Thursday, August 29, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #8: Presidential Traverse Part 2, New Hampshire

Hike #8: Presidential Traverse
Elevation: 5,367 (Mount Madison), 5,774 (Mount Adams), 5,712 (Mount Jefferson), 6,288 (Mount Washington), 5,384 (Mount Monroe), 4,780 (Mount Eisenhower), 4,310 (Mount Pierce)
Date: June 15, 2013
Location: a big swath of the White Mountain National Forest, NH
Distance: 20.1 miles
Time: 16:53 (50:24/mile)

To recap part 1, we started off at 5:30 a.m., after our first setback of the day when we didn’t have the keys to the truck where we’ll finish the hike, and we had to backtrack to the hotel to get them. But it’s mid-morning, we’ve got Mount Madison and Mount Adams in the bag, and we’re doing well.

Leg 3: Adams summit to Jefferson summit via Thunderstorm Junction and Edmands Col; 2.2 miles, 800 feet of elevation gain (8.0 miles and 5,885 total)

The view of our next two mountains, from Mount Adams:
Mount Jefferson (right) and then Mount Washington (left)

Leaving Adams, we stared at a barren landscape of rocks and boulders stretching for miles. The views were great, but it was clear that we would not be plodding along hardpacked trails amidst fragile flora. Instead, we’d be bouldering and rock scrambling for hours, since most of the route was above tree line and much was within view.

Given my love of rock scrambles, I fell into a rhythm. When I was in middle school, I lived about a half-mile away from the school. I sometimes walked home instead of riding the bus, and my route took me past an old, private school that had a rock retaining wall for much of the way. I’d walk on top of it, predicting how many steps each large rock would take to cover, and before I knew it I’d be within sight of my home. Now, picking my way through the debris field from Adams to Jefferson, I again lost myself as I transitioned from one enormous rock to another. 

Plaque to Edmands, a founding AMC member

The hang-up in this was that there was not an obvious trail, just periodic signposts and cairns scattered about and people hiking in multiple directions. Noticing where the majority of the crowd headed, we thought we could identify the route for the March of the Crazies. But at Thunderstorm Junction, we took a wrong turn, adding about a quarter of a mile to the trip. Once back on the correct route, we plodded along before Edmands Col established a more obvious trail.

Sara was bonking, and we allowed ourselves a breather. We ate, drank, rested tiring legs, and then resumed. We reached Jefferson’s summit and didn’t linger; we were beginning to lose the pace we’d had earlier, and the wind and chill gave us no place for cover.

I've got plenty of energy. Honest. Really. Eesh...

We made our way down the large boulders from the peak of Mount Adams.  It was really difficult to determine the trail ahead...and we had the best conditions!  It was sunny with bluebird skies on this day. The wind was brisk, and although a bit chilly, it kept the bugs at bay.  

Rock scrambles for miles. And miles. And miles...

I am very slow going down rocks.  Jay kept jumping far ahead of me, but he was good about pausing to wait.  As I ambled along rather far behind him, I thought of a good trail name for him.  We had joked about some trail names for him before, but there was really nothing from hiking that had yet to stand out.  I kept it to myself for a little while, wanting to mull it over before deciding on it.

We set out toward a signpost only to realize that we had taken a wrong turn -- and we had the best of weather!    I can now imagine, though, how difficult hiking across the Presidentials is in bad weather - which is frequent up there!  I can’t say that we were lost, but we were definitely heading the wrong way off of Adams.  Wind blowing like mad, I briefly checked the map.  There was a bit of frustration between me and Jay at this point, in part because it just was really hard to figure out where to go and the last thing we wanted to do is set out in a different but equally wrong direction.  Time was ticking and it was dispiriting to think that we were needlessly adding miles to an already arduous hike.  

We didn’t have much of a choice but to hike back up and over the other side of Thunderstorm junction and, as we did, I thought I saw the two girls we had seen at the Madison Hut, leaving me more confident that we were correcting ourselves.

