I stood still on the trail drawing doodles in the dirt with my trekking poles. Before me, was yet another human-sized boulder. And yup, the trail went straight up and over it. I was going to have to use my hands and knees again to hike this trail.
This was the Appalachian Trail, people hike this trail all the time, I thought to myself. How is this trail this hard? Of course, this was New Hampshire when north-bound hikers would have well established their trail legs. I guess this part was a piece of cake for them. But it wasn’t dessert for me. It was nasty frozen peas.
I hiked a little way down the trail, the rocks, and the roots strategically placed where you have to awkwardly place your foot. A normal gate was not to be had, which just took even more energy from my body.
I looked up from my feet for a second and saw yet another large boulder the trail was going to make me climb. My eye followed to the top and I saw Lagena, my hiking partner, sitting on top of it criss-cross-apple-sauce. A look of despair and tiredness on her face.
Are you wanting to call it? Do you want to bail? I asked her.
Four months before Lagena and I had hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up. We hiked down and up the Bright Angel Trail which has an elevation gain of 4,460. It is a hard trail, but we did it. And we didn’t complain too much about it. Well, the downhill about killed me.
When we got back to the trailhead for the Bright Angel Trail, we were high and thrilled at our accomplishment. We rode that high for a long time.
Before we choose the Grand Canyon trip, we had the New Hampshire trip already in the planning. I ordered the guide books and the map and had already started putting tabs on the trails I wanted to do.
Mount Washington is the highest point in New Hampshire and part of the White Mountain National Forest. It is the third-highest point east of the Mississippi River coming in at 6,288 feet after Mount Michell in North Carolina at 6,684 and Clingmans Dome at 6,643. Mount Washington is also “home to the world’s worse weather.” So it was a challenge I couldn’t pass up.
Probably the most well-known hikes in New England is the Presidential Traverse. It’s about a 23-mile hike with 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Because we were trying to keep costs low, we decided against the entire Presidential Traverse because it requires a shuttle. I found a loop where we could summit Mounts Washington, Jefferson, and Adams.
But in my planning of the hike, even though I was still riding the high of the Grand Canyon hike, I had my doubts.
I asked friends who lived in New Hampshire. I put out Facebook posts to ask anyone and everyone about hiking the Presidential Traverse.
One day, while taking a quick break from work I came across an article on Facebook that listed the 10 hardest hikes in the United State. A sucker for these kinds of articles, I clicked on it. Low and behold, the Presidential Traverse was on the list. But it was listed under the Bright Angel Trail, meaning this author thought it was easier than the Bright Angel Trail, which we had completed.
I was nervous and confident at the same time.
We loaded up the car and made the two-day drive to New Hampshire. Our New Hampshire trip began in the small Appalachian Trail town of Gorham, N.H. on the Fourth of July. We had coffee at a cafe and it was nice to watch a small-town New England Independence Day parade.
After we set up camp, Lagena went to nap and I drove to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. There were maps and informational placards about the Presidential Traverse, Appalachian Trail, and Mount Washington.
That little voice of fear and imposter syndrome cleared her voice and spoke up. “You cannot do this. You are not a thru-hiker. You are not badass enough. Did you see the muscles on that one chick’s calves?”
I bought some souvenirs, drove back to camp, and told Lagena I thought we should drive up to the top of Mount Washington that day. You know, just in case we didn’t make it on foot.
On the drive up, we experienced the vegetation shrinking and thining, the temperature dropping, and views getting bigger and bigger. It reminded us of another hike we did in Olympic National Park.
That hike was probably the hardest hike the two of us had accomplished. We spent three days and covered 35 miles of hiking to see Anderson Glacier. On our second day of hiking, we hiked 14 miles round trip with 3,000 feet in elevation gain, only to find it was too foggy to see anything. Well, we’re pretty sure we saw the glacier through the fog. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Remembering that trip, gave me that boost of confidence to tell that voice conjuring up doubt in my head to hush.
We went to bed early that night, knowing we were going to have a hard day in the morning. The next day we began our hike below Mount Adams. The plan was to hike the Appalachian Trail along the valley before making the climb up Mount Washington. We were then going to hike along the ridge and back down.
