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Mount Washington and the Northern Presidential Loop

Martin Approaching Mt Jefferson on the Appalachian Trail, New Hampshire
Martin Approaching Mt Jefferson on the Appalachian Trail, New Hampshire

My friend Martin from England is a serious hiker and backpacker with many big UK walks under his belt. Having just finished hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness together (which as epic), I decided that I’d take him for a jaunt up Mt Washington (6288′) and around the Northern Presidentials (Jefferson, Adams and Mount Madison.) What better way to introduce my friend to the sublime wonders of the White Mountains?

We started our hike at the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center at the base of Mt Washington (6288′) and climbed to the summit via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. This trail is a steep sustained climb, requiring 4,250 feet of ascent in just 4.2 miles. Lots of people give up before they make it to the top or simply run out of time before they need to turn around. We made it up in about 4 hours, which is my benchmark speed for above treeline hiking in the Whites – 1 mile per hour.

The final approach up Mount Washington
The final approach up Mount Washington

Tuckerman Ravine in summer is a very different sight than in winter, when it is known for its deadly avalanche activity. It is still as steep as all get-out, but instead of avalanches, waterfalls and magnificent cascades flow down its craggy face. It’s a worthwhile destination   by itself with awesome views and abundant water if you have a filter with you.

While there are many routes to climb Washington, this was actually my first time up the entire Tuckerman Ravine Trail.  Some hikers climb Mount Washington the same way week after week, but I prefer the endless variety of peaks available in the Whites and only climb Washington a few times per year. Although it’s the highest peak in the Whites, it’s a bit of a tourist circus, except in winter when the auto road and train to the top are shut down for the season. Just not my cup of tea, I guess.

Martin at the Washington Summit Sign in the Mist
Martin at the Washington Summit Sign in the Mist

When we arrived at the summit of Washington it was covered in mist and we were running a bit behind schedule on our day’s trip plan, with a significant distance to cover before nightfall. I’d been delayed for 2 hours helping with a rescue effort we ran across on our climb, so we rushed over the summit, refilling our water bottles at the summit cafeteria and snapping a photo of Martin at the summit sign.

It’s just a well, I suppose. The day we climbed the peak, the summit was packed with motorcycle riders, the usual inter-generational mob, and screaming children. We were both appalled by the scene and happily fled off the mountain down the Trinity Connector Path towards the Northern Presidential peaks.

Tuckerman Ravine to The Perch
Tuckerman Ravine to The Perch

Climbing up Mt Washington had been a hard climb, so we were tired as we headed northward to Crag Camp, a primitive cabin overlooking King Ravine on Mt Adams where we planned to spend the night. The higher peaks were still socked in by fog, so I conferred with Martin, and altered our route to detour around Mount Clay (5533′) and Mount Jefferson (5712′). I wanted to stay on the Gulfside Trail (Appalachian Trail) to save some time and make navigation easier through the mist. The northern presidential peaks are a formidable and dangerous place to hike and walking across boulder-strewn paths in thick cloud adds to the risk.

Munching on Ginger Cookies below Mount Clay
Munching on Ginger Cookies on Mount Clay

Along the way, we stopped for a break on the western side of Mt Clay at the Jewel Trail junction for a bit to eat and to rest. As we sat there, the mist lifted and Martin could finally see the views he’d been missing, including the Southern Presidential range sweeping to the southwest, the Lake of the Clouds hut below Mount Monroe, the Jewell Spur Ridge, the Cog Railway line, and down into the maw of Burt Ravine on Washington’s western flank.

Revived in body and spirit, we continued north past Jefferson to Edmunds Col, which separates Jefferson and Adams. The walking was very hard and we knew we weren’t going to make it to Crag Camp before sunset. We decided instead to shoot for a closer campsite called The Perch which has tent platforms and an AT style lean to. This involved losing some elevation and an hour long walk down the Israel Ridge Trail to the campsite, which is precariously perched on the steep northern face of Mount Adams.

Looking back at Clay and Washington
Looking back at Mount Washington and Clay from Monticello Lawn

I also convinced a man and woman that we met at Edmunds Col that they couldn’t camp in their tent above treeline as planned because it was against White Mountain National Forest Rules. I still don’t understand what they were thinking…they clearly didn’t have enough water for the night or the next day and they were miles from a water source. I kindly explained to them that camping above treeline on top of fragile vegetation can damage it, and that locals like myself want to do everything we can to conserve the fragile ecosystem in the Alpine Zone for future generations to enjoy. They ended up hiking with us to The Perch and spent the night there. It was their first time hiking in the Whites.

