Our alarms jolted Anton and I awake at 5am out of a dead sleep. Three mountains in winter, 11.2 miles. Despite my desire to snuggle in bed my heart fluttered with excitement. We ate a delicious and filling breakfast but didn’t actually leave until after 7:00am. Oops. We packed a ton of food and said it was way too much, we had some yummy hard cider, snowshoes, all of our gear, but guess who realized she forgot her hat at home? This lady. It’s been so warm lately I didn’t even consider that. Luckily Anton has a lovely collection of hats and one in particular fit me nicely. It actually looked really good! At least I realized that at his house, not at the trail head. The skies on the drive there turned from overcast, to sunny, to foggy and dangerous with the roads being sheer ice, back to sunny again. That’s the White Mountains for you, completely unpredictable weather wise.
The trail head to the Willey Range Trail is at the old site of the Willey house in Crawford Notch. The road leading to the trail isn’t paved in the winter so it was a 1/4 mile walk from a “lot” which they plowed a little of. We didn’t start until 10:00am. This meant that we had to book it. Yeah right. So many beautiful things to see. Ripley falls was just off the trail so we detoured there first. Actually, we thought that was the trail so it took us a moment to figure it out. I love my Gaia GPS app for a reason!
There was a nice gradual incline to the trail for a while, then like clockwork guess what happened? It got steep, very steep. For three miles Anton and I were breaking trail which means we were the first people to hike this trail since the most recent snowfall. There were a couple inches on the ground with ice just underneath. No snowshoes required, but hard work still. There were man-made stairs covered in ice and snow. Going up these stairs terrified me. I kept falling unexpectedly on the way up. Nothing scares me more than falling. The loss of control, the fear of injury. I am usually petrified in fear for a minute or two before I am able to carry on.
After a couple false summits we reached summit and an incredible scenic overlook of Mt. Willey around 1pm. On today’s menu we feature a delicious homemade yellow lentil dhal with garlic naan (click here for dhal recipe), trail mix, cheese sticks, granola bars, smoked salmon and cheese wraps, dark chocolate, and we split a hard cider. We saved the wraps and ate up the dhal pouring it over our naan because I forgot spoons. My brain wasn’t working properly this weekend. I swear I’m usually more put together than this. It was bluebird skies and Mt. Washington occasionally peaked out from a cloud to wave hello. I hiked that mountain many times in my childhood. A feeling of satisfaction took over.
We began the ridge trail to Mt. Field, only a mile in between the two peaks. Forty-five minutes later we arrived on that summit. Gorgeous again, the largest mountain of the three, but it was also 2:30pm. The question loomed…should we go on? Only another mile or so to Mt. Tom? Only one mile separating us from our goal for the day. Of course we went on.
It was mostly downhill to Mt. Tom with a slight ascent at the very end. We arrived at 3:30pm. You could see the Mt. Washington Hotel in the distance and clouds started moving in overhead. The sky looked ethereal.
My happiness was short lived. We had till 6:30pm till there was no light left. We had a choice. Descend the Avalon trail to the AMC Highland center and walk on the road…dangerous, or go back the way we came…also dangerous. Night hike or risk getting hit by a car? I had my headlamp so night hike please. The walk on the road would have taken far longer, plus that is kind of cheating.
At this point I felt pain, but I wasn’t truly in pain, I realize that now. I was merely exhausted and sore. Those muscles were engaged all day. My legs didn’t want to carry me back up Mt. Field. We ate the salmon wraps and it gave me the energy I needed. I’ve done some pretty grueling hikes in the past, but nothing ever like this. Winter hiking up mountains is in my opinion at least twice as hard as a hike in the other three seasons. There were times when I was convinced that I couldn’t do it. Anton kept me focused, calm, and thinking pleasant thoughts. I shed a few tears out of desperation, my legs were shaking. I am tiny, I do not have the muscle for this.The final ascent up Mt. Willey was the worst. We never thought it would end. At 5:30pm we arrived back at the summit of Willey. I called my mom while I still had service to tell her we were almost down. I didn’t want her to worry and promised myself to tell her later. I knew we would be okay.
Butt sliding was completely necessary. My knees were shaking and I wanted to collapse. “Keep going. You have to get back.” I said this aloud and to myself over and over. Anton suggested I drink the other hard cider. And further dehydrate myself? That didn’t make sense to me, but I did it anyway. The sugar in the cider gave me the energy I needed. It didn’t get me buzzed or anything, but my mood boosted as darkness set it. At first it scared me, I never night hiked before. After about ten minutes I gained an appreciation for it. So peaceful, the world was simple. I could focus on retracing our steps, I could smile again. I found great joy in hiking in the dark. Eventually we made it to the road…cue horse going back to water mode. My pace quickened slightly. Finally, at 7:15pm we arrived at the car. I had zero energy left to the point where I clumsily smashed a car door into my face. Instead of crying I just laughed. I was bleeding below my eye, but found it hilarious. No epic story behind this battle scar.
Despite everything I am more proud of this hike than any other I have ever done. These mountains tested me, they taunted me, but I did not give in. This morning I woke up feeling stiff, sore even, but not in pain. After some stretching the soreness melted away. I feel stronger, but know I need more. I won’t make the Presidential Traverse or Pemi loop without some serious resistance training. My sister-in-law Rachel is helping me in this department and I will accompany it with protein powder. I need more muscle mass.
Trail tips: Peak-bagging? Bring extra food, I am so glad we packed a lot. It got me through especially in the winter when calories are burned faster to keep our bodies warm. Electrolytes are also good, they sell them in little packets. I am currently ordering some on Amazon for future adventures. Lay out all of your gear before assembling your backpack so you don’t forget anything!
Anton brought his fancy camera, these pictures are brought to you by Anton! If you click here it will bring you to his Instagram. He is quite a talented photographer! I encourage you to follow him if you like them!
I leave you with one of my favorite poems by one of the White Mountain’s most famous former residents, Robert Frost. Super cliche, but it suits our adventure perfectly.