We began the hike with a spring in our step and a good outlook. But then came the rocks. First, it was smaller boulders and roots that caused our footing to be off, which slowed us down. Then the boulders got bigger. And unlike Arkansas where the blazed trail politely takes you around the boulder, apparently in New Hampshire it just takes you up and over the boulder.
Our pace slowed down – way down. I began to worry we would not make it to our campsite in time to find a place to pitch our tent. Along this area, you can only camp in designated backcountry campgrounds. And when they fill up, you’re out of luck. Even if we could find our own place to camp, the terrain is not friendly to weary hikers. If we could find a place flat enough to sleep comfortably, the rocks and roots would sure prevent us from sleeping well.
As we hiked up and over, and up and over, we grew cranky and tired.
When I came to Lagena sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce and asked her if she wanted to bail, she did not hesitate to say, “Yes.”
In my planning when I was so worried about not making it, I planned the loop with several bail-out options. Leave No Trace Principle 1 is to Plan Ahead and Prepare. And it is really important to have this option. Even if you don’t doubt your ability to complete the trail, having a bailout option can save you a lot.
But if you have any doubt about your ability, not having a bailout plan can put you into a great deal of trouble.
If you’re already tired or unable to continue safely and that is your only option, you put yourself in danger. And if search and rescue has to come to find you, you can put others in danger as well. In our case, we were glad to have the bailout plan.
I knew we were not too far from the road that takes motorists to the top of Mount Washington. We could walk that road to the highway, and then the highway back to our vehicle.
When we got to the highway, Lagena was done. I told her I’d walk back and get the car and come pick her up. She told me to leave my backpack, that she could watch it. I secretly thought someone might give me a ride if I had my pack.
Well, I made it a good way down the road and this older, very fit, nice man pulled over and asked if I needed a lift. Hitchhiking is common on long-distance hikes and we were in the thick of AT country, so I accepted.
I put my pack in his backseat on top of his and he began to make small talk. Like where I was hiking, how long had I been on trail, and where was I going.
I swallowed hard and had to admit that I – in fact – had only hiked four miles along the Appalachian Trail and was already giving up.
I got about that much out when I had to yell, “Here’s my car!” He ended up taking me only about a quarter of a mile! I was so embarrassed, and I’m sure he thought I was an idiot.
I still wanted to summit at least one of the Presidents before calling it quits on New Hampshire. So I perused the map and found a shorter trail to the top of Mount Jefferson. This could be an easy day, or so I thought.
Again, we encountered the rocks and the roots and the human-sized boulders. We had to put our trekking poles in our packs because we had to use our hands as much as our feet. Then we came to a boulder that was taller than Lagena, and she’s 5’7’’. And on it was painted a single yellow swipe. That was the trail! Rock climbing was not part of the deal.
We both let out a long sigh and looked at each other. We heard a man coming down, so we thought, “We’ll just gauge the rest of the trail from talking to him.”
When I asked if it got better further up, he laughed and answered, “The fun is just getting started.” That’s it! We were done.
We turned around, hiked off the mountain, went back, packed up camp, and drove to Shenandoah National Park to finish out the rest of our trip.
My failed Presidential Traverse trip taught me so much. It taught me that having a bailout plan is important. It’s important for your safety and your sanity. The trip also taught me to not put so much emphasis and weight on accomplishing your goal.
Making goals are great. Setting challenges before you and trying new things is wonderful.
But if we crush every single goal we set before us, then maybe we aren’t setting the bar high enough.
Failing at some goals shows us that we are human. Don’t look at failure as a bad thing. Failure teaches us so much. It teaches us to implement what we’ve learned and rise back up again.
It’s like when you work out to build muscle. You want those little tears and strains because then your body heals itself back stronger. You don’t get stronger without pain.
Could we have finished our looped hike of the Presidential Traverse? I bet we could have, but we wouldn’t have enjoyed it. And we had a wonderful, relaxing time at Shenandoah.
Honestly, I wouldn’t change the trip at all. I loved that I tried, and I knew where my limit was. Now, I know what I need to do to improve and push past that limit.