All night I had done such a good job fuming over my low mileage yesterday that by morning I was full fledged ready to hike the rest of the trail in one fell swoop. So rather than doing the rational thing, I vowed to hike a 37 mile day in the Whites to catch back up to where I had intended to be. I wasn’t entirely committed. In fact I thought it was stupid. But I was pissed and rightfully so. I’ve never denied that I’m a fairly emotional athlete. Piss me off and I’m usually a pretty tough competitor to beat. But this was a long race and there was no competition other than myself. There was no sense in beating myself up, so I needed to be patient and wait till the end of the day to see where I was. If it didn’t seem doable, I’d hold off and get the miles back down south on easier terrain.
I woke up at 5 to some chilly temps outside and my legs felt great after the short day yesterday. The NOBO hikers who had camped out on the dining room floor of Mitzpah Hut alongside me woke up and wished me luck. I was out the door by 5:20 and trucking on the easy terrain toward the descent down Webster Cliffs into Crawford Notch. I was running on solid meals the day before, some leftover carrot cake, a great night’s sleep, and some solid desire for revenge on the White Mountains. I wanted to prove to myself that I could pull this record off. But I knew the trail couldn’t be completed in one day and the enthusiasm would soon burn off. It’s a long trip, probably one of the longest athletic endeavours ever attempted. I reeled myself in and took my time heading down Webster Cliffs. Known as one of the most physically demanding climbs for NOBOs and hairiest descents for SOBOs I was happy to be traversing it in dry weather.
Down in Crawford Notch I knew I had miles of flat ahead of me and cruised on to Zealand Falls Hut. I had wanted to arrive there early in the day so I could catch the leftovers from breakfast and I managed to get there just before they threw away the rest of the oatmeal. The guy working cook duty, prepping dinner for the night’s visitors, was a super nice junior in college who wanted to go to med school. He asked me about school and it was nice reflecting on what I had left and what I was going to return to. I missed my friends, and frankly I missed the mental challenge and physical rest of studying. I knew in the fall my view would change but for now I was beat and envied the Grayson who had been hunched over his laptop little over a month earlier.
I gave him some tips and told him some things about admissions that I had not been aware of as a pre-med student and I swear he was about ready to take out a notepad. I enjoyed hearing about his experience working in the AMC Huts in the White Mountains and wish I had done something similar in one of my summers during undergrad. Relaxing up in the mountains with friends, working easy hours and hiking most days, sitting inside reading on rainy, foggy days, I couldn’t imagine a better way to relax and make some money on a summer vacation.
After I finished the bowl of oatmeal I felt set till the next hut. I had only carried a few pounds of food into this section of trail with intentions of refilling on leftovers at the Huts along the way. It was a risk but the worst that would happen is I’d end up buying baked goods if another hiker had cleared them out of leftovers. But I was the first SOBO and had yet to hit the NOBO bubble and the Huts had plenty of food to share. For the rest of the day I would eat like a king.
It was a Saturday solstice in the Whites in beautiful weather so naturally the crowds came out to hike massive traverses or relaxing overnights. After some solitude up north, I was elated to see the excited faces. High school and college trips were everywhere with their overloaded packs but excitement of a tenderfoot scout.
I struggled to keep the contagious excitement in check and stormed up Zealand Mountain. By the time I was over the summit however I was suffering. I had hiked 17 miles and the heat of the day was a shock to me. I was struggling to keep on top of my hydration in the warm, dry air. The exhaustion hit me hard and I laid down for a quick midday break. Thinking I would only be sitting for a minute, I didn’t undo my pack. I sat down on some cool moss and then laid down, and then before I knew it was stretching my legs out across the trail and fell fast asleep.
The next thing I heard was “Please tell me you’re alright,” and I sat up quickly. I didn’t intend to scare anyone but passing out in the middle of the trail probably isn’t the best way to look to other hikers. I sat up and after my cat nap actually felt much better. She asked where I was headed and I told her Liberty Springs. She told me should was doing a 37 mile traverse and, surprised at the distance, joked that she should join me on my thru-hike. I wished her the best of luck on her hike and she asked me my name so she could follow my trip. I got back up and felt great for the next few miles and rocked on to Galehead Hut.
Down at Galehead the hut crew filled me up with leftover chocolate cake that was too mangled to sell, but certainly not an issue for me. Once I was done with that the awesome dude managing the hut for the day called out, “Hey hiker, yeah you. I messed up cooking the chocolate. You want a chocolate sandwich?”
It wasn’t really a question because by the time he was done asking it the sandwich was made. He had smeared runny nutella-like chocolate in between two pieces of bread and was in the process of wiping off the knife when I replied, “Ummm, YES PLEASE.” I stumbled over, thanking him with every step, super excited to bite into it. I told him I couldn’t imagine what could possibly have been wrong with the chocolate but I guess he was going for a more solid substance. I needed to get hiking so I took the sandwich to go and walked the next mile at the envy of all the hikers I passed eyeballing the deliciousness dripping from my hand into my mouth.