When we arrived, it was getting close to sundown. All of the platforms were full (the couple took the last one), so we opted to sleep in the lean-to, another first for Martin, who slept in his Oooworks Solomid nest that night to keep the bugs and mice at bay. Oooworks makes some nice products – I may get a nest for my Duomid next year. There are some distinct advantages to sleeping under a tarp on a bathtub floor in wet terrain like Scotland.

The Perch, Mt Adams
The Perch, Mt Adams

Martin and I were soon joined by two other hikers, Dr. Spice, who was thru-hiking the AT headed southbound from Katahdin to Georgia, and a solo hiker named Mike. Dr Spice is so-named because he carries 20 varieties of spices to jazz up his food. He’d been hiking 25 days when we met him, finishing the hardest 330 miles of the AT though Maine and Northern New Hampshire. It should be downhill all the way to Georgia!

Both he and Mike turned out to be great guys and we had a great dinner conversation before everyone retired at 8pm when the sun set. It was cool that night and I slept very well.

Dr Spice checks his AT Guide
Dr Spice checks his AT Guide

We were all up early the next morning and on our way. Martin and I had a big walk planned, climbing 1,000 feet back up the Lowes Path over a sub-peak called Adams 4 (5348′) before continuing up the boulder field that makes up Adam’s main summit (5774′). After Adams, I also planned to climb Mount John Quincy Adams (5394′), another sub-peak on the Trailwrights 72 peak-bagging list, that towers over Star lake and the Madison Springs Hut. From there, we planned to take a break at the hut, before climbing Mt Madison, and then follow the Osgood and Madison Gulf Trails back (DOWN) to Pinkham Notch. This is a long and rough descent.

The Perch to Pinkham Notch Visitors Center
The Perch to Pinkham Notch Visitors Center

Mount Adams is the second highest peak in the White Mountains and can be a daunting challenge to climb in poor weather. Except for a few morning clouds, we climbed it in the clear with very little wind – perfect conditions really. Martin was impressed by the boulders leading up to the summit, which characterize all of the Northern Presidential peaks. They require absolute complete attention to traverse because a bad fall or broken leg could prove very serious this high up.

I’ve always believed that there is a clear kinship between the peaks of the Whites and the Scottish Munros, a sentiment that Martin also voiced on this trip. “They’re just like the high peaks in the Cairngorms,” he said, “except there are more rocks. Lot’s more rocks!”

There’s another similarity that also left a deep impression on Martin when he learned about it. Before passage of the Wilderness Act, large portions of the White Mountain National Forest has been clear cut by lumber companies and burned down by forest fires that consumed the remaining brush. The Wilderness Act made it possible to conserve the region and bring the forests back – a miracle in a way.

Scotland experienced a similar degree of deforestation caused by agriculture and grazing which wiped out the Caledonia forest and all of its wildlife including bear, elk, lynx, wolves, and beaver. Efforts are being made to reforest the country and reintroduce lost species, but are still in their infancy. I hiked through one of these reforestation areas when I backpacked across Scotland in 2010, but it will be a challenge the reforestation movement to succeed without a broader popular mandate and stronger government leadership.

Rocky Summit of Mt Adams, White Mountains
Summit cone of  Mt Adams, White Mountains

Although I’ve known Martin for a few years online – be sure to read his excellent web site – Summit and Valley – we’d never met face-to-face until his 18 day trip to New England to come  hiking with me this summer.

Still, I knew we’d get along because Martin and I share a common bond: the mountains make our hearts sing. It’s a hard feeling to quantify or explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the anticipation, problem solving, and physical exertion required to successfully climb a high peak. While there is joy in reaching the summit, there’s also an insatiable awe than one experiences when you looks down from a mountain’s lofty purview to the valley below. One taste and you want to do it again and again.

Martin on the summit of Mt Adams
Martin on the summit of Mt Adams

Mt Adams has one of the finest views in the White Mountains and we lingered. My greatest thrill on this mountain is looking down into the Great Gulf, the deep valley that runs between Mount Washington and the Northern Presidential Peaks. It’s like a lost world down there, surrounded by a caldera of giant mountains whose steep ridges reach like tenacles into the lush forest below.

