Day mileage: 10.1
AT total mileage: 1,822.4
Time: 6 hours
Sleeping on a mattress in Chet's garage may have been the best night's sleep I've gotten in quite a long while. He's got a great thing going here. Previously an avid hiker, he was cooking a meal on his camp stove a few years ago when the full bottle of white gas exploded and caught his entire body on fire, simultaneously burning his house down. He suffered 3rd degree burns to his entire body and was kept in a medically induced coma for 8 months while his body recovered. He's now wheelchair bound, and operates the hostel for an income and as a way to stay in touch with a passion he no longer can participate in. The hostel is donation based, and is available only to thru-hikers... He even interviews you before you're allowed to stay, asking questions about what shelters you've stayed at and what peaks you've climbed in recent days. The nice thing about yesterday was that I didn't need to be awake early. I've had a recurrence in my knee pain, something that had gone away very quickly after I bought a pair of Superfeet insoles back at the NOC in North Carolina some 1,600 miles ago. Apparently the insoles have a lifespan of 1,000 miles, so I decided it was time to replace them. The outfitter in town wouldn't open until 9:30 so I had a bit of time to sleep.
Waking up and packing most of my stuff, I headed to town with Santa and Rocket Girl. We stopped by the outfitter where I got green Superfeet insoles (previously had orange... not sure how this will affect me, but the store didn't carry orange) and a light rain jacket. A week or so ago I had accidentally left my Marmot rain coat drying at a shelter in Vermont, and upon realizing this my friend Kamikaze gave it to a faster hiker to bring forward to me just like I had carried people's gear forward back in my quick-paced Virginia stage. Unfortunately this individual decided he didn't want to carry it, and so the jacket is at the front desk of a hiker friendly hotel in Killington, VT. That does me no good in the Whites when there are 40 mile an hour winds and incessant rain. Santa and I bought same-model rain jackets that were on sale for $32, and should do just fine for the rest of the trip. We then visited the grocery store so Rocket could resupply food for the next few days, and as she shopped Santa and I sat in wheelchairs in the back of the store and talked. We went back to the house and packed up more, waiting for Legs and Dorothy to finish their shopping in town. When they got back Dorothy reluctantly announced his decision to zero at the hostel, an offer Chet made after informing us of am the massive storm system moving in across Vermont and headed for New Hampshire. Despite the threat, Santa, Legs and I held strong and packed up to head out. Santa took off early to attempt the 5 mile hitch back to the trailhead while Legs and I had a moment with Rocket. She has been concerned lately with the group splitting up, and the likely event that she and Dorothy won't catch back up to us. We hugged and parted ways, and Legs and I headed for the road to attempt a hitch. It took about 20 minutes for a car to pull over, a silver Volvo station wagon that offered us a ride north to the trailhead. Driven by Rob, a sustainable construction designer who implements solar and eco-friendly systems into modern homes, we were dropped off at the trailhead quickly as it's an area he has hiked. We parted ways, thanking him, and trudged off into the pending storm. It couldn't have been more than 5 minutes after leaving his car that the rain began, as we stopped and put on waterproof gear. Unfortunately it was already 1500hrs, the latest I've ever started a day of hiking. The goal today wasn't to make any notable distance, but simply to keep moving out of town and put some kind of dent in the mileage of the Whites.
We would climb some 4,000' feet out of Franconia Notch, likely the largest single elevation climb of the Appalachian Trail thus far, though I'm not positive. In the process we would summit four separate peaks. The first 3,000 feet of climbing occurred on rocky and rooted trails as the rain came down, stepping carefully before taking weight to ensure no slipping or injuries. Passing by an Appalachian Mountain Club (I'll also refer to them as the AMC) campsite, Legs and I spoke with a caretaker named Harrison about the upcoming trail. He's paid by the AMC to watch over the tent sites and collect an $8 fee per person for spending the night there. He told us about the tenting options between here and other peaks in case we wanted to end our day at any point. We thanked him and moved on, trudging up the steep and soaked incline, eventually reaching the point where the trail splits at the summit of Mt. Liberty, and we turned onto the Franconia Ridge trail. Flat for a bit, Legs and I caught up to Santa who had kept a steady and fast pace up the first miles of climbing. We hiked on together, leaving the wooded forest behind and crossing onto the bald ascent to Little Haystack Mountain. Summiting, tapping the sign at the peak with a trekking pole and carrying on, we pressed forwards to the summit of Mt. Lincoln another 3/4 of a mile away. The bald ridge was insanely windy, the storm system in full effect blowing clouds by us and precipitation falling inconsistently. The rocky ascent that took us to the summit of Lincoln wasn't exceptionally challenging, and after repeating the process from Haystack, we carried on the remaining mile to the peak of Mt. Lafayette. Looming at 5,200 feet above sea level, this is the highest we have climbed in over 1,000 miles of trail. The weather was in no way forgiving, winds whipping us around as we pressed towards the peak. Upon reaching the summit we hunkered down in an old stone foundation nearby, hoping to get a break the wind long enough to eat a snack before carrying on. By this point it was nearly 1800hrs and the threat of night hiking was making its way into my mind. We didn't linger long before carrying on down a 2 mile descent back into the wooded forest, protected from the wind, where we would traverse some light elevation changes before making the final climb of our day, an 800' up-and-over of Mt. Garfield.
By the time we reached the base of Garfield it was dark, and I had already stopped to put on my headlamp. It was quite obvious what we were getting into, a 0.8 mile climb with 800' of elevation, likely meaning rock climbing up and over the top. True to my assumption, we traversed boulders and rock faced sections where water was pouring down from the rainstorms, making climbing a bit more challenging. Add in the 2 dimensional view of the world achieved by hiking with a headlamp (the light source coming from the same point as your eyes makes hiking at night very difficult for depth perception) and it was quite the journey. Summiting Garfield we found a concrete basin poured on the rocky summit, where Santa decided he wanted to spend the night. Legs and I carried on down the mountain to the Garfield shelter, and after an equally rocky descent we arrived around 2130hrs. Only 2 other hikers were here, and we quietly cooked dinner before heading to bed.
I'm not sure what our mileage tomorrow will be, but I'm at an interesting place in my hike now pertaining to distance. I've got 18 days left on the Appalachian Trail, and roughly 360 miles to go. I'd like to do some slower days through the Whites to both enjoy the views and spend time with these two that I'm hiking with. Likely when we exit the Whites I'll speed up to give myself an achievable minimum average of miles to hike through Maine. Either way, we're here. The Whites are the pinnacle of the trail, shy of Katahdin's summit. As the saying goes for thru-hikers, when you reach the White Mountains you've done "80% of the distance, 20% of the effort". I'm hoping for the weather to hold out for the next day or two, as summiting Mt. Washington in unfavorable conditions isn't on my bucket list for the trip. Fingers crossed, but I'll take it as it comes.
Onward & ever upward.