Monday, February 10, 2014

The Story of the Keys and the Mountain

Once upon a time, there were four friends. Over the years, these four friends had run various road races and obstacle course races together, and ventured off onto various camping and canoeing adventures together.  So when Sasha came up with the brilliant idea that they should tackle Mount Washington, the tallest peak in in New England and self-proclaimed home of the world's worst weather (for good reason), Jason and Thor immediately agreed.  Once Nicole was kitted out with borrowed boots and a backpack and had been convinced that she wasn't going to die during this undertaking, she was game for the adventure as well.  So on a beautiful October Saturday, four intrepid hikers and two intrepid pups piled into vehicles and with a few detours which do not pertain to this story, they made their way to Dolly Copp Campground in New Hampshire, a few short miles from one of the trailheads for summiting Mount Washington.

They arrived at dusk and quickly set up tents, which are significantly less fun to piece together when it's dark.  Nicole and Sasha and Mwenzie had a three-person tent that they set in a clear space to one side of the campfire.  Jason put his one-man tent behind the girls so he would get eaten first if a bear popped out of the woods.  Thor and Small Dog turned an unconventional heap of two-by-fours and white canvas into a tent on the other side of the camp fire.  With sleeping arrangements secured, the six-some turned their attention to more entertaining things like fire and marshmallows and hot dogs.  They sat around telling war stories and drinking beer for a few hours while the October night chill settled into the dark woods around them.  Eventually, they decided sleep would be a good first step to surviving the hike the next day.  So everyone climbed into their respective tents and the hours passed.

It was a restless night in all tents for reasons beyond the unaccustomed discomfort of sleeping in a bag on the ground.  Jason discovered too late that he had grabbed the wrong sleeping bag, and the temperatures went a bit lower than what he was prepared for.  It's tough to sleep when you're shivering.  Nicole and Sasha discovered that their tent was on a slight slant, so Sasha ended up rolled downhill and squashed between the canvas wall and Nicole, who was on an all-night heat-seeking mission.  To cap it off, Mwenzie wouldn't go to sleep.  She kept moving around the tent and reacting to some mysterious thing she could hear outside.  Turns out the mysterious thing was actually Thor and Small Dog.  In the most unfortunate of the packing mishaps, Thor grabbed a sleeping bag sack that did not contain a sleeping bag, which he didn't realize until he tried to go to sleep!  So Thor put on every stitch of clothing he owned to stay warm, but it just wasn't enough.  Even Small Dog was cold.  Thor and Small Dog were on guard duty all night making frequent walks down the road towards the camp entrance to try to warm up ... and every time they moved, Mwenzie moved.  She didn't know guard duty was already taken care of!

The early-morning grey light found four stiff and chilled campers and two pups bumbling their way out of their tents.  After a quick snack of Pop-Tarts, breakfast of champions and Mount Washington conquerors, the four friends packed up their campsite and hustled to the trailhead at Pinkham Notch to get started.  Pinkham Notch has a Visitor Center and a small shop and café and overnight lodging, and the parking lot was bustling already when the two cars pulled in.  After double-checking that everyone had extra layers and plenty of snacks and water in their packs, the six-some headed off into the woods on Tuckerman's Ravine trail.  The first bit crossed over and then followed alongside a lively, boulder-strewn creek.  Much of the trail was like walking through a golden tunnel since the aspens and other deciduous trees were in the throes of autumn changing.  There were some other hikers on the trail, but it was not crowded at all.  Sadly, the dirt trail was quickly replaced by a rock-filled gully, and the rocks got bigger as the trail ascended the mountain.  The northeast is known for rocky hiking trails, but Mount Washington takes it to a whole new level.  The four friends weren't really hiking; they were leaping from boulder to boulder on their way up the mountain.

After an hour or so and a few breaks for granola bars and layer-removal (everyone was so worried about the notoriously cold windy weather at the summit that they were totally over-dressed for the bottom of the mountain), the hikers found a fork in the path.  Tuckerman's Ravine trail continued in front of them, and Lion's Head Trail branched off to the right.  Since they had heard that Lion's Head was atrocious as a return route, they decided to use it as their path to the summit.  So they turned right.  And very quickly found themselves scrambling up wooden ladders and on all fours traversing sheer rock faces.  Mwenzie the mountain goat thought this was all great fun.  She would scramble up to the next flat spot and then turn and wait, tongue flopping, while the rest of the group tried to find a way to follow her.  The image of Mwenzie's head framed by pine trees peering back down over a sheer rock pretty much sums up the segment of the hike from the split until the group finally crested the treeline.