We hiked over through Edmands Col without incident.  I had been a little nervous from Goatman’s e-mail and I wasn’t sure how dangerous this would be.  We started up to summit Mount Jefferson and, although I was very tired, I was thrilled to be hiking a peak that 10 years ago, during a backpacking trip through the Great Gulf Wilderness,  I had vowed I would return to do.  I put my head down and plodded towards the summit, with one singular goal at the moment: do not stop until you get to the peak of Jefferson.
On the peak of Jefferson, with our next target (Washington)
looming in the background.

Leg 4: Jefferson summit to Washington summit via Gulfside, Sphinx, Mt Clay Loop; 3.3 miles including the wrong turn, 1,321 feet of elevation gain (11.3 miles and 7,206 total)

We're a whole mountain closer to Washington,
but it seems like it's just as far away! Aargh!

From our vantage point on Jefferson, Mount Washington, the highest of the New England peaks, seemed to be incredibly far away. I focused on moving from cairn to cairn, similar to a runner focusing on the next telephone pole instead of on how many miles remain.

It was still fun, and the 5-Hour Energy helped. I was in a groove with the rocks, at one point finding myself on a long rock starting to fall over, and casually riding it to its destination and stepping off just prior to its crash. Sara, too, was comfortable behind me. Normally nervous on rocky sections, the immersion seemed to have led her to get into the flow of it, with her hands outspread and fingers delicately positioned in the ballerina stance she used as a kid. She never realizes she does that, because it only happens when she’s a little worried about her balance and concentrating, but not freaking out. I took this as a good sign.

As we continued on, rock after rock, she declared that she was ready to give me my nickname. All serious hikers wind up with trail names not of their choosing, which are bestowed by fellow hikers. They are to be earned, not given gratuitously like soccer trophies for kids. As a guy, we live for nicknames, sometimes having or using multiple. A bad nickname is like a scarlet letter, other guys docking you Man Points. We don’t want generic and insulting nicknames such as Ace, Dude, or Slick. We wince at ones given because of an embarrassing back story: Strikeout King, Balcony Puker, or Captain Acid-Washed. My previous thought was that I’d inevitably hike someday to a hut, sleep on a wooden platform, have gas in the wee hours that would reverberate off the wood, and henceforth be known as He Who Thunders in the Night. Luckily, this particular reality had not materialized, but we’d see what I’d inherit.

“You love the rock scrambles. You lose yourself in them and have a blast. You move faster in them than on normal trails,” she explained. “You’re Rock Hopper.” Baby’s all growed up! I liked it, I could go with it and it made total sense. It also had a way better ring to it than Tripper, Mud Slipper, Chronic Faller, or Slip-n-Slide. Rock Hopper it is!

My new name, the credit it took to get one, and my 5-Hour Energy fueled me on towards Washington. Amazingly, the rocks switched to a fairly normal path for a bit, and we were making good time. We could see the toll road and railroad tracks to the summit, but as we approached it was like a bad movie scene where the perspective changes and some object close by gets stretched back as if it’s an eternity away. We plodded on, as the Mount Washington Observatory kept backpedalling away from us. At least we were passing some people, showing some indication that we were actually moving forward and not on an enormous hamster wheel, working furiously and pointlessly. Finally, we summitted. It was a weak high five, and the place was mobbed. But we’d arrived on New England’s highest summit.

Peak #12, and the highest of New England's 4,000-footers.

The cool part was that there was a hikers section on a lower floor of the visitor’s center. We had it largely to ourselves, using the break to wolf down a bunch of beef jerky, energy goo, and a sandwich. I changed my socks, which felt nice. And I pulled out my insoles, which had turned sideways from all the hiking. Sara seemed fine, which didn’t surprise me as she has an endless reservoir of endurance. I, conversely, was really hurting, and didn’t feel good about only being about halfway through the hike, with the 3:00 p.m. time showing we were continuing to fall off a pace that would allow us to finish before dark. I worried about becoming an anchor on her trip, possibly robbing her of a bucket list hike through my own physical failings. Not good.

My descent down Jefferson was the second lowest point for me on the trail.  My feet were aching and Mount Washington appeared so far away.

