This is a report of the third and final day of my Zeta Pass to Mt Washington section hike of the Appalachian Trail. Here are the write-ups and photos from day 1 and day 2. This was probably one of the best backpacking trips of my life.
I wanted to get an early start on Sunday, so I set my alarm for 4:30 AM, and caught this glorious view of the sun rising over the northern shoulder of Mt. Madison. I had camped the previous evening at the Valley Way Tent Site, about 1,000 feet below the summit.
I had a quick breakfast and a large mug of very strong tea called Morning Thunder. They've changed the packaging recently, but it used to come in a box with galloping American Buffaloes on it.. I drank some extra water to prehydrate and broke camp at 6:30 AM.
It took me about 30 minutes to climb the 500 ft back up to Madison Hut and treeline. I popped into the hut to check on the latest weather forecast, which all of the huts post for passing hikers. The hut had just opened for the season on Wednesday and they were about 3/4 full.
They were just about to serve a breakfast of hot oatmeal and pancakes when I arrived. I was met by one of the caretakers who said that the weather forecast was due in about 30 seconds and that he'd be posting it shortly. So I sat down alone at one of the tables and checked out the guests, who were checking me out. I think they kept their distance because I was smelling a little ripe.
I waited about 15 minutes and it was clear that the guy in charge of the weather forecast was more interested in eating his oatmeal than in listening to the hut radio. It was overcast outside and I really did want a weather update before hiking over Mt Adams, Jefferson and up Washington in full exposure. There were some weather instruments on the wall that I checked out while waiting. The barometric pressure showed that a change in the weather was in progress tending toward rain, but not strongly. The wind speed instrument was pegged at 30 mph, which on hindsight is a stupid maximum value to have on a ridge where wind speeds regularly exceed 100 mph. The highest wind speed ever recorded in the world is 232 mph, recorded on the summit on Mt Washington, just a few miles away
At about 7:15 AM, the hut caretaker still hadn't gotten up to check the radio for the forecast which should have come through 15 minutes earlier. So, I read the prior day's forecast and noticed that it was for Friday and not Saturday. This pissed me off. They were not keeping accurate, up to date records for hikers.
Not keeping your weather information up to date in the Northern Presidentials is irresponsible. Maybe I shouldn't blame the entire Appalachian Mountain Club for the oversights of a few individuals, but I have to say, the caretakers were a lot more interested in getting breakfast out in time for their hut guests than they were on catching the daily forecast which is only broadcast once a day on the radio.
It was a very different story at the Harvard Cabin, where I stayed during the winter, before my summit attempt of Mt Washington in January. That caretaker, I think his name was Frank, writes out the weather forecast, verbatim, every morning, as it is read over the radio.The Mt. Washington observatory people might think he is a bit cranky when he complains that they read the forecast on the radio too quickly, but he should be held as the model for how to provide accurate weather forecasts at the AMC huts.
When I realized that the Madison Hut weather forecast was over a full day out of date, I figured that this was a lost cause and that I could predict my own weather more accurately by climbing Mt Adams and checking out the cloud cover myself. The wind was clearly blowing from the west. I shouldered my pack and left. No one seemed to care.
After leaving the hut, I made my way to the Gulfside trail head. The Gulfside Trail, which is part of the AT, starts at the Madison Hut and runs to Mt. Washington. It threads the principal cols but avoids the summits of the Northern Peaks. It's altitude ranges from 4,800 ft to 6,288 ft at the summit of Mt. Washington. So, once you reach the trail, there are really only relatively minor elevation changes required to complete the traverse from Madison to Washington, unless you want to bag some of the summits on side trails along the way, which I did. My thinking was that I may never be here again, so I had to climb them while I had the chance.
The trail is fairly well marked with rock cairns, each topped with a yellow painted rock. The normal white blazes of the Appalachian Trail are largely absent up here. The White Mountain Guide says "the trail is continuously exposed to the weather and dangerously high winds and low temperatures can occur with little warning at any time during the year. "
From the Madison Hut, I climbed the Gulfside for 0.4 miles before reaching the Airline Trail, which took me another 0.6 miles to the summit of Mt Adams at 5,774 ft. I reached the summit at about 8:10 AM and think I was the first climber of the day to reach the top. On the weather front, the overcast was clearing and it looked like we'd have a window of partly sunny weather for a few hours, at least.
The wind however was a different matter. It was gusting pretty hard at the summit of Mt Adams. I wasn't in danger of getting blown off the peak but the wind was pushy. I was wearing a Goretex shell with the hood up, a fleece hat, gloves, and long pants to protect against wind chill and I had another heavier insulation layer packed if I needed it. I decided to continue towards Washington, but remained cognizant of my bail-out options if the weather took a turn for the worst.
On the way down from Mt Adams, I met another hiker named Frank who was just starting his final ascent of Adams at Thunderstorm Junction. He had spend the night down at Crag Camp which is precariously situated over Kings Ravine, on the northern shoulder of Mt Adams running down to Rt 2. Here's a photo (above) of him starting the final ascent up Mt Adams. You need to really watch your footing up here.
