This past Memorial Day, I vindicated one of my contradictions and spent the long weekend camping and hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. Three days, two mountains, and 6000 vertical feet of climbing: in other words, a perfectly restful vacation.

The drive into White Mountain National Forest, NH 

The drive into White Mountain National Forest, NH 

After a Friday spent cooped up in the car, we took a Saturday warm-up hike to prepare for the 3000’ climb up Mt. Washington the next day. For our climb, we chose Mt. Washington’s smaller neighbor, the 5712’ Mt. Jefferson. If you’re noticing a pattern, this mountain range is named the “Presidential Traverse.” Considering the area was settled as early as 1700, it makes you wonder whose names got bumped to make room for the Founding Fathers. Just imagine cutting the first trail up, declaring your discovery “Mt. Smith”, then bang the American Revolution.

Pros: freedom, liberty, cheaper tea. Cons: a permanent reminder that someone, somewhere will always be better than you. But at least now you can pursue happiness?

Mt. Jefferson would be my first time going after a summit since last year’s Colorado adventures, so I could hardly wait to stretch my legs out and hit the trail. Since it was 80 degrees and humid, I hiked in synthetic base layers only with a 25L daypack and light shell in case of rain. Oh yeah, and like 3 liters of water bottles I had just about drained by the time we started our descent. Did I mention it was hot and that I hadn’t hiked in a year? 80 and humid, indeed.

My party of 7 (me; my friend Nicole; her roommate Abby; and 4 members of Abby’s family who were kind enough to host me at their camp) made good time up Jefferson, hitting the summit in just under 3 hours. After a quick lunch, we slogged through a crawling, rocky descent before finally reaching the trailhead around 4pm. Total climb: 2700 feet. Total time: 7-8 hours including lunch.

I celebrated with a creek swim in the nearby Dry River, then rejoined camp for a well-deserved campfire dinner followed by s’mores. Huddled around dancing flames, our group exchanged stories new and old as twilight crept onto the perimeter of our glowing orange nightlight.

Even better: I saw stars. Not satellites, not helicopters, not pinholes muffled by light pollution – but honest-to-goodness nighttime stars. I could’ve watched the New Hampshire sky all night.

But after mere moments of stargazing, Circadian rhythm (and 3000 feet of vertical climb) took over, and it was time to go to sleep. We were planning on an 8am trailhead at Mt. Washington, and since we were 45 minutes and a full breakfast away from the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail in Glen, NH, tomorrow would be an early morning. The stars may stay out all night, but I couldn’t join them.

I shot awake at 6am to a woodpecker’s punctuated staccato. In the absence of “Radar” alarm tones, this was as good as it gets. I ate a light breakfast of campfire coffee and oats, then packed a daypack full of water, food, and some serious layers. Even in the summer, Mt. Washington is famous for erratic weather and gusting summit winds.

In case of emergency, I packed an Arc’teryx GORE-TEX hardshell and a North Face fleece – my 25L was now bursting at the seams and noticeably heavier, but in a pinch, these extra layers could save my life.

Speaking of lifesaving devices: I also packed Frito’s. Mmmmmmmm.

Our party opted to take the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail up the side of Mt. Washington, criss-crossing a massive glacial bowl that supports year-round snow pack and some truly frightening rock climbs. We spent the better part of two hours ascending up the narrow, unsteady trail, dodging undermined snow patches the whole way.

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Me and a younger member of our party opted for the “lightfoot” approach to an unstable traverse – in other words, we ran most of the way. Thank you, Nike, for producing the running shoe/combat boot Frankenstein known as the SFB. Shia LaBoeuf and I are both fans for a reason.

By the end of the climb out of the Ravine, we were over 1500’ out of the trailhead and a mere 0.6 miles from the summit. The good news: there was little more than half a mile left. The bad news: there were more than 1500 vertical feet to climb in that point six. I relaced my boots, inhaled a few Fritos for good luck, and bounded up the boulder field between me and the summit. Before long, I made it to the top, drenched in sweat but excited to be there. Sharing in my excitement was half the state of New Hampshire.