Climbing John Quincy Adams was fairly trivial after the main peak of Adams and  it took us about 20 minutes to down climb from the main peak to its summit. I’ve grown to love the sub-peaks of the big mountains in the Whites, which I consider worthy destinations by themselves.

Philip on the summit of Mount Quincy Adams
Philip on the summit of Mount Quincy Adams

From John Quincy Adams, it was a hop and a skip to the col between Adams and Madison where the Madison Spring Hut is located. We popped in for fresh water, baked goods, free apple juice (obviously from concentrate) and lemonade. Martin had never been in an AMC hut before so I let him absorb the atmosphere while I hoovered down some more food.

After climbing Adams, hiking up the rocky summit cone of Madison from the hut was comparatively easy. It’s also a beautiful peak to climb, but pales in grandeur against the backdrop of Adams. Maybe I’ve just climbed it too much this year.

Mount Madison and the Madison Spring Hut
Mount Madison and the Madison Spring Hut

The main event as far as I was concerned was a picturesque descent from Madison down the exposed Osgood Trail. Leaving the summit, we headed down picking our way carefully through the boulder strewn ridge. It was slow and hot going because the sun had warmed up the boulders so they radiated heat like an oven.

Martin starts the Osgood Trail Descent
Martin starts the Osgood Trail Descent

This was the first time I’d descended the Osgood Trail and I only had a fading memory of it from a previous trip up Madison from several years ago.  The way down – I’d hesitate to call it a trail – is marked by cairns and requires excellent footwork to cross safely. Give yourself extra time, either way.

In fact, it took us far longer to descend the 5 miles from the summit of Madison to my car at Pinkham Notch than either of us expected. I don’t think Martin minded though. He was enthralled by the lush forest in the Great Gulf, the mud, and numerous stream crossings we encountered as we hiked back to rustic digs at the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center.

Back at Pinkham Notch
Back at Pinkham Notch

During the last mile, my mind was on the 20 ounce brew I planned to quaff at the Moat in North Conway where I planned to take Martin for our post-hike feed. He liked that too!

Martin has announced his intention to return to the Whites to hike more peaks with me in the future – so I think I succeeded in turning on to the quality of hiking and mountains we have locally. This was just one of many adventures we had during his visit and of the many we plan to have in the coming year when I return to hike across Scotland with him next May. Hiking with friends is great.


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27 comments

  1. Great trip! I like this expression “the mountains make our hearts sing”. That’s like myself, finding true happiness in the mountain. You should come here to Indonesia sometimes and climb the mountains :)

  2. I enjoyed reading your trip report, it was very well written.
    However, I have one nit to pick: Adams 4 was recently renamed Abigail Adams, for John Adam’s wife.
    http://www.whitemtnews.com/coos-county-democrat-adams-4-renamed-mount-abigail-adams/

  3. Great hike post! My boyfriend and I hiked up Tuckerman’s Ravine earlier this summer when there was still a little snow. We met a couple of skiers on their way down. More power to them, I thought when I saw how little snow there was and how wet it was. We went early enough in the summer that there weren’t many tourists at the top. It’s kind of surreal to hike for hours to the summit and see people rolling in on wheels to admire the view. But I really appreciated the hot bowl of tomato soup after the 4 hour hike up.
    Have you been up the Six Husband’s trail on Jefferson? That was our adventure last year. A pretty and challenging trail. We are headed to do part of the Long Trail in a few weeks and have been scouring your blog for tips. Be well.

    • I’ve never been up the Six Husbands trail. I’ve heard it’s one of those trails you don’t want to hike down. I’ll make it there one of these days.

      Have fun on the LT – you should have perfect hiking weather for your trip!

  4. Yay Moat Mountain! I love that place. (Jeff K is right, the newest AMC maps have Abigail Adams marked, and it’s also mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on Mt. Adams: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Adams_(New_Hampshire).)

  5. Martin looks so angry on the Washington Summit!

    • I suppose, but he’s one of the kindest, most generous people you’ll ever meet. I like that photo of him because it shows some of the determination and force of will he brings to tough hikes.

