The White Mountains offer a mentally challenging climb
For many years now, when summer enters its last weeks, my thoughts have turned to autumn hikes in the Great North Woods. I haven’t always been able to turn these thoughts to action. Sometimes good things have intruded, like trips to other fine walking places. Sometimes bad, or at least unexciting, stuff has got in the way — an injured knee, the demands of work. But often enough I’ve scraped together a few days and set off to hike the magical landscape of a northern fall.
I’m not sure that the Great North Woods are a precise place, but their location is clear enough in my mind. They’re up there, beyond the sprawling cities and suburbs, up where the press of civilization is lighter and nature still dominates the shape and rhythm of things. In New England, the North Woods can be found from Vermont to Maine. But for me, more than any other place, they have come to mean New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
This fall, again, I struggled to reconcile my hiking aspirations with urgent-seeming stuff at home, and ended up with a shortened version of the trip I’d planned for. Still, arriving in the White Mountains was no less exciting. I drove through Franconia Notch in the gray of dawn and wondered what the cloud and rime ice on its summits meant for my plans today.
My plans involved another notch and a mountain beside it, both still an hour’s drive ahead. As the sun rose, the skies cleared too, and nearing my trailhead, I looked up and saw on the White’s highest summits not rime, but bright snow against a blue sky. This winter scene was on Mount Washington and its adjoining Presidential peaks. I was headed for Carter Dome, a little east and a thousand feet lower.
For four miles, the hike to the mountain ridge was a treed-in trudge of increasing steepness, with just an occasional glimpse of Mount Washington to remind of a different world awaiting above tree line. When it came, that world arrived abruptly — rime on the pine-tops, a few icy ledges, and then I stumbled onto the summit of Mount Hight, a place and moment that made all the effort of the climb (all the effort of a life perhaps) seem trivial and unquestionably worthwhile.
Mount Hight — 4,675 feet — lies 6.5 miles east of Mount Washington and a half-mile from Carter Dome. Its broad summit is bare or thinly covered with stunted trees. This morning, rocks and trees were decorated in rime, sparkling in clear sunshine. Across an ample valley, the Presidential Range rose under a tiny moon, snow on the tops fading to rime farther down, every ravine and wrinkle delineated in sharp focus. More, Mount Hight was the warmest place I’d been all morning, and I lingered on its sun-warmed rocks to enjoy all the views on offer — not just of the Presidentials, but along the frosted ridge to Carter Dome and, north, toward neighboring summits on which clouds still sat.
An easy walk took me on to Carter Dome, 157 feet higher but lacking anything like Mount Hight’s vistas. If the walk onto the Dome was easy, the descent to Carter Notch that followed was slow and grueling. The trail dropped precipitously and the rocks of which it was made were icy here or slick with meltwater there. It was not physically exhausting as much as mentally, each placing of a foot an exercise in concentration.
At first sight, Carter Notch did not seem a place far from “the press of civilization.” The Appalachian Mountain Club hut nestled in the notch was not the cause of this. I have stayed at the hut and it can offer a fine sense of isolation. No, on this sunny Saturday, it was the many people going in and out of the hut in full voice that threatened to pull me out of my mountain mood. But then I saw how happy these chatting people were — how unstressed by traffic, phone, or timetable — and we got on with our mountain moods together. (I learned later they were part of one big group that had taken over the hut for the weekend.)
By Monday morning, the White Mountains had emptied out. I had my choice of perch at the bagel and coffee place in Lincoln. The road to Kinsman Notch was deserted and, as I got ready to hike up the Beaver Brook Trail, mine was the only vehicle in the big parking lot. My guidebook called a part of the Beaver Brook Trail “extremely steep and rough” and potentially dangerous. A bit of company would have been welcome.
The trail beside Beaver Brook Cascades was indeed very steep and, here and there, precarious. But the cascades were delicate threads and sheets of white water rushing downward, given shape by the mountain rock. Above the falls, the trail eased and by late morning I was catching glimpses of a rounded hump that appeared wholly covered in forest — Mount Moosilauke, my destination. A half-hour later the forest gave way and I walked onto a wide summit bald. As on Mount Hight, everything I’d come to the Whites for was here — a magical view of mist-filled valleys and distant ridges, silence, and a few easy-going hikers. It didn’t matter too much that I had to go home tomorrow.