Last night when I arrived at Osgood Tentsite I was relieved to see several other groups camping as well. On the way in signs had warned me of issues with bears in the area and 6 years ago when I stayed here bears had raided several food bags as I slept. The park had installed bear boxes which would eliminate the concern for losing my food but the threat of waking up to a bear sniffing the chocolate buried in my mustache was still very real. But when I walked up it turns out bears weren’t the wildlife to be concerned with but rather a large moose foraging in the surrounding brush.
I talked to a NOBO hiker for a bit who had started in December down in Georgia and hiked straight through the winter. I couldn’t imagine it. I started ticking off all the things I had done in that amount of time. I took final exams from first semester, vacationed in Florida for winter break, began second semester, hiked the north section of the BMT over spring break, finished second semester, trained for this hike, and hiked 300 miles of the AT already. It’s unfathomable all that can be accomplished in normal life over the course of some of these adventures and expeditions. But nothing can match the excitement and memories created from these trips. I imagine all that I did in that amount of time couldn’t come close to comparing to the lifetime’s worth of adventures they had trudging through the deep snow and enjoying watching spring come and summer arrive over the last seven months.
Many people judge me for wanting to hike the trail quickly. They think the trail is a place for reflection and embracing nature and can’t stand the thought of it turning into an athletic arena. Most of the discussions on the subject occur online and I thoroughly enjoy reading people’s reasoning. But what it inevitably always boils down to is difference of opinion. I, along with most people who have attempted the AT record, have already enjoyed the trail once at a ‘normal’ speed. It’s not that we think that is the wrong way to do it, we just want to try a change of pace. But the other side seems passionately against what we do, despite it not interfering with their hike in the least bit. Many of them can appreciate the endurance to maintain the daily mileages we go for, but some are so passionately against a speed hike it seems more a religion than an opinion. At any rate, it is always a personal decision and how someone hikes their hike doesn’t or at least shouldn’t affect anyone else.
During the night, rain began to fall and coated the tent platform. I did a good job setting up my tarp and stayed dry the entire night. When my alarm went off at 5am, I looked out to buckets pouring down. I could pack up and try to climb over Madison in the gnarly weather but imagined it was much worse up there, nearly 3000 feet above me and exposed from nearly all sides. Madison is unique in that it starts the presidential range on the north so it gets blasted by almost all the foul weather. And with heavy winds on the backside of Madison, I couldn’t even imagine what the summit would be like in my skimpy outfit.
I eventually decided to get up when the rain let up for a moment. Once packed up and under my poncho, the rain let loose again. I continued the climb up Madison until just below treeline where I hesitated again. I didn’t want to go up there. I knew what awaited me in my short shorts and poncho tarp rain gear. This was a critical moment, the real test of my gear. I put on my down jacket and with the rain letting up and turning to a gentle mist I decided to pack up the parachute-like poncho. It would threaten to pull me off with each step and I couldn’t deal with that.
As I got prepped a couple guys on the trail crew came hiking down. One of them, pick axe in hand told me it was totally ‘mellow’ up there. Bundled up in his full rain gear outfit, I imagine it was a bit better. But the guy following him didn’t seem to agree. It was pretty bad up there and he definitely didn’t want to act like a hot shot and give me a false impression. I was hiking, not mountaineering.
I was shocked to find the first guy wasn’t too far off. Below the summit it was actually decently tame. The rocks were slick but I managed to work my way up without a fall. Up toward the top I saw some ladies coming down, likely from sleeping at the hut the night before. They looked scared and miserable and were shocked to see me up there looking horrifically unprepared. But I was managing to keep warm while moving. On the summit and on the northwest face the winds picked up and were gusting near 60mph. It was hard to take a step without doing a pirouette and several times I slipped and had my foot pin between two rocks. I was thankful for having full coverage on my feet and couldn’t imagine how painful that would have been with my busted up shoes I switched out of in Gorham.
