Homage to the White Mountains of New Hampshire
On the desk sits my 1972 edition of the AMC White Mountain Guide. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) first published a trail guide for the White Mountains in 1907 and over the years, the guide has become the hiker’s bible for trail information on all the major hiking destinations in the mountains of New Hampshire. This orange leather-bound 1972 edition, dog-eared and dirty, speaks of the many adventures I enjoyed in the White Mountains during my years there, adventures shared with friends in a place and time that now seems so distant and long ago.
My first trip to the White Mountains was in the spring of 1972, and that visit began my education into the ways and weather of the ‘Whites’. The White Mountains, at the northern end of the great 2000-mile long Appalachian Mountain Range, are located in New Hampshire, although some areas extend across the border into Maine. The 1972 Guide lists 46 peaks over 4000 feet in elevation. The prominent feature of the region is the Presidential Range. This range is comprised of the tallest peaks of the White Mountains and these summits provide the hiker with a great area above treeline to experience and explore. On average, treeline in the White Mountains (that elevation above which trees will not grow because of severe wind and weather) is roughly 4800'. Large flat rocky areas called lawns exist above treeline and great ravines scour the sides of the peaks. The Presidential Range has the climate of Northern Labrador; the highest temperature ever recorded on the tallest peak, Mount Washington (6288’), is a mere 72 degrees.
The White Mountains possess the worst weather in America. They are the focal point where the prevailing westerly winds meet the frigid arctic air coming down from the Canadian north, and the warm-water Gulf Stream that swirls up into the Atlantic Ocean from the south fuels and intensifies these winds. The weather observatory at the summit of Mt Washington once measured a wind speed of 231 miles an hour, a world record that stood for over sixty years. On Mt Washington, half of all winter days see hurricane force winds, and gusts regularly reach above 100 miles an hour. In regards to the Presidential Range, and Mt Washington in particular, the following caution appears on page 1 of my 1972 AMC Guide.
"Caution: the appalling and needless loss of life on this mountain has been due largely to the failure of robust trampers to realize that wintry storms of incredible violence occur at times even during the summer months. Rocks become ice-coated, freezing fog blinds and suffocates, winds of hurricane force exhaust the strongest tramper and, when he stops to rest, a temperature below freezing completes the tragedy." (Published by AMC Books, The AMC White Mountain Guide, 1972, used with permission)
The weather can be a formidable adversary in the Whites, and preparation and planning are paramount. Not only can wintry storms of incredible violence occur in the summer, but rain also occurs in the winter, reducing the heat retention properties of eider-down clothing to near zero when the down filling becomes wet. On the trails that lead into the Presidential Range, a warning sign sits posted just before the trail enters the area above treeline. On the sign appears the following admonition.
“The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."
In late May of 1972, I drove to New Hampshire with a friend, Ed Asikainen. I had met Ed that spring in Connecticut, where I had returned after completing my tour of duty in the Army. Ed spoke of the White Mountains with such love and enthusiasm that I decided to join him on a trip to see and experience the mountains for myself. In Connecticut, we loaded our camping and hiking gear into his car and drove to New Hampshire in his cherry 1955 Chevy Bel Air, where we set up our home for the week in Jigger Johnson, one of the drive-in campgrounds on the east side of the Kancamagus Highway.
On our second day, we set out to climb Mt Washington. We arose from our sleeping bags early in the morning and cooked a hot breakfast. After making lunches, we prepared our daypacks and departed camp for the drive to the trailhead. The trail began in Pinkham Notch, the wide mountain pass between Mt Washington and the Wildcat Range. We drove up rte 16 towards Pinkham and as we gained altitude, the Presidential Range began to loom up before us. Every sight, sound, and smell was new and exciting; I felt mesmerized by everything. We reached the top of the notch and parked in a large gravel lot adjacent to the AMC facilities.
We walked up the stairs to the porch and entered the building. The AMC facilities at Pinkham in 1972 were extensive. The main public building supported many hiker activities: the building had the latest trail and weather information, summit conditions, supplies, and maps. It also had picnic tables indoors where a person could relax with friends and enjoy a coffee or hot chocolate. In the basement were showers and laundry facilities to benefit hikers in need of such services.
