When in the course of human history the members of a small cartel jointly experience an insatiable group desire, there often ensues regimes of tyranny, oligarchic oppression, violent revolution, or a vigorous expansion of doctrine. For the two person hiking alliance of Rob Jagnow and I, our mutual aspiration merely led to the overthrow of that mythic entity known as the Waterville-Sandwich Big Munch, or Momma Big Munch. This jealous creature, mountainous in form and thunderous in temper, guarded her circuitous circumnavigation route with such aplomb that were it not for the tincture of madness that infected our party, we might have concluded rationally that the "coup de montagne" was impossible. Yet in the advanced stage of backcountry affliction that us beriddles, the impossible becomes worthy of consideration, and the unlikely morphs into a downright certainty.|
The Waterville-Sandwich Big Munch consists of a hodgepodge of trails slapdashed together to provide all seven of the official 4000 ft peaks in the Sandwich Range and Waterville Ski region a decent chance of being conquered in a day. The seven mountains are Tecumseh, Osceola, East Osceola, North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, Passaconaway, and Whiteface. These represent the southernmost group of 4000 footers in the White Mountains. Unfortunately for ridge-mongers, Tecumseh and the Osceolas (themselves not connected by a ridge) are in an entirely different mountain range than the rest of the peaks, which guarantees any attempt at climbing all seven to encounter some serious elevation gain (at least 10,000 ft). In addition to elevation gain, the summits are also somewhat geographically separated (unlike Franconia Ridge, for example) which effectively enforces a lengthy tab of mileage.
After spending quite a bit of time scouring Eastern Mountain Sports, Wilderness House, and REI for any gear that might possibly shave a few minutes off our hiking time, Rob and I escaped the metropolis Saturday evening and pitched a tent in the Waterville Campground at the very base of Mt. Tecumseh. This time we both had weight-saving zip-transformable nylon pant-shorts, hydration systems, a bevy of bergelene, lightweight backup LED lights called photon or pulsar depending on the manufacturer, and an experimental supply of some strange substance known as caffeinated power gel. I had figured that the camelbak hydration system alone would dispense with at least 30 minutes of needless old-fashioned waterbottle breaks over the course of the day. We were anxious to test out the gear and separate the wheat from the chaff.
At 2:30AM Sunday we arose, and unbeknownst to us at the time, Momma Big Munch had just received the first glimmer of foreboding that her days of being unconquered were soon to end. Incredulous still, she didn't feel the need to pelt us with extreme temperatures so early. The morning was cold, but bergelene long underwear, hefty adrenaline, and a gut-stuffing Concord NH Foodees dinner of pizza (for Rob) and the "woodsman"-weird turkey on pasta (for me) made the environment seem like nary a goosebump. So at 3:11AM, under a new moon, we left our car and started jogging up the ski-road to the Mt. Tecumseh trailhead two miles away. One hour and 35 minutes later we stood at the top of Tecumseh, where it was already getting light, having hiked 4.5 miles and gained 2540 ft of elevation. This was really a shot in the arm for our morale, even though the summit itself was rather occluded by trees and thus quite mediocre, since the AMC guidebook estimated the time to climb Tecumseh from the trailhead to be 2 hrs and 20 minutes, and did not include the extra two miles from the campsite. Of course, we realized that if we relied on the AMC times as a pacer, the whole loop would take something like 40 hours to complete, so we could not afford to be complacent. For pacing, we relied on a spreadsheet of the upcoming trail junctions with mileages, elevations and desired leg times all pre-calculated, which, in its silent text form, was more authoritarian than the strictest martinet.
Leaving the Tecumseh summit, we doubled back to the trailhead on the ski road and took it partway down to its intersection with the gravely Tripoli Road, which led us to the start of the Mt. Osceola Trail. Clambering up the slopes with one brief food-replenishment stop and one blistoid-repair break (I say "blistoid" because Rob was adamant that his manly constitution didn't allow him to get "blisters") we reached the summit of Mt. Osceola at 8:18 AM, having hiked 14.4 miles with 5270 ft of elevation gain. Here the summit allowed one of the day's better views, with a mildly exposed top and an arrangement of strange "stonehenge" stones that must have been the remnants of some long dismantled observation hut. Then we charged on to East Osceola, along which we spotted an exposed rock face of obvious potential interest to technical rock climbers. After descending the steep trail from the Osceolas, we took the relatively flat Greely Ponds Trails to the Livermore Trail, which we followed to its intersection with the Scaur Ridge Trail, the gateway to the Sandwich Range Wilderness.
At this point (1216 PM) we had traveled 24.2 miles with 6520 ft of elevation gain at an average speed of 2.66 miles per hour. Momma Big Munch had already begun to feel her first pangs of fear, and had reacted with the first of her direct-intervention hazards, sending out swarms of black flies in an attempt to eat us to death. But this had only made us hike faster, in an effort to outpace the flies, so she settled upon another strategy. Now admittedly this second hurdle was rather weak, and only amounted to vast mounds of animal droppings littering the trail (as if that would stop us, oh no!) But by the time we had reached North Tripyramid (lame view) and Middle Tripyramid (decent view) she decided to up the ante slightly. At this point she unleashed the rain.
Now Momma Big Munch must be a passive-aggressive sort, since she didn't come all-out and wash us down the mountain with a one-shot monsoon deluge of nor'easter proportions. No, she decided to drizzle a little bit (but just enough to convince us to pull out the gore-tex), then stop, (are we done with the jackets?) then recommence (rats, more rain) all in an effort to soak us internally with our own perspiration, since the trail itself was still relatively dry, afforded decent traction, and allowed fast walking. However, being the insipid entity that she was, she slyly lowered the temperature over each cycle until it became quite cold.