My hands were stiff from the high 30s temps and sustained winds and cold mist. It took me two hours to traverse the three miles between Osgood tentsite and Madison Hut. When I made it I was so beat and exhausted I was elated to see the shelter of four walls and hoped they had some leftover food to serve. Inside the hut crew was extremely welcoming and excited to see their first SOBO. I ate probably 30 chocolate chip pancakes they had from the morning and enjoyed drying and warming up. But by the time I was ready to leave I was cold and shivering from being sedentary and knew I needed to get moving quickly on the six mile stretch to Mt. Washington or else I might risk becoming hypothermic.
It took all my inspiration to go back out into the gusting wind and misting rain but I did. I threw myself up the trail toward Mt Adams and was back warm and even lightly sweating within a few minutes. The terrain for the next few miles undulated over a series of very gradual but very rocky climbs. On the uphills I would warm up and on the downhills lightly shiver underneath my down jacket. I kept moving and didn’t dare stop and then in a brief moment of relief watched the sun peep out. It cleared up and felt warm on my face but was quickly shielded again by another cloud rolling in. The weather was forecasted to clear by the afternoon and I was ready for it. On the traverse over to Washington I crossed a small snowfield and before long the clouds were parting for minutes at a time. I didn’t catch a glimpse of the highest mountain in the northeast until I was on its slopes but I couldn’t be happier to feel the warm sun and know a warm meal awaited me on the summit.
Mt. Washington is an odd place. I’d just spent the last several hours battling my way up to get stopped by a train working its way up the west face. At the top people bundled up in down jackets and motorcyclists donning full leather wandered around the observatory and snack bar. And me in my unholy smelliness ordered a couple pieces of pizza and two ice cream bars to chew on before working my way back down the mountain. Ice cream had become a staple of my diet. It was the easiest way to get in a ridiculous number of calories. It requires no chewing and isn’t filling in the least bit so I could eat tons of it without feeling bloated.
With the clouds parting and a full cell phone battery I left the summit to head down to Lakes of the Clouds Hut to deliver some mail from the crew at Madison Hut. I walked in, handed them the mail and asked if they had any leftovers they were trying to get rid of. The hut crews cook enough food for the people staying the night and then cooked baked goods for people hiking through in the day. Whatever doesn’t get eaten or whatever they can’t sell they have to compost. That is unless a starving thru-hiker comes through. They had an entire malformed carrot cake that couldn’t be sold. So I ate half of it and stuffed the other half in a ziploc bag. After losing weight the first week, I vowed to do everything I could to keep it on, especially in the Whites where food is nearly everywhere. And I was doing a great job so far.
The day was coming to an end and I had only hiked some 12 miles since this morning. The Whites are notoriously hard and unpredictable but if I needed to stop already this would be a tremendous setback. When I made it to Mitzpah Hut just down the range I was exhausted and no interest in continuing for the day or continuing at all for that matter. I figured I’d stop, do work for stay, and get a good meal and a good night’s sleep. Three NOBO flip-flop hikers who had started in New York were staying the night and I enjoyed their company. We caught up about the trail conditions ahead and they warned me about the mosquitoes in Massachusetts.
For work they had us clean the freezer. One of the other hikers known as Crumbs for his blasphemous waste of leaving a trail of Pop Tart crumbs along the trail worked with me on chipping away the ice. He found that it was much easier to knock the ice off with force than to scrape it, so for the next hour we did our best at making as much noise as possible between laughing at the poor people trying to relax upstairs despite our ruckus. I realized that it was the first time I had really laughed since I started the trip. And it was the longest conversation I had in nearly two weeks. The trip had turned into a very lonely venture and more and more was resembling work than anything else. More and more often I had to convince myself I committed to this, I had sponsors, I had supporters back home; this was just another step toward establishing financial support for future trips. I couldn’t bail, I couldn’t quit. But with a day like today the prospect of breaking the record had been exponentially harder. Now I was nearly a day and a half behind the ghost of Matt Kirk and wasn’t showing any signs of reeling him in. But hopefully with a better night’s sleep and some luck down south I could still pull it off. It was quite a deficit but my legs felt great and I was itching to put in some big miles.