The war drum of winter beats ever closer towards the end of the fall in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Its steady thump is seen in my foggy breath and felt in the cold caress of the wind. The trees have mostly blanketed the ground in a kaleidoscope of red and golden hues with their discarded leaves, although some still cling to branches like tinsel from last years Christmas tree. Anticipation hums through my bloodstream as my gaze lingers on the mountain tops reaching for the silent blue sky. We’ve come to conquer the heights of Mt. Adams.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”-Kerouac
Summiting a mountain and the journey to get there can be a physical and emotional challenge. I was searching for an excursion with a reward that touched not only my muscles but my spirit. The easiest route is not necessarily the most rewarding. Sometimes the harder the road the better the destination. In layman’s terms what my heart was craving that day was adventure.
Lowe’s Store in Randolph, NH is not the home improvement superstore of the same name but rather the before picture of a home improvement project. An aging gas station manned by a friendly woman with a slim but adequate supply of last minute hiking supplies.
Parking there for the more than fair price of $1 a day, we set off across route 2 and onto Lowe’s Path. The wind that had buffeted us earlier soon gave way beneath the steadfast shelter of pine and birch.
We stripped off layers as we hiked, our steady gaits warming us as we moved and were soon navigating the forest in t-shirts. The crinkle of freshly fallen leaves beneath our boots echoed a soothing cadence through the trees and edging us onward. After approximately 1.5 miles we came to the start of our intended trail that branches off from Lowe’s Path; King Ravine.
“Once More unto the breach dear friends, once more.”-Shakespeare
The first two miles are standard White Mountain fare. Evergreens intertwined with hardwoods, with a side dish of delectably cold mountains streams coursing among moss-covered stones. Tranquility bred through millennia of changing seasons. Passing the green velvet of Mossy Falls, the geology starts to transform. Dirt and dead leaves give way to stone.
Here a sign posts a warning in no uncertain terms, “The area ahead has the worst weather in America, many have died there from exposure even in summer, turn back now if the weather is bad”. A thought left to linger in our minds and cast a glance upon the currently blue sky. Then as our fingers pull us over the first boulders on the trail, the base of King Ravine comes into sight. A field of giant rocks stands sentry to the slope and peak ahead as if performing some ancient duty bestowed millions of years past. The challenge that I was searching for was about to begin.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot
We turned off the trail then climbed and jumped across crevices to get our first good view of the ravine. Boulders ranging in size from a Toyota Corolla to a school bus littered the landscape. It ’s as if a hurricane had upended them from a parking lot and crashed them into a graveyard of iron to be discarded. I had empathy. The ridgeline lay above us on three sides, white snow ink blotted among the gray rocks. My ever canny internal compass said “up” and after a few quick photos we lept from granite to quartz and rejoined the trail. Using our arms almost as much as our legs we pulled ourselves foot by foot higher in altitude.
The trees got shorter as we climbed and slick patches of ice and snow soon added to our obstacles. I slipped on an ice-laden boulder and received a slap in the face from a nearby branch, calling me a fool for my efforts and rewarding me with a bloody lip. Arriving at a fork in the trail, a sign offered us a choice of two. That I can handle, bad things come in threes, not twos. The King Ravine trail split and we decided on the cave route through the aptly named Subway. A song, Charlie on the MTA came to mind and off we went mumbling under my breath, “Did he ever return, no he never returned and his fate is still unknown…..”
“The Edge…there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” Hunter S. Thompson
The Subway is a short series of caves and crevices under and in between boulders. We removed our backpacks and squeezed through tight corners, legs and chest rubbing on cold stone, then passed our bags along like an old fashioned fire bucket line. Luckily claustrophobia isn’t an enemy of mine. We were back to boulder hopping, jumping from rock to rock across short and longer gaps, careful not to slip and break something crucial. Rejoining the main King Ravine trail we soon came to the headwall.
A slope above us rises at a dramatic 37° angle with an elevation gain of 1300 feet in the short span of .4 miles. Who needs a stair master? Cairns and red painted lines lead a haphazard trail ahead. The rocks here are smaller, they lost the race of gravity to the bigger boulders below. As I begin the climb with my friend close behind it soon becomes apparent that this is a terrible idea. The stones are loose and one could easily cascade down upon his head. We begin to climb parallel, occasionally setting off small avalanches of gravel, my third companion too far back to be hit.
This is a hand over foot scrabble. I can feel sweat soaking through my shirt as my heart rate accelerates from the exertion. A glance backwards tells me a fall would not end with a stubbed toe. The adrenaline tap is on full and although it’s not usually one of my best qualities, I’m stubborn and keep pushing onwards. A giant rock outcropping stands tall to our left. His granite facade observing our whimsical assault upon his mountain with apathy. We break to stare back with what I hope was a challenging indifference then continue pull ourselves to the rim.
“Look deep into nature then you will understand everything better.”-Einstein.
Set up like a wedding dinner table below us was the entire King Ravine. We made it out!
Time was doing its thing though and the bells had already rung 4PM. Pausing to heap on layers of clothing and winter gloves. We were now a half mile to the snow-capped summit but daylight was getting scarce. In my mind not summiting was not on our short list of options. The Airline trail, if you can call it a trail, is marked by cairns piled on top of bigger rocks. The landscape near 5000 ft high looked like a giant had broken all his stone toys and left them scattered in a pile. The boulder hopping albeit smaller boulders; began again. This time with the added obstacle of 4-5” of snow and ice covering everything. Trudging, jumping and scrambling I put my stubbornness to use and finally, close to 5PM I stood on Mt. Adams summit and was very nearly blown right back off it by the tremendous wind gusts howling across the peak. Breathless beauty surrounded me for miles, as small as I felt, in that environment my eyes grew huge with wonder. I had conquered the heights of the mountain, the King Ravine and maybe a little bit of myself.
I sheltered from the piercing sting of the wind as much as I could while I waited for my friends on the summit. The sun was flaring goodnight in the West behind Mt. Washington. Almost as soon as they arrived I egged them onwards toward an easier trail down the mountain. Urgency was paramount to try to get off the exposed mountain top before total darkness mere minutes away. Navigating the treacherous snowy rocks was hard enough already, in blackness it would be hell. As we made a mad dash toward the tree line a mile and a half distant we rewarded with a fiery glow punctuated by dark mountain tops. For that mile or so we shared a spiritual connection with nature, our only goal surviving the harsh existence of the mountain. Darkness engulfed us completely as we dropped below the tree line and out came our lights to guide us down.
“The mountains, the forest and the sea render a man savage; they develop the fierce yet do not destroy the human.”-Victor Hugo
Night time in the northern woods is not for the faint of heart. Every sound seems amplified, creatures roaming in the trees lends fuel to my overactive imagination. The only way to go was down though, carefully avoiding or stepping down rocks and over roots while lighting our own way. Beyond the reach of the flashlight, the blackness grows only blacker. My knees are jello, my thighs sending screeches through my nervous system. Slow and steady we climbed down and 3 hours or so after leaving the summit we reached Route 2 and the car. The mountains behind us resolute and unmoved by our plight. Our footprints will soon vanish under the blanketing snow of a Northern Winter and the deafening silence of the night will echo on.
Mt. Adams is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, New Hampshire. Hiking in the White Mountains is a beautiful and rewarding pursuit but one should always be prepared for changing weather and be adequately supplied with necessary maps, food, water and clothes. For more information and about hiking contact the Randolph Mountain Club, Appalachian Mountain Club or Visit the White Mountains webpage.