White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire
The White Mountains of New Hampshire are a genuine wooded playground for hikers in New England. There is simply nowhere else with a more intriguing array of notches, flower strewn fields, or towering, wind-blasted mountain tops than the Whites. One must be prepared for extremes when visiting this volatile mountain range, in one minute the sun can be warming your shoulders and in the next you are enveloped in a cold, misty cloud. Respect for this changeable temperament is priority one for any hiker. You are well advised to carry warm, windproof garments on any hike, even those beginning on a sultry August day. We had heard these warnings and heeded the advice, but with a doubting countenance we suspected they were exaggerated. We soon found out just how accurate the warnings were, as we set out to bag our first peak in the Presidentials.
The Presidential Range, which includes Mount Jefferson, Mount Madison, Mount Adams, and the granddaddy of them all, Mount Washington, is a classic destination for many hikers, and we were no exception. To introduce ourselves to the Presidential Range we opted to climb Mount Jefferson via the Caps Ridge Trail. This trail provides the shortest route, with the least elevation gain, of any summit trail in the White Mountains. This does not mean, however, that the hike is easy. Despite its short length, 5.0 miles roundtrip, this trail is rugged, and although you gain only 2,700 feet, this trail is strenuous. Granted, by comparison to other Presidential Peaks, Jefferson might at first appear to be easily conquered, but this is one tough summit.
Wanting to prove that we were just as tough as the summit, we buckled our boots and set out for the Caps Ridge Trail at 1:50pm on August 25, 2003. We began rising steadily through conifer forest, crossing a few wooden planks along the way, until an open ledge, about a mile in, offered sweeping views of the Ridge of the Caps above, the Castellated Ridge to the north, and the southern range of the Presidentials to the south. We climbed out on the huge rock outcropping to peer down into the valley below and it was then that we noticed that our views were about to become very less sweeping, as a sinister looking cloud was slowly making its way up the ridge. In what seemed like an instant the fog had enveloped parts of the ridge and the valley below. We could still make out the black smoke billowing from the cog railway as it made its way up Mount Washington, but the weather was definitely on a downward spiral. Our focus now switched from the macro environment to the micro environment. At our feet, in the surface of the huge boulder serving as our viewing platform, were several potholes filled with rainwater. These polished indentations were at once remnants and reminders of the brutal Ice Age glaciers that sculpted these mountains. Continuing further up the ridge we were struck with a pleasant fruity fragrance, a little investigation revealed the source to be wild raspberries growing right beside the trail. We helped ourselves to the sweet snack and smiled like little kids in a candy store as we savored each one. As it turns out, we would soon need that extra energy source to get us up the steep climb ahead.
As we emerged from the woods we were met with a rocky landscape, complete with yellow blazes, that was to serve as some sort of masochistic trail…just kidding, we live for this stuff! Climbing up the ridge, and I do mean climbing—as in class III scrambling, we soon skirted the edge of a craggy ridge and it was here that the fog caught up to us. It had been hanging out below us for much of the hike, with an occasional wisp blowing over the trail, but now it had staked its claim on the summit. Visibility was still pretty good, at about 100 feet or so, but the rain was now beginning to fall as well. After a quick wardrobe change we pressed on for the summit.
The trail now climbs steeply to Jefferson’s summit, a pile of rocks rising 5,716 feet above sea level. The further we climbed the more visibility deteriorated, we were now climbing some of the steepest sections in the heaviest fog. Rock cairns and yellow blazes were all that led you in the right direction, and they were getting increasingly hard to see. We questioned whether we should continue or turn back when we met other hikers returning from the summit. They said the visibility was about the same, around 5 feet, but that the wind was pretty strong. Nonetheless, they said the summit was still doable so we pressed on. Scrambling over cold, wet granite boulders we reached the summit of Mount Jefferson at 4pm. The wind was steadily blowing with gusts of about 35 mph; the temperature on top was 47 F, making it feel more like 22 F with windchill. We snapped a few photos as quickly as possible and then began our descent. Along the way we ran into a guy who was tagging the peak as a side trip while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail. In the fog he had become disoriented and lost his trail. He decided it was best to descend via the Caps Ridge with us, and then skirt around and pick up his pack where he left it at his entry trail. It seems his compass had quit working, and oddly enough Pick’s watch went dead too…weird! We all headed down together, the thru hiker being much faster…he was like some kind of rock hopping energizer bunny, and in Tevas no less! When we came to a sign posted trail intersection for The Cornice we went our separate ways. Hope he made it okay!
Our hike back down the mountain became increasingly better the further we got from the summit. The wind lessened, the rain let up, and the temperature returned to a more comfortable degree. We arrived back at our car at 6pm with the knowledge that we had indeed experienced a typical day of hiking in the White Mountains. They are full of inspiration one second and the next full of bluster. So when you visit these beautiful mountains make sure you go prepared, but most of all, just make sure you go!