Brrrr…eautiful (Days 137-141)

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I knew when I started this adventure in May that I would end up in Northern New England in the fall and that it would get cold… Especially in the mountains. I prepared for the cold by switching from a thirty degree sleeping bag to a zero degree sleeping bag, by adding a nice warm hat, gloves, insulated pants, and an incredibly warm jacket.

Even though I was technically prepared for the cold, and am from hearty New England stock, I don’t think I was prepared for the emotional impact of the freezing temperatures.

As the temperatures began to plummet we’d huddle around the campfire while we ate our dinners and then dive into our tents and sleeping bags as soon as the sun set. My zero degree sleeping bag was fluffy, cozy, and awesome, but it still took a couple of hours all snuggled up in it before my fingers and toes would feel comfortably warm.

For some people the cold temperatures meant later starts in the morning as they were reluctant to leave the comfort of their nice warm sleeping bags. For me, the cold temperatures meant that I was anxious to get moving and get warmed up. I also find that I don’t want to stop and take breaks during the day because when you stop you get cold, so I tend to hike more miles on cold days.

The cold alone is one thing, but when the cold comes with rain it turns into misery. I hate the combination of cold and wet, especially when backpacking. Raining with temperatures in the 40s is just plain awful. Back in civilization when it’s cold and wet it isn’t so bad because you know you can easily get warm again: you can take a shower, you can turn the heat up, you can sit by the fire. On the trail when it’s cold and wet your options for getting warm require more work or more time: you can hike more, you can curl up in your sleeping bag and wait, you can try to get to civilization, or you can wait for the weather to get better. I hate being cold and wet and the thought that at least the cold is likely to linger until the end of the trail is hard to wrap my head around sometimes. Hopefully the beauty of the fall foliage will make up for the low temperatures.

Another downside to cold and wet is ice. The first time I encountered ice on the trail was hiking up Mahoosuc Arm and Old Speck. A thin coating of black ice on some of the rocks added to the rock scrambling adventure. I tested each step… Is that rock coated with water or ice? It definitely made for slower going, but the ice didn’t last for long.

Heading up the Bigelows I was in for a real surprise. The weather forecast had said that it was going to be partly sunny and cool and I was looking forward to seeing some sun and finally warming up a bit. The forecast was, however, wrong… very wrong. It was cloudy, cold, wet, and overcast as I started hiking in the morning. As I got to higher elevations it got colder, cloudier, and wetter.

As I neared the summit I was completely enveloped in a cold grey cloud. I figured that I was just going to get the typical 4000 footer view of the inside of a cloud and wasn’t too worried about it. The cloud then started doing what clouds do best… It started raining on me. I sighed and kept climbing higher and higher and it kept getting colder and colder. Cold and wet, my favorite combination (note a sarcastic tone of voice in that sentence), but at least the rain was intermittent.

Ping. Ping. Bounce. It wasn’t rain anymore. The stuff falling from the sky was pinging and bouncing and definitely white. I studied it as it collected on the ground in the contours of the mud and rocks. Little white balls of frozen yuck.

I tried to remember the distinctions between sleet, hail, and freezing rain. Let’s see… Sleet starts as snow and tries to turn into rain, but gets trapped somewhere in between… These pellets didn’t seem to be attempting to turn into rain at all. Hail is layered balls or lumps of ice associated with thunderstorms… Definitely no thunderstorms here though. Freezing rain is rain that freezes as soon as it contacts any surface… It seems like there was some freezing rain at lower elevations with ice coated trees, but these pellets were already frozen as they pinged and bounced around me.

I wasn’t quite sure what to call it, but it was definitely cold and it wasn’t melting when it hit the ground, which meant that I was just going to see more and more ice on the trail as I ascended.

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Sure enough, as I got to the summit the rocks in the trail were coated with ice, rime ice coated the trees and signs, and the frozen fog continued to shower me with pellets of ice. The 40-50 mph winds at the summit also contributed to the impression that I was stumbling through a winter wonderland. It was, however, stunningly beautiful!

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I had all of the gear that I needed to stay warm as I hiked, so I lingered for a minute on the summit. The snow and ice is incredibly beautiful and in that moment, all that existed was me, the mountain, the ice, and the cloud. I soaked it all in and then kept moving. Even with all the right gear, if you stay still for too long you’ll get cold… You just won’t get frostbite or hypothermia.

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I appreciated each ice coated trees and berries as I descended… If it had to be cold at least it could be full of the ice and snow and the beautiful parts of winter. Unfortunately the beautiful part of the cold didn’t last long. As soon as I got down to lower elevations it went back to being just cold and wet.

Hopefully the rest of the fall won’t be this cold and wet.

Beauty and the Beast: Part 2 (125-129)

All through the southern portion of the White Mountains I’d had decent weather and had gotten better views than I had ever had before. I knew that it was too good to last, but I enjoyed every second of it.

