White Mountains – Mount Washington, Mount Adams and Franconia Ridge

By AlpineZone News |
Oct 05 2001 - 12:45 PM

Date: October 2-5, 2001

Difficulty: Day 1: Pretty hard; Day 2: Strenuous but not as bad as day 1; Day 3: Not too bad!
Conditions: Trails all in great shape; Weather: delicious!

Trip Report: First off, I want to thank all of you who provided all the good advice on gear, trails, etc. before I took off for my short week of dayhiking in the White Mountains. Your advice was good and sound and definitely helped make for a seriously good trip! I was probably over-prepared but, considering the reputation the Whites have for changeable weather, it was probably better than being under-prepared.

In a nutshell, the trip ended up as three full-day dayhikes: Mount Washington, Mt. Adams, and Franconia Ridge. I burned up some frequent flier miles on Monday, October 1, and flew to Portland, Maine, whereupon I rented a car and drove the 90 miles or so to the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Lodge. I dayhiked on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday and had planned to do a half-day hike on the Caps Ridge Trail Friday morning but after the first three days my old knees started to get pretty sore and I opted to “play tourist” that day instead (more on that later). I had to leave the Pinkham Notch area by 4:00 or so Friday to catch a 7:20 flight back to Washington DC. Now … why have I waited so long to send in this trip report? Two basic reasons: 1) lots of backed-up work at the office and undone chores at home, and 2) I’m not a writer by nature so I don’t often express myself very well with words and those mountains are, well, some seriously BIG MOUNTAINS compared to what we have here in Virginia! I could probably ramble on endlessly about those three-and-a-half days but thought it best to first think about what I wanted to say.

Mt. Washington – Tuesday, October 2 (4.3 miles up – 4.2 miles back, 4,256 feet of elevation gain): Those of you who were advising me earlier about these hikes might recall that I had made up my mind to do this one via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail going up and returning via the Jewell Trail. After talking with several of the more experienced hikers my first evening there they suggested that if I wanted maximum “visual impact” on my first trip to the Whites that I should really consider going up via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. I was a little put off at the possibility that I’d have way too much company but was assured that, considering my early planned departure time (7:00am), I’d probably have the trail mostly to myself. So … it was settled, or so I thought. By the time I hit the sack at 9:00 I’d been convinced that going up via the Huntington Ravine Trail and coming back via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail would not only provide maximum visual impact but would also provide maximum challenge (something I specifically seek out in the mountains where I live).

The AMC guidebook, in fact, lists the Huntington Ravine Trail as the most difficult hike in the WMNF! So, at 7:00 Tuesday morning I was headed off to Huntington Ravine. First, a word about “trails” in the WNMF. These aren’t the kinds of trails I’m used to in the Shenandoah National Park … there don’t appear to be many plain, old dirt paths to be found up there! Instead the “trails” are more like clearings through the rocks, and the rocks in many places are more like small boulders! This is the case both for going up and coming down – those of you who said to count on about a one-mile-per-hour pace were just about exactly right! Really tough on the knees, too (particularly the coming down parts). To add to the challenge I found out I was carrying about 25 pounds around with me, what with all the extra gear and water and stuff – compared to about 15 pounds I normally dayhike with around home! So here I was, setting off on my first hike on this long-planned trip not sure whether or not I could make it up a trail that strenuous with that much weight on my back!

As it turned out I made it okay but, good golly Miss Molly, what a hike! The headwall of the ravine was steeper than anything I’d ever gone up. The AMC guidebook says that, at the steepest part, there’s an elevation gain of 650 feet in 0.3 mile – that’s a 41% grade – pretty tough, particularly for an old geezer like me. When I finally reached the top of the headwall, Mt. Washington’s peak was in the clouds – really dense clouds. The hike continued a little further up the Huntington Ravine Trail to the Nelson Crag Trail which would take me the final mile or so south to the summit. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see “anything” from the summit but I wouldn’t have given up the hike in the clouds along the Nelson Crag Trail for anything! Visibility was such that you could only see 100-150 feet ahead – thank God for the cairns! Add to this the 50+ MPH crosswinds that day and the experience was surreal (with an ambient temperature in the high 30s this made for a wind-chill of about 18 degrees, as I recall). It was as though the winds were ripping and tearing the clouds into shreds and blowing them across the ridge I was on – an unforgettable experience. I spent little time at the summit/observatory/visitor center since I wasn’t sure what my downhill pace would be … couldn’t see anything anyway. The return trip down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was uneventful except for the four times I wrenched my ankle! But I could see why Tuckerman is such a popular hike – easy accessibility, not nearly as challenging as Huntington Ravine (but still a grind), all wrapped up with beautiful views! Those “trails” though …