Huzzah scenery!  Now that they were in the alpine zone of the mountain, with lots of scrubby little pines and lichens and rocks, they could see all the way back across the valley to the beautiful color-changing trees below and on the other side.  Although the summit ahead was swathed in clouds, the view behind was clear and beautiful.  And for an added bonus, the trail leveled out significantly for a mile-ish.  It was a lovely respite for all to be able to just walk instead of climb.  Small Dog was struggling though.  Mwenzie the mountain goat could climb around on the rocks without any help, but Small Dog was just a bit too .... well, small.  He needed boosts, although he didn't want them, and the pads of his feet were getting torn up and starting to bleed.

However, the end was in sight and everyone knew they would make it to the top.  But the last segment of the hike was awful, especially after the lovely stroll through the alpine terrain.  Suddenly the four hikers were dumped out into a boulder-field with no defined path.  There were just giant gray rocks, some caked in icy snow, stacked on top of each other like a weird attempt to make a castle.  A castle of boulders instead of sand.  Some mythical giant had a lot of fun with Mount Washington at some point in the distant past.  And to cap it off, they were in the middle of the summit cloud as well.  No scenery behind, no reference points to the right or left, and no way to know how close they were to the summit ahead!  Just giant grey rocks and misty grey cloud.  Yech.

But they made it.  There is a weather observatory at the peak of Mount Washington, and a small cafe and gift store to cater to the variety of hikers (the peak is part of the Appalachian Trail, so there are long-distance hikers as well as day-hikers) and the folks who drive up the auto road.  Even in early October, the chains securing the buildings to the rocks were already thoroughly coated in ice that swept out horizontally and froze in jagged spikes carved by the wind.  The summit remained obscured in clouds, but the temperatures were not as cold as the four friends had expected, and it fortunately was not particularly windy either.  They snapped the obligatory photo by the wooden sign announcing the top of the mountain, and then took quick shifts to use the restrooms and get hot snacks because the pups were not allowed inside the buildings.  Thor was worried about Small Dog making the return trip down the mountain, but fortunately they learned about a shuttle bus that will deposit hikers at the bottom of the auto road so they don't have to trek back down the mountain.  And they allow dogs!  So Thor decided to remain behind with Small Dog and take the shuttle.  Sasha, Jason, Nicole, and Mwenzie decided to complete the round-trip hike.  Sasha gave Thor the car keys so he and Small Dog could warm up and take a nap when they made it down the mountain.  And the intrepid hikers continued on their way.
The boulder field was worse on the way down than on the way up.  The girls repeatedly used their arms to crab walk and balance as they slid from rock to rock.  Mwenzie even needed help a couple times because the jump down was just a little too high for her comfort zone.  But after a half hour or so, the terrible rock heap was behind and it was time to cover some new terrain by following Tuckerman's Ravine trail allllllllll the way back down the mountain.  The trail followed the crest of the mountain for a bit, and the clouds lifted and the three friends suddenly had a beautiful view across the Presidential Range.  Peaks upon peaks fading away into the horizon, calling out to be explored!  Alas, perhaps on another adventure.
As the clouds filtered back in, the hikers turned back to the trail and found themselves peering over a cliff.  The trail zig-zagged in switch backs from the crest of the mountain down to the bottom of Tuckerman's Ravine, where it then followed the brook back to the base of the mountain.  Ladders and steps would have been an easier way to get down into the ravine!  Or base-jumping.  But following switchbacks back and forth through a waterfall is more fun anyway.  It was slow-going because of the slippery rocks, and the general fatigue on the poor legs (they had been hiking for over 6 hours by this time), but at long last they were in the ravine on a lovely DIRT path tunneling through thick shrubs which eventually chucked them out at the camp shelters at Hermit Lake.

