One down, forty-seven to go

We’ve been up here for a little over four years now. We’ve taken on our share of hikes up in the White Mountains, but the only mountaintop hike we had tackled was the relatively mild Welch-Dickey Loop Trail to the tops of neighboring Mt. Welch and Mt. Dickey, each a shade under 3000 feet high.

The goal this year: to start taking on (and taking down) the so-called 4000-footers in New Hampshire—48 peaks in the White Mountains, each at least (duh) 4000 feet high, ranging from #1 Mt. Washington (6288 feet) to #48 Mt. Tecumseh (4003 feet).

So over the July 4th holiday weekend this year, we took on our first: Mt. Pierce, #27 on the list at 4310 feet. The plan was to take the Crawford Path for the first 1.9 miles, split off on the Mizpah Cut-Off (0.7 miles) to reach the Mizpah Spring Hut, then take the Webster Cliff Trail (0.9 miles) from there for the last stretch to the summit of Pierce.

We started our trek fairly early Saturday morning from the parking lot of the AMC Highland Center Lodge, conveniently located directly across Route 302 from the start of the Crawford Path. The weather was decidedly gray and overcast, and rain was likely throughout the day, but we decided that we’d make it through come hell or high water (should have picked my words more carefully on that last part… foreshadowing…). We had packed some light rain gear anyway, just in case, so we figured we were set. An so off we went.

And we’re off!

The first stretch of the Crawford Path is listed as “moderately strenuous”, but given that I wasn’t in exactly top shape, I thought the grade started to get steep awfully quickly. My sweetie—who’s been a regular gym rat since the beginning of the year—was able to recover her wind much more quickly than I, but in time, my body started to get the hang of things, and even I started to find the going a bit easier as time went on.

Then, about an hour or so into the climb, it started to rain. We were still well below the treeline and were partially covered by canopy, so it wasn’t too bad. The rain started and stopped in fits the higher we went, but again, we weren’t too bothered by it. It took a couple of hours or so, but we reached the split for the Mizpah Cut-Off and had no trouble picking out the sign telling us which way we needed to go (this time… ooooooh, more foreshadowing…)—one way led to the Mizpah Spring Hut (our waystop on the way up), the other continued up the Crawford Path towards neighboring Mt. Eisenhower. And just about 2 1/2 hours after starting off, we reached the AMC Mizpah Spring Hut, where we would be able to dry off, reload our water cannisters, and take a load off for a little bit.

And just in time, too, for a few minutes after we got inside, the skies unloaded…

The view out from Mizpah Spring Hut. Yes, it was raining a little.

[Aside: As we were making our way up the Crawford Path, we were passed by a much faster veteran hiker who mentioned that he was trying to catch up to a friend of his who was supposedly handing out ice cream sandwiches (!) atop Mt. Pierce. Well, it turned out we met up with this same hiker while we all waited out the rain in the hut; the onset of the rain forced his hand, and he had decided to sit this one out. But lo and behold, not too many minutes later, his friend walked through the door toting a cooler bag filled with dry ice—and ice cream sandwiches, which he handed out for free to anyone and everyone who wanted one. In fact, he said he had started the day with 7 dozen sandwiches, and given the crappy weather, there were still plenty left to go around. Turns out the he and a group that he’s associated with do this sort of thing every July 4th—they hike up various mountains in the area and hand out freebies to whoever crosses their path. This year it was ice cream sandwiches, last year (I think he said it was last year) it was tacos (!!). Regardless, free ice cream sandwiches after 2 1/2 hours up the side of a mountain was a welcome treat to say the least.]

Eventually, the rain stopped and appeared to be holding off, so we crossed our fingers and left the relative warmth and dryness of the hut to continue our climb. It was less than a mile to the summit of Pierce, but this stretch of the climb (now on the Webster Cliff Trail) was decidedly steeper and was a much slower go. So, of course, it decided to start raining again. Not quite as hard as while we were in the hut, but out in the open (and with much less canopy over our heads), it wasn’t pleasant, that’s for sure. But again, continuing with the theme of the day, it eventually let up just as we were cresting a ridge that left us atop a largish outcropping of solid rock.

Success! We’d done it! We couldn’t find an explicit marking or such (bummer), but we were standing on this big hunk of rock with nothing but trees and clouds around (and below) us. We took the obligatory picture to commemorate the occasion, and since at that particular moment the rain appeared to have let up, we made the decision to pick up the Crawford Path (again) and continue along the ridgeline to neighboring Mt. Eisenhower, another mile and change down the road. (Actually, the original plan at one point in time was to hit both Pierce and Eisenhower in this one day, but we had resigned ourselves to just Pierce given the weather. The unexpected good break in the weather changed our minds… for now.)

