Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mt. Washington via Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head Trails September 9, 2012

Mt. Washington (6,288') via Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head trails September 9, 2012 (New Hampshire State High Point)

Mileage:  8.4 miles (loop)

Elevation gain: 4,357'

Trailhead: Pinkham Notch Visitor Center - Take Rt 16 north from North Conway, located about 10 miles north of Jackson. 

Lesson learned:  "Easier" