29.9 miles down, 2149.2 to go

July 25, 2010

I recently took some time off work to go hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Specifically, I decided to tackle a section of the Appalachian Trail, between Franconia Notch and Mount Washington, along with my good friend Pete Kruskall. Or at least that’s what the original plan was.

Day 0, Thursday, 7/15: 0.0 miles hiked

First, some backstory. I’ve done plenty of day hikes (in both summer and winter), and one two-day hike, but before this, I hadn’t ever done any really serious multi-day hiking trips. I’ve done some serious bike touring, including A Thousand Miles, and I have plenty of experience camping in living in the back country. But since this was the first serious trip I was planning entirely on my own, I was missing some important gear; so I decided to rent said gear from the MIT Outing Club.

One of the items I rented was an MSR XGK Expedition camping stove (which I think is no longer in production, since I can’t seem to find it on MSR’s site). When I brought it home, I discovered that the fuel can that came with it was for a different type of stove, and so it was useless. By that time, MITOC’s offices were closed, and I was supposed to get on the bus the next morning up to Lincoln, NH. The morning bus left before any useful stores in the Boston area would be open, and the afternoon bus left far too late to be useful. I scoured the web but couldn’t find any stores in Lincoln that definitively carried MSR fuel cans (it’s possible they exist, but the websites of the potentially useful stores did not indicate that).

Day 1, Friday, 7/16: 6.0 miles hiked

Time for Plan B. Pete has a car, but his car was not in Boston. It took two train rides on the T, a bus transfer, and a taxi ride, but we eventually made it to his car and began driving up to New Hampshire. I also got a crash course (not literally) in driving stick shift. We stopped by at Plymouth Ski & Sports to pick up some MSR fuel and grabbed a late lunch at a nearby café.

The original plan was to start from Franconia Notch and hike up the Old Bridle Path to the summit of Mount Lafayette, and then along Franconia Ridge to the Garfield Ridge Shelter, which would have been about 7.9 miles. But because of the late start, we decided to go up the Gale River Trail instead and hike backwards 2.0 miles along the AT to the shelter. We chose the Gale River Trail over the Garfield Ridge Trail because at that point, we intended to finish at Pinkham Notch and take the AMC Hiker Shuttle back to the trailhead where we’d parked. That didn’t quite end up happening, as you’ll shortly see.

We finally got on trail about 3:15 pm and hiked the 6.0 miles up to the shelter without too much trouble. Next up was dinner, which proved to be trickier than anticipated, despite now having the correct type of fuel for the stove. Upon setting up the stove, we discovered that the pump was leaking fuel since it was missing an O-ring. Not good. Fortunately, the cap of the fuel tank I bought came with an O-ring, so I transferred that over to the pump and got the stove going. The next problem was that the stove kept petering out—it needed to be continually pumped every minute or so to keep the flame going. It was punishing, but we finally got some boiling water, made dinner, and went to sleep.

Day 2, Saturday 7/17: 6.2 miles hiked

Day 2 was on the short side, despite the much more reasonable start time of 8:50 am. This was due to the locations of shelters: our options were to (a) stop early at the Guyot Shelter, (b) shell out $97 to stay at the Zealand Falls Hut (if there was even space available, which I doubt), (c) hoof it out to the Ethan Pond Shelter, or (d) set up tent in a stealth camping site off-trail if we can find one. We opted for (a).

Nothing too eventful happened this day; we stopped for lunch at the Galehead Hut, hiked a steep 0.8 miles up the summit of South Twin Mountain, and then made it into the shelter nice and early around 3:30 pm. It was good we got there early, since Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest—overall 46 people were staying at the shelter/campsite, and it was getting pretty crowded at the end. The record there is apparently 94 people; that must have been one unpleasant night.

The nearby Mount Bond (which I’m sad to report I didn’t summit) has the interesting property that it’s just about the farthest point from civilization in the area there known as the Pemigewasset Wilderness. According to some folks I met at the Guyot Shelter, you can see for miles and miles in all directions without seeing any signs of human civilization: no towns, no roads, no nothing. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll make it back there some other time.

Day 3, Sunday 7/18: 9.8 miles hiked

Day 3 was much more of an adventure. We again got a good early start around 8:15 am and hiked along the Zealand Ridge Trail to the Zealand Falls Hut, where we refilled on water and had a nice leisurely lunch. Unfortunately, Pete was not feeling too well, and we decided to split up here. He passed on to me the tent he was carrying (just when I thought my pack had been getting lighter from less food) and hiked down the Zealand Trail to the trailhead there. He got a ride back to the main road and then to his car back at the Gale River trailhead, after which he went and stayed with some nearby relatives.

