71-Year-Old Climbs Mount Washington in New Hampshire
“No one better dismiss me as unpatriotic again. I just spent five hours on July 4th weekend climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire. At 6,288 feet above sea level, it is the highest peak on the East Coast,” reported Alan Singer, a septuagenarian, who teaches history and social studies education at Hofstra University. “It was the most difficult hike I’ve attempted in decades, but I made it to the summit.” He did confess that he “struggled a bit” trying to complete the 4.6 mile climb along the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.
Mount Washington was known to the local indigenous population as Agiocochook before European colonial settlement in the area. The mountain summit is notorious for rapid changes in weather and posted signs warn hikers. In 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 miles per hour, a world record until 1996.
Mount Washington is located in White Mountain National Forest and is part of the Appalachian Mountains Presidential Range. The Presidential Range has mountains named after George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Dwight Eisenhower, and Franklin Pierce. There are also mountains named after Benjamin Franklin, revolutionary war leaders Samuel Adams and Abigail Adams, and 19th century U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate Henry Clay. New Hampshire proposed renaming Mount Clay after Ronald Reagan, but that has not been approved. Pierce, a non-entity as President in the 1850s who opposed the abolition of slavery, has a mountain named after him because he was a native of New Hampshire.
Mount Washington has been a tourist designation since the 1850s. A coach road to the summit was completed in 1861 and a cog railway has been operating since 1869. The peak is a New Hampshire state park.
Singer, staying at Lake Winnipesaukie had a two-hour drive to the trail head, north on 16 and then west on 302 through the National Forest. He ate “breakfast” while driving, a large black coffee, no sugar, and a home-made oatmeal raisin cookie. Singer started on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail at 8 AM from the hiker’s parking lot located about a quarter of a mile from the cog rail terminal. As a pleasant surprise, the parking lot had a clean and equipped “facility.” Sunscreen, bug spray, and he was ready to go.
The first mile of the trail had only a slight upgrade from 2,500 to 3,000 feet. The trail itself was slippery because of mud, roots, and rocks. It rained that night so the trees were dripping; the sky was masked by dark clouds. The temperature at the start was in the high sixties, so Singer wore a long-sleeve sun-resistant shirt over a tee-shirt. He also wore a baseball cap, carried a small backpack, and used a collapsible hiking stick.
One mile in, the ravine trail turned right, east, along the Ammonoosuc River. A trail sign alerted hikers that the Lakes of the Cloud Hut was 2.1 miles away and the summit of Mount Washington was an additional 1.5 miles. For the next mile, the upgrade remained moderate and the trail continued to be rocky, muddy and crossed by exposed tree roots, making the going slow. The trail along the river was pretty easy to follow although it was often difficult to see the faded blue makers a number of places.
On this stretch of the trail, Singer was passed by a couple in their thirties who were speed hiking, the first hikers he had met so far. Soon after he started walking with a family from Pennsylvania, a wife and husband, a college age son, and high school aged daughter.
After a mile on this portion of the trail it crossed the river and started a very steep ascent, climbing from 3,500 to 5,000 feet in the next 1.1 miles. The trail was beautiful with a number of striking waterfalls, but the going was very difficult and Singer could not keep up with the Pennsylvania team. Much of the way Singer was shimmying up exposed rock face on a hillside with a 60% incline and he learned why New Hampshire is known as the Granite State. The rocks were wet from the previous evening’s rain and mist rising off the falls making hand and foot holds treacherous. Singer’s hiking stick now was now more of an incumbrance than a help. He folded it up and put it in his backpack. Wet and sweating as the temperature rose into the seventies, Singer also stashed his long-sleeve shirt in the pack.
Singer found he was forced to take repeated breaks as he adjusted to the elevation. He also stopped periodically to drink water he had brought with him and ate a Kind Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew bar. Because of arthritic conditions in his knees, more severe in the left knee, Singer wears tight knee pads on both legs when hiking. This made it difficult for him to stretch for footholds on the rocks and slowed him done considerably. Because he was favoring his left knee and putting greater weight on his right leg, his right thigh began to cramp. During this portion of the hike, Singer met a family from Wisconsin with two teenagers who he walked with off and on for much of the remaining hike.