Between Mts. Jefferson and Washington lay Mount Clay (or Mount Reagan, as named by the state of NH).  We had decided, even prior to this traverse, that we would skip Mount Clay as it is not named after a President (by the USGS standards and Appalachian Mountain Club), nor does it count as one of the 48 4,000-footers in NH.  Many consider Clay to be a peak along the Presidential Traverse, however, we felt comfortable omitting it, especially if not doing it gave us better odds of completing all of the true Presidential peaks.

Now it was my turn to ask to stop.  I croaked, “Can we stop for a second?”  Jay willingly stopped so that I could eat a bar.  My appetite disappears during hiking and I tend to opt for quick energy through gooey syrups and gummy blocks, but I knew I needed more sustenance.  I forced down a Clif bar and felt much better.

Trudging towards the Mount Washington
Observatory and Visitors Center
We trudged along the trail toward Mount Washington.  In comparison to what we had just done, the rocks leveled out a little and when we did ascend Mount Washington, the pitch was more gradual, albeit longer. Jay took the lead up Mount Washington, which is not our normal summit strategy, but I was thankful that he was pulling me up the mountain with him.  In my Internet research, I had read about a group of hikers who got lost at this point, so I was super diligent to make sure I was following the correct path up the mountain. The traffic increased significantly with folks who were completing day hikes of Mount Washington or, who had ridden up to the top via car or train, and were hiking down briefly for the experience.

A few of my hiking friends had commented that they were disappointed to reach the top of Mount Washington.  I can understand this sentiment when you consider that hiking often entails a sense of remoteness, with the accompanying solitude that that brings.  The top of Mount Washington may be remote, but solitude is elusive there.

Amid the crowds, I spied a sign: “Hiker bathrooms downstairs”.  Yay!  I found a bathroom without a line!  Jay and I headed downstairs to use the facilities and then spread our stuff out along the long, cafeteria tables in a room that was just for hikers.  This is what Goatman had talked about in his e-mail!  It was a great spot for a quiet break and the crowds stayed upstairs at the snack bar and lookout spaces.

We took an extra long and well-deserved break on Mount Washington.  While we were falling behind book time, we knew that breaks were going to be key if we were to finish.  Although Goatman had referenced seeing sunset on Pierce and hiking out the Crawford Path by headlamp, at this point, I was still optimistic that neither would occur.

OK, we’re now at the half-way point. Instead of putting out an eighteen page novella, we’ll take a time-out here. Stay tuned for Part 2!

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #8: Presidential Traverse Part 1, New Hampshire

Hike #8: Presidential Traverse
Elevation: 5,367 (Mount Madison), 5,774 (Mount Adams), 5,712 (Mount Jefferson), 6,288 (Mount Washington), 5,384 (Mount Monroe), 4,780 (Mount Eisenhower), 4,310 (Mount Pierce)
Date: June 15, 2013
Location: a big swath of the White Mountain National Forest, NH
Distance: 20.1 miles
Time: 16:53 (50:24/mile)

This hike will go down as one of the most epic hikes I ever do. Since Sara’s such a big part of hiking for me, and since this was her idea, it seemed fitting to compare our versions of how this went down.

Prelude: Preparations, pre-start activities and thoughts
Sara and I drove up separately to northern New Hampshire the night before the hike, with me arriving at the hotel a couple hours before her. In the lead-up to this hike, I was nervous about re-aggravating my foot injury, or my bad knee forcing me to quit, and not knowing what kind of a predicament that might put us in – not life or death, but it could still really suck. But at some point, you have to commit or quit, and I’d committed. Then it’s a choice about what attitude you choose to have, so we’d talked through identifying bail-out points if needed, and I then focused on the thrill of accomplishing a bucket-list hike.

During the drive up, I got more excited to tackle an epic challenge: 7 peaks, 20 miles, 17,000 feet of elevation change. Big stuff. And as I snagged a cheesesteak sub at a convenience store on the northern fringes of the White Mountains, with its every spare inch of wall and counter filled with vehemently anti-government propaganda, I felt as if I were on the edge of civilization. Sitting alone in my room in a small hotel, chowing my wonderfully cheesy cheesesteak and having a single beer as a Friday refreshment, I wished Sara were already with me to share my energy.

