I just got back from the hardest hiking I've done in the past year, hiking southbound on the notorious Mahoosuc trail section of the Appalachian Trail, from Grafton Notch in Maine to Gentian Pond in New Hampshire. This section ranks right up there in difficulty with the northern section of the Long Trail in Vermont.
Day to Day Mileage looked like this:
Day 1: Grafton Notch to Old Speck Pond Campsite (5.5 miles)
Day 2: Old Speck Pond Campsite to Carlo Carlo Col Shelter (9 miles)
Day 3: Carlo Col Shelter to Gentian Pond Shelter (5.2 miles) and Austin Brook Trail (3.5 miles)
I got a late start on the first day of this trip, arriving at Gorham, New Hampshire, by about 9:00, after a 3.5 hour drive up from the Boston Area. I parked my car at the Rattle River Trailhead just off Rt 2, outside of Gorham, NH, and waited for my ride up to the trail head in Grafton Notch about 35 miles north.
My friend Marc picked me up about 15 minutes later, but not until after two other vehicles had stopped to offer me rides. The AT Thru-Hikers have started trickling through town and the people of Gorham are very hiker friendly. I got chatting with one couple that stopped and included a fellow who told me that he'd just hiked over Baldplate Mountain from Grafton Notch heading north on the AT. He's been section hiking the AT since 1994 and just has Maine and the Smokies left.
Marc and I had never been to Grafton Notch before and we were very impressed. Old Speck Mountain faces the notch from the south and Baldplate from the north, both rising 3,000 feet to their summits with shear cliffs. The view is very impressive and enhanced by the remoteness of the location. There is nothing else out here and there are very few people around. It's quite a change from the White Mountains to the south which are overrun in summer.
Marc dropped me off at about 10:45 AM and I started climbing Old Speck Mountain (4,190 ft) which ascends over 3,000 feet in 3.5 miles. The weather was very humid and I was soon dripping wet. So much so, that the sweat was pouring from my hat in a steady stream when I bent over from my waist. I kept up a good pace though and reached the peak by about 1:45. From there, I could see bad weather blowing in from the south and I started hearing high altitude thunder in the distance.
From the summit, I had 1.1 miles to get to Old Speck Pond shelter over an exposed ridge. So I made a beeline for it, just before a heavy thunderstorm hit, complete with lightning strikes on the mountain above. Ever since last summer I've grown increasingly cautious about lightning since I was caught in a thunder storm on Breadloaf Mountain while hiking the Long Trail in Vermont. That incident scared the be-jesus out of me.
After the storm passed, I decided to set up my tarp and hang out at the shelter for the rest of the day despite the early hour. If I were to continue, I'd need to hike 5 more miles down the Mahoosuc Arm, through the famous Mahoosuc Notch, and up Fulling Mill Mountain to get to Full Goose Shelter in the remaining 4 hours before dark. This same route took me 7 hours the following morning. Waiting was a good call, seconded by a another heavy shower and lightning strikes to the south where I would have been hiking if I had continued.
The next morning I woke up at 4:30 AM and broke camp at 6:00. Given the pattern of afternoon thunderstorms, my strategy was to hike as many hours in the morning as possible, before daytime convection heated the clouds and caused rain.
After leaving Old Speck Pond, I had to hike for a mile over the exposed Mahoosuc Arm and then descend 1,500 feet in one mile to the east end of the Notch Trail. That was one heck of a descent, down wet, exposed slab that had water streaming over it. But the best was yet to come: hiking through the Mahoosuc Notch.
The Mahoosuc Notch is a narrow ravine situated between the vertical cliffs of Fulling Mill Mountain and the Southern Peak of Mahoosuc Mountain. It is one mile long and filled with car sized boulders that you have to scramble up, over, through, and under. It took me 2 hours to hike this one mile and it required every rock climbing trick I know, wearing a full pack no less. The trail weaves in and out of several caves and I encountered snow and ice along my route in multiple locations: we're talking late June.