Climbing the wet rock face was discouraging, Singer fell multiple times, and other times barely held on by grabbing onto roots and scrub pine branches. He considered turning back, but doggedly decided to at least climb to the Lakes of the Cloud Hut, which he estimated couldn’t be that much further, but was. He worried how he would climb down the wet rock face without slipping or having a serious accident. About this time, he noticed that his cellphone was starting to lose power so he shut it off. He would turn it on again at different points to alert his partner about his “progress.”
Three-quarters of the way up the steep slope the habitat changed from forest to alpine. Shrub bushes and wild flowers replaced trees. Finally, after two-hours of uphill, Singer emerged on a rocky plain and could see the Lakes of the Cloud Hut.
The Lakes of the Cloud Hut at 5,030 feet elevation is a stopping point for hikers operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club along the Appalachian Trail route that runs from Maine to Georgia. It was initially built in 1901 and expanded many times. It includes a kitchen and bunks for sleeping. Supplies are helicoptered in when the season opens after snow melt and its youthful staff backpack in additional supplies as needed.
Singer discussed his options with a young woman who was stationed at the hut. If he turned back the climb down could be dangerous. She recommended he continue to the top of Mount Washington. The going was rugged with a number of rock scrambles, but was dry and not quite as steep. Once at the summit there were National Park services and he could get a ticket on the cog rail down to the parking lot at the base of the mountain. It seemed like a plan. Singer bought a cup of coffee which wasn’t hot, rested for twenty minutes, and pressed on.
The final 1.5 miles to the summit was across a barren plain above the cloud level, occasionally moving through deep fog. Because there were no trees, the trail was marked with small stone pyramids. When the fog cleared and the clouds lifted there were beautiful vistas of the mountain range and valleys below. It was getting colder now so Singer put his long-sleeved shirt back on.
A few minutes out from the station was one of the small lakes, hence the station’s name. The trail at this point was all large rocks so walking really meant using them as steps and sometimes just hopping from rock to rock. This part of the hike took almost an hour and a half as Singer was forced to take frequent rest stops. His breathing was starting to get strained, his knees were aching, and his hands were scrapped and bleeding from gripping rocks and breaking falls. At least during the stops Singer didn’t have to look down at the ground to secure safe footing so he could enjoy the mountain panorama. He also polished off a bag of trail mix and one of his bottles of water.
As he climbed up, he started to meet people climbing down. They had either taken the cog rail to the summit or driven to the top and were hiking to the Lakes of the Cloud Hut. One family had arranged to spend the night there. As he climbed, Singer could see buildings and a weather station tower at the summit, encouraging signs that kept he going, slowly and steadily.
At last, at last, Singer arrived at the summit weather station. Ironically, on level ground again, Singer found it difficult to walk, but triumph was a relief.
The summit of Mount Washington was actually crowded because people drove up or took the cog railway and there was a line of people waiting to get photographed at the summit sign. It was now quite chilly and Singer put on his navy “Brooklyn” hooded sweatshirt. When the sun came out it illuminated the mountains and valleys and the summit had lookouts facing in different directions. Singer more or less waddled into the large Mountain Washington summit store. He made arrangements for the cog rail trip down, a ticket was $51, visited the gift shop, and purchased a coffee that he sipped as he ate a ham and swiss with mustard sandwich that he brought with him. In the dining area he swapped stories with other hikers taking a much needed break. One young man was walking the length of the Appalachian trail and was carbo-loading with pizza because he didn’t know when he would have his next regular meal.
The cog rail ride to the parking lot is down a three-mile steep incline and took about forty-five minutes. It is one of the steepest rail lines of its kind in the world. Each unit includes an engine and a passenger coach that seats about one hundred people. They run on narrow gauge rails and a rack system that resembles a bicycle chain. A young women guide in the passenger coach controlled an emergency brake and provided a narration describing the area as it proceeded very slowly. President Ulysses Grant, a Civil War hero, rode the cog rail to the peak of Mount Washington in 1869, but he doesn’t have his own mountain in the Presidential Range.
I asked Singer if he would do this hike again. His response, “You got to be kidding.”
Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1