By the time I hit the 1000 foot jump up Mt. Garfield the sandwich was settling and giving me a much needed late day boost. Up at Garfield Ridge Campsite I stopped for a quick break. The climb was a hilarious epitome of a White Mountain climb, straight up, no switchbacks, a waterfall for a section of it, and not a bit of grade to allow you to relax. A bunch of high school guys were relaxing getting ready to hike over to the shelter to spend the night when one commented, “You must be speed hiking.” At this point I felt like I was crawling but I told him I was trying to. He asked where I was headed and I told him Liberty Springs Campsite which nearing dusk was still on the other side of the massive, exposed Franconia Ridge. But I told him eventually I hoped to get to Georgia. Their startled expressions gave it away but the same guy said, “Man, that’s where we started this morning.” They were super excited when I told them I was trying to break the record and their enthusiasm was a huge pick-me-up this late in the day. They all wished me luck and I climbed the rest of Garfield with ease after their excitement and well wishes.
Down on the other side of Garfield I ran into a young group of girls out for the weekend. They noticed my pack and said, “Are you John?”
I responded, “No,” and with some hesitation said, “I’m Grayson.”
“Oh well someone told us we should ask a guy John about his hike because he was doing a big hike and you looked like you were going fast,” the same girl responded. I told her I was doing a big hike and when I said I was a thru-hiker she was thrilled. My tiny 10 liter pack became a hilarious point for most people because it didn’t seem possible I could fit everything I needed in there when most of their packs were five to seven times that size for only an overnight trip. They read my shirt and when they realized I was going for the record started hustling to pass on the narrow, technical trail to let me continue. But I reassured them I enjoyed the conversation, as I did. The trip had been very lonely so far so to witness the enthusiasm of all these other hikers and talk to them really pumped me up.
But before long they dwindled away as they set up camp and got ready for dinner and bed. The last group I joked with, asking, “Liberty Springs just up there a bit?” to which they all gave each other concerned looks trying to decide who would let the dumbass know he still had a huge climb and miles to go. I reassured them I knew and I was joking but I still think they were concerned about me trying to make it over that ridge this late in the day. I felt guilty for that but still thought their looks on their faces were priceless.
While they were enjoying cooked meals, I was working my way up Mt. Lafayette, quite possibly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. The thin ridge goes for miles above tree line with views in all directions. The trails are tame and the grade is easy. I knew I had to get over the ridge before tomorrow though. Weather was supposed to roll in again and hang around all day tomorrow and I didn’t want a repeat of the day before on Mt. Madison. The Whites had kicked my ass enough, time to get down to the shelter of tree covered peaks down south.
As I covered the miles between Lafayette and Lincoln I reflected on the time I was up here 6 years ago. I remember seeing a Bunnicula sized hare and practically prancing over the summits because of my elation at the beauty all around me. The story was no different this time, sans homicidal bunny.
Once I made it to Liberty Springs Campsite the sun was just under the horizon and I had little interest in sleeping a night at a frigid 4000 feet with no option to use my tarp as a vapor barrier because of the impending rain. I at least needed to get down off the mountain and if I felt inclined maybe work my way up to Lonesome Lake Hut for a roof and possibly some extra food.
Once committed to making it to Lonesome Lake Hut, I called my parents to help get me through the last miles. We talked and caught up and I told them about the long day I had just hiked. They told me about the dogs and once the late day hallucinations and dizziness came on I knew even more so the importance of staying on the line. When I got close to the Hut I let them go but the dizziness became so bad in my late day exhaustion and deep darkness of the night that I decided to call my friend Scott and hike the next mile with him. He reassured me he had felt this way on some of our longs hikes. I had been worried about the dizziness, thinking something was wrong with me, but knowing he had felt it too doing the exact same thing made me feel alright about it. He was grabbing a beer with some of our friends and I seriously envied him but was happy to be talking to him. When I started losing service I told him to drink a pint or eat a pint of ice cream for me and said bye. He and my mom had been my biggest fans on this trip and my priceless support. Every time I would post a status about the difficulty of the trip he would respond with encouraging words and reminders of the easy trails to come. I couldn’t have done what I did without him and my mom. Both of them know me extremely well, know my quirks and have been through my adventures long enough to know what I need said to me to keep me going. Even on an unsupported trip, no man is an island, and no man can do without the cheers of friends, family, and strangers along the way.
I made it to the hut just after 10pm, my longest and latest day yet at over 17 hours of hiking. It was a 37 mile stretch in the Whites and may put me out of commission for the rest of the trip. But for the moment I was elated to have pulled myself back and the reality of the obligations the next morning were distant and daunting enough to wait. The lights were out in the Hut and the crew had gone to sleep. I felt bad for creeping in late at night but with the mist and soon to be torrents of rain rolling in outside, I sucked up my pride, stretched for a minute, ate a snack, and went to bed on the floor of the dining room.