And so on (and up) we went, this time along a decidedly easier (read: much more flat) stretch of trail. As we climbed atop another large outcropping of rock a little later one, two things happened: (1) It started to rain—… no, it started to pour; and (2) We noticed a small metal pole sticking up from the peak of the outcropping. (Uh-oh…) Already knowing the answer, we made our way over to the pole, looked down… and saw the USGS survey marker indicating we had reached the summit of Mt. Pierce. For real this time.

We made it! The USGS marker atop Mt. Pierce.

Don’t get me wrong—we were thrilled that we could (officially) check off our first 4000-footer, but at the same time, it was mixed with a little disappointment that we had not progressed towards Mt. Eisenhower at all. And still the rain poured down, and with discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to break off the trek for a second peak and just be content with crossing off the one from our list.

We stopped at the hut again on our way down to dry off as best we could (really a losing proposition at that point, but it still did feel good to towel off a bit) and to wait out the rain again. And sure enough, we got our break, so off (and down) we went. Since we didn’t know how much of a window we had, we decided to go for speed—just put our heads down and plow forward as quickly as we could, and we’d let each other know if we needed to stop for anything.

So off we went, backtracking down the Crawford Path we climbed up on. Down the rocks… across the man-made wooden boardwalks… past the pink ribbon markers tied to various trees—… wait, I didn’t remember seeing any pink ribbons tied to trees on the way up. And wait, why was the trail going up so much?—I didn’t remember having a corresponding long downslope on the way in. The white blazes on the rocks and trees said we were on the Crawford Path, so maybe we hadn’t paid enough attention on the way in? Unlikely, but still…

So we made the executive decision to turn around and get reset, perhaps having to make our way all the way back to the hut. And it turned out it was a good (read: smart) thing we decided to suck it up and backtrack: What had happened is that in our heads-down eagerness to hoof it down the trail, we had missed the Mizpah Cut-Off/Crawford Path split and had somehow ended up on the Crawford Path heading up towards Eisenhower instead of the segment of the path that we’d come in on, now heading down towards the lodge. AAAAAARGH… the better part of 45 minutes or so wasted—and oh, did I mention it was raining again?

So after carefully reading (and re-reading) the sign that we’d managed to blow right past in our haste to head down, we re-oriented ourselves. And yes, thank goodness, we started to see familiar landmarks that we’d noticed on our way up, so we knew we were finally on the right path (literally). And the rain stopped to boot. (For good for our descent, as it turned out.)

Now heading downhill on the rocks after the rainstorms was a decidedly more tricky operation than climbing up the same rocks, as they had all become rather slippery (plus it’s harder to climb down rocky slopes than up them). It also didn’t help that the rains had turned what were rocky paths climbing up into miniature streams heading down. Let’s just say that courtesy of a couple of badly placed steps on the way down the mountain, my left knee and right hip were not on speaking terms with me for a couple of days afterwards, and my sweetie’s knee wasn’t doing her any favors either.

But at long last, we started to hear to sound of cars whizzing by along the road, and finally—around 7 hours after we had started out in the morning (including the better part of 6 hours of actual hiking)—we had completed our round trip up and down Mt. Pierce. Our first 4000-footer officially in the books.

A change into dry clothes (which we had thankfully brought with us in the car) in the lodge later, we assessed what we had done:

  • Roughly 7 miles of actual hiking over the land, round trip (not including our little wrong-way adventure)
  • Around 2400 vertical feet in elevation gain going up
  • About 6 hours of actual hiking time, round trip (including our wrong-way adventure)

And what did we learn?

  • Despite our lack of hiking conditioning, we proved we could do this, even in pretty terrible weather.
  • We need the proper clothing. Just like all the guides say, cotton clothing for long hikes (especially when you’re going to get wet) just sucks—it doesn’t breathe, and it most assuredly doesn’t wick away moisture, instead just absorbing it all like a sponge. (We were carrying more than a few extra pounds of nothing but water with us on the way down.) And hiking poles, a must for next time, especially for the descents—real knee-savers by all accounts. (We actually knew all of this beforehand but didn’t want to go around spending $$$ on good gear until we were sure this was something we actually wanted to do again.)
  • There will definitely be a “next time”.

One down, forty-seven to go.