On Sunday, October 14th, myself and three friends made the ride up to take on Mt. Monroe and Mt. Washington. I had been putting this one off due to so many mixed feelings and comments regarding Mt. Washington. The experience and views and sense of reward can and should be second-to-none for hiking the tallest peak in the northeastern United States. However, that can be overshadowed by having to 'share' the peak with so many other hikers and tourists depending on the time of year and conditions. The route I wanted to take was also probably the most popular. We would be hiking up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, and down the Jewell Trail. I was trying to time this hike so that I didn't attempt it during the summer with peak crowds. while also avoiding leaf-peeping season and Columbus Day weekend. Lastly, I do not have the gear, knowledge or experience to safely be up there in true full-blown winter conditions.
About a month ago, I targeted October 14th as my Mt. Washington day and crossed my fingers for favorable conditions. As was the case with my last hike, if I didn't get this one completed before real winter sets in, the goal of reaching all 48 summits prior to my 50th birthday in March would be in serious jeopardy. I started checking the weather about four days out and it appeared to look very clear, yet unseasonable cold, even for Mt. Washington. By that Friday morning, the decision was made - the hike was on.
We all gathered our cold weather gear, and extra layers... and a few more extra layers, and we were headed north by 4am. Upon reaching Base Station Road and getting our first view of the snow-covered hills in front of us, I won't lie, it was pretty daunting at that moment to think we'd be headed up and actually make it to the top. After parking just below the Cog Railway upper lot, and gearing up, we started towards the Ammonoosuc Connector trail. Prior to entering the woods, one quick look behind us would tell the story for the day.
The entire hike would be a mix of slightly past-peak, yet still beautiful, fall colors mixed with snow and clear skies and still plenty of green all mixed together. The best part of this view came to me only after I got home and looked on a map and noticed that it was South Twin and North Twin Mountain we were looking at in the background - two of the five peaks I just summited a few weeks ago. Once into the woods and heading up the Ammonoosuc, several other constants for at least the first half of the day showed themselves right away.
First, water. This trail basically goes up, along, through, over, around and everything except under a stream and mini waterfalls just about all the way to the Lake of the Clouds hut.
The other constant, the Cog. The story of the Cog Railway is very interesting and can be read here. For this day, the story of the Cog would be hearing its whistle, and seeing its smoke as it slowly and deliberately makes it up to the summit of Mt. Washington. A short way up the trail, we got our first look, and listen, to The Cog.
There it was. Through an opening in the trees. The little engine that could! The way the Cog chugs up the tracks to peak of Mt. Washington not only mimicked our own deliberate and consistent ascent on this day, but it also made me think of the bigger picture, and my entire NH48 journey. One peak at a time, one hike and step and rock and root at at time. As it disappeared over the distant peak, it was time to slowly continue to climb up this stream... I mean, trail. A little under two miles into the hike, we arrived at the Gem Pool. This is really an awesome spot where a small falls pours into a pool where the trail crosses over.
I believe this lower section is referred to as 'lower falls'. Just after the Gem Pool, the trail starts to get quite steep. I had read that there was a sign that read "GORGE" a short distance from the Gem Pool indicating a short trail that leads to 'upper falls'. We never saw the sign, but we did see the small side trail on the right, and followed it a short distance to one of the prettiest falls I've ever seen in The Whites. This picture does not do it justice, and there's actually two sets of falls here. This picture is of the one to the right, that had more water flowing down on this day.
Once we made it past upper falls, the trail really gets steep. Thankfully, there are many places to get off to the side, take a break, and look behind you at the stunning views and valley below. Looking back towards the Mt. Washington Hotel.
Continuing up the trail, the views get even better. I really like this next picture for how it accurately depicts our experience on the hike up. We had the beautiful fall colors in the valley below, the snow-covered green trees, and the seemingly constant stream and little mini falls surrounding us with every step.
And just when it appeared as if we were going to be hiking with views the rest of the way, we followed the trail back into the trees to another small falls pouring into a pool with a section of manmade stairs that continued the trail to the left.
As we climbed higher, the snow and rime ice were starting to cover everything. It wasn't long before we were hiking up frozen sections of the stream and snow and ice-covered rock slabs. At first glance, it doesn't appear to be very steep, but notice how everyone is hiking with their hands and feet!