Sara arrived after sunset at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch. She’d leave her car there, where we’d exit the trails, and we’d use my truck to shuttle us to the start. We spent the remainder of the night prepping our gear, food, and clothes for a quick morning departure. I never sleep well when I get up much earlier than usual, and I knew that tackling a huge hike after getting up at 4:00 a.m. would exact some sort of toll. So it was compounded by sleeping lightly.

The alarm seemed to go off a moment later. We bounced out of bed, dressed, and were off in no time. We were on track for our 5:00 a.m. start… when Sara realized she’d forgotten her car keys. OK, bad start. We had no choice but to turn back, which led to some no-talking time and a 5:30 a.m. start to the hike. I’d known we’d have some setbacks and challenges, but hoped this was one of the few obstacles, not foreshadowing a slew of problems from the get-go.

I’ve always had a “thing” for the summer solstice.  For several years in a row, a group of friends and I would take some sort of hike on the summer solstice to celebrate the longest day of the year.  Hearing this, my mom pointed out that it’s a big Swedish tradition to celebrate “midsommar” and that my great-grandmother was a big fan.  So for me, nothing could be better than a one-day Presidential traverse to celebrate the longest day of the year!

You know it’s a bad sign when your boss declares, “this hike is really messing with you.”  Great, the activity that is supposed to be an outlet for what is frequently a stressful job has now turned my life upside down on me: work is now my outlet.   
The hike will allegedly go really well!
Indeed, this was one of the most stressful hikes I have ever planned.  Some of the stress involved knowing the sheer physical demands of the terrain.  Some of the stress came from knowing that the hike is completely weather-dependent, and that the weather on the range can change rather quickly and dramatically, necessitating having a plan B.  Some of the stress came from knowing that we’d be physically drained and had to high-tail it back to MA on Sunday for Father’s day.  Some of the stress came from the concern about planning the hike for two; Jay’s an admitted “newbie” to hiking and so I couldn’t help but assume a lot of responsibility on my part for making sure we’d be safe and have fun.  And some of the stress came from me being completely honest with myself that I have a tradition of completely over-estimating what I can hike in a given trip.

For several months ahead of time, I scoured every article I could find to anticipate what the 20+ mile journey would be like.  There are some great resources out there and here are two of the best:

I also tapped into my trusty friend, Goatman (1995 AT Thruhiker), for advice.  After all, I got this crazy idea to hike the entire ridge in one day from him last September when I related the story of my friend Melissa and me hiking Mount Madison and Mount Pierce, unable due to weather to cross the Presidentials during a two-night overnight trip.  

According to Goatman, “I say you are not crazy for thinking/wanting to do the traverse. Not crazy at all if you are able to assess your condition, progress, and weather while up there and make good (safe) decisions regarding the use of your escape routes.”

Additionally, “If you are doing it in a day, I’d recommend going southbound as there are more/easy escape routes off the ridge in the southern half… not much in the northern half. The quintessential date for a Prez-Traverse is June 21… the longest daylight day of the year. There will be a lot of crazies up there doing the same thing. Plan on starting at first light and finishing via head-lamp. The crux would be Edmunds Col (the most dangerous spot on the ridge)… find a place to hide from the tourists on Washington, take a nap, slow your pace for the Southern Prez… they are easier, you can relax and enjoy. Catch the sunset on Pierce.”

But the fact remained, I wasn’t 100% sure of my ability to do this hike much less Jay’s ability – gimpy knee and weird heel tendonitis thing he has been battling. I could only hope that the progressively challenging hikes and obsessive reading of all things Presi yielded enough conditioning (both physical and mental) in order to tackle the traverse.

And so, on a beautiful, warm Friday in June, I departed work, dropped off the dog and began my drive up north to rendezvous with Jay.

Leg 1: Trailhead to Madison summit to Madison hut; 4.8 miles, 4,135 feet of elevation gain
I should still be asleep!
This leg had almost half of the total gain in elevation, so I knew it would be intense. The parking lot revealed that we were one of the last to depart, and we were somewhat quiet and focused as we initiated our ascent. We originally intended to climb via the shorter but steeper Watson Path, but opted to stay on the Valley Way Trail, thinking the lesser intensity might help avoid burning out our legs getting to the first peak.

