If madness were an elixir, then some woodsprites must have slipped a
few drops into our cocktails, creating a mixture digestible only by
dilution with a healthy measure of safety and prudence. Such a concoction
we quaffed this weekend, with the desired effect of lasting bliss and
Rob 'Nocturnal hiking expert' Jagnow and I became quite intoxicated by the inspirational example of a trio of mountain llamas not too long ago, and resolved to eradicate the induced itch in our loins by a healthy prescription of alpine meandering. Convinced of our cause by a local weather forecast for clear skies and mild temperatures, we set off to the fabled Pemigewasset wilderness for a day of mountain conquests.
For hikes of a certain length, teamwork becomes extraordinarily important, and in my opinion, we each brought vital skills for the undertaking. Apart from general fitness (I can attest to Rob's fitness level because I row with him for Sloan Crew), we each furnished some individual abilities. My dual contributions were knowledge of wilderness survival and a keen nose. It turned out that neither of my skills were actually 'vital' for our journey (although they might have been if conditions had been different). We never had to make a shelter, and my two feats of nasal acuity were rather irrelevant, to say the least. First, I detected the faint scent of perfume on an animal I subsequently identify as human, and second, I correctly ascertain the condition of some fallen leaves as 'rotting', which was already totally obvious. Rob Jagnow, on the other hand, brought two important skills that we actually used. Unfortunately, they counterbalanced each other. His night hiking expertise raised our confidence level for the dark portions of the trek, while his bionic-man-caliber ears increased the level of nocturnal paranoia by alerting us to every conceivable wildlife threat. It is entirely true that Rob's incredible auditory ability was completely accurate in detecting every possible target. It is important to note, however, that half his targets were real, and the other half were imaginary, like the phantom 'Third Hiker', but the explanation to that encounter must come later.
After arriving at the Lincoln Woods parking lot from Boston at 10 PM Friday night, we decided to maximize our sleep time by dozing in my 'surprisingly comfortable' car. Then, at the unwholesome hour of 1:55 AM, we awoke to begin our adventure. (Wholesome hours don't start until 5 AM, and for me usually 8 AM) After a simple breakfast and equipment check, we began our hiking exertions at 2:50 AM. Before leaving, though, we spent quite a bit of care taking extra precautions to include important equipment items like cold weather clothing, iodine tablets for limitless water supply, redundant flashlights, emergency food, first aid supplies, and survival aids such as whistle, rope, and spaceblankets.
We took the ultra-smooth Lincoln Woods trail until it met the more rugged Osseo trail, which led us up to Mount Flume before 5:30 AM. Along the way up Mount Flume, Rob noticed a wee patch of snow. How neat, I thought, remembering the clerk at Eastern Mountain Sports who mentioned that there had been a 'slight dusting' of snow in the Whites on Thursday. I remember asking the clerk when buying my iodine tablets, 'Do you think it was enough to stick?' He replied, 'Nah.' Well, evidently the clerk hiked in a different region, or possessed an alternative definition of 'stick', for before even reaching Mt. Flume, we were trudging through some serious accumulations of snowage. After Mt. Liberty, I figured that two to three more inches of snow would have been fit for snowshoes. This layer of snow had the unfortunate effect of impeding fast footwork, as many hidden rocks and slippery ice-covered obstacles conspired to remind us of our humanity. (Thankfully, we wore full caliber hiking boots.) Regardless of the footpath treachery, we appreciated the pristine snow-dusted evergreens for their aesthetic morale-raising effect. Rob seemed to delight in finding animal tracks in the snow as if to attempt to justify that the sounds he heard were not entirely fictional. At one point he shouted 'Grouse!', after which there appeared a grouse. Feeling hungry, I muttered something like 'Breakfast!', but the grouse, not understanding English, just waddled away nonchalantly, perhaps correctly figuring that we didn't have the time to build a fire to cook him.
The sunrise came slightly before we reached the Little Haystack Mountain, but its onset witnessed from the Franconia Ridge trail was inspiring to behold. At this point we gained a vista of the entire Pemigewasset Wilderness, as well as an appreciation of how much more hiking was required. On Mount Lincoln at 7:45 AM we ate breakfast, which energized us for Mt. Lafayette and the Garfield Ridge trail, which was perhaps the most treacherous of ice-paths, resulting in an average of 2 minor and 1 major slips per minute. During the long descent from Lafayette (at 5260' the highest mountain in the region) and the long ascent up Mt. Garfield, we witnessed the phenomenon of microclimates, which were small patches of warm or chill air, at least 15 F degrees different from the surrounding ambient air temperature. After leaving Mt. Garfield a bit before 11 AM (which afforded an excellent view, as well as a reinforced battle-fortress on its peak) we ran into our first human contact of the day, who we left blissfully ignorant of our starting point (14 miles back) for fear of eclipsing his sense of manhood.