  6. I enjoyed that, Philip.
    Just a small query: Do your maps in the US not have a grid network? There doesn’t appear to be any surface symbols either (I’m thinking of the boulder fields)

    • Good question Alan. The maps I display in my trip reports come from a program called Topo that is published by National Geographic. At this level of resolution they don’t include grid lines, but they are provided at higher levels of magnification. However, when walking in the Whites, I don’t use TOPO generated maps because they are 60 years out of date. Instead, I use waterproof maps which are all published after 2010 and are fully featured (gridlines, declination, scale, etc) for compass navigation. You have it good in the UK with OS maps.

  7. You nailed it: ” the mountains make our hearts sing. It’s a hard feeling to quantify or explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the anticipation, problem solving, and physical exertion required to successfully climb a high peak. While there is joy in reaching the summit, there’s also an insatiable awe than one experiences when you looks down from a mountain’s lofty purview to the valley below. One taste and you want to do it again and again.”

    I have been trying to explain this to friends for years. They have begun to nod politely, But I know they don’t get it…

    Thanks for another tremendous post Philip!

  8. I enjoyed your post, especially “While there is joy in reaching the summit, there’s also an insatiable awe that one experiences when you look down from a mountain’s lofty purview to the valley below.”

    Mt. Washington was my first hike. It was Memorial Day, 1974. The mountains were still covered in snow, making the scenery picturesque, and the hike slightly perilous. I still recall that “insatiable awe” that you describe so well.

    Thank you for all the photos, they helped my recollection.

  9. Superb write up Philip. It was a top rate high level backpack. One to recall the tale of over a pint, or two on the TGOC. A hike with friends makes a hike even more memorable.

  10. Philip,

    Thanks for the great report and photos! I’ve long been a lurker here but this is my first comment.

    I’m wondering how many miles is that loop, and could it be done as a 2-night backpacking trip?

    Thanks!

    • Absolutely, the total distance is about 16 miles. The trick is to find places to camp along the way. These include the Hermit Shelters at the base of Tuckerman Ravine, The Perch, Crag Camp, Gray Knob, and Valley Way on Adams and Madison, and the Osgood Tent Site below Madison. These are all first come first serve.

  11. It must have been a good feeling to introduce Martin to one of your home areas and see him enjoy it so much. This was a great read!

  12. This was a great writeup for me because this is the route my son and I had planned to take this summer, but had to cancel out. Can you give me a better feel for the Osgood Trail from Madison down to Pinkham Notch? I thought that was longer than five miles.

    Another question if you don’t mind. I’m looking for a good workout routine designed to build hiking strength and endurance. Any thoughts?

    • ok – so you want a workout that will let you carry a 20-30 pound load for 8 hours of hiking at 1.5 miles per hour up 2,000 feet of elevation. I only know of one workout that can do that. Try hiking 5 miles a day with a 20-30 pound pack on a local trail near your house. It’s only a 2-3 hour walk, but is that the only way I know to get into hiking shape. Gym shape is not hiking shape.

  13. I loved reading this, thank you so much for sharing. This was especially poignant:

    “It’s a hard feeling to quantify or explain to someone who hasn’t experienced the anticipation, problem solving, and physical exertion required to successfully climb a high peak. While there is joy in reaching the summit, there’s also an insatiable awe than one experiences when you looks down from a mountain’s lofty purview to the valley below. One taste and you want to do it again and again.”

    A few years back, my husband and I made it our mission to hike the Southern Presidentials, like many people do. You hear so much about Mount Washington and all of its glory, and while it’s certainly lovely, it’s not my cup of tea either. It’s hard to really revel in your accomplishment alongside throngs of people who likely don’t understand what you just went through, at least for me. So, like I said…not my cup of tea either.

    What I didn’t anticipate as I approached the summit of Washington was how I would feel when I saw the Northern Presis rise up next to me on the trail. I started to cry. (Seriously.) I couldn’t explain it except to say that they looked so alien, so beautiful, so lonely, and so majestic, and I felt closer to a higher power than I ever had in my life. They have that effect on me every time now.

    I personally think the Northern Presidentials are generally underappreciated. My husband and I are in the midst of planning our trip to Madison and Adams, and then later a trip to Jefferson. I’ll be sure to appreciate them enough for everyone who doesn’t. :)

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience!

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