I continued along the Gulfside Trail from Thunderstorm Junction toward Mt Jefferson, which is a huge flattish mountain, very different in its profile from Adam's pointed peak (above). The trail led me past the the junction with the Israel Ridge Trail to Edmands col which is 1.3 miles southwest from Adams at the base of Mt Jefferson. There is a bronze plaque bolted into the mountain there dedicated to J Edmands who named and paved the Gulfside Trail using fitted stones starting in 1892 until his death in 1910. Very little remains of the paving, except a section on the west side of Mt Washington between the Cog Railway and Crawford Path which I walked on a bit later in the day.
After reaching Edmands, I started climbing again, crossing a short stretch of trail still covered in snow. The summit of Jefferson is a relatively easy climb up to 5,712 ft when compared to Mt Adams, and has a far less distinct summit. After a mile long ascent, I walked down the south face over a grassy plateau called Monticello Lawn, named after Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop house, a famous American architectural landmark located in Charlottesville, Virginia.
From here it's another 2.5 miles to the summit of Mt Washington, bypassing another rocky summit called Mt Clay to the west. After 2 miles, you come to a tourist attraction called the Cog railway which climbs up Mt Washington over railroad track laid on a wooden trestle support system that bisects the trail. At that point the Appalachian Trail climbs parallel to the railway to the summit of Washington. Except, I only learned that this morning (the following Wednesday), and continued following the Gulfside cairns under the trestle and around the base of Washington for another 0.9 miles at an elevation of 5,500 ft.
On hindsight, missing the AT was stupid. I had left a map with the proper detail at home, because I prefer another map of the Whites that is not AT specific. I also hadn't really planned to come this way in advance, although on hindsight I really should have. Lesson learned from a safety perspective.
Wearing my AT hat, there is a lot of flexibility in hiking through this entire region for AT thru-hikers. The AT maps publish alternate and bad weather routes which you can take if you want or need to bypass most of the Southern and Northern Presidentials. That would be a shame in my opinion, but it is an understandable safety allowance. Let's just say that I don't feel too bad in taking the route I took since there is a lot of leeway afforded to hikers in this region. The point is to enjoy yourself with a built-in safety margin.
It was no big deal walking the extra distance on the Gulfside trail around Washington. There was a moment on Sunday when I contemplated trying to bag a few of the Southern Presidentials south of Washington or at least getting to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. I wanted to do this to make it easier to continue my traverse at a future date without having to backtrack to the base of Washington to resume following the AT.
Anyway, I reacquired the AT at the junction of Gulfside and the Crawford Path at 1:30 PM and climbed 0.6 miles to the summit of Mt Washington. This climb which was extremely anti-climactic after my winter summit attempt last January in full winter gear. The Crawford Path climbs about 600 feet to the summit over a series of switchbacks which were easy to climb in good weather. In poor weather, this trail is known to be potentially deadly and lives have been lost here.
I summited Washington at about 2:00 PM. The summit has been commercialized and is hideous. I was running low on food and I was hungry so I stopped in at the snack bar and ate two pieces of pizza and drank a large gatorade. At this point my AT section hike was officially over, but I still had to descend safely and get back to my car. This involved a 4 mile descent down the Lions Head Trail, which is the winter route most climbers use. The other major route through Tuckerman's Ravine is still closed at this time of season due to snow avalanche and flash flood danger.
I had some reservations descending Lion's Head, even though I'd been down this way before in the winter. It's fully exposed for another 2 miles down to treeline, and from there the trail is very steep and rocky until you get to height of land. On top of that, the weather was starting to turn and I caught a picture of these clouds stacking up like pancakes at 3:30 PM while I was descending. It started raining at about 5:10.
The descent down the Lion's Head trail was difficult and slow. It is much easier to walk on above treeline in the winter. Below treeline is a different matter. There is a section from treeline to the junction with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail which is psycho-vertical in the winter, and I almost broke my neck on it coming down last winter, doing an ice axe self-rescue while wearing crampons. That's a dangerous move and a great way to break your legs if you screw up.
However, when I got to the really tricky part, there was a huge new ladder there. I was greatly relieved and continued to high tail it down the trail. By the time I made it to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail it was about 4:00 PM and I had 2 more miles to hike down to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on a trail that is full of rocks.
The weather however was starting to deteriorate and rain was looking imminent. I wasn't worried about walking in the rain. My big concern was how I would get back to my car, which was 6 miles north along Rt 16 from Pinkham. I was going to have to hitchhike to get back and rain would make that difficult and dangerous.
About 3/4 of the way down the trail, I broke a BPL carbon fiber walking pole. Bummer. It broke fairly low down on the pole near the tip, so I continued using it anyway. I've since ordered another pair, but the price has gone up again to $80-something for members. This is the fourth pole I've broken since April, from 3 different manufacturers.
It started to drizzle at 5:10 PM when I was only 10 minutes from the Pinkam Notch Visitor Center parking lot and Rt 16. I made it to the highway 10 minutes later and the rain started to pick up, but I got really lucky and got a ride from the 3rd car to pass me. He took me right to my car and I was driving home, grooving to the sound of Clapton and Steve Winwood Live From Madison Square Garden (2009) by 5:30 PM.