I continued on down the Ethan Pond Trail, which was a nice and flat 5.0 miles that flew by; I’m told that that part of the trail used to be an old logging railroad. I made it down to the Ethan Pond Shelter at a reasonable hour in the afternoon and chatted with SoBo (southbounder) thru-hiker Wasabi; he was just stopping by and was intending to end his day at either the Zealand Falls Hut or the Guyot Shelter, I forget which. Later on I was joined in the shelter by SoBo Pneumonia (take a guess what disease he contracted on a previous attempt at hiking the AT) and the pair of SoBos Monkey and Giggles.

Day 4, Monday 7/19: 9.3 miles hiked

Another day, another reasonable start at 8:20. I easily hiked the 2.9 miles down to Route 302 and found my first instance of trail magic! Waiting at the trailhead was a very nice gentleman with a cooler full of free snacks and drinks for thru-hikers. I stopped to chat with him for a bit and helped myself to a Pepsi (I didn’t want to take very much since I wasn’t hiking the entire trail; whether or not I even deserved the Pepsi is arguable). I then hung out for a bit to wait for Pete to show up—we’d agreed to meet up here, in case I’d needed to bail out for whatever reason. We chatted a bit, and then the rain started rolling in. I waited in his car a bit to see if it would pass, but it didn’t.

So, he drove off, and I started heading back up the Webster Cliff Trail on the other side of the highway. The trail here was fairly steep in some places, and I found myself having to scramble up some rocks on all fours. In the rain. With 40 pounds on my back. And I kept tripping over my rain poncho. It was not very pleasant here, but I kept going. The rain finally let up shortly after I reached the summit of Mount Jackson (actually named after geologist Charles Thomas Jackson, not Andrew Jackson, despite being in the Presidential Range).

I pressed onwards and ended my day at the Mizpah Spring Hut/Nauman Campsite. For some reason, the name Mizpah always makes me think of the Hebrew word mitzvah, meaning a good deed.

Day 5, Tuesday 7/20: 10.3 miles hiked

This was the big, awesome day: hiking through a good chunk of the Presidential Range, with spectacular views throughout. There was a lot of fog rolling in over the mountains, so the view came and went, but for the most part it was good. I decided to go off of the AT to bag Mount Eisenhower and Mount Monroe, which the AT goes around, so technically I didn’t hike two short sections of 0.8 miles or so of the AT, but whatever. I have plenty of time to come back and hike those sections if I decide to section hike the entire trail.

Lunch this time was at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, the highest of the High Huts (for those keeping score, that’s 3 days of stopping at a Hut for lunch). I climbed up the last 1.6 rocky miles up the Crawford Path to the summit of Mount Washington. There I met up again with Pete, who hiked up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Pinkham Notch for the day. Fortunately we found each other easily, since I found that I couldn’t get a cell phone signal anywhere on the summit, despite having 2-3 bars in various places. We grabbed some food, rested up for a bit, and then headed down the Lion Head Trail back down to Pinkham Notch.

Just as we were coming down one the start of the steep section of the trail, it started raining. It was probably not the wisest of decisions to head down the Lion Head Trail—if we’d headed down through Tuckerman’s, we’d probably have been done or close to done with the steep section by the time the rain started, and Lion Head is steeper in places than Tuckerman’s. [Side note: a hiker had slipped and died on Tuckerman’s just days before we were there; that kind of news travels fast among hikers in the area].

We survived the rain, made it down to Pinkham Notch, and then drove back to Boston.

It was an exhausting but thrilling experience. For those readers who made it this far, enjoy the photos. Sorry about the purple tint at the top of all of them, there’s something wrong with my camera that I didn’t discover until I saw these, and my Photoshop®-fu is not good enough to try to fix it.

Maybe some day I’ll hike the entire AT. I’d rather thru-hike it than section-hike it, but I don’t know how I’ll get 5–7 months or so off from work. So for now, it’s just a very distant goal. My friend Jeff Walden thru-hiked it immediately after we graduated from MIT in 2008—that was a great idea for him to hike it after finishing school but before starting full-time work. I’d also like to do a cross-country bike trip some time, but again that takes so much time (though substantially less than 5–7 months) that I don’t know when it will happen.

I don’t have a trail name yet, but I’m thinking about taking on the name “Fuel Can”, “Fuel Cell”, or something like that, after the stove fiasco. What do you guys think?

Oh, and the 29.9 miles in the title is the total distance I hiked on the AT, not including the 4.0 miles going up the Gale RIver Trail, the 4.2 miles going down the Lion Head Trail, or the various campsite spurs, and pretending I didn’t take take side trips up Mount Eisenhower and Mount Monroe. The 29.9 comes from this handy-dandy distance calculator, using the Garfield Ridge Shelter and Mount Washington as endpoints. 1.4% down, 98.6% to go!

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