Us Canadians endure a distorted sense of distance when visiting the United States, doubly so for us Maritimers. Sure, I know there are 1.6 kilometres in each mile, but seeing an 8.5 mile hike on my overpriced trail map still didn’t frighten me as much as it should have. As a denizen of our flat eastern provinces, I also didn’t appreciate the 5,260 feet of elevation these miles entailed.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire are fascinating not only for their outstanding natural beauty, but also for the variety of people you find at differing altitudes. At the bottom you see the “Live Free Or Die” crowd, with trucks of tremendous size often hauling a trailer with two more ATVs, or storefront signs stating unambiguously that employees inside are packing heat.
Climb a mid-range mountain and you’ll encounter the boy scouts, athletic Americans who came up for the weekend and are friendly without fail, often with the latest in hiking fashion and equipment. The greatest peaks, however, among the highest in the northeast, are dominated by two sorts of people – visitors from Quebec, or hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
It was one of these mighty alpine mountains I targeted for my very first hike, lasting the aforementioned 8.5 miles and including the 5,260 foot summit of Mt Lafayette. Volunteers at the trailhead said it would take eight hours to finish, and that the dramatic changes in weather for which these mountain are famous, were not expected today. Be ready for wind, they said, and for your own sake, bring water.
The beginning was wonderful, with a packed dirt trail curving gently upward allowing for a deceptively easy start. When the trail becomes a taxing natural stone staircase it’s running parallel to a river, tumbling from towering peaks above. Here and there are waterfalls of strange shapes, strange enough to inspire breaks alongside to take in the scenery.
Eventually the river devolves into several tributaries and the trail crosses from one side to the other by way of rocks in the stream, some helpfully arranged for easy passage and others a challenge even for the dexterous. Every now and again the trail pitches upward until you are climbing rock faces adjacent to still more waterfalls, the rocks under hand and foot dripping wet and blossoming with moss. It was a strain on the knees, but otherwise surmountable.
Minutes turned into hours, and hours built upon each other with exhausting slowness. The best mountains, in my experience, are those which provide their climbers with regular views over the landscape below, spurring them onward with demonstrations of their progress. But the mountain I then climbed, known as Little Haystack (4,760 feet), was engulfed in clouds and obscured from an otherwise sunny day. The higher I climbed, the more moisture built on my skin and flavoured the air.
When the river and its tributaries were left behind and the trail narrowed to a single person enterprise, the trees began to lose their height. I was forced to make regular stops to recover my breath, each time with bushier trees than the break before. At first I would ask climbers passing me on their way down how far it was to the summit. This, I soon realized, was the fool’s strategy. Their answers were never encouraging, so I stopped asking.
The peak of Little Haystack Mountain was just as I feared – a mound of huge boulders convenient for sitting, surrounded by the impenetrable dark grey of cloud. This struck me as very unfair, but then, who expects fairness from a mountain. I rested, I ate, and I thought about absolutely nothing.
After a refreshing 20 minutes it occurred to me the wind was moving steadily in one direction, and that the water vapour surrounding me was moving with it. All at once the cloud of Little Haystack was pushed back, unveiling, among other things, the imposing presence of Mt Lincoln immediately to the north and reachable by way of a knife-edge trail connecting several peaks. On either side of Little Haystack was much of White Mountain National Forest, punctuated by still higher peaks, the odd highway and community lowlands. Everything bore the blueish hue of wild distance.
Taking the trail to Mt Lincoln was like walking the spine of some great, slumbering beast, considerably easier than the preceding climb and frequented by sudden vistas, entirely at the mercy of wayward clouds. The summit of this second mountain was 5,089 feet and plagued by the same sudden swings in temperature as all these alpines – cold in the vaporous wind and shade, warm in the full force of sun. Even here Mt Lafayette loomed over me, the last peak on this particular loop.
I hardly ever remove my pack when climbing a mountain, because the buildup of sweat underneath is uncomfortable and I don’t wish to agitate it, but atop these mountains I had no such worry. Remove my pack and the dampness underneath is swept away by wind in an instant. Approaching Lafayette from Lincoln was the stuff of post cards, the breathtaking geology and views giving the impression of a mountain top temple belonging to some eastern philosophy.
Atop Lafayette the clouds were not dark grey as before, but instead pregnant white with sunlight and structured, like being on eye level with the heavens. It was bizarre to watch them swirl, swell and fade away, collect, reflect and give space for the light of day. Here was a dance I’d watched my entire life from the ground, suddenly lain bare by altitude.
The hike down was consistently gratifying, as the way ahead and trail behind was almost always visible in full, resulting more in disbelief that encouragement. This trail was nine hours long, and was by far the most difficult mountain hike I had ever undertaken. And this, incredibly, was one of the National Forest’s shorter ordeals. I knew, upon finding the bottom, that my week long visit wouldn’t be enough.
These mountains demand a return visit.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the South Shore Breaker.