Great Gulf 10/5/03-10/7/03

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      [Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum]
      [By: markv on October 17 2003 at 9:04 PM]

      I would call this a slightly-assisted-semi-backpacking-winterish-climb trip report.

      Our plan for 10/5-10/7 was to head up the Great Gulf Trail on Sunday, camp at a site at about 3300 ft., leave camp where it was on Monday, daypack up the north headwall of Washington, go north along the ridge line and visit as many peaks as possible before picking a trail back to camp, and then hike out on Tuesday. What actually happened was…

      Due to a combination of illness and hours of catching up on conversation while going through gear, Melanie and i didn’t actually get to the Great Gulf trailhead (1200-something ft.) until 2:30 p.m. The weather was partly partly and in the 50s. The Great Gulf trail was BEAUTIFUL. I love trails that follow alongside rivers, and this trail is always within earshot of the Peabody River as it gradually ascends the gulf, starting from a wide and easy path, over 2 suspension bridges and a few easy brook crossings, with clear trail junction signs with the Appalachian Trail and other trails. There was a point where the clouds and trees parted enough to afford a good view of Washington, and we saw a couple of trucks heading up the road near the top. Unfortunately we had to hurry the hike a little, worrying about finding camp before dark. After intersecting the A.T., the trail gets rockier, narrow, and much steeper as it ascends in earnest. The campsite at Clam Rock is a small and very sheltered one, and it was tempting to stop there, but we wanted to get closer to the mountain for Monday, so we pressed on, not realizing how much colder it had gotten until we noticed…it was SNOWING.

      At about 5:30 we crossed paths with a couple that was in a hurry, and they assured us that the campsites we were aiming for were closeby. Near the Wamusutta/Six Husbands trail intersection, there were 2 campsites that i saw marked from the trail. We took the south/east one: a very large site (one could pitch 6 or 7 tents there) with a brook running by it. It snowed lightly off and on as we set camp, did water, hung a food line, etc. Cooking and eating ended up being in the dark. Sunset was officially at 6:25, but with Mt. Jefferson to the west and clouds above, it was pitch black by 7.

      Overnight temps were low enough for a little snow to settle on the tent, but not so cold that the water bottle i left outside could freeze. So i guess it must have been right around 32 degrees.

      The next morning we left our camp out, packed just about all the clothing we brought, and headed out at the late hour of 8-something. Weather was cloudy and very humid. As we ascended the trail, the river became narrower and more dramatic, and the crossings more frequent and confusing. At a couple of crossings, i could see below the water surface flat rocks placed at convenient stepping intervals, and to step a couple inches INTO the water in order to have a flat surface was way better than stepping on wet rocks above the surface. There were at least 2 crossings where it took some debating as to where the trail continued on the other side. I’m assuming this is an easier trail to hike in August, but in October the water was high from the past week’s wet snow melting. All the same, we made it to Spaulding Lake before 10, and we assumed we were doing ok on time. However, we still couldn’t see the mountain at all…fog was above us and the trees were beginning to leave us behind.

      The next 5 hours were an adventure. Shortly after Spaulding Lake, the trail makes a turn. It doesn’t turn right or left. It turns UP. It was a problematic climb, not so much for the cardiovascular difficulty, but for other reasons. The route starts by ascending a gully. The gully was running, and all the rocks were coated with ice. Leaving the gully didn’t seem like a good option, since the brush was thick, snow was starting to accumulate, and at this point i still had a silly notion that we were supposed to follow a “trail.” (The trail from this point on consisted of one paint blaze and 2 cairns…and i really think we followed it as closely as possible.) So we ended up again choosing to walk IN the water when possible, instead of slipping on icy rocks. It was slow-going. And as we went higher, the snow got deeper. Soon we could hear the water running underneath, but couldn’t see it. The footing was awful. I was cursing myself for not bringing crampons. Our stepping choices were between crawling up icy boulders (did i mention Melanie is only 5-feet tall?), postholing thigh-deep into snow (tiring, but at least i had gaiters), or carefully picking around for mini-ice-bridges between rocks (Aron who?). We did some of all 3. And then there was the fog. By noon, visibility was 25 feet at best. I am sure from topo and compass we were going the right way (really the only option was UP), but it’s frustrating picking your way up a headwall like that when you have no idea how far you’ve gone and how far you have left to go. I wish i had an altimeter. Weather was cold if we stopped to rest, but fine as long as we kept moving. If we had gotten stuck somehow, we had good supplies on our backs, but it still would have been a nightmare. The ice tendrils forming on our hats looked very climber-chic.