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Instead of an isolated mountain peak like Jefferson, Mt. Washington swarmed with hundreds of MDW vacationers out seeking accessible thrills. Because Mt. Washington can also be climbed by means of autoroad or tourist-friendly railway, my browsweat and sunburns were the exception, not the rule. As I approached the summit, some *ahem* braver tourists were hiking the 50’ down from the parking lot to join the lip of the boulder field I was just now climbing up.

Any intelligent alien passing over rural New Hampshire would’ve seen a curious sight: humans on vacation slaving away uphill with Sisyphean lunacy, while other humans vacationed by merely observing (then briefly joining) them.

I remember making eye contact with a proud-looking young father as he maneuvered down from his parked car in – wait for it – boat shoes and blue jeans. He seemed satisfied with his exertion for the week; meanwhile, I was sweat my body weight only to do the same on an exposed, sun-bleached descent in less than an hour.

6200’ above the ocean, yet drowning in tourists. Curious, indeed.

After a brief lunch at the top, we began our descent down the Lion’s Head Trail. Lion’s Head is a natural rock shoulder on one tip of the U-shaped bowl traversed by Tuckerman’s Ravine, the route of our ascent. If Tuckerman’s is the parabola of a U, then the Lion’s Head is a massive, craggy point hovering hundreds of feet above that centerline. From there, the trail goes straight down 2000’ down to the base of the ravine before rejoining the dirt path that leads to the parking lot.

While “straight down” sounds like an unpleasant route, it was actually the lesser of two evils. The same factors that made Tuckerman’s a challenging but doable ascent (long uphill slope; unpredictable snowmelt) would make it an impossibly dangerous descent. With knees braced, we bounded down the rocks to reach the Lion’s Head, the rocks a mere 400 feet above a layer of clouds that had settled into the valley below.

Standing on those rocks, staring out into the billowing clouds far below but just out of reach… Caspar David Friedrich would’ve been proud. Thanks to Nicole for capturing my best “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.”

The next two hours were a crawl, both literally and figuratively. I spent half my time crouched on all fours, trying to put as much surface area on the rock face as possible to avoid any unintended slips into those hovering clouds. I fell hard once (“did you hit your head?” “…it was a tough graze” ”so, yes”), slipped twice, and used my backpack as an impromptu friction brake more times than I could count. (Big, big shout-out to The North Face for making a schoolbag that’s also a surprisingly functional daypack. My back took a beating clambering down nearly 2000’ of rock face, but the bag held up. Pretty good stuff if you ask me.)

After two of the most unnerving hours of my life, we got off the Lion’s Head Trail and rejoined the path for an easy two mile jog back to the parking lot. I let gravity do most of the work, making sure my knees stayed loose as the SFB’s carried my stride up and over New Hampshire river rock. Before we knew it, we were back at the bottom. Tired, sweaty, bruised, but not broken: above everything, we had made it. I dragged myself over the final hundred yards of parking lot (cue “The Longest Yard” theme) before collapsing into the car back to camp.

Sitting down after a full day of hiking was both soporific and the most innately triumphant I’ve felt in ages. I was exhausted, but energized; drained, but dynamic. I couldn’t imagine any motorist or railcar passenger feeling satisfied about their climb up Mt. Washington, let alone chemically enjoying it. And soon, there’d be s’mores. Total climb: ~3500 feet. Total time: 13 hours including lunch.

That night, we clustered around the campfire for a final night’s worth of stories and stargazing. With no 8am trailhead, I could finally stay up to see the heavens for all they were worth. Flames beat back darkness same as before, but now, embers from the last of our wood floated towards the lights in the sky. Lights from above and below converged onto an indigo corner of the New Hampshire wilderness. It was a delightful contradiction, the most appropriate end to a weekend full of others just like it.

I had been tired but never more alive; I had struggled against nature to watch motorists domesticate my climb; and, the grandest paradox of all: after three days, two summits, and thousands of feet of sunbaked exertion, I now found myself completely relaxed.

Tomorrow morning, the real world would start, and by day’s end, I would be moved into my place in New York City. But tonight it was just me, the world, and lovely company to share it with.  

 

AS RAKESTRAW | The personal site of Alex Rakestraw.