Hiking Mount Washington
I stare at the glorious mountain before me and seek out the words to describe her in true form. I am only human, much younger than she; just a seed in life’s spiraling cycle. And I don’t know if I can hold the wisdom she does, but I know it’s there, waiting to be touched.
Some might say she wants to be left alone. People have come and gone over the years taking way more than they could give, their hands are dirty with spoiled intention. Many come with a ravenous appetite. I can’t help but think that must be so lonely. She is Mother Earth, and she is connected to all that is around her, has more lovers than one could count, but there’s still a part missing.
Humanity’s connection wasn’t severed, just lost. Some thought it was better to live apart, so they conquered land that not one of us own. As “kings of the world”, they fought for power, destroying what’s sacred in their path, despite the absence of its existence in truth. They had forgotten that without her, there would be nothing at all. It can be hard to remember that isn’t all of us humans. I like to think she is still accepting of those who come with the gift of friendship; an offering of understanding as a promise, for we are her reminders that not all have let go.
From afar, I see her strength. Vast, thick, and bare enough to pick out the veins draping down her vessel. I try to trace the lines, but fade between the forks and lose myself dancing in the curves. I feel affectionate towards her, the affection and curiosity of a fawn, though I am still subject to her unforgiving and unpredictable nature.
I would like to know you. I ask for a story- close my eyes, kneel, and make space for her words to enter.
I hear nothing in return. I guess I should’ve expected that. I laugh, loud enough that the contagiousness of it catches hold of my allies, the ferns and trillium alike. They laugh too. We speak in energy here. She asks that I listen with my heart.
I touch my palms to the fertile soil. Everything around me stops for a brief second. The trees stop swaying. They are the leaders of the forest, and this is how the ripple effect begins, the creation of a silent space for storytelling. Everyone holds their tongues in allowance for the Great One to speak. A few look to me, awaiting a declaration, but you can’t force it. What must be heard will not push through the ground like a mushroom, nor emerge from the rings of the eldest tree. It will come from the sky instead.
As I look up, my chest opens for reception. It cracks open wide. My spine is the remote control that manages the displacement of my ribs. I bare my heart. Clouds expand and contract as if they were preparing for birth. In the clear blue sky, they spiral- shooting up and striking lightning into me.
With that, the knowledge from each life I’ve gathered is evoked in me. A rebirth in a way. The story that is told is my own. It was always there, but like most things, forgotten. All the veins that lead back to me are recognized again. I trace the paths along them. There are secrets I can’t tell. And I will be a keeper to that promise. So I preach her beauty instead, so the rest will seek what I have.
Hiking Mount Washington
Each mountain is unique in its own nature, and therefore incomparable to that of others. They all have their own charm and mystery.
The White Mountains are an incredible mountain range in the Northeast and home to Mount Washington, who stands unapologetically confident at 6,288 feet high. Known for fast-changing and harsh weather conditions, Mount Washington has the highest wind speed ever recorded in the world at 231 mph.
Before I ever summited Mount Washington, I’d heard enough stories to make me not want to go. Many have died over the years there. Because there are no significant mountain ranges between the Rocky Mountains and the whites, there’s pretty much no stopping or slowing down hurricane-force winds speeding across the country. Extreme weather is partly what makes Mount Washington a marvel. Weather fronts change quicker than you can blink, and if not properly prepared (gear-wise and also knowing what to expect for the day), it’s possible it won’t end well. I’ve been at the bottom of the mountain in 80-degree weather, sweating, then trying to summit in 70 mph winds and shivering in the 30-degree wind chill. Many perish from hypothermia. There are also tricky spots throughout the trails, which can make for hard and fast falls down. Other times, people may not make it due to lack of physical preparation or preexisting health conditions.
Mount Washington attracts people from everywhere. If you looked up Northeast attractions, I can guarantee Mount Washington is one of them. There are plenty who take the Mount Washington Auto Road or the Cog Railway, but it’s undoubtedly a shame that a part of the beauty was stripped away for yet another road. Others who come in unadulterated appreciation are hikers, climbers, and skiers.
There are five main hiking trails to the summit- Tuckerman Ravine, Jewell, Lion Head, Ammonoosuc, and Boott Spur. Huntington Ravine is another trail, but also the most challenging and dangerous. It’s not recommended for beginners and/or those who don’t know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. Do your research. It’s also not recommended to descend on either ravine, so in the case you wanted to ascend that way, you’d have to find an alternate trail to come down.