We had made it to the Rollins Trail Junction just next to Mt. Whiteface after taking the Kate Sleeper Trail when we decided to stash one of our packs under the sloping corrugated-metal roof of the soon-to-be discontinued Camp Shehadi hut. We had a grueling 6.6 mile round trip loop ahead of us to Mt. Passaconaway and back, and decided it was a bit far to go without water, so we opted that Rob would take the one pack on the way there, and I would carry it on the return. So the trail plunged down and down, and I was beginning to dread having to carry the pack back up this wet rocky route when we finally reached the bottom and began the ascent to Passaconaway. Now, faced with losing the last of her seven summits, Momma Big Munch lost her reserve and smacked us with an all-out assault of hail. Rabid, now, with anticipation, we punched our way to the summit and experienced what should have been called Mt. Passaconawayintheclouds, with absolutely no view whatsoever, and came to the conclusion that Big Munch is a bad loser. It was now 6:10 PM and we had gone 34.2 miles with 9920 ft of elevation gain. Swapping the pack, we retraced our steps to the Shehadi hut and finally arrived, wet, cold, hungry and all a'shiverin', needing dinner, losing sunlight quickly, and faced with many more miles of rugged terrain. Perhaps the reason we do these hikes is the deferred gratification of actually finishing them, because I know for sure at this point we were not feeling too comfortable or happy.
Huddling by the hut, we munched some dinner but then cut it short because it was getting too cold not to be moving. At this point came one of the trip-defining moments which offered much insight into our speed-distance mentality. You see, there are four ways to increase one's speed on the trail. The first is PHYSICAL, which can be improved through conditioning. The second is MOTIVATIONAL, which can be improved by associating with a good hiking partner. The third is ORGANIZATIONAL, which covers pre-made spreadsheets and time-saving equipment and proper food. The fourth is IMPROVISATIONAL, which really can't be planned, but just emerges in certain situations. Now of all the food we had carried, the five peaches were the unrivaled jewels. We had already eaten four, and were now so tired and cold that the thought of a fight-to-the-death struggle over the remaining peach had lost all its appeal. So obviously we had to share the fruit. It's just that cutting the peach in half with a knife seemed like such a waste of time, that Rob implored me to "just eat half", and hand him the remaining salivary pulp while hiking (saving a good ten seconds), after which he handed me back the slimy pit to be stuffed into my pocket for the return journey, since, after all, some people's definitions of littering can extend into the extreme.
Now began the most heinous nocturnal descent down the incredibly steep and totally soaked large-slab rock face of the McCrillis Trail down from the south face of Mt. Whiteface. Many a slip, whoosh, and yelp were heard on that slide, often with a sudden self-induced rain shower from a wet shaken tree grasped onto for dear life. We finally made it to the Flat Mountain Pond Trail junction with only 6 miles and 800 ft of elevation gain to go to reach our under-24 hour goal of 46.8 miles. So we thought only six miles with only 800 ft of gain, this shouldn't take so long....but why does the guidebook have an estimated leg-time of over four hours? It turned out the Flat Mountain Pond trail wasn't particularly flat or smooth, was badly overgrown (who would venture to maintain a trail that leads to the nigh-useless McCrillis Trail?), and was close to being a pond itself. Careful footwork that had previously kept our feet relatively dry now degenerated into a plod-slip-plod through muddy bog. Although mentally alert, my ambulatory coordination was sacrificed as a concession to physical fatigue. Rob, who kept his coordination a bit better than I, racking up slightly less stump-bumps and sinkhole slides, nonetheless delved into more of the interesting mental driftings. If we weren't so exhausted, it would have been rather comical watching me angrily heave offending trip-causing branches into the woods, and Rob not even appearing to register the event. So I was beginning to wonder if Momma Big Munch was truly trying to extract her final revenge when ker-plack! A loud smack racked the ambient frog-sounds of the nearby lake. The trail disappeared into deep water and we found ourselves next to a beaver dam (nature's own engineer! - not very funny under these conditions). Now we roamed around trying to find where the trail resumed, and Rob, who up until now I had suspected was sleep-walking, suddenly woke up mumbling something about having experience in negotiating beaver dams. Sure enough, the trail resumed on the other side of the dam and we had finally cleared the last of Momma Big Munch's direct-intervention hazards. Then after a few more stream crossings we reached our goal of the Bennet Street Trailhead at 2:46 AM, having hiked 46.8 miles with 11620 ft of elevation gain.
Now we decided to take our first relaxful break, unhurried and thankful for a decent patch of dry ground upon which to momentarily lounge. Then we were back on the trail sometime after 4 AM, after sucking down some of that newfangled caffeinated power gel, which really works. Rob muttered something like "Dude, I can feel my heart beating," less than five minutes after ingesting the substance. We had one last mountain to go, the 3980 foot Sandwich Mountain, which didn't count as a 4000 footer but nonetheless was a challenge in our condition. So we proceeded up and up, not particularly fast since our muscles had tightened during the previous break, and finally reached the summit. At this point, we realized that if we could go the 4.6 miles to the car in under 2 hours and 18 minutes we'd have done the entire 53.8 mile loop (13770 ft gain) in under 30 hours. So it became a mad dash down the incessantly steep Sandwich Mountain trail, which tapped into energy reserves we never knew we had. We both slapped the trunk of my car at 9:06 AM beating the arbitrarily self-imposed deadline by a mere five minutes.
We had accomplished our goal of ousting the mythic Waterville-Sandwich Big Munch from its secure cradle in the southern White Mountains. The question remains, though, of how many other mythic creatures out there are clamoring for a scrapping.