Once through the notch, I ascended 1,000 feet up Fulling Mill Mountain and gave myself a long rest at Full Goose Shelter. It is an exceptionally long, 3-sided shelter, probably capable of sleeping 15 or 20 people. I ate a big lunch, filtered some water, and headed south over the north and east peaks of Goose Eye Mountain.
During this entire trip, I was totally unprepared for the amount of exposure I encountered along the Maine section of the Mahoosuc Trail. That coupled with the heavy thunderstorm activity from the previous day had left me feeling a little paranoid. Most of the summits I was traversing were bald and had long boggy, alpine plateaus to cross, despite being under 3500 ft in elevation, which is normally below treeline.
I kept my eye on the weather and the wind the whole time. The weather up here usually comes from the west over Vermont, but I could see and hear a very dark thunderstorm system with heavy rain about 30-40 miles south over Gorham, NH, just north of Mt Madison and Adams in the North Presidentials. The wind felt like it was blowing lightly from the northwest where it was partly sunny with cumulus clouds, a sign of potential rain later in the day. Looking up at the clouds above me, I couldn't detect any discernible movement from the wind, so it was hard to determine whether the wind I was feeling was truly coming from the direction I thought or not. It turned out that it wasn't.
With one eye to the storm down south, I decided to try to reach the east peak of Goose Eye Mountain (above) and get over it into the trees before the storm from the south hit. It would be a close thing and I couldn't stay where I was, on top of the north peak, fully exposed.
So, I took off and race walked across the alpine meadow separating the two peaks, passing through some krumholz along the way and mini cols where I could potentially hide out if lightning hit. When I got to the base of the east peak, the path veered north and circled the summit bald through a series of ladders and boardwalks, taking me out of the direct path of the thunderstorm, which had now grown purple in color and was slowly heading my way. I could see sheets of rain underneath this storm and the squall line approaching me.
I continued my ascent and reached the last of the krumholz below the summit when the whiteout hit. Peaking through the trees, I could see mist drift over the alpine garden separating the north and east peaks which I had traversed a short while back. It started to rain lightly, so I put on my full rain gear, covered my pack and decided to sit it out for a while until the brunt of the storm passed or it became clear that I needed to backtrack to a safer location with taller trees.
In the end, I lucked out. The storm just skirted East and North Goose but hit the Mahoosuc Notch and old Speck Mountain dead on. Leaving from the shelter early turned out to have been a good move. After a 20 minute delay, I sumitted the east peak of Goose, carefully threading my way between the cairns on the top and back down the other side in low visibility, misty conditions. I kept my rain gear on for the rest of the day, and the day after that because it rained nearly continuously from there on out, and I got to practice all of the hypothermia prevention skills I learned last summer on the Long Trail.
Proceeding, I climbed Mt Carlo, purportedly named after a dog, and reach the Carlo Col Shelter by about 6:30 PM. Speedwise, I had walked about 9 miles in just under 11 hours, which gives you some idea about the difficultly of this trail (my normal pace over rough terrain is 1.5 miles per hour.) The shelter was small and crowded so I pitched my tarp on one of the tent platforms, cooked dinner and crashed. Everyone else at the shelter was asleep before I closed my eyes at about 7:30.
Sleeping in a tarp on a platform is non-optimal, but I learned a few tricks this weekend to make the experience better. First off, bring a groundsheet if you don't already use a waterproof bivy. When rain hits platform, it will seep along the boards towards your gear, regardless if the platform is tilted slightly. A groundsheet, like the Gossamer Gear polycro is lightweight and big enough to give you ample protection. Also, leave one of the long edges of your tarp hanging off the side of the platform, so that rain water falls to the ground and not onto the platform itself. You'll stay drier.
The other thing I experienced with using a tarp this weekend was rain splatter. On both nights this weekend, we had torrential night rains. That was what I was told at least; I seemed to have slept right through them. When I woke up each morning, I had some condensation and splatter on the footbox area of my sleeping bag. It seems like there are two options to combat this: either sealing the ends of the tap into a V using velco or investing in a half bivy bag. Stay tuned for more experiments.