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Even on my first backpacking trip through the Presidential Range of the White Mountains I knew that I needed to be prepared for bad weather. Mount Washington in particular is known for having the worst recorded weather in the world. I woke up on the morning I was planning to hike Mt Washington and was in the middle of a cloud, which wasn’t surprising, but definitely wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I then took a look at the forecast…

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Severe. Severe definitely wasn’t the forecast that I was looking for. With the forecast and the cloud in mind I decided that hiking with a buddy and getting down off of the ridges before the afternoon thunderstorms arrived was a good plan.

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As we climbed Mt Washington the visibility got worse and worse until it dropped to about 10 ft and the wind speeds increased, easily reaching 45 miles an hour. We didn’t realize that we were at the summit until we were within 10 ft of the first summit building. We battled our way through 60-65 mph winds to the observation building, excited by the idea of being somewhere warm. Other than the caretaker we were the only ones there.

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We warmed up for a few minutes and studied the radar. There was definitely a massive storm coming, but it looked to be five or so hours away. Beerdra and I talked it over and decided that utilizing our buddy system we were comfortable traversing the ridge from Washington to Madison. The guy at the summit agreed that if we left soon, and together we should be all set to get to Madison. The visibility was really bad and he noted that people sometimes get lost on the ridge. He then asked us if we had whistles. When we said no, he fished some fluorescent orange ones out of his desk and gave them to us before sending us on our way.

We slowly made our way through the wind, the rain, and the fog across the ridge. Suddenly we heard a constant whirring/rumbling off to our right. Beerdra thought that maybe it was an alien spaceship coming to take us away, or perhaps machinery associated with the observatory. Suddenly train tracks materialized in the fog in front of us. The sound stayed the same, and I wondered how close the train would have to get for us to be able to see it.

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I decided to wait to cross the tracks until I figured out if the train was getting closer to us, or further away. It was a good thing we waited because the train materialized out of the fog right in front of us before we had any sense of its imminent approach.

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The passengers in the train waved to us as they went by. Somehow the train and its passengers didn’t quite seem real to us as we contemplated its mysterious appearance and disappearance. At least we knew what direction the train was headed now, so we could safely scramble up and over the tracks.

It was slow going across the ridge as we searched for the cairns marking the trail ahead of us in the fog, and tried to figure out the best footing on the wet slippery boulders they called trail.

Suddenly the wind driven rain started to sting more than it had been before. I looked around and noticed that the rain was bouncing off of the rocks. It dawned on me… Rain doesn’t bounce like that, hail does. I turned my back into the wind/hail and tried to fix my hood to protect my face a little bit better. I’d come to expect this kind of treatment from Mt Washington.

I explained to Beerdra that she would have felt let down if she’d come to the place with the worst weather in the world and hadn’t gotten to experience any of it. She said something in reply, but a gust of 65 mph wind buffeted us and I didn’t hear it. It’s possible that that gust of wind saved my life as we both had to fight against it to stay standing and it made it impossible for her to lunge at me *grin*.

I was kind of enjoying the gusty winds and fog. As long as I had a buddy and there was no rumbling thunder in the distance I wasn’t worried about our safety. It also helped that we were headed someplace warm and dry that served hot food.

We eventually made it to Madison hut, where we spent the night to avoid the severe thunderstorm. 29 people had reservations for the hut that night, but only 6 people braved the nasty weather and showed up.

The next morning the winds persisted, but we got marvelously warm weather and could look back and see Mt Washington in all of its glory. Despite its beastly nature, it was stunningly beautiful.

The hike over Madison was beautiful, even though it is a great big pile of schist.

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Heat Wave (Days 70-74)

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Virginia has definitely been full of weather extremes. We went from record breaking rains and flood advisories directly to record breaking high temperatures and heat advisories.

At first it was exciting to finally see the sun again! Such a novelty, but as the heat index rose higher and higher it became apparent that excessively high temperatures, like excessive rain, make hiking a challenge.

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Trail rumor goes on and on about how nice and easy the terrain in Virginia is, but I’m not sure that I buy it. Sure, there are some nice easy rock-free stretches, but North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee all sported some of those as well. There are also lots of rocky, kind of obnoxious sections of trail, like “the roller coaster”.

I got to the roller coaster in the middle of the heat wave. From the elevation profile, it was clear that the roller coaster was named because of the rapid succession of ups and downs. I was hoping that it also meant that it was nice, fast trail… Roller coasters are fun when they are fast, right? Unfortunately, this was not fast trail. It was all incredibly rocky and full of ups and downs. The heat index of 119F might also have colored my opinion of that stretch of trail.

I trudged up and down and up and down through the roller coaster as buckets of sweat poured off of me. I was just as wet as I had been in the rain! Though this was a warm, sticky, smelly wet…

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My mom had assured me that she was going to bring the sunshine with her when she came to visit me, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this much warmth. She is exceedingly good at everything she does and this was no exception, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.

On the upside, mom and dad supplied me (and all of the other thru-hikers they met) with lots of food and cold sodas. They also hiked in the heatwave to celebrate the 1000 mile mark with me. Patches and Patches’ parents… You can see the resemblance in our packs (all lined up at the 1000 mile sign to mark the historic occasion).