Ascending to New Heights
I have been hiking from a young age. It started with local hikes, like Sleeping Giant in Hamden or the twisting trails of Eisenhower Park in my hometown of Milford. As I have matured so have my hiking endeavors. Two years ago I hit a new all time best when I made a pilgrimage to the notorious White Mountains in New Hampshire. I hiked up Mount Jefferson, the third tallest peak in the North East, and sauntered to the near by summit of Mount Clay. Once on top of Clay I made a foolish maneuver of jumping between two rocks and landed on my toe requiring me to turn around and painfully head back to my car. A dark purple toenail accompanied pleasant memories as souvenirs of that hike.
Recently I decided to attempt that hike again, this time adding a new challenge. The fateful day arrived and I stood at the base of Mount Jefferson and looked over to a summit two peaks away. Mount Washington appeared as an intimidating behemoth that seemed impossible to vanquish. Standing at 6,289 feet, it is the tallest mountain in the North East.
I started on the wooden boards that line the first flat quarter mile of the Cap Ridge Trail that I used to make it to the top of the first mountain of the day, Jefferson. The ease of this section soon became a fuzzy memory once I hit the unrelenting incline of the rest of the trail. The more I walked, the smaller the army of trees that surrounded me grew until they deserted me completely as I got above the tree line and hit the first of three rocky caps that signaled that the summit was becoming a tangible reality.
Maneuvering over the caps was more like rock climbing than hiking since the angle was so extreme. It required all four limbs and a bit of logical thinking but I managed to clear the third and was left only with what is referred to as “the rock pile”. The rock pile is a collection of hundreds of thousands of rocks, ranging in size from six inches to five feet across, that accumulated as a result of a tag-team effort by tectonic plates and glaciers. The rocks were loose and I had to constantly steady myself to prevent any falls but I managed to make my way to the summit after a few hours of hard work. The view was breath-taking, an almost clear blue sky and an endless sea of mountains. I looked over to my left and with a sinking feeling, saw the distant towers that marked my goal of Mount Washington.
One mountain separated us, Mount Clay. To get over to Clay, one has to walk across Monticello’s Lawn, a massive grassy field a mile in the sky. After the majestic field, there is another rock pile that needed to be conquered. The beautiful view surrounded me as I worked my way to up and finally reached my second summit of the day. At this point I was starting to feel a bit sore as I looked around the place I had been two years prior. It was an amazing feeling as I started taking my first steps toward my final destination, knowing that every step led me to a new personal best.
Walking the narrow trail I looked down the very steep Great Gulf and was very thankful that I do not have a fear of heights. Seeing the tiny forests and pond at the bottom put my altitude in perspective. At one point on the trail, I needed to cross over the Cog Railway tracks, the metal and wood almost laughed at me because I took the hard way up as they were facilitating tourists arriving at the summit with no physical effort. After the railway, I soon made it to the rock pile, the final obstacle in my way. Every foot of elevation gain had my body screaming but I knew I had no choice but continue upward.
I almost had tunnel vision when I looked around when I got on top. The view was spectacular. After the initial shock of the faraway beauty I was able to take a closer look at my surroundings. The summit of Washington was covered in tourists. Wearing flip-flops and looking bright eyed and energetic, they were taking selfies and discussing how cool it was to be on top. I was only able to spot a few others with the tired expressions and sluggish foot steps that mirrored my own, marking that they had earned their way to the top, unlike the majority who arrived via train or car.
Soon an opaque sheet of clouds appeared, obscuring all views and giving the distinct feeling of being in a giant white void. I made my way toward the one benefit of all the tourists, the Mount Washington Observatory, and was able to enjoy the comfort of a real bathroom and a warm and invigorating bowl of vegetarian chilli. Once I got my strength back I knew I needed to start heading back toward my car. So I started my way back, this time avoiding the peaks of Clay and Jefferson, choosing the shortest possible way back.
When I got to back to Monticello’s Lawn I heard someone behind me. It was a search and rescue worker who was almost sprinting along the trail. He explained that he was trying to meet up with a military helicopter that was going to be landing on the Cap Ridge Trail on Jefferson in about ten minutes. The helicopter was going to pick up the body of a man 63 year old man who had died on the trail that I had traversed only hours prior. The search and rescue worker continued forward with great speed and sure enough I soon heard the loud sound of helicopter blades and saw its massive black silhouette.
I read about injuries and deaths on mountains pretty regularly, but I had never been this close to one. As I continued my descent, I watched a man rappel from the helicopter with a litter and a few minutes later ascend with the body. It was unnerving to know what happened where I was standing earlier, but I was comforted by knowing that man saw such tremendous beauty before he passed. In addition, he died doing something that he loved since no one would attempt a mountain as difficult as Jefferson unless they had a passion for hiking.
As I got lower in elevation, so did the sun. I was rewarded with the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. It was a sunset, so beautiful that words cannot do it justice. At this point I was back on Jefferson working my way down the caps. I stopped every few minutes to just stop and stare at the unspeakable view until the sun went below the horizon. I had to then don a headlamp to see as the trail was pitch black. Animals and insects began to creep out of their daytime hiding places including, most disturbingly for me, spiders which chose to crawl all over the same rocks that I needed to.
Time seemed to be at almost a standstill as I trudged through the trail; my ankles constantly giving out due to the bumpy surface and pure exhaustion. I finally saw the wooden boards that signal, “the end is near” and experienced an elation that was far too much for just some rotten pieces of wood. The flat, soft surface gave much needed relief to my feet and ankles which felt like they would fall off any second.
I finally reached the parking lot and saw the glorious sight of my car. The feeling of the seat was fantastic as I sat down. I was places that day where only a few people will ever leave foot prints. That knowledge is what pushes me to keep getting out in nature and going to new extremes.
After all is said and done, my hike was over fifteen miles and had over a mile of elevation gain. I was on the trail for about eleven hours. I had made a new personal best, one that will be near impossible to beat. I saw some of the most gorgeous things that nature offers as well as the aftermath of one of nature’s most cruel acts.
Early on in my hike I had briefly talked with another hiker and explained to him my plan for the day. As I headed home, I realized his reaction to what I was going to do was the same as mine after I completed it, “Holy shit!”