More gear notes: the new stay in my Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus performed fantastically, making the pack much easier to carry with a 25 pound load, including food and water. However, I still managed to rip a hole in the packs external mesh, butt sliding down wet slabs. I also holed my Golite Reed Rain pants at the knee which are repairable, but a bummer. These pants were the star of the trip and were invaluable in keeping me warm in the rain.
Sunny, a northbound thru-hiker and I were the first to leave camp the next day at 6:20 AM. My game plan was to hike the next 5 miles over Success Mountain to the Gentian Pond Shelter by noon and then assess what I wanted to do next: hike out on the Austin Brook Trail or continue another 10 miles on the AT to the Androscoggin River.
The weather still sucked and the black flies were out again with a vengance. After hiking up from the shelter and rejoining the AT, I met my first challenge of the day, a rocky scramble up a cliff face. It took me about 5 minutes to figure out if it was even possible to scale this obstacle. My quads were already burning from the previous day's exertions as I scrambled up this face, lifting my pack over my head before climbing up several cracks. My advice is not to hike the Mahoosucs southbound. It's nuts.
Trail conditions had been impacted by the previous nights rain and I found myself walking through down a narrow trail flanked by sopping wet leaves and dwarf pines. Hypothermia was on my mind and I was wearing full rain gear to stay warm. The trail was muddy too, but not quite as muddy as the Long Trail. Still, I managed to sink below my ankles on a few occasions.
I climbed the southern slope of Mt Success easily and carefully walked over it in the mist, following cairns and bog bridges. I'd say that visibility was about 25 yards. A helicopter had obviously dropped piles of bog bridge building supplies on the summit which appeared in the mist as I passed them.
I finally came to the north face of Mt Success: Sunny had warned me about it the previous evening because it descends just under 1,000 feet in a mile. While steep, there were a lot of pine trees to grab onto and I got down the wet slab ok. Throughout this entire trip, I kept thinking about how fun this section would be to do wearing crampons in winter.
After descending Success, it was an easy walk to the Gentian Pond Shelter, and I passed an AMC trail crew that I had heard was working in the area. Word is that someone earmarked a large donation specifically for the Mahoosuc section which has been neglected over the years in favor of trail maintenance in the popular Presidentials to the south.
Judging by their gear, it looked like the trail crew was hiking in for the day instead of camping at Gentian Pond. This isn't as bad as it sounds, since it's just a two mile walk up to the shelter from a nearby road.
After passing the trail crew, I came along a huge amount of fur on the trail, like some animal had died on the spot. Investigating further, I saw a large jaw bone by the trail with it's teeth intact, a sack of feces and other entrails, and then a full rib cage off the trail aways. Judging by the size of the skeleton (above), it looked like a moose had died here.
Shortly afterward, I came to the Gentian Pond Shelter, which is situated in a really nice spot. I had a long break and ate a big lunch. I was pretty beat after just 5 miles and considered my options. In the end, I decided to hike out to Shelburne where my car was parked, down the Austin Brook Trail which meets the AT at the shelter. This turned out to be a very nice trail and I think I'll come back up this way when I hike the last 10 mile section of the Mahoosuc Trail later this year. I have a friend who wants to get into backpacking, and this will be a good one-night section for get her started.
I made good time and soon came to the trail head where the AMC trail maintenance crews had parked their vans. Shortly thereafter, I got a ride, from a guy in a truck who was visiting the area from Pennsylvania, back to my car about 5 miles away. Thank god for trail magic. It was pouring rain (still) and I didn't even have to hitch to get this ride. This guy was just driving up the dirt road I was walking on and offered me a lift. I'd have been creeped out except that his truck was full of hiking and camping gear. Four hours later I was munching on a large pizza at home and hanging my wet gear up to dry.