Suddenly the three friends remembered .... Jason was carrying summit-celebration beers in his backpack!  But they had been too cold at the summit, and it was too crowded, and there was nowhere outdoors to sit with the dogs, and they had all been sidetracked by finding a way for Thor and Small Dog to get back down the mountain that did not involve hiking.  So Jason had been suffering in silence carrying four cans all the way back down the mountain!  Unacceptable.  They found a lovely wooden bridge and took a beer break.  Even Mwenzie was happy to have a chance to lay down and rest her feet, although she didn't get to also partake in delicious Shipyard Pumpkinhead beer.

After replenishing their energy with pumpkin beer, and armed with the knowledge that they were about halfway back to the trailhead, Jason, Nicole, Sasha, and Mwenzie continued on their way.  As the afternoon edged away, the trail became crowded with day hikers and overnight hikers finding their way down to the valley.  Several times, the three friends encountered groups with other dogs.  None of the dogs were leashed, since it was a safety hazard to the person attached to the other end of the leash and anyone else trying to move along the same path, and nobody had any issues with the free-running dogs.  Besides, by this time, all the pups were so tired from the hours of hiking, they stuck close to their humans because they wanted to go home and get food too.

Nine hours after they left Pinkham Notch, three hikers and one pup finally emerged from the woods to the log-cabined civilization of the visitor's center.  And the first thing they saw was Thor and Small Dog, sitting with a backpack at a picnic table.  No nap in the car?  Что случилось?  Sasha inquired why Thor wasn't hanging out in the car, and he fessed up that he did not have the keys.  Eh?  No keys?

The car keys had vanished!  PANIC!  Spare keys were several hours away at home.  If the keys had jumped out of Sasha's backpack on the trail, the only option was to hang out while Jason drove the other car back to get the spare keys.  But that would have made for an exceptionally long night and a LOT of driving.  They thought back and decided that the keys had to be somewhere on the summit where Sasha had taken them out of her pack to give to Thor, or they were in the van that brought Thor down the mountain.  Sasha immediately marched into the visitor's center to ask what the options were.

Fortunately, the visitor's center was able to place calls to the summit and the site at the bottom of the auto road.  Unfortunately, they determined that the keys were not in the shuttles.  Sasha described the keychain attached to the keys, and fortunately, the person at the summit had the keys right in front of them.  HUZZAH!  No keys lost on the trail!!  Unfortunately, the keys were on the summit.  How were they going to get them back when they were at the base of the mountain?  There was no way any of the four were going to hike back up.  They wouldn't make it before dark anyway.  Fortunately, the guy at the summit offered to send the keys down with a shuttle driver to the base of the auto road.  Unfortunately, the auto road was several miles away from the visitor's center.  Fortunately, the four friends had driven two separate vehicles and only one set of keys had wandered away.
So, Jason dropped Sasha off to hang out with the park ranger at the base of the auto road and went back to get Nicole and Thor and the dogs.  Since they had no idea how long it would take for the keys to show up, they pondered finding a nearby town and bringing back delicious hot pizza.  But in the end, they just waited.  And after about an hour, The Most Beautiful Shuttle Ever arrived at the base of the auto road and Sasha had her keys back.  Four people and two dogs crammed into Jason's car and returned to Pinkham Notch to retrieve the second vehicle.  They caravanned to a delicious local pub somewhere along the route south, stuffed themselves with an amazing warm meal, and continued the drive home since half of the group had to work in the morning.

And then it started to rain.  It poured rain the entire drive home.  In the dark.  Sigh.  And at long last, around midnight, the adventure came to an end.

The Mount Washington madness was one of those trips that was fun (and exhausting) in the moment, but has become an even fonder memory with each retelling of the ridiculousness that kept piling on.  Panic in the moment turns into great stories when you get home.  The four friends and two dogs made it to the top of the tallest peak in the northeast.  An even greater miracle is that they are still friends today!  And they will forevermore travel with spare keys tucked into the second car.
Useful links for planning your own Mount Washington adventure--
- Mount Washington Observatory provides weather info, trail info, and pretty much any other info you need to know about the mountain
- US Department of Agriculture's White Mountain National Forest site provides info about nearby campgrounds, including Dolly Copp
- if hiking is not your thing, you can take the Auto Road to the top instead ... or you can run it!  Yes, there's a road race to the top of the mountain!

We worked really hard to earn these photos.  Thus they are not available to be kidnapped.  Thanks.

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