I’ve summited Mount Washington only three times so far. Two of those times were through Tuckerman Ravine (descent on Lion’s Head) and once through the Ammonoosuc (descent on the Jewell Trail).
The climbs came with butterflies and excitement for what the adventure would bring, especially the first few times. It’s like when you’re going to meet a new person. She’s intimidating, towering over the valley in such fierce stance, and should in no way be treated lightly.
Tuckerman Ravine/Lion Head
Distance: 8 miles
Elevation Gain: 4,169 ft
Ascent: Tuckerman Ravine
I opened my eyes to a gray sky just before dawn. I made my way up slowly, whipped up a nice cup of ginger tea and a breakfast sandwich then headed out the door. We arrived at Pinkham Notch around 6:15 am. Although it was still very early, the parking lot had many cars. Other hikers stood at their trunks in puffy, down jackets, eating hard-boiled eggs. I threw my pack over my shoulders and clipped its buckles around my hips and chest. My nerves slipped away to my feet, and I stomped them out as I walked past the visitor center.
I dragged my still very much drowsy legs up the first .2 miles of slight incline. The waterfalls were in my favor though, requiring stillness to appreciate. I perched myself over a heavily flowing fall that gifted me a cool breeze. It was stationed among the trees, who doused themselves in fresh mountain water. I admired the way the water threw itself over the staggered rocks- no thought involved. I imagine that the water doesn’t get scared. Its purpose in those moments is to flow and fall. No hesitation. No effort. That’s what letting go must look like.
A well-built bridge followed this, then the trail tilted itself vertically. The path is relatively wide compared to the average hiking trail, and rocks are scattered everywhere. I kept a steady pace. I didn’t want to go too fast- that’s like opening the faucet to let all your energy run out before you actually need it. Eager to get ahead though, I kept looking up to see what was in front of me, but then I’d trip! So I focused my attention back on each step, carefully placing my feet on the flattest part of the rocks. One who does not care about their feet positioning now will regret it later when their ankles are sensitive and aching for rest.
I crossed a few more bridges, maybe two or three, and as I did, the trees grew closer together, flushing into the most splendid perylene green. My favorite part about the higher you go is the less bare the rocks are. Verdant moss dresses them like a warm sweater. The magic of moss is too often overlooked- the resilience and fluid nature of it.
At the two-mile mark, I met with Hermit Lake and the Hermit Lake Shelter. There were a few small shelters and tent platforms throughout. There were also some picnic tables, which made it a solid place to sit down for a second before we began the true ascent. I love it there, and the reason for that is because it has the grandest view of the ravine. The ravine is just… magnificent.
The east side of the mountain has two ravines- Huntington and Tuckerman. The lateral side of the mountain caves in and juts out. Normally, a mountainside would slope down, but glacial erosion caused the side to form a bowl shape, so they’re both technically ‘glacial cirques’. Standing in front of the ravine, you’re basically in a massive stadium, and the pines are your audience. You’re unable to see over either side, which made me feel like I was being protected behind a shield. From a good position in center stadium, you can view the collection of massive boulders. Although the sky was tragically covered in a thick bed of clouds that laid low, I could still see the face of the wall.
The snow was gone, the snow arch had just collapsed back in June, but what remained underneath were the impressive boulders carving into the mountain body like scars. Maples, oaks, pines, and birches complimented them, and a meager waterfall ran along the rocks. I remember what this all looked like last September. The leaves had already changed and created a beautiful mix of colors- burnt orange, auburn, butterscotch, and lime. And the sweet smell of an autumn breeze in the mountains invigorated my whole being.
The trail’s alpine flowers grew boldly at its edges. They have a rough life but are made for it. Imagine being this seemingly delicate flower, but having the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. So wonderfully smart they are. Experts of mountain life!
It wasn’t a long climb up the ravine (about one mile), but it was exposed. The rocks can be slippery because of general moisture or from running water flowing down the rocks. There were also sections where the mud had slid. I carefully weighed myself out on my thighs and got my hands ready to brace in case of impact. Climbing the ravine was one of the best parts of this trail. I looked down and I was suddenly above it all. I could see both sides of the stadium walls, but still not past them. And in the distance, the sky began to open back up into the valley.