After passing the 'you're entering the alpine zone' sign, we would now be in for endless views the rest of the way up. Speaking of views, what little clouds there were, cleared for a moment, revealing our first clear image of the summit of Mt. Washington off to our left.
And looking straight up, gave us the first look at hut.
The hut is closed for the season, but we were able to take a quick break on the back side out of the wind. We grabbed a bite to eat, and started our way up to Mt. Monroe. You can see the peak here as our crew heads towards the short 1/4 mile hike to the summit .
A little more than half way to the summit, a look back towards the hut, the lake, and Mt. Washington in the distance.
Back to the task at hand, Mt. Monroe. The group makes their final push up the steepest part towards what would be a false summit yet the real peak was only a short distance from what appeared to be the top.
We stayed on the summit for a brief moment to take some photos, enjoy the amazing 360 degree views, and then it was back down to the hut to change gear one last time, and prepare for the final ascent to the top of Washington.
These next few pictures are great examples of the extreme contrast in conditions we would experience on this day. In all directions, while standing on a snow and ice-covered trail, the colorful valley below was always in the background.
The hike to the summit of Mt. Washington from the hut is only about 1-1/2 miles. That 1-1/2 miles isn't overly steep, or technical, or even dangerous (on this particular day) but it sure does seem to take forever to get there. In the image below, we're about half way to Washington, with the summit of Monroe getting smaller and smaller behind us.
At this point, we're only a 1/4 mile from the summit. That's only 'one lap around the track' I usually say to myself. If only the track was uphill, covered in snow and ice with the wind now blowing around 50mph.
As we got to only a few steps away from successfully summiting, we got a first-hand example of how conditions can go from perfectly clear and cloudless...
... to cutting visibility in half within a minute.
And, as fast the clouds blew in, they were once again blowing away creating perfect summit conditions as you can see developing in this photo.
As you can tell from the photo above, we timed the trip perfectly. The weather had cooperated as good as anyone could have hoped for in mid-October. And, with the Cog only running about 3/4 of the way to summit, and the auto road closed, and the hut closed, we only ran into about ten other hikers for the duration of our time on the summit. The skies remained totally clear while we were inside the lodge, and for the full length of our hike back down to the truck. Other than a few distant, faint clouds, from the moment we summited to the time we reached the vehicle, we experienced essentially completely clear skies. On our way down the Gulfside Trail, before arriving at the junction of the Jewell Trail, we hiked along the edge of the Great Gulf Wilderness, bordered to the west by the rest of the Northern Presidential Range (Clay, Jefferson, Adams, Madison)
On every hike, I am continually amazed at how the distant layers of mountains can look like huge waves coming towards the foreground. The Gulfside trail literally crosses over the tracks for the Cog. Just as we passed over the tracks, a look back behind us shows countless peaks stacking up with a faint glimpse of the autumn colors in the valley now very far below us.
And, as if to congratulate us on successfully reaching the summit of Washington, the little engine that could passed us by one last time.
Just about the time we reached the junction of the Jewell trail, a final look back provided us with a rewarding view of where we've been on this hike. The peak of Monroe, the Lake of the Clouds Hut, and the trails we've already hiked, all right before us in totally clear skies.
A look ahead at our final challenge for the day, the Jewell Trail. The trail was more challenging than I had anticipated and is steep and rocky for the better part of the almost four miles back to the parking lot. We remained above treeline for at least half the distance back and the views continued to be stunning.
The only drawback to hiking this time of year would be that daylight starts to fade quite early. We would finish this hike with the headlamps on for about the last hour. However, just before that moment, we were treated to a great sunset, and lucky enough to be in an area with open views as the last of the sunlight glowed on the snowy peaks, with the moon rising above them.
About an hour after this photo was taken, and one more not-so-easy stream crossing in the dark later, our 'little group that could' had successfully hiked a little under 10 miles, and summited the tallest peak on the list, and Mt. Monroe. Most importantly, we all made it safely back to the vehicle and enjoyed a well-earned dinner on the way home. Peaks #36 and #37 for me. Only 7 or 8 hikes remaining to reach my final 11 peaks. It's just now starting to maybe seem possible.