We stopped at the counter in the main building to check on weather conditions and buy trail snacks. The hut resonated with its own unique aura and energy, and I was surrounded by people of all ages wearing hiking apparel of every description. Conversations swirled around us as people discussed gear and clothing, experiences, past and future hikes, and their intended destinations for the day.
Ed and I started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which began just outside the side door of the AMC building at an elevation near 2000' and climbed more than 4000' in four miles to the summit of Mt Washington. We hiked steadily upwards for more than two miles and then the trail turned sharply to the left. The hanging cliffs of the Boott Spur rose into the sky in front of us as we turned right on the steep Lion’s Head Trail and continued our ascent. In another hour, we were above treeline and hiking along the crest of the ridge that formed the northeastern wall of Tuckerman Ravine. The ravine itself lay spread out below, while the rounded bowl-shape of the great headwall rose up from the depths to scour the side of the mountain ahead of us and to our left. Across the ravine stood the Boott Spur and the high Montalban Ridge leading to Bigelow Lawn. Across to the east were the Wildcat Range and the Carter mountains. To the south lay numerous peaks jumbled about and stretching to the horizon. The cone of Mt Washington rose up before us, and on the right, a row of cairns marked the course of a trail as it made its way across the lawn of the Alpine Garden.
Our trail continued steeply up the cone and rejoined the Tuckerman Ravine Trail below a gravel parking lot used by tourists who had driven up the auto road. Crossing the parking area, we climbed the final set of stairs to the flat area surrounding the summit. Before us stood the old Tip-Top house, the broadcast facility, and the old summit building. Also, atop a small mound of rocks, stood the actual summit of the mountain, at 6288' of elevation. It had taken us about three and a half hours to reach the top.
At the summit, we stood together atop the rock pile and drank in the view of the great peaks of the Northern Presidential Range: Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. In addition, amid the great arc of peaks, I saw for the first time the Great Gulf, Monticello Lawn, Jefferson’s Knee, Thunderstorm Junction, the buttress of Adams, and the Osgood Ridge.
We changed our location and walked toward the west where we could look down the spine of the Southern Presidential Range. We gazed down on the great peaks of Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Clinton, Jackson, and Webster. The Crawford Path, the oldest mountain trail in continuous use in America, came up from Crawford Notch to reach treeline near Mt Clinton. From there to the summit of Mt Washington, the Crawford Path meandered for over five miles as it worked its way up the barren terrain, fully exposed to the fury of the storms that buffet the mountains from the northwest. High up on the Crawford Path, below the summit of Mt Washington, is a marker commemorating the spot where two hikers died of exposure in a storm on July 19, 1958.
Eventually, we left the summit and worked our way down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. We passed the junction of the Lion Head Trail, continued down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the headwall, and followed the path as it turned to the left and made its way through scrub and across open stretches to the side of the ravine. Reaching the top of a rocky slide, we made our way down the trail to the floor of the great glacial bowl, then turned left and followed the trail as it gradually descended along the length of the ravine. It continued over the little headwall and stopped at the AMC building below, a facility at the base of the ravine that provided rescue and support services for the large number of hikers that traveled through Tuckerman's. After a brief rest, we headed down to Pinkham and the car, and then back to our camp on the Kancamagus.
Later in the week, we climbed one of the most scenic peaks in the southern region of the White Mountains, Mt Chocorua. Although just barely more than half as high as Mt Washington, its exposed granite top provided us with expansive views of the southern area of the White Mountains and the Lake’s Region to the south. From atop Chocorua, I could make out Mt Washington and the high summits of the surrounding area. I reveled in the memories of climbing the great peak several days before.
We spent the rest of our time relaxing and recovering from our two days of hiking. We made friends with strangers, had cookouts, and enjoyed a beer or wine as we told stories during campfires that lasted long into the night. During the days, Ed introduced me to the various regions of the White Mountains by car. I fell in love with the area, including the rain and fog as well, and saw how the mountains changed in tune with the weather. At the end of a week, we returned to Connecticut.
In 1973, I made several trips back to the White Mountains. I had related my mountain hiking experiences to several people in Connecticut and later that summer, I led a group of four friends to the summit of Mt Washington following the same route Ed and I had used last year during my first ascent of the mountain. I bought the 1972 edition of the guidebook that summer and used the book for the next several years. I put the guide and its maps in a plastic bag and carried that bag in my pack as my ever-ready companion.
