“It’s Looking Grim”

That’s Jason the crew members report this morning.  Post-breakfast, some 60 of us sit silent and attentive early this morning around our wooden tables at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. We’re warm, and full from oatmeal and eggs, coffee cake and coffee while outside rain and wind rattle the windows. 

My first thought, it must take a lot to say “grim” up here when the weather is rarely ideal. Today, “grim” fits the word: 71 mile per hour winds, 28 degrees and wind chill of 7. Good news, he says, is that it’s not snowing. That’s coming in this afternoon with a forecast of 1-3 inches. 

“It’s conditions like this,” the man beside me says, “That made a couple of thru-hikers coming north from Georgia, quit the trail shaking their heads that the Whites had done them in.”

The last two days we’ve been navigating the thin edge of sanity and safety, the right kind of confidence we need and the foolhardy kind we’re trying to avoid. 

It’s not always easy to figure which way to go in the face of “grim” and what makes hiking in the White Mountains so deceptively tricky. When we’d taken off on a sunny morning yesterday, the predictions for the day seemed preposterous. What “morning thunder storms?” Fortunately, we’d not been too cautious but chosen the right kind of caution and opted to hike up the tree-covered Ammonoosuc Trail that’s the shortest way up and ends right at Lakes of the Cloud Hut.  

It was only when we turned around before starting up the trail that we could see the dark clouds coming in. They soon caught up to us, with yes, the promised morning thunder showers. We were grateful for my Dad’s good advice for the trail to choose that day and the protection of the woods. So glad we were not out where I’d have preferred to go, on the long ridge climb up the Crawford Path. Beautiful yes, but on a beautiful clear sunny day.  

The Ammonoosuc Trail meanders along the roaring stream until the valley narrows. At a lovely pool at the bottom of a waterfall, the trail heads straight up. A very good place in the morning rain for a lunch break before the ascent.  

Ahead, rocky waterfalls to ascend and cross, long slick granite slabs. Last summer I got scared on the steep ascent up Katahdin. I realize today I haven’t yet gotten over that fear. I go slow, cautious, placing my poles with care like a very old bent man. A few young hikers stride effortlessly up and past us.  

As we ascend, the clouds lift. Long wisps of white run up the valley beside us, blue sky breaking through behind. 

The wind rises, cold, sharp as the trees turn gnarled and low. At last, the view of the hut roof over the next rocky ascent. We’ve made it. 

Outside the hut, the young hikers who passed us earlier smile, “We’re glad you finally made it!”

Their little group is assessing the rocky summit of Washington above, “It’s too windy today up there, hurricane-force wind, we’ve heard. We’re going up tomorrow.” 

We nod at what sounds like their good advice until we go into the hut to register. The crew member says that no, she’s not going up there today. “It will be even windier up there than here,” she says, “but if you need to check it off your list, you have time today before dinner and it will be worse tomorrow.”

I never thought of being one of those people who needed to “check off a peak” but in fact, that’s why we’re here. Ross asked me to come so he could get up Washington for the first time in 50 years. I’ve been up Washington many times but never on a clear day like this. What’s clear now is despite the wind, we’re going. Now is our time, tomorrow will be worse.  

It’s only 1.5 miles up from the hut to the summit, looks so close and so deceptively far. The trail a field of red and aqua lichen covered boulders. We navigate slowly rock to rock, pole to pole. The wind howls up the slope, strong gusts that seem hell-bent to topple us over. 

At last we approach the top, but the actual summit further up and across from the Tip-Top House, an old stone building. Tourists from the Cog Railroad crawl in sandals and sneakers towards the summit marker for pictures – all the drama they paid for. We join them, down on our hands and knees, cling to the sign not wanting to let go. I’ve never been out in wind like this.  

Mount Washington has the worst weather in the world and the White Mountains some of the most dangerous. Highest wind ever recorded by humans. More fatalities per vertical foot than any other mountain in the world. 200 people need to be rescued each year by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department from falls and hypothermia, avalanche, drowning, heart attacks. People take off on deceptively nice days like we had this morning and are led right into trouble. Sunny blue sky days in their 70’s turn quickly wet and windy, lashed by lightening.  

When we arrive back at the hut for dinner, the thru-hikers who had their kids visiting for the weekend, have sent them all down the mountain to avoid what is forecast to be a particularly nasty day tomorrow. All I know is that I’m exhausted and we’ll have to see what tomorrow brings.

I sleep well, wake to a fogged over window I mistaken for snow. 

What’s clear this morning is the way down is not the way I was committed to go yesterday. Last night I was sure we should take the Gulfside Trail and down Jewel Brook which promised to be a much easier descent.  

Today we need to embrace “grim” including going down the steep Ammonoosuc that I so did not want to go down. We’ll go down as we came up, steady and slow, and yes, with a good deal of sitting and sliding.  

“It’s nasty out there,” the crew member reminds us, “But soon you’ll be below the trees. Go slow and careful when you turn the corner around the hut, the wind will slap you in the face.”

As promised, the wind slaps and almost topples us. We descend into the cloud whipping wind and rain. The same fears as yesterday as I look down the sheer slabs of granite now wet and cold. I sit and slide, not wanting to fall. The crew told us at breakfast that while most injuries happen on the way down, it’s often because hikers are tired from the ascent. We’ve had that wonderful breakfast, warm and rested. I’m banking on their promise that it should serve us well for a good descent. 

We descend below tree-line, the wind quiets, rain stops.  

As we descend down the trail in hats and gloves, rain pants and jacket hoods pulled up over our hats, we pass little groups of people ascending in tee shirts and shorts, tiny packs and white ball caps out for a day summit of Washington.  

“How much further?” one sprightly group asks.  

“Oh perhaps an hour,” I say.

“What!”, the leader exclaims, “It can’t be! It’s only half a mile!”

Perhaps, I think, as he clambers on ahead, and you have no idea what the trail ahead is like.

“It’s really nasty up there,” we tell the last couple in the group. “Be careful.”

We pass several groups of young men striding briskly up and one group that pauses at the stream crossing. They too dressed for a day hike and without a clue what lies ahead.

“Did you do Washington?” one young man asks.

“Yes, we summited yesterday, it was a real adventure, hurricane force winds on top.”

“Oh that’s just what I’m looking for,” he smiles, “I’m in need of an adventure and conquering a mountain!”

“It’s really windy up there today,” I say, “Hurricane force winds and snow coming in.”

“But its not windy down here!” he says and strides on.

That’s right, I want to say, it’s not windy down here and just what makes hiking in the White Mountains so dangerous. I hope their day ends well for them, that they make it to the hut safely and reckon with reason. I don’t want to read about them in the paper tomorrow.  

That afternoon, Xi Chen, 53, of Andover Massachusetts will be caught in the wind and snow on the Gulfside Trail, and die of hypothermia. From all reports, he was an experienced hiker caught in a terrible storm.

That night, three hikers in their 20’s will be rescued when they get turned around and lost off the trail coming back from Mount Avalon, the same mountain I climbed two days ago on a most beautiful day. 

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