We finally reached the Galehead hut after a semi-interminable hike from Mt. Garfield, surviving the rigors of snow slippage, unfriendly rock traps, and some 'tease me more' fake summits. At this point we're low on energy and decide to nutritionalize ourselves. After lunch, leaving our packs at the hut, we cranked out the 0.5 miles to Galehead Mountain at a pretty good clip, and amused ourselves on the way down by its lackluster summit view. Once back at the hut, we notice a big '48' candle stuck in a beautifully preserved cake that some backpackers had imported flawlessly. Evidently, the lady of the group had just finished hiking all 48 four thousand foot peaks in the New England area and was having a little back country celebration. They managed to wriggle out our plan for the day (at this point 7 out of 14 peaks climbed, 18.1 out of 38.7 miles hiked), and then, (potentially regarding themselves as mentors to impressionable hike-fanatics) decided to share their cake with us. Now at first Rob declined, saying something about mommies and stranger's food, but I asked the question on all our minds 'Is this cake laced with anything I should know about?' The woman replied 'If it is, then we're eating it too.' Now this response did not explicitly answer my question in its entirety, but I eventually decided to be generous and lighten the load on their packs by taking a piece. I shared my piece with Rob, and suffice it to say that we flew up the short but unrelentingly steep Twinway trail to the South Twin Mountain with nary a breather.
At the top of the South Twin Mountain, we met two horizontal stiffs that I initially thought were suffering from exposure, but were actually just taking a nap. Then we met some French-speaking Canadians, who, inhabiting the other end of the energetic spectrum, took off soon after meeting us in a furious pace toward the North Twin Mountain, our next destination. At this point, I believe our competitive spirit was stoked, for how could we allow pack-carrying, ski-pole-using bilingualists to beat us to the next peak 1.3 miles away when we had decided to stash our packs behind a rock for the short dash to North Twin and back? So we overtook them, of course. I even think I said 'Merci' to one of them when he let me pass.
We then followed the relatively benign Twinway trail to Mt. Guyot, where we temporarily ditched some equipment for the loop to Zealand Mountain and back. By the time we reached Guyot, the snow cover disappeared, due to the dual factors of less total precipitation than the previous region, and the day-long melting effect of the sun. Of course the snow transformed itself into mud, but the mud, while messy, didn't slow us down as much as the snow. Now either the map we used is inaccurate, or fatigue began to set in, because the hike from Guyot to Zealand and back was heinous in steepitude way out of proportion to the benign-looking contour intervals on the map. When we actually reached Zealand Mountain at 6:58 PM (24.8 miles), it was like entering a tentsite clearing in the middle of the woods, duplicating Galehead Mountain for most pathetic summit view. We found a sign that said 'Zealand', with the conspicuous absence of the word 'Mountain', as if the sign-posters were ashamed to give it that title. By now the sun was totally gone, so we relied upon our flashlights for the rest of the trek.
We then returned to Mt. Guyot, re-energized with foodstuffs, and set off on the search for West Bond. (I couldn't resist singing the tune to 'Goldfinger' along the way) Gladly, the moon provided us some illumination. We found West Bond, then bagged Mt. Bond, and then set off on the quest for our last peak, Bondcliff. At this point, the search for the last peak began to resemble a Quixotic adventure, for in the dark, the highest point of Bondcliff is not altogether obvious from other candidate highest points. We reached about 5 mini-peaks each with suitably sized cairns massive enough to denote the peak, around which Rob and I scrambled for the highest rock to be able to claim absolute victory. Then we would hike a little more and experience the distress of having our flashlights reveal an even taller rock outcropping, for which a scramble for the highest rock would ensue, etc. This nocturnal adrenaline-charade finally ended with the real Bondcliff at 11:05 PM, after which we knew the rest of the journey was downhill.
Far from being uneventful, the long trek (9.1 miles) back to the car via the Bondcliff, Wilderness, and Lincoln Woods Trails held the monopoly on mental debilitation and departures from sanity. (Ancient shamans might have had to fast for days in the desert to reach this state, but we attained it in a day.) I truly began to think that the interminable downhill slope would never end, that I had obviously dropped the more than 4265' to sea level, and was entering a purgatory of endless repetitions of seamless downhill segments much like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who would roll a huge stone almost to the top of a mountain just to have it slip away for him to repeat the cycle forever. The forest began to exhibit a strange recurrence of features, with logs resembling signposts and leaves resembling signposts and darkness resembling the possibility of signposts. This is the point where Rob later admitted to hearing the 'Third Hiker'. I think I mumbled some weird incoherent nonsense during this stretch, which would baffle even the most accomplished Freudian analyst. Even in our reduced mental state, we both realized that is was psychologically less taxing to follow the other person instead of being the 'lead' hiker, for the follower could aspire to drift into a sleep-while-walk mode while the leader had to be on the continual lookout for the phantom signposts. Eventually, we settled into a side-by-side arrangement, but whether this was due to both of us wanting to follow or both of us stepping up to our team responsibilities is a secret left behind forever in the woods.
Then, like a miracle, we reached the car at 4:25 AM and fell asleep immediately. I don't remember a single dream in the car that morning, but I do know that in the future, my dreams (and those of Rob) will be infected by the snowy 38.7 miles, 14 peaks, 9950-foot elevation gain, 25.5-hour adventure we completed.
Fifteen peaks anyone?