My foot hurt since the very beginning of the hike, which wasn’t a good sign, but probably was a good sign of over-training. I’d been largely sedentary for months because of the injuries, and then averaged six workouts a week for two months, and pain might be the payback for my refusal to moderate my training. About halfway up, I also started bonking. We’d stopped a couple of times and I was trying to hydrate and chew some shot blocks for electrolytes, and had already eaten breakfast before we left. This wasn’t a good sign and I was wearing out fast.

Sara started driving me nuts with her refusal to ease her pace to give me a chance to recover. It’s an hours-long ordeal, this is the hardest leg, and she’s running me into the ground. This isn’t right! Anger fueled me briefly, before despair took charge again. I couldn’t understand why she was doing this to me. Glimpsing the peak of Madison through the trees, I lamented the climbing that remained and her desire to kill me by the first summit.

And then I had my epiphany of my Man’s Dilemma: if I don’t use my words, how’s she supposed to know I’m hurting? Alas, her ESP powers aren’t perfect and I haven’t said anything, and am not giving her any indication I’m having a problem. Aah, but if I say anything then it requires emoting and asking for help and being vulnerable. But I’m a man and therefore genetically programmed to be abysmal at that sort of thing! But if I don’t, I’ll wind up like the unlucky members of the Donner Party, left to die in the woods. Oh, what to do!

Mustering my spare breath and all my courage, I reluctantly uttered, “Sara, can we take a break for a minute? I’m hurting.” Sara stopped, wheeled around to face me, and miraculously responded, “sure”. It was as if she had backlighting and doves flying forth from behind her, accompanied by an invisible choir. I rested my legs for a moment, took some hits of water, and realized that if I tell her what I need, she’ll then know what I need. Amazing! With newfound love, emotional maturity, and energy, I continued on.

One peak down, six to go!

The Madison Hut emerged shortly after, and we passed it, moving above the tree line to the rock scramble that left us atop Mount Madison. We encountered a number of hikers, unclear which were tackling the traverse and which were doing their respective routes. But we felt as if we and the others who shared our goal were part of the March of the Crazies. One summit down, six to go! We allowed ourselves a breather back at the Madison Hut, having been hiking for just over three hours now, much faster than the pace in the guidebook. Next stop: Mount Adams!

I canNOT believe that I left my car keys in the hotel room.  Are you kidding me?  There was nothing that I could do other than to let go of my frustration, but I was really annoyed that we were departing about 25 minutes after I wanted to.  Naturally, I’d seek to make up some time on the trail.

The Valley Way is a beautiful trail and I had hiked it once before with Melissa, with overnight gear to stay up on the ridge.  I appreciated starting on a trail with which I was familiar.  It was amazing to me how quickly I could fly up the trail now that I was carrying 15 pounds less on my back and being juiced by the excitement of the traverse that lay ahead.  Also knowing that Jay has a naturally faster hiking pace than I do sometimes pushes me to climb faster.

“Um...Sara, can we stop for a second?”  Whew...I can slow down.

We skipped the turn for the Watson Path and continued up the Valley Way.  I was eager to get all of this elevation out of the way as quickly as possible, and the Valley Way is the easiest trail up to Madison.  The hut appeared ahead of schedule and, as much as we wanted a break, we scampered up the Osgood Trail to the Mount Madison peak.  

On the way up, some of the hikers we saw in the parking lot were coming down, giving us cheers and encouragement.  It made me smile because, indeed, we were doing well.  We were about an hour ahead of book time and I was elated!

Naturally it was windy up there, but we paused long enough to take a few selfies and shots of the ridge that we were about to cross.  We hiked off of Madison down to the hut for a welcome mid-morning break and took a chance to refill the water bottles.  While breaking, we chatted with a pair of girls who had hiked down from Madison just behind us.  They had hiked up the other side of Madison and they, too, were attempting the complete traverse.