That is how it began, my eighteen-year love affair with the White Mountains. In the passage of time, I came to know many of the places referenced in the guide. I climbed all of the 4000 foot peaks, including the two new additions to the 1972 list, Bondcliff and Galehead. I finished my quest of the 48 White Mountain 4000 footers on Mt Isolation, which I climbed in 1987. I enjoyed multiple ascents on many of the particularly scenic peaks. I was not an athlete, but I appreciated the challenge and the adventure the White Mountains offered me. I explored the great ravines and visited the mountain ponds. I stayed at the high huts and used them as a base to explore the high country around them. I visited the two huts that remained open year round as a means to experience the Whites in winter. As a matter of necessity, I learned about hiking in all weather conditions, and I put the compass and orienteering skills gained in the Army years to good use.
I would never scale the great peaks of the Himalayas or ascend the granite walls of the west, but in my years of hiking in the Whites, I came to know both success and failure, and experienced the gamut of emotions others had mentioned when describing great mountaineering adventures. I felt fear, panic, and elation. In regards to mountain expeditions, I learned firsthand what writers meant when they used words such as resiliency, courage for the task at hand, determination, fellowship, and heart to describe their adventures in the high country. I made many trips into the mountains by myself; I would rather be alone than share an experience in my favorite locale with anyone who made me uncomfortable or ill at ease, or who did not appreciate the area as much as I did. This made the adventures shared with true friends all the more remarkable and meaningful. What I took away from those adventures was mine and was important to me; it helped to make my life full.
The White Mountains occupy a large portion of northern New Hampshire and I always found something new and exciting to see and do. They consist of many different areas and mountain ranges, and this diversity allowed me to experience terrain of varying difficulty along with a broad range of mountain scenery, the scenery and terrain constantly altered and enhanced by the vagaries of the weather. Robert Marshall, the famous wilderness advocate and noted hiker of great distances, used the following words to compare his experiences in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with his expeditions in the great wilderness areas of the West and Alaska, words no less true when used to describe the White Mountains. “All day we passed through luxuriant virgin forest and had time to enjoy three different mountain views. Had we done our 5,300 feet of climbing all on one mountain, we undoubtedly should have found much less beauty.”(1) The virgin forest may be gone, but the diversity one can see in a day of hiking in the East is not.
The years of hiking and discovery in the Whites went by, and other White Mountain Guides came into my possession. I bought new editions as they contained updated maps and trail descriptions. The leather-bound 1972 edition was retired into my bookcase and the new edition and maps went into the plastic bag in my pack, and I repeated this act every time I purchased a new edition of the guide.
Even as I slowly pursued the goal of climbing all of the 4000 footers, I enjoyed many magic locations, places I visited more than once during the years I spent hiking in the White Mountains. I ascended Mt Moosilauke twenty times, including one year when I made five trips to the summit. Its location in the southern portion of the Whites made the peak easy to reach when driving up north from southern New Hampshire. The treeless summit, standing at 4810’ of elevation, afforded fine views in all directions. Moosilauke had some extraordinarily scenic trails and served as a great peak to bring visitors for a White Mountain experience; we could delight in a day hike to the summit and still savor a fine dinner at my apartment that evening.
I made many forays into the Presidential Range, and availed myself of the opportunity to use Lakes of the Clouds and Madison Spring Huts as base camps to explore the barren high peaks and wind-swept ridges of New Hampshire. I grew to love Zealand and the Pemigewasset Wilderness, experienced May blizzards and high-water river crossings, and traveled the mountain ranges south of the Kancamagus Highway. On numerous occasions, I made the long loop across the beautiful Franconia Ridge: first came a climb up the Falling Waters Trail to the summit of Little Haystack, then a trek across the exposed ridge over Mt Lincoln to Mt Lafayette, and then a mile-long descent on the barren western flank to Greenleaf Hut. From the hut, it was a rough, but protected, hike back to the parking lot via the Old Bridle Path.
Time spent in the mountains did not always entail arduous trips and adventures; I enjoyed many weekend campouts with friends new and old that centered on campfires and partying during the night, canoeing and swimming during the day.
