After a long, very wet day on the trail on Saturday we refueled the mind, body and spirit with some beers and food in a warm, dry pizza joint in Gorham. One our way back Ben and I were talking about doing something a little smaller and easier for Sunday. Something that we could sleep in for, hit the laundry mat to dry our clothes and have a chill day on the mountain. And then Trina called to say that she was almost to camp and was ready for an epic hike… I am really glad that Trina ended up coming up! Not only for the joy of her company but because we had a pretty awesome experience on Mt Adams on Sunday.
We got up pretty early on Sunday because we knew that we had to hit the laundry mat to dry our clothes. We grabbed some breakfast and coffee at the White Mountain Cafe & Bookstore (rapidly becoming one of my favorite spots in Gorham), picked up our now dry-ish clothes and suited up! The previous night was pretty cold – well into the 30s, dipping into the 20s – and it was evident by the ice and snow coating the trees on the mountains… even down to the lower elevations of around 2500 feet!
We headed to the north side of Adams picking up the trail at the Appalachia lot and our trail of choice was the Airline Trail . When hiking the Airline Trail, or on this side of Adams period, you definitely need to pay attention to what you are doing. There are many, many trails on this side of the mountain that all intersect managed by the Randolph Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club. The Airline Trail (an AMC trail) is the shortest route to the summit of Mt. Adams at about 4.3 miles. We knew it was going to be a grind and were wondering what kind of condition the trail would be in after days of rain. As we finished layering up, I put my boots and they were still soaking wet from the day before. What’s more I felt an odd pinching, pain feeling along my right ankle as I walked around. It did not hurt when I put weight on it or jumped from foot to foot so I did not think too much of it. This would later come back to be a foolish decision.
We hit the trail at 10am and motored on up the lower section of the trail. Ben was setting a brisk pace and we were moving right a long. The trail was muddy and wet but not too bad. Thankfully, the rain had stopped by the time we had started so we felt good about the day ahead of us. Sure enough, at about 2000 feet up, the snow appeared. Not old crusty left over snow… new snow. Fresh snow from the previous night. Much of it was caught up in the canopy which made for some interesting moments when the trees would move in the breeze and you would get pummeled from above by a huge wet snowball.
The Airline Trail struck me as similar to the Daniel Webster Trail going up Madison. There was not a section that I would call super steep, but it was a steady ascent always going up and never really leveling off. The higher we climbed – the more snow there was. Eventually the snow was at a point where it had accumulated in the trail and we were stomping through several inches of freshly fallen snow. It was totally surreal! Here we were, the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend – the unofficial kick off to the summer season – and we were hiking through freshly fallen snow!! It was a trip!
The climb kept going and going. And we kept on trudging along. This was pretty ambitious for me, and a nice challenge as well. I have handled the previous hikes I’ve been on pretty well. But this is the first time that I was doing two big hikes on back to back days. Not a lot of mileage relative to previous hikes at only about 7-8 per day, but a lot of gain and a lot of climb. It was also in my head how a year ago, I was at home, in bed laid up recovering from surgery. And that before the surgery, there was no way I could have done trails like this quickly, and certainly not on back to back days with out significant problems with my legs. But here I was, moving along like a champ in the best shape I have been in for a long time and feeling the best that I have felt in a long time on the trail. I was amped up!
As we got higher, the snow got deeper. All in all the mountains received about 6-8″ of fresh snow the previous night. And we were in the thick of it! Looking around, the only way that you could tell it was not the middle of February is because the temperature was not 50 degrees colder. As we were moving along, the biggest problem that I ran into was that my feet were soaked. On the previous day’s rain hike. i had soaked through my rain pants and water had run down my leg and into my boots soaking the insulation and padding. Not only did this make my boots weigh about 93 lbs each, but it also meant my feet would be wet all day long. And when trudging through snow, that meant that my feet would be cold too. Cold + Wet is not a good combination ever – especially with your feet!
Once again, as we did the day before, we had constant discussion about the status for each of us. Tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, wet, sore, chilly, etc. All these factors were discussed as we got closer to the Alpine Zone. Once above treeline, we knew that the conditions would not be favorable. We could hear the wind blowing above us and even though it was not raining, the clouds were very low and obscuring the ridge lines ahead of us which mean low visibility. We suited up again with new layers right before we broke through tree line. We also decided that our immediate goal would the junction with Chemin des Dames at the top of King Ravine. At that point we would assess trail conditions, weather, time and how we were feeling and figure out where to go from there.
Once we broke through the treeline the winds were immediately whipping us in the face. With the winds, was sleet – and plenty of it! We moved pretty quickly, the snow filling in the gaps of the rocks making it easy to scamper over the trail. Every now and then we would duck down behind some rocks for a breather, but we finally made it to the junction with the Dames trail. At this point, with near zero visibility and again with lack of proper gear (face shields and better gloves), plus with my feet being soaking wet and legitimately cold, we opted to turn back around. It was another mile and 800 feet to the summit but with the conditions that were on the mountain, the prudent thing was to turn back around.
So, with the summit of Mt Adams buried deep in the clouds behind us, we had a little extra pep in our step as we motored on down the trail. We had visions of dry bunkhouses, hot pizza and delicious beer waiting for us. The only challenge I had was that “pinching” feeling I felt earlier was now full fledged Blister City. I never thought about it, but hiking in the wet boots and socks the day before had rubbed my ankles pretty raw. And then over the course of Sunday it only became worse. To the point where every step I took felt like it was someone taking a cheese grater to my ankles. I had dry socks with me, but with my boots soaking wet they wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes before I was back in the same position. And, it was not like a traditional blister either. It was the entire skin area around my ankles rubbed raw so even duct tape or athletic tape would not help. I just gritted out and kept my eyes on the prize – pizza and beer. Hindsight being what it is, I should have investigated what that stinging feeling was at the start. Had I known what it was then I would have wrapped my heel in duct tape to prevent the chaffing.
Two hikes. Two missed summits. But considering the weather conditions and the fact that we were legitimately winter hiking on Memorial Day Weekend, the experience was amazing. I pushed my gear well beyond it’s limits; I pushed myself on big back to back hikes; I tested myself in crappy weather in some of the most exposed areas in all of New England. And throughout it all, I was joined by good friends and we all came out of it better hikers, if not wetter hikers, for it!