Mt. Adams – Wednesday, October 3 (4.3 miles up – 4.2 miles back, 4,493 feet of elevation gain): Wouldn’t you know that this day (and the next would be crystal-clear up at Mt. Washington’s summit? Oh, well … too many trails and not enough time to even scratch the surface. I did this hike with one of the other guests at Pinkham Notch – up via the Airline Trail and down via the Valley Way Trail. This hike has an even steeper grade than the Mt. Washington hike but it was more sustained. The Mt. Washington hikes provide flat-to-low grade trails to start off then make you do big-time UP hiking before “leveling off” again as you near the summit. Mt. Adams provides much less of this except at the very beginning of the hike – the rest of it is just plain UP. Coming above treeline on the Airline Trail was also much more dramatic than I experienced on the Huntington Ravine trail the day before … that may be because Huntington is so straight up that I was concentrating on watching where I was going and didn’t really notice when I left the trees behind. On the Airline Trail, though, it’s very sudden. As you break out of the trees you see Mt. Adams (and Mt. Madison) staring right down at you! You’re also greeted by stunning views down into King Ravine (I think?) from the very edge of the ravine headwall … really beautiful. You leave the soft green behind you and walk up into a hard, dark gray pile of rocks – that would be Mt. Adams. It’s interesting that there’s no single, visible HUGE chunk of rock that seems to make up the summit. It’s more like if you took a handful of salt and poured it out into a cone shape … except each grain of salt is as big as a refrigerator. No real “trail” to the top – just blazes painted on the rocks to point you in the general direction. The return trip was, as on the previous day, uneventful … as we hiked back down the Airline Trail to where we could pick up the Valley Way Trail to return to the car we passed by Mt. Madison. It was enticing, to say the least! Being able to do two big summits on one day would have been neat but would have added two miles roundtrip and two hours to the hike and we would have risked being caught in the woods in the dark on a trail that was probably the worst downhill hiking I’ve ever done. It was on this one that my knees began to give me the first hints that they were going to rebel at some point in the not-too-distant future!

Franconia Ridge – Thursday, October 4 (3.2 miles to the ridge, another 1.7 along the ridge to Mt. Lafayette, another 4.0 miles back to the trailhead, 3,480 feet of elevation gain to Mt. Lafayette): Even though the other two hikes got me jazzed up with their “grindiness” I think this one was the best of all. To hike almost two miles along this ridge with unobstructed views in every direction was just awesome … the words just don’t come to me to describe it. In retrospect, I think the appeal and satisfaction I received from the two previous hikes were the grind, making the summits, and enjoying the views (or so I thought!) … on this hike, though, I really, REALLY wanted to linger. This day was the warmest of the three and really lent itself to just sitting and looking and sitting and looking. And, in fact, I did just that for as long as I thought I could afford! The return hike took me by the Greenleaf Hut where I had a chance to linger some more! Having visited this hut has convinced me that I need to do a three or four day hut-to-hut hike – possibly next fall and (hopefully) with my teenage son (a week out of school ought to be a sufficient “bribe”) – incorporating a return trip to Franconia Ridge. Surprised that the best of the three hikes got the shortest write-up? I told you I couldn’t quite find the words…

Playing Tourist – Friday, October 5: Another day that Mt. Washington had its head out of the clouds. So, I did what any good tourist would do – drove up the Mt. Washington Auto Road! As I mentioned earlier, my knees were beginning to get pretty sore and I decided not to risk real pain and injury by doing the Caps Ridge Trail on Friday. Hey … that trail’s not going anywhere – I’ll just have to go back! This was one of the smartest decisions I made on this trip. It gave me a chance to go up there and get the views I missed on my Tuesday hike in the clouds. Yes, it’s touristy and busy but I had plenty of time to browse the exhibits (and the gift shop … sorry, I couldn’t resist picking up a souvenir or two) and just look and look. The views along the Auto Road are pretty awesome, too – although I’d feel better about those views if I “earned” them by hiking up to them! It was still a lot of fun. After I finished the Auto Road I dropped by the Pinkham Notch facility to “powder my nose” and grab a snack before heading to the airport. Realizing that I had a little extra time, I took the short, one-mile round-trip hike up to Square Ledge – right across the highway from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (another smart decision). Although I stayed up there WAY too long and had to rush to get to the airport it was worth it just for the views and the last chance for real solitude! In the background was Mt. Washington flanked on either side by Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines with the Pinkham Notch facility at the base … all framed with fall colors. BTW – I think I hit the peak week for colors up there! Reds, oranges, and yellows bright enough to hurt your eyes … we don’t always get much of that here in Virginia, either! I prayed that that view would etch itself into my brain. And so it ended…

Once again, thanks for all your good advice. Now, as I begin planning and dreaming about next year’s trip … oh, yes, I’m going back! … I may do something hut-to-hut (Greenleaf – Galehead – Zealand … is that the right order?) or I may decide to just tackle some more summits. If I “do summits” I’ll go back to Franconia Ridge regardless of what else I do. Can’t get Franconia Ridge out of my mind …

To close, I really envy those of you who live up there and have such easy access to those mountains. I hope you realize how fortunate you are! See you next October …