One area in particular, Mt Bond and the peaks surrounding it became my favorite destination. Mt Bond sits at the southern end of a great ridge comprised of North and South Twin mountains, the Twinway, and the two barren rounded summits of Guyot. The mountain sits near the center of a great wilderness area bordered by Franconia Notch in the west, the small town of Twin Mountain and rte 3 to the north, Crawford Notch to the east, and the Kancamagus Highway to the south. The remote location of the mountain and the effort required to reach the summit appealed to me. The views from the summit are striking; the southern Pemigewasset Wilderness with Mt Carrigain and Mt Hancock, the view down to Mt Bondcliff in the west, and across the rugged ridge of West Bond to the great Franconia Ridge beyond. To the east, the long ridge leading down to Zealand Notch and the Field-Willey Range, with the Presidential Range towering behind. For me, the diversity of mountain scenery in this region is unparalleled in the White Mountains. I was never happier than when I gained the summit of Mt Bond and gazed at South Twin to the north, and knew I would soon make the hike to South Twin across that singular ridge.
One summer day in 1987, Al Woods and I made the long hike into Guyot Shelter from the Zealand Road carrying heavy backpacks on a cold and rainy day. The following dawn came clear and crisp. We shouldered light daypacks consisting of water, snacks, and a parka. Retracing our steps from the shelter back up to the Bondcliff Trail, we headed south to the summit of Mt Bond. We took a brief rest, enjoyed the views, and continued down to the west before climbing to the summit of Mt Bondcliff. After enjoying that panorama, we climbed back to the summit of Mt Bond and headed north. We followed the spur trail across the narrow rugged ridge to the summit of West Bond, and returned the same way to the Bondcliff Trail, where we continued north over Mt Guyot to the trail's end at the Twinway Trail. We followed the Twinway north to the summit of South Twin, the highpoint of our journey at 4902’ of elevation. From there, we traveled the Spur Trail to the summit of North Twin. Later that afternoon, we retraced our route back over South Twin and across the Twinway and the bare summits of Guyot to arrive back in our camp at Guyot Shelter.
(looking south towards Mt Bond from South Twin)
I have taken longer hikes and climbed greater elevations in a day, but for me, that was my single best day spent hiking in the White Mountains. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
The last AMC White Mountain Guide I bought was the 1987 edition. This guide is a paper bound book, dark green in color, with a small picture of the north ridge of Mt Lafayette displayed on the book’s cover. Along with the 1972 guide, the 1987 edition forms a fitting bookend for my AMC guides. The book marks the end of the White Mountain period of my life, and the north peak of Lafayette is where the noted historian of the northeast mountains, Guy Waterman, hiked to on a frigid February day in 2000. Waterman, a complex man who had climbed every 4000-foot peak from every compass point in winter, went there for the sole purpose of ending his life on his own terms, and on his beloved Franconia Ridge.
In 1990, I left New Hampshire to live in the West, and the great adventure that began in 1972 was over. I look back on that period of my life with gratitude and affection, and carry those years with me still. A day does not go by without some memory or connection to those times coming into my conscious thoughts. Friendships, mementos, and photos remain to connect me with the White Mountains, just as this dirty and worn 1972 guide does today, thirty-five years later. I was young (22 years of age) when I made my first trip to the White Mountains, and I was rediscovering myself after serving three years in the Army and a year in Vietnam. With the clarity of hindsight, I can only say that I am grateful for the memories and experiences gathered over those eighteen years, and I cannot imagine what my life would have been without them.
I open my 1972 AMC guide and on the blank sheet facing the title page, find a few words I inscribed there over thirty years ago. Someone had carved the words into the wood on the inside of the old fire tower that once stood on the summit of Mt Carrigain. Many consider this centrally located peak to have the finest views in the White Mountains. On that trip, I had made the long hike to the summit with my dog in the rain and fog, and spent a memorable night in the shelter of the old tower as rain and high winds pummeled the structure. After a spectacular sunny and windy dawn revealed the wonder that surrounded me, I found these words and copied them into my guidebook that morning, on May 15, 1976.
The words said, “Sean and Lisa came back to life here. 8/10/73"
I know it to be true.