When I left The Perch on the 3rd morning of my Great Gulf and Northern Presidential loop, the wind had died down but I was still hiking in near white-out conditions with 1 cairn visibility. After quiting at 4pm the previous evening and hiking below treeline to camp out, I hiked back up the Israel Ridge Trail and the Randolph Path to Edmunds Col to resume my route from the previous day. I smiled a rye smile when I passed the “Worst Weather in America” sign, knowing that I was hiking back into the lion’s den. More ass-puckering good fun was in store.
The previous day had already been pretty dicey, with a mist occluded ascent of Mt Washington’s headwall (1600 feet in 0.8 miles) over a very “dynamic avalanche” slide, then up Mt Clay and Mt Jefferson in progressively worsening mist, wind, and rain. I’d known ahead of time that this route would be very strenuous, but doing it in white-out conditions, high winds, and horizontal rain was a bit over the top.
On the other hand, I know these mountains very well and was eager to put my navigation and judgement skills to the test. But I doubt I’d hike a similar route in an area that I knew less intimately. Even then, I had to repeatedly rely on my compass to make sure I was headed in the right direction and on the right bearing because the mist hid all of the visual cues I normally rely on. Good practice for when the shit hits the fan, next time.
The Northern Presidentials – Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Madison, are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest peaks in the White Mountains, after Mt Washington which is number one. They’re connected by the Gulfside Trail which runs continuously above treeline for about 6.5 miles from Mt Washington to Mt Madison, with short spur trails to each of the summits. Calling them trails might be generous, because all of these peaks are crowned by boulder fields and require extra careful footwork to climb. The trails up them are usually just marked by rock piles called cairns, with few blazes or signage.
When planning this trip, I really hadn’t expected such bad weather. The forecast had predicted a 40% chance of afternoon showers after 2pm, but no lightning, with wind speeds of 40 mph gusting to 70 mph, and nighttime temperatures of 40 degrees fahrenheit. Not a great forecast, but something I could hike around if I got an early start each morning.
But by day three, the weather had worsened and it was already raining when I broke camp at 6:30 am. Bailing out did cross my mind, but I was about as far from my car as you can get and had little hope of getting back to it within 24 hours unless I finished my route. I also didn’t want to come back and finish the third day of this trip later in August – I was getting paid, believe it or not, to hike it and log GPS coordinates. I had plenty of time on this final day and reckoned I could finish the route before dark, even if the weather wasn’t that great.
From Edmunds Col, I continued north on the Gulfside Trail up to Adams 5, a sub-peak of Mt Adams on the Trailwrights 72 list. I’ve actually climbed it before (but it didn’t count) so I had a decent idea where it was along the trail and found it without too much trouble in the mist. Although it’s not far from the Gulfside Trail, I couldn’t see the Gulfside from Adams 5 (less that 50 yards away), so I took a backbearing on my compass, just to make sure I could find my way back to the my intended route.
The wind was definitely howling on Adams 5, coming in from the northwest, so I climbed behind one of the rocks on the summit and snapped a photo of myself on the peak. The view from here is usually quite marvelous, but I couldn’t see anything but mist in front of me.
After hiking back to the Gulfside Trail on my backbearing, I continued north to Thunderstorm Junction, a huge cairn and trail junction that is 0.3 miles from the summit of Mt Adams. With limited visibility, I decided to follow Lowes Path to the summit of Adams because I’ve always found it to be the easiest route through the boulder field to the top of the mountain. Mysteriously, the wind abated as I was climbing up Adams, but quickly resumed its fury when I descended.
Once again, I’d set a backbearing on my compass, which is good, because I did get disoriented in the mist. On the return trip, I could have sworn I was hiking the wrong way, but I followed the bearing right back to Thunderstorm Junction. There are a lot of trails that terminate on the summit of Adams, each with their own set of cairns, and I often take the wrong one down even when there’s blue sky out. It was good I was being extra cautious and that I trusted my compass.
Once back at Thunderstorm Junction, I continued north on the Gulfside Trail again, popping in briefly at the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut for some water, before climbing Mount Madison. On the way up, I heard distant thunder and then it started to hail. That’s always a really bad sign in my experience because it means that a storm is fast approaching. I quickened my pace and got over the most exposed part of the summit as soon as possible, before heading down the Osgood Trail.
Lightning and Hail
The Osgood Trail runs from the top of Mt Madison all the way down to the Great Gulf Trail which would take me back to my car. But there’s one particularly dicey 1.2 mile section of the Osgood Trail from the summit of Madison down to treeline that is completely exposed to the elements. The trail along this stretch is a long curving ridge that runs over a half dozen mounded hills that are capped with huge rock cairns. The ridge and the mounds are part of a huge boulder field and careful footwork is required to hike through it.
I was probably 10 minutes into this section when it started to hail again, but this time, I could also see flashes of lightning in the mist. I had no idea where the lightning was striking, but I wasn’t about to temp fate. So I ran down to a short section of krumholz between two of the rocky mounds and threw my backpack into the bushes, before sitting down on the rocky trail and curling up into a tight ball to wait out the storm. The sky got real dark and it started to rain and hail heavily. The wind was howling and I was getting cold sitting on the ground with water flowing all around me.
This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been caught in a hail storm so I knew what to do to minimize my risk. But I was feeling very exposed. I had no idea how long the storm would hang around, and there was no place to go to find safety.
But the storm blew over in about 20 minutes because the wind speeds were so high and I descended the remaining above-treeline section in gradually clearing skies. Within 2 hours I was back at my car and drove back to boston in sunny weather. What a contrast to the weekend!
That was one hell of hike in fairly difficult weather conditions, but I really enjoyed using the skills I have developed as a hiker to finish the entire route. I also did this hike entirely solo and saw surprisingly few people in the mountains last weekend, especially considering the fact that August is usually such acrowded time in the Northern Presidentials. I hate to say it, but if you want some solitude in the high peaks in summer, get good at hiking in lousy, cool weather. You’ll have the place all to yourself.
The total distance of this trip was 22 miles with 9,ooo feet of elevation gain.