Leg 2: Madison hut to Adams summit; 1.0 miles, 950 feet of elevation gain (5.8 miles and 5,085 total)
We set forth from the Madison Hut, heading from Mount Madison to Mount Adams via the Airline Trail. Then we got confused and promptly took the wrong trail. However, the Star Lake Trail worked fine. The route was initially flat, followed by a rock scramble before mellowing out briefly. But the final section was much more rock climbing than hiking.  

View of Mount Madison from part-way up Mount Adams

I knew enough by now to be quiet, and gave Sara the lead, me behind her for support as needed. At one point, there was a largely vertical wall with a small outcropping about three feet high, with more wall above it. Sara tried to climb on top of it by facing front, pulling herself up, putting a knee on it, and straightening up, as if she were a kid pulling herself up on top of a pommel horse. The problem was that the wall above the outcropping was too close to give her room to lean forward and finish getting her knee onto the ledge. So she became stuck, unable to finish it and afraid to jump down to start over. She hung there, like a frog whose stomach was superglued to a wall, with its legs helplessly flailing. We were both laughing as she struggled, stuck yet not in danger. After a couple of minutes she finally finished it off and moved on. I then took a different route, stepping onto a rock a couple feet high to the left of where she’d been. I then stepped onto her outcropping, before continuing on, total time: about fifteen seconds. Total chuckles: too many to count. Total fingers shown to me by her: maybe one. 

Two peaks down, and now at ten peaks in my
67 New England 4,000-footers!
Sitting on the summit of Adams, I felt very plugged into the hike. It was now just after ten o’clock. We were a couple of summits in, both doing well, hydrating and eating, and were now within sight of Mount Jefferson, the next target.

We departed confidently from the Madison Hut with Mount Adams in our sights.  We passed by Star Lake, a beautiful alpine lake laying at the col between Madison and Adams.  It turns out we took an unintended trail up Adams, but it really didn’t matter.  We could see the peak ahead and there was plenty of company along the way.

Two down, five to go. Lovin' life on Mount Adams!
The climb up was a lot of rock scrambling and Jay had a great time.  I fared pretty well, even though I often get nervous on such exposed rock.  I was thankful that we had tackled the long scars of the Tripyramids in our preparation hikes a few weeks before.  At one really tricky section, I gave myself a big mental high-five for not pausing in fear, but for using arms, legs and stomach to balance and slide up past a huge rock that poked out from the trail.  Unfortunately, my kudos were replaced with a touch of embarrassment when I learned that, had I paused to really take a look at the trail, I would have seen a much easier route that required only your feet.  All I could do was laugh.
It was about a mile up Adams from the hut and it took about an hour -- we were on book time, but still ahead over all.  

This was my favorite stretch of the journey.  Although many of the bailout points lay on the opposite side of Adams, I felt something of a commitment being made to completing the traverse by summiting the second peak.  I also felt really connected to Jay once we reached the was clear we were tackling this together as a team and were having fun along the way. 

Looking from Mount Adams to Mount Jefferson (right) and
Mount Washington (left) - gonna take a while!

OK, we’re now fully immersed in the hike. In order to try to make this not take as long to read as it did to hike, we’ll break it up into sections. Stay tuned for Part 2!

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper

Sunday, August 11, 2013

67 in 67, Hike #7: Tripyramids, NH

Hike #7: Mount Tripyramid
Elevation: 4,180 feet (North Tripyramid), 4,140 feet (Middle Tripyramid), 4,080 (South Tripyramid)
Date: June 1, 2013
Location: The Waterville Valley, NH
Distance: 11.1 miles
Time: 7:35 (41:00/mile)

It’s go time! It’s early June, the weather’s sunny and warm, and we’ve got our last training hike before our traverse of the seven Presidential Mountains in a couple of weeks. Road trip to New Hampshire? Check. Consume a 55-gallon drum of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with empty carbo loading (also known as “donuts”)? Check. Hit the Chamber of Commerce tourist for a bathroom break and “Live Free or Hike” picture? Check. See a wooden moose with chalkboard paint in front that was asking what we’ll do to keep cool today, and respond with “gaining elevation”? Check. We. Are. All. Set!

