The Great Gulf is a glacial cirque on the northern face of Mt Washington surrounded on three sides by Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison. Drained by the West Peabody River, it is a wild place, but surprisingly accessible to those who venture a few miles up the Great Gulf Trail which runs up the middle of the valley. It is also home to some of the steepest trails in the White Mountains such as the Sphinx and The Six Husbands which climb from the base of the valley to the Gulfside Trail, the main ‘highway’ that connects all of the Northern Presidentials in one circuit route.
When hiked to its terminus, the Great Gulf Trail climbs from Spaudling Lake, a tiny pond at the head of the valley, up the headwall of Mt Washington, ending 0.4 miles from the summit, a bit before the raised tracks of the Cog Railroad. In that distance, it climbs roughly 1600 ft in 0.8 miles through a waterfall and over boulders and rocks loosened by avalanche activity. From a distance, the climb looks far steeper than it really is.
I climbed the headwall on Saturday morning, after hiking up to the Great Gulf + Sphinx Trail Junction on Friday afternoon and camping out to get an early start. When I awoke the next morning, the sun had turned the top of Washington and neighboring Mt Clay a firey red and the sky was clear. But, by the time I broke camp at 6:30 am, mist had filled the head of the valley and a light rain was falling. Rather than commit to a climb in bad weather – the forecast for later in the day was for rain after 2pm and high winds all weekend – I decided to hike up to Spaulding Lake and have a look at the base of the climb.
That’s when the mist cleared and I decided to go for it. There was no telling how long the sky would remain clear, so I pulled out my map of the Presidential Range and took a bearing of the route up. That bearing would prove very useful later.
At first, the climb was an easy boulder scramble. Some of the rocks were painted with a yellow blaze, but it was very intermittent. As I climbed higher a waterfall ran down the middle of the trail, and I had to cross back and forth numerous times. With the recent rain and the stream water, the footing was quite slick, still good footwork and a slow steady pace kept me moving up.
After I’d cleared the last of the cascades, I could hear the water flowing under the trail or what I assumed was the trail because the blazes petered out and there were no cairns. That’s when a big rock that I’d climbed onto slipped underneath me and I fell, tearing my pants and ripping up my knee a bit. The mountain bit me.
It wasn’t a bad fall, but I realized that I was climbing up a very dynamic rockfall that was moving around me as I climbed. I was at about 5,000 feet and headed left to get onto more stable ground. That’s when the mist blew over the headwall blinding me to the route forward and covering the adjacent cliffs of Mt Clay. Funny, I remember the horrible odor of the Cog Railroad exhaust wafting down the headwall to me in the fog.
I had a choice whether to try to climb down through the waterfalls or continue going up. It wasn’t much of a choice really. I had to go up. I was committed.
I had a bearing, so the question wasn’t whether I was in the right place or not, but where I’m come up over the headwall lip. I kept drifting left to get better footing and to climb around some large rock outcroppings in my path, but after a while I started angling right again while scanning up through the mist looking for cairns. There weren’t any. I’ve since heard they’ve all been swept away by avalanches.
As I angled right, I thought I could pick up the traces of mineral soil between rocks, which is usually a good sign of a trail, but none of them panned out. Then I saw a yellow blaze and knew I was on the right track. Soon after I saw what was obviously a sign ahead through the mist, and came over the headwall at the exact right spot, where the Great Gulf Trail terminates. Spot on. The summit of Mt Washington was a short distance away.