Sunday, October 11, 2009

AT in a Day

The goal: to hike the entire 2200-mile length of the Appalachian Trail, in a single day

That is what the Dartmouth Outing Club set out to do yesterday as part of the centennial celebration. They figured there were enough alumns out there that they could get enough people together to have the entire length covered in a single day. This isn't sequential, mind you, it's done in parallel. If they could pull it off, it would be a first. We were making history just by trying - this is something no group's ever attempted.

We had signed up for a relatively short and easy bit of trail near Franconia Notch - something Brynna Appropriate. However, as crunch time neared and the trail coverage was less than complete, we got reassigned to a somewhat more challenging section: Pinkham Notch to Carter Notch along Wildcat Ridge. An excerpt from the White Mountain Guide puts it this way: "The sections from the Lost Pond Trail junction to E Peak and from A Peak to Carter Notch are very steep and rought, and there are several ups and down and other steep, rough sections along the rest of the trail...." That, plus a poor weather forecast, made this trip not at all appropriate for Brynna, even with the possibility of using a ski gondola for an ascent and/or descent. So, it was just Mark and myself for this trip - the rest of the crew heading down to Connecticut for the weekend.

Pinkham Notch is the major lodge / visitor center in the White Mountain Forest and lies as the eastern base of Mount Washington. After leaving Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, the AT travels some 1800 miles before summiting Washington, then makes a circuitous descent down to Pinkham, across NH rt 16, then up the Wildcat Ridge trail, down to Carter Notch, then farther along the Carter Ridge to the town of Gorham, NH, then on a bit more to the NH-Maine border, and on for another 250-or-so miles to finish at Katahdin in Maine. In all, our section was barely 6 miles, though as the guide put it, it was "more difficult and time-consuming than one might infer from a casual glance at the map or the distance summary."

Our route is the red path. Google Earth is pretty cool! This is a view roughly SE. Mount Washington is in the lower-right corner. Pinkham Notch is more or less centered. Across the road from that is Wildcat mountain ski area - you can see all the trails. Our put-in was at 19-Mile Brook trailhead off to the left of the image.

The route isn't a loop, so we left the car at Pinkham and hitchiked to our trailhead. It took all of about five minutes of standing forlornly at the Pinkham Notch parking lot to hit the jackpot: a generous couple from Philadelphia was able to squeeze us in the back for the five minute drive.

We had a reasonably gentle hike of about 4 miles from 19-Mile Brook trailhead to reach the Appalachian Trail at Carter Notch (the blue marker at the col off to the left). As we went on, the weather went from forties, grey, and misty to colder, darker grey, and light rain. I had a fleece hat in my bag largely out of the habit of being prepared - today it saved me from being miserable. The weather forecast for the day was for light rain in the morning, but rapidly clearing up as the day progressed. That was correct except for the clearing up part - we saw no sun until our hike was 5/6 over in the late afternoon.

After donning rain gear, we headed south on the AT, up and out from Carter Notch, onto Wildcat ridge. The trail was sodden and muddy, the sort where waterproof boots and gaiters allow easiest passage by tromping through the middle of each puddle. We progressed over Wildcats A through D. We passed a group of three on top of Wildcat D with a small bottle of champagne - one of their group had just completed the 48 NH 4000-footers.

Although there was no snow or skiers atop Wildcat, the gondola cycled forlornly at the top, while a cold wind whipped clouds over the top of the ridge. Ordinarily, looking out from the top of Wildcat, one can look across the valley and view Mount Washington from the east, getting the best views of Tuckerman and Huntington ravine. For instance, here's the view when Mark, Hilary, and I were on Wildcat D in 2004:

This was the planned backdrop for our AT in a Day official picture. Today: a blank wall of white on all sides. We did the best we could.

There was also a kiosk near the top shack stating that we were on the Appalachian trail: 306 miles to Katahdin, 1834 to Springer.

We continued on our way south over Wildcat E. As the AT continued down off Wildcat E, the weather finally began to turn: the cloud deck lifted and parted as we descended below it, giving us a glorious view of the Washington valley in autumn colors and afternoon sun. Looking across we could see the Boot Spur and Tuckerman Ravine. We were just about level with the headwall. We could see our destination, Pinkham Notch, far below. The summits of the Presidential Range were still socked in a thick band of wind-blown clouds. We felt for the folks who would be doing the Presies today: hours above treeline and subjected to the cold winds whipping over the ridge. It's a hike that we could have done ourselves, but we would have needed a lot more planning beforehand, determination to see it through in such conditions, and equipment to do it safely.

The descent off Wildcat E was brutal. 2000 feet of elevation lost in a series of steep ledges, slabs, and piled boulder staircases.

As an ascent it would be an exciting scramble; in winter a fine place to practice one's icecraft. For a descent, however, it was just a long, knee-pounding slog. Redemption could be found in the numerous views to be had, now that the weather was clearing up to a fine afternoon. Mark hurt his wrist in a fall when one of his trekking poles collapsed high up, making him unable to use his right hand for the rest of the descent.

When we reached the level of the road and the Lost Pond Trail, a signpost said we had covered a mere 4.8 miles from Carter Notch - in the last five hours!

The Lost Pond Trail is a mostly flat - though not smooth - one mile section from the base of the Wildcat Ridge Trail back to Pinkham. If the pond had once been lost, it was pretty easy to find now: a series of beaver dams had allowed it to grow and expand, consuming some of the trail. The northerly wind rushed down the length of the pond, kicking up whitecaps that crashed into the dam. We picked our way along the eastern shore until we could join back up with the original trail. Over a few more bridges, a sharp turn to the left, and we were back to the highway and Pinkham Notch. We'd completed some six miles out of over two thousand.

No word on whether the group effort was successful - trip reports will be trickling in for the next few days, and eventually we'll see if we pulled it off. We at least did our bit.

1 comment:

Allyson Wendt said...

Just heard DOC missed the target by 100 miles or so....but as always, it's the spirit with which the attempt is made that counts! (Funny costumes optional). Looks like a great hike.