By mid-morning we were parked and ready to hike the Tripyramids. This would be an eleven mile hike, the longest I’d ever done, which would be a test of my balky knee and foot. It would be only my second time bagging more than a single peak, which would test my variety of celebratory two-steps. It also purportedly had a sharty section with a lot of tough rock climbing on the way up, and another one descending, which made Sara nervous and me excited. Before setting forth, Sara scampered down to the river to stash some Gatorades for a cool rehydration when we got back. Slipping on the steep riverbank, she hadn’t even begun to hike when she had a foot soaking wet. It was our first challenge with our drinks, but it wouldn’t be our last. Yes, this is major foreshadowing!

But Sara shook off the irritation and excess water better than I would have, and we started the hike. The Livermore Trail was a pleasant one: not too steep, not too exposed to the sun, and within earshot and sight of the river. The trail’s width made for easier conversation between me and Sara as we cruised alongside each other. As an old logging area, we came upon some clearings, an old apple tree, and serene surroundings. Reading up on the trail reports, severe washouts were described. But as we ventured further into the woods, we didn’t see anything problematic for hikers. Certainly, a jeep would run into challenges, but not us bipeds.

We hit a fork about 3.6 miles in, representing the end of the first leg. We’d have a long loop to get back to this point, and didn’t want to hike with a lot of water weighing us down. So we stashed some water packs by the trail side, taking care to camouflage with branches and leaves. Heading on, our pace remained quick until we stopped for a snack and water break at a steep river crossing. Temps had already begun to climb, so I wasn’t happy when I realized I’d kneeled on the end of my Camelbak’s water tube, spilling a bunch of water that I couldn’t get back. I said nothing to Sara, opting to berate myself in silence.

Continuing on the Mount Tripyramid Loop trail, we initiated the steeper climb to the North Tripyramid summit, via the north slide, with Waterville Mountain and its ski slopes serving as a picturesque backdrop. It was nothing exciting at first, until we approached the base of the scar, a long, boulder-strewn ascent most of the way up to the summit. Sara began climbing, somewhat nervous. I gave her time before initiating my nimble clamber up, only a bleating or two short of complete billy goat status. Once I caught up to her, we repeated the process. At first, they were large boulders, offering plenty of fun routes and handholds. In the next section, the rocks morphed into smooth bedrock faces. Sara became more nervous, and I recognized that it was time for me to either be quiet, or only murmur my moronic but entertaining self-talk, such as it being “time to scoooooochie scoooooochie!” The last part of the scramble was much more of a scree field. Trying to climb 1,200 feet in a half-mile is hard enough, at about a 45-degree angle. But trying to climb it in, essentially, a mountain of gravel, with intermittent rocks rolling past? Not so easy, my friend. Oh, and it didn’t help when we were instructed to head for the cairn, only to find someone built a fake one off to the side, leaving us having to scout for the correct one to pursue. But, in a sign of the indefatigable human spirit – or a sign of the effectiveness of the 5-Hour Energy shot we were trying out – we made it back to a normal trail.

The smooth bedrock section
of the North Tripyramid

With sweaty high-fives, we were under the canopy again and knew we were near the summit. Sure enough, a few minutes later we stomped on the rock that constituted the peak, plopped down on it, and dug out our smushed PB&J sandwiches from our packs.

The final scree field under hot sun
before summiting North Tripyramid

Climbing up the rock scar hadn’t been as challenging as I’d wanted, although we’d moved significantly slower than on the prior trail. But that made for a good benchmark, realizing I’m capable of most things not requiring carabiners. And now, with one peak in the bag, we had renewed energy to work towards the Middle Tripyramid. We encountered some tricky spots, needing hands, trees, and poles to assist our descent. But this was more entertaining than the ascent that followed, from the saddle between peaks up to the second summit. In actuality, the hike wasn’t rough, but the climb up the north slide had sapped some of our strength.

When we stood atop Middle Tripyramid, we caught our breaths, ate some more, and realized we needed to ration our water a bit. Temps had reached the mid-80’s, and the humidity was tangible. But with several miles back to our stashed water, we needed to be careful. Lingering over our view of the Osceolas and hawks soaring in the distance, we recharged as best as we could for the next leg. 

