Day 17 – Mt. Washington

All of our hiking so far this trip has really been working up toward this day: the highest peak in the Northeast.

Our fabulous hiking guides, Roger and Anne, have pointed us toward the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, one of many routes up Mt. Washington.

In its favor, the trail is one of the shortest: about 4.5 miles up to the 6,288-foot summit. Of course, at 4,188 feet of elevation gain, we will be hiking about an 18% grade.

We are well-stocked with protein bars, energy gels, 3 liters each of water, our rain gear, and, in my case, a warm pullover.

We park in the Cog Railway parking lot and head up just as the first train is headed up the mountain. Traveling at 5 mph, it will beat us to the top by several hours.

The trail is very rocky, even for New Hampshire. As we continue, the rocks get larger to the point where there’s very little ground (ie., dirt, pine needles or roots). There’s just big granite rocks. I am loving the rocks but eventually the thought snaps into my brain that I’m loving the rocks because I associate open, bare rocks with the summit. We are maybe halfway to the top. Oops.

At the 3.0-mile mark, we reach the Lake of the Clouds Hut. The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains these hiker huts across the White Mountain National Forest, providing beds and meals for a fee. On our way up to the hut, we met a couple on their way down that told us there are muffins and cookies for sale at the hut. I immediately brightened at this news.

We buy a cookie at the hut before heading for the summit.

The sign at the hut says it’s 1.4 miles to the summit of Mt. Washington. After just a little bit, we come to a junction – there’s a lot of trails up here – with a sign that says it’s one-tenth of a mile back to the Lake of the Clouds Hut and 1.4 miles to the summit.

Ummm. How’s that? Either this sign or the one at the hut is wrong. I understand that the distances on these signs aren’t as precise as they claim but really no one’s thought: “we’ve got to fix one of those signs?”

On we go. We’re above the treeline so it’s just rocks with beautiful views down to the train station and the historic Mount Washington Resort some 6 miles away. We can see the Ammonoosuc Ravine below. I’m not a huge fan of hiking like this along a ridge with no trees. I like the views. I like the rocks. I don’t like seeing people pass us and disappear far up the trail ahead of us. I know we’re older than most of the people up here. I know we’re slow on the uphill. But my ego still winces. I am better when someone passes us and then disappears in just a few yards because the trail is so dense and twisty that there’s no way to tell how far ahead the person is after just a few minutes. The ego is a powerful force.

We finally see one of the antennas that dot the summit. I’m excited until Walt says the antenna is very tall (meaning we can see the top from fairly far down the summit).

On a sunny summer day, it would probably be hot out here on the rocks but there’s a good deal of cloud cover, keeping us cool.

The top of the mountain really is just a huge pile of rocks but not like the big boulders of Mt. Chocura. It’s a lot of small rocks just piled up all over each other. Hard to describe and I’m not sure if our pictures will do it justice.

The summit turns out to be a huge disappointment. Usually we’re thrilled to be at the top of a mountain, filled with satisfaction over a hard job well done. Because Mt. Washington has both the cog railway and an auto road to the summit, it is filled with hundreds of people, most of whom did not hike here.

We follow the Crawford Path/AT trail to the actual summit, marked by a big rock cairn and a sign only to find that we have to wait in line to have our picture taken. I’m not really sure what’s the big deal of having your picture taken at the summit of a mountain you didn’t hike or climb yourself but apparently I’m in the minority. Certainly the couple ahead of us holding their little dog seem happy to be here.

Walt and I look at the gathering clouds and listen to the hikers behind us worry about the chances of running into thunderstorms on their way back down the mountain. We opt for the train ride back down the mountain instead of a hike. It’s not cheap but how often will we get the chance to take a train off a mountain that we just hiked?

We get in line – there’s family of three ahead of us doing the same thing – to buy our one-way tickets down. For some reason, it is taking forever for the clerk to process three tickets and I am cold, wet, tired and out of patience. Some people call it “hangry.” I call it “low blood sugar” because I may not be actually hungry, but I do need some sort of food to take off the edge. I ask Walt to fish out the bag of trail mix and sit on nearby bench.

Walt, still patiently waiting to buy our tickets, turns to me after a minute or so. “What are you doing?”

“You know what I’m doing and you know why,” I answer. After half a dozen years together, he knows the signs of me “having a moment” and the path to avoid such a moment. You see, I am not just eating the trail mix, I am cherry-picking the M&Ms. And Walt knows exactly what I’m doing.

He laughs. I eat. The family’s tickets transaction is finally completed and we’re next.

The ride is blissfully short and easy. We make our last New Hampshire soft-ice cream stop before we hit rain.

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