Wandering on through the notches which the streams had made, we at length crossed on prostrate trees over the Amonoosuc and breathed the free air of Unappropriated Land. --Henry David Thoreau
This photo shows our route pretty well. You can see our path up to the Ammonoosuc Hut through the trees on the right. The hut and the pond are just visible. That pointy rock in the middle behind the hut is Mount Monroe. The trail to Washington is clearly visible across the ridge and up to the cairns in the foreground.
Hiked on September 10, 2022
Remember in my last post when I talked about why I hike? There were five reasons listed in descending order. First, I hike because of the spiritual connection it provides as I find ways to become part of "creation". Second, it is an aesthetic experience, witnessing the beauty and the "silence," though the silence is often quite noisy with wind and critters. Third, I can escape the suburbs, their dense population, and skewed values. All three of these were the primary motivators for that hike up Watatic in Massachusetts a day before attempting Monroe and Washington in New Hampshire. If these were the only reasons I did what I will describe now, it would have been pretty disappointing.
The good news is that there are two other motivators for me. In fourth place is the mental challenge of a hard climb. At fifth place is the physical challenge. This was a day to practice perseverance in the face of mental and physical challenges. It was a day to do a hard thing and become stronger.
Mount Washington, in particular, looms quite literally over its landscape. We have seen it from many tall peaks and--still looking up--wondered how one goes about tackling such a prominence. Frankly it put me out of sorts a bit and I had to find ways to not become overwhelmed. Also, it was a climb. Even the "easy" way up Ammonoosuc trail to the hut, over to Monroe, back to the hut, across Crawford trail to Washington, then down Jewell is demanding. What people don't realize about these mountains until they climb them is that height is only one measure of difficulty. There is also the length of the trail and its condition. The Whites are basically gigantic rock piles. You cannot stroll so much as pound and scramble much of the time. There was a lot of that, plus the heat of the sun.
We parked at the base station for the cog rail that goes up Washington. There was, of course, a bathroom and a snack bar here as well as a train. In fact, this loop probably has the most amenities of any hike I have ever been on. Needless to say I was way too wired for this. After a couple of awkward encounters with folks in the parking lot (nothing bad, really, just that my enthusiasm was a bit much) I managed to calm down enough to get going.
The walking, itself was pretty straightforward. Ammonoosuc (also called "Ammo") made a relatively straight--and very steep--line for miles toward a hut on the ridge between Washington and Monroe. It was a crowded day on the trail. Conventional wisdom among NH peak baggers dictates that if you are guaranteed good weather for Washington, you drop your other plans and nab it. I had wanted to do the Wildcats. Al wanted to climb Lincoln and Lafayette. The promise of a clear day on the biggest mountain, though, was impossible to resist for us and for a ton of other people.
It was good company, however, and their presence made the walk go easier. Some of them were up for conversation after all. This is key to my hiking experience. Talking--either to myself or someone else--gets me through the hardest of days. All along the way we would encounter knots of slower moving people taking breaks. We were passed as well. As happens, however, after about an hour we fell in with about three different groups leapfrogging each other to the ridge. It was nice to encourage and be encouraged by strangers as we struggle together over the hard parts. However, it was anything but isolated.
At the hut--more bathrooms, a snack bar, beds, and a water filling station--we turned right and climbed Mount Monroe. This was the high point of the trip. The peak rises steeply from the ridge and we found ourselves on all fours reaching out to grab the side of the mountain for stability. The top was relatively unpopulated. Apparently most of our new friends had not planned to hit Monroe. This was a plus. We weren't alone. However, it was a respectful crowd looking for the same thing. It was as close to reasons 1-3 as I got all day. I did a little recording for the church reminding them to go to worship the next day but avoided my usual panoramic video. The vibe among the groups wasn't right for that.
After that glorious climb we went back to the hut and started up to Washington. Here is where the physical challenge really began for me. We had already done most of the elevation for the day. Washington at this point was not as steep as the climb to the hut had been. Still, I had just gone up a 5,372 foot mountain and was attempting a 6,288 foot one. Mentally, too, I was tired and...there were so many people!
The views, however, were fantastic. As I wrote about Mount Jefferson, pictures don't really do the landscape justice. Even the unrelenting rocks were pleasant to look at. Scenery, plenty of water, positive self-talk, and good use of hiking poles got us the rest of the way.
Here is the thing about Washington, though. On tiny little Watatic I had the place to myself. Yes there was a slight hum from the road but there was no one there except wild animals and the wind in the trees. On Washington this was not the case. The large number of hikers were augmented by even larger numbers who had used either the road--yup road hum here too--or the train to get there. Hello suburbs! In 1858, when Henry David Thoreau climbed it for the second time, he encountered a hotel at the top called the "Tip-Top House". It is still there as an oddity next to the more modern gift shop, snack bar, bathroom arrangement that we were prepared to expect. Thoreau didn't stay long at the peak, disappointed by the encroachment. I will confess to having similar emotions. The "Unappropriated Land" of his first visit in 1839 is nowhere to be found now.
The trip down Jewell took a while. I was glad to be away from the top, though. There was a period where we marched single-file in a long line of fellow humans but--away from the cog rail--some modicum of tired camaraderie returned. The views continued to be spectacular and our spirits lifted at least until the tree line. For me every hike is about two miles too long. My feet hurt and I am tired of foliage. This was no different. When we saw (and heard and smelled) the cog rail and its base station, we were happy to be done. It had been quite a day.
I am glad I climbed Mount Washington--proud in fact! It was quite an accomplishment in many ways and I still kinda wish I bought a T-shirt. I doubt I would have been able to do it back when I managed to get to the top of Mount Roberts in July of 2021. If I had tried, it all would have ended in despair somewhere on Ammo. It is great to have that under our belts. Even though there are harder climbs to come, none of them are as symbolically important.
That said, I am not sure I would do it again without a specific reason. Monroe was beautiful and I may head up there then turn south over the southern presidentials. I am sure I will go up Jefferson again which is to the north on the other side. Washington is massive and inspiring. However, my step counter--not a good one, just an app on my phone--says that I worked about as hard as I did to climb Cabot and the Horn. It seems like I can get the challenges I require in places where the spiritual requirements are more likely to be obtained as well.
That said, if you haven't gone and you want a tough hike that people will recognize, get on up there when you are ready. You will be glad you did.
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.