Enjoying the view from Middle Tripyramid. I sure am
looking forward to the water cache at the end of the loop!

Luckily, the traverse from Middle Tripyramid to South Tripyramid is mild. All three summits are over 4,000 feet. But this leg doesn’t have at least 200 feet of elevation change to qualify for credit for “bagging” a 4,000-footer. Normally, I’d indulge in a rant – after all, 4,000 feet is 4,000 feet. How you get there, or why you don’t get credit when a climb from the opposite direction would have included lots of elevation change, strikes me as a wee bit nit-picky and arbitrary. But in this case, I grabbed onto “not much climbing”, and set out.

It was only a few minutes before we were on the final peak, having wound our way through pretty but fragile terrain, almost all in the blessed shade. En route, water under some rocks also provided radiant cooling, a musty pine smell, and blissful relief. Another snack and water break made sense, but we kept this one short. We had momentum from the realization that we just had to finish going down, and some of the trail was the same flatter section we first came up. We also knew we were behind schedule. Now, hiking isn’t like work; there’s no boss who dings you in your annual performance review if your pace isn’t what you wanted. There’s no interdepartmental team to do a root cause analysis about why you’re such a slowpoke. However, the thunderclouds that were forming on a humid day were a sign that dilly-dallying may not be prudent. And since it was a viewless summit, the lack of breathtaking views wasn’t motivation to linger.

The descent had its own challenge, with a scar on the south slope similar to the one we’d climbed. But the pitch didn’t seem as bad, and this was more of a gravel field. Sara and I avoided being in straight lines so as to not send rocks hurtling at each other – hardly the way to bond – and we sometimes sank into the gravel as we continually stepped and slid down the mountain. It took some time, and the thunder and some fat raindrops kept us hustling, but we finally retreated back under cover of trees without the sky opening up. In fact, the cloud cover began to look less ominous, hinting at cloudiness instead of downpours.

At a lower elevation, the trail leveled out. We didn’t know when the loop would end, as our sense of distance and timing was shot, but we believed we were covering ground quickly. Still feeling pretty strong, and in good spirits, we chatted a bit. A couple of stream crossings offered the chance to cool ourselves off with a cold bandana or ball cap. But eventually, our hydration packs went dry. We both settled in mentally to just focus on finishing the loop and replenishing our water supply.

After passing through or alongside creeks plenty of times, we suddenly turned a corner and found ourselves ending our loop. High stepping across the shallow, rocky river, I bounded over to the water stash… only to discover that the covering was there, largely intact, but the water packs had been stolen. Stolen? Sara was in disbelief at first, wondering if I were looking in the right spot. I was, I knew it, and I used a lot of really naughty words. I wished bad things on the hiker-thieves, and my potty mouth was limited only by my imagination and my swollen tongue. Realizing we had a three mile hike out with no water, and having already been hiking over six hours, I was pissed. Or, as my mother exclaimed one time while driving her VW Bug when my sister and I were misbehaving as kids, I was livid!

The silver lining was that my pace was stellar for the next half-hour, anger providing great fuel. After, adrenaline having worn off, I once again relied on Sara for perseverance. Her endless succession of steady steps in now-mostly-dry boots gave me a focus, and as she silently soldiered on I fell in step.

Back at the truck, finally, I flopped into the open bed of the pickup and peeled off my boots and socks, freeing anguished feet. When Sara returned with the cool Gatorades, I was happy as a kid on Christmas. “Lemon-lime? It’s my favorite! Just what I wanted!” The change of clothes allowed for a smelly but dry return trip, and after hitting a convenience store, the soda and Combos hit the spot until we got to the house, where Sam Adams Porch Rockers awaited us.

Despite the jackasses who stole our water, we both felt good about the hike. I had a new personal best for distance, and my body wasn’t providing reasons for anxiety. Sara had every reason to feel confident, hiking like a machine and handling her fears on the rock scramble. We knew the Presi Traverse would be an arduous hike covering twice the distance and several times the elevation gain, and the weather would be out of our control, but we’d done all we could to prep. Driving home, I was nervous but excited at the thought of the next and bigger success.

See you on the trail,
Jay Bell, AKA Rock Hopper