MT Adams NFS Warning Sign, Airline Trail
It was the second week in September a few years ago. I spoke to a workmate who is an avid hiker and told him I wanted to climb MT Adams in the Presidential mountain range of New Hampshire, USA. My friend told me up and down how the Airline Trail was the quickest and most true way to the top, which it is. I looked at the topographic map and my guidebook and said to myself “I can do this on a day hike. No worries.”
I don’t usually hike with other people. Do not do as I do. It’s not safe. However, to explain my unsafe, warped reasoning: it’s not that I do not like people—well, most people—it’s because I don’t want to either be unceremoniously rushed up a mountain by a quicker climber, or to be held back from my lofty goal by a slower climber. Even if they could haul a tent or run for help in case of an emergency.
But I do bring the next best thing: my Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Jack the Crackerjack Welshman. Jack is my ever-patient friend, climbing partner and personal trainer. He has short yet muscular legs and climbs in front of me like a little mountain goat for a ways. Then Jack perches himself on a rock above me and stares down, as if taunting me to reach him. When I do, he once again gets out in front of me and the life-coaching continues. If I am too slow he may even give me a bark or two until I shape up and join him.
Needless to say, my personal trainer has gotten me into fairly good shape for an old guy and has seen a lot of adventures with his owner. We have singly climbed MT Washington, MT Madison, MT Monroe, MT Eisenhower, MT Jefferson, MT Pierce and MT Jackson together. He is getting older now, along with his owner, but I am sure he will continue to be my personal trainer on the trails far into the future.
My helpful human trail advisor and work friend was half my age, however. Soon after, I got on the Airline Trail and it took me much longer than first assumed. It is a rather steep and root and boulder-pitted trail that eventually rises over scenic King’s Ravine. At one point on my journey I was looking several hundred feet down from a thin trail that hugs an almost vertical drop! I was quite exhausted when a topless, packless young man ran (yes, Ran by me, obviously with MT Washington in his sights). I gasped, being a ripe age of 55 years old, and I felt that this scene mimicked the old tale of the race between the infamous Hare and Turtle. But the Hare did not stop to take a nap in my tale.
It was a beautiful day and the Turtle stopped to enjoy the views and take numerous pics. Then the Turtle pressed on, even though he was not on his planned schedule, keen on his goal of the summit, a place that rather reminds me of walking on the moon. Not that I have ever had the pleasure of doing so. But I did see Neil Armstrong take his steps for all mankind in 1969 on a black and white T.V. set in my elementary school classroom. And believe me, it looks just like the moon on the summit.
When I reached the peak I apprehensively realized that the sun had already started to descend. Yet, because it was a wonderful, nearly cloudless day on the Presidentials, I rested a while in satisfaction with my corgi Jack and took more pics. Then a nice couple in their twenties came up with their small dog. He and Jack had fun jumping from boulder to boulder and playing King of the Hill, uh, Mountain. In the meantime, I was losing the sun. We parted, they in search of their camp site and I in search of Madison Springs AMC hut.
I had decided that I did not want to go back down the Airline and end up at the bottom of King’s Ravine in the coming dusk, so I chose a longer but much more gradual trail, the Valley Way off neighboring MT Madison. The step by step walk down the boulders was slow and tedious, the rocks still damp from a rain storm the day before. I finally got down to the hut and started down the Valley Way. I soon realized that the sun was not only going down, it was on the wrong side of MT Adams. It was going to be quite tenuous to make it down to the parking area before I totally lost daylight.
I stopped to check my pack and, although I had an emergency kit for a over-nighter, I had forgotten to transfer my flashlight from my large pack to my day pack! But I, in my Hemingway-like bravado, said to myself “I can barrel down and do this.” Yet, not only was the sun on the other side of the mountain, I was also below tree line. Dusk caught me so quickly beneath the trees that I unknowingly went down a false trail on a long-abandoned path. When I started to step over downed trees I realized my mistake and decided I just had enough daylight to strike across the brush and find the true trail.
I intersected with the Valley Way just as darkness enshrouded Jack and I. I estimated we were only about halfway to the car. I laid down my poncho on a table rock in the middle of the trail, pulled out my emergency blanket, put Jack on my stomach, and laid my head on my lumpy pack—a sort of human/corgi sandwich for wild animals to feast on.
Fortunately, it was just above freezing that night. Although you can still get hypothermia in the 40’s, I was dry, well below treeline and sheltered from the wind. A week later it would have been below freezing and snowing where I made my makeshift camp. I didn’t freeze that night, but I didn’t sleep well, either.
On a side note, Jack apparently slept very well and comfortably on my paunch, because in the middle of the night some creature sniffed the emergency blanket and he didn’t stir. The creature decided we weren’t tender enough and went on its way. Of course, while I was laying on a very uncomfortable flat boulder, Jack felt like he slept on a plush king sized bed that night.
As soon as dawn began to break the next morning we started off again and made it back to the car safely.
1. I am getting older. I cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound anymore.
2. I have designated a flashlight to both my day pack and my overnight pack, even for just a day hike. I was being cheap and you really can’t put a price on preparedness.
3. I don’t fully trust the advice of maps, guidebooks and other hikers. They do not know me personally or the unique personal and environmental conditions I will face. And topographic maps are general outlines of distances and grades. They show little detail when you are climbing on the moon. Though I always keep updated on the Mount Washington Weather Observatory’s prediction for the day, I assume it could change on a dime and go downhill quickly.
4. I am always prepared, as I was, to stay the night, even if I am just on a day hike. I could have broken a leg on the trail at one of many points. I only saw 3 people going up and none at all going down that late in the season. I have to be ready for the worst. Remember, rescuers may not come up the trail after dark, depending on conditions, even if you call for them or hit your GPS transponder (and there is little cell service below treeline anyway).
5. Heed the advice on the sign posted above. If weather conditions suddenly change for the worse, don’t be a Hemingway. Go back down. Going below tree line could save your life.
Fortunately, I had just read the book NOT WITHOUT PERIL by Nicholas Howe. It speaks of the many people who have lost their lives on this range. You can’t read that book without gaining a healthy fear of climbing up there. I reread it this winter just to remind me and I will keep rereading it periodically until I can’t hike anymore. So, fortunately that day I had an emergency kit, albeit lacking a flashlight (a grave error).
Also, recently I read a great book that just came out about a veteran climber who lost her life on MT Adams a few years ago called WHERE YOU’LL FIND ME by Ty Gagne. Read it. A sobering account which shows that just one mistake can be a fatal one up there. The weather changes on a dime. And GPS equipment is not always 100% effective to show rescuers where you are. In fact, hers was activated too late. She was already in advanced stages of hypothermia above treeline on Adams. GPS showed her, at different times, in 5 separate points impossibly far from one another. That evening rescuers could not ascend above treeline without great danger to themselves. In fact, they were adversely affected by the conditions even below treeline. There were 125+ MPH wind gusts that night and early morning! The next day several search teams had to comb Adams and Madison at great risk to themselves to find her body. Once again, READ IT if you are a hiker. A good account to keep one alert and honed with a proper respect for the often sudden and fatal conditions on these mountains.
I never travel as light as she did. Ever. I always have an emergency pack with enough food, water, layers of clothing, and equipment to stay the night and perform first aid. You should too. A few extra pounds could save your life or the life of a fellow hiker one day.
I hope this account helps you to avoid the same pitfalls of decision-making that I and others have experienced up there, and will help you to make better decisions than we. And remember to climb with a friend. Do as I say, not as I do!
Eric M. Vogt
Copyright 2018, 2019
View from MT Adams on that beautiful day.