yell occasionally to let me know, he’s there and waiting. I laughed out loud at his daunting behavior and focused on my delicious hot tea.
The bright sun was diminishing faster than I wished. Tinged with sadness to leave this silent beauty, I packed up and headed down from my mountain perch. As reluctant as I was to go, I had no desire to tackle my next trail in fading light.
The sun had already left this corrie, as I retraced my steps down to the top of Tuckerman’s Ravine. Plunging into the cold realm of dark shadows, I knew that my concentration levels would have to be sharp as I started my steep descent on the ice covered trails, into the corrie below.
Picking my way down through the snow and boulders was probably my favorite moment of the hike. With adrenaline pumping, and my ears filled with the music of melting ice and mountain run off, I was faced with a wall of snow that blocks your path to the summit. Staring at it as I made my way down, I swore to myself that I would come back and do battle with this worthy adversary in the future.
Once at the bottom of the ravine, I stopped off at the hermit’s shelter hut and removed my pack to fish out my trusty flask for the last brew of the day. I stood in silence, hot tea in hand, gazing at the huge wall of Tuckerman’s Ravine high above me.
Squinting my eyes, and trying to pick out the trail I had dropped down, I thought to myself, this place is special, a hide away from the hustle of life, deep in the mountains. My day’s solitude was pleasantly interrupted by a young chap who sprang from a shelter door that looked bolted up for the winter. His bright enthusiasm and chirpy questions amused me, and I enjoyed his brief banter before he bid me goodbye, slipping back inside the shelter like a rabbit disappearing down its hole.
Cheered up by my tea, and the brief chat, I strolled off down the trail back towards the Pinkham Notch AMC Center car-park. There were still a few miles to cover, and the sun was setting, so I quickened my pace and cracked on. Stopping only periodically at the magnificent waterfalls that made this last part of my day a delight.
Once back at Pinkham Notch, and my truck, I couldn’t take my eyes of the towering Mount Washington above me. And I couldn’t stop this ear to ear grin, as I basked in the glory of another wonderful day in the White Mountains.