The boulder field opened up into an alien land. A thick fog covered the landscape, and without the sun, the temperature began to drop. I couldn’t see too far in front of me. The people passing by faded into shadows. The wind added to an extra chill and if it was iffy here, I imagined the top wasn’t ideal. I came prepared though, with a pack that has pretty much everything (I hoped). I took out my gloves, down coat, and hat, and put them on as if my life depended on it. .8 miles to the summit.
Being tired, sore, and a little slow makes .8 miles feel longer than it is. Still, I moved my feet with determination. As I inched closer to the peak, I began to notice these peculiar formations in the rocks. White and pink, some with black speckles. Some were sharp, others a bit dull, but all with the same basic structure. Some rested with a pile of other rocks as trail markers, but the bigger ones were locked into the rigid rock. Crystals.
There are many reasons Mount Washington is magical. And when I say magical, I mean this mountain reaches into the heavens or maybe just close enough that heaven’s remains fall right onto Earth. I didn’t expect this even though I’ve seen quartz on mountain tops before, just never in this size. They are incredibly beautiful, untouched, and naturally there. I wonder if those being there, peculiarly placed, is the reason why Mount Washington Valley is swelling with energy. But anyway, I’ve never seen anyone stop to take a minute with them. I placed my hand on the white crystal bed, paid my respects, gave my thanks, and kept moving.
As soon as I could just barely pick out the edge of the auto road, the motivation to hurry up kicked it. And before I knew it, I was at the top and met with more steps up to the summit building. It was even colder and windier than before, so I hurried in where it was warm to properly prepare for the descent.
Descent: Lion’s Head
In order to transition to the Lion Head trail, we had to walk back down the way we came for about .4 or .6 miles to another sign for the Alpine Garden trail. Trekking through the fog again, I made my way over bigger boulders. Most of this was me sliding on my bum to avoid falling or out of laziness because it’s a quick chance to sit. You’re still scrambling here, except it flattens out a bit. There was a short section of pines before entering a meadow.
Here, I watched the clouds peel off the mountain. It wasn’t the luckiest day atop the mountain, but from a bit lower you could begin to see the view of the world around you. Even the rocks begin to flatten out, so your feet get a quick break. Lion Head drops off its edge, plummeting down into the path we walked before. I laid on a rock at the very edge, taking in the mountain wrapping around, the sun’s sparkling light, and the clouds moving quickly over me. A few droplets of rain came through, but nothing serious. It was peaceful laying at the edge of the world.
When I first came here, I remember seeing other people walking on Lion Head and wondering how they’d get down because it looks like a straight path with a quick drop-off. I just couldn’t fathom it, and still can’t whenever I’m the one walking down. All I know is that there are lovely alpine plants covering either side and guiding me toward the treeline.
My legs worked to lower me down, deeper into the mountainside. The White Mountains are known for their rocks. If you come here, you’re probably not looking for easy and you shouldn’t expect it either. Even past the treeline, the rocks didn’t stop, but there were more exposed roots and dirt. This makes it slippery. I had to maneuver down rocks that my dad calls “Mountain Marble” and trust my feet that I wouldn’t slide down. These parts are the hardest because there aren’t any holds for your feet (sometimes squatting is required). On occasion, there were fallen trees, so I’d find myself climbing over or crawling under.
Lion Head opened back up onto the Tuckerman Ravine trail a bit before the Hermit Lake Shelter. The rest of the way down was exactly the same as the way I came up, just plain walking down the rocks again. This is the part where all your thoughts leave because you’re trying to make it out. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, just that my body had had enough already.
And right back to the visitor center, I went, arriving at a parking lot overflowing with cars.
The toughest part of this trail is…every second of the ascent. The Tuckerman Ravine trail gains 1,000 feet in elevation per mile. It’s only four miles to the summit, but it’s a long four miles, as is every mile in the White Mountains. Your body works hard. Your movements are calculated. I felt the muscles that hadn’t been worked in a long time being used. The trail tore at my flesh and weaknesses, but in a way, left me completely different than the way I started. Amazed and captivated by the art of the mountain.
Originally published at http://visionaryorchid.com on September 29, 2020.