The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Season Opening in the White Mountains 2012

North Conway is a quiet little town about three hours north of Boston. Each summer its 2,400 residents are driven mad or out of town by the droves of tourists who flock here to camp on the shores of the Saco River, drift lazily in a canoe, shop the many outlet stores and bring their children to the crazy attractions they are sadly brought up to crave: Santa's village, Storyland, indoor water parks, and some nutty monkey-banana themed zipline place.

The Other Season attracts winter hikers, alpinists, climbers, and skiers. People who prefer short days, freezing temperatures and clear, crisp air with endless visibility to ferocious bugs, crowds and hazy humidity which forces you to process the thick, heavy air for oxygen, like plankton whales sieve water for food.

After six months of saltwater and triathlons, I was totally stoked to return to the White Mountains, the most rugged mountain range in New England for the start of the winter hiking season. Using both carrots and sticks I coerced a few people to bag Monroe (5,371'), Franklin (5,003') and Eisenhower (4,780'), a hike of approximately eight miles and a total elevation gain close to 4,000 feet. Pretty ambitious for a warm-up but I was as excited as a child waiting for Christmas morning. We would take the short but very steep Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail up to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, gaining approximately 2,800 feet in elevation in the first 3.1 miles and pay our respects along the way to Herbert J. Young who died here of exposure in 1928, before heading south on the Crawford Path, the oldest, continuously maintained, hiking path in America, originally built during the 1800′s and used as a horse trail, across the open ridgeline up and over Mt. Monroe and Mt. Franklin, continue south to the saddle between Franklin and Eisenhower before heading over its summit. From Eisenhower we would descend Edmands Path which, according to one trail description is "fairly steep, but gets you down fast". How? I wonder.

A friend had offered us to stay at her house, a treat instead of driving six hours in one day to hike for six hours which I'd normally do, and treated us upon arrival to an evening of story telling (read: local gossip) around the fire pit. Dressed like Michelin men, in down jackets, hats and mittens, we sat with new friends and crazy canines (or perhaps it was the other way around?) under a sky the color of charcoal, the orange blaze of the dancing fire bringing us closer together.

The fire petered out and with the aid of headlamps, as much a part of your clothing up here as undies, we fumbled our way back into the house. Laden with an earthy scent of smokehouse, or as they say up in North Conway, "stinky like a local", I stuffed the next day's clothes in the sleeping bag and crawled in like a butterfly stuffing itself back in its cocoon, smiling from ear to ear, snug as a bug in a rug.

The forecast for the higher elevations, received live and direct from the roommate who works at the Mt. Washington weather observatory, was bleak even with optimistic standards: 40 mph winds with gusts of 50, heavy fog and mixed precipitation. When our hostess, spoiled and picky since she lives there and can be spoiled and picky, called us nuts and refused to go (partially because she knows everyone on the search and rescue team and it would be a huge embarrassment to get caught out in the elements) I reconsidered. I always listen to locals. "We should stay south of the Notch where the chance for good weather is best" she said. We settled for a south - north Moat Mountain Range traverse, a 9.7 mile moderate hike with sweeping views of the Mount Washington Valley, covering three peaks: South (2,270'), Middle (2,805) and North Moat (3,196). Despite a sting of disappointment about the re-routing, I realized this was probably a wiser choice for the start of the season. Besides, a traverse is always fun.

At last, we had ourselves organized, with one car parked at Diana's Baths and another at Dugway Road. Three women and a mutt who just met set out under cloudy skies at the crack of 10 am.

Trail conditions were great, a little slick in a few places, but overall, the trail was bare and dry. By south Moat, we'd covered all the peripheral conversations and realized we didn't only have in common a love for the mountains... but for spur of the moment adventures too, with comparable histories of related injuries and scars.

Between south and middle Moat Mountain, where the trail runs mainly on exposed granite, clouds gave way to sunny skies and  presented us with sweeping views of Mt. Chocorua, Mt. Washington and North Conway. From middle Moat, the trail is not very well marked, but well traveled, and meanders through thick forest, destroyed by hurricane Irene in 2011, downed logs everywhere around us, before spilling out into Diana's Bath, a waterfall with perfect pools carved out in the rock, perfect for cooling off in the summer. Not today. The water was ice cold. 

As the sun set, we walked out the last mile as the best of friends.

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