      1:30 rolled around, and still we were on the headwall, without being able to see the top. I floated the idea that we might need to just turn back, but Melanie just about killed me when i mentioned it. And really at that point, for safety, it was better to just continue up, no matter how far, and get to the summit house. Without that summit house up there though, we would have turned back at 1, me getting murdered for it or not. Soon thereafter we heard the steam train whistle out of the fog, the incline leveled out mostly, but we were still in a navigational puzzle, not being able to see any signs of a trail what with the snow being a couple feet deep, and with visibility limited to 10-20 feet. At about 2 p.m., we passed what seemed to be an unnaturally level stretch running east/west, which i assume was the Gulfside Trail, then saw the emergency hut, then finally we came to the train tracks. Being sick of navigating, i opted for walking on the tracks from there. This was probably stupid, with the tracks at some points being 10 feet off the ground, and with snow and ice on the slats. I got a queasy feeling at one point when i realized if a train came out of the fog, we wouldn’t have much warning before we’d have to just jump off the tracks onto the snow and boulders below.

      But we made it. At 2:30, we were extremely happy to see the summit house. Mel headed straight inside, i had to tag the summit first. Temps on top were around 20 degrees. There were 2 other climbers there, and at one point about 10 tourists from the train.

      I’ve heard complain about there being a snack bar at the top of the mountain. They must never have climbed the headwall in October. The hot cocoa was to die for.

      I talked with the ranger and she wasn’t pushing for one choice or another, but it just sounded to me like any of the descending trail options we had were asking for a disaster. We didn’t want to be wandering down anything steep with ice in the dark, even with headlamps. The idea of spending a lost night on a mountain isn’t what i’d call a good time. So instead we walked down the road. The road was closed to cars from about 3500 ft. up to the top, and was covered with snow and ice, but at least it was a gradual descent, and it was something we could follow blindfolded if need be. A nice couple from San Francisco gave us a lift down from about 3000 feet, the last 3 miles of the road, and from there to our car at the trailhead. We stayed in a hotel in Gorham, and our room was called “Mt. Adams.” So i can now say i’ve traversed from Mt. Washington to Mt. Adams in one day in winter weather. The restaurant in Gorham we ate at was VERY good. It’s called J’s Corner, on the south side of Rt. 2, and it looks unassumingly like just the kind of ho-hum surf and turf place i usually hate. But the steak, squash ravioli, buffalo wings, and salads were all good, and they had a couple of worthwhile beers on tap.

      Oh yeah, one other thing. There was this little issue of our camp. The camp we were supposed to be at that night. It was, well, still out there. So Tuesday became a long reconnaissance day. But a fun one.

      We decided it would be a bore to walk all the way in AND out on the Great Gulf Trail again, so instead we walked 2 miles up the auto road and then crossed about 3 miles along the Madison Gulf Trail, which at this point is the Appalachian Trail. The weather had warmed up, it was sunny, and it’s obvious that the A.T. gets major traffic. Each boulder or hill or brook crossing, there might as well be a sign saying “STEP HERE.” The rocks are all smoothed flat from the thousands of people who use this trail. It was a nice change. It got me thinking about someday trying a longer stretch of the A.T. The A.T. intersects again with the G.G. trail, and from there we hoofed back up that hard stretch to our camp, which was still standing. I’d like to think some ghost hikers had a nice place to sleep that night. We had what was supposed to be Monday’s dinner as Tuesday’s lunch instead, and enjoyed the sunny view of Jefferson’s Knee that was obscured by the clouds before, then packed up and headed out the G.G., and walked the last mile of our long day on Rt. 16 back to our car at the auto road parking lot.

      It really was a great trip, no complaints. But it would have been easier with crampons. It would have been WAY easier one day later with the clearer weather. And it would have been way way WAY easier a month earlier before the snow and ice came. I look forward to going back sometime soon and hiking to the other Presidential summits which time and conditions kept us from getting to this time. Maybe on a nice, clear JULY day.

      Jerimoth Hill was a rainy day. But it was a quick drive from Boston. Between the private land and the weather, i didn’t have any desire left to seek out a trail, so i parked at the N/S Trail intersection with the highway, right at the state line. My topo program has this spot as being about 677 feet, and i have figured the prominence cannot be greater than 212 feet, so my 135-ft. elevation gain along the road was more than enough to get 50%. The guys manning the entrance said there were about 70 people that day to visit the HP. The walk and the boulder were forgettable. I slipped and almost fell off the boulder, which would have been an ironic way to hurt myself after this whole trip. It must be true what they say about the descent of a mountain being the most dangerous part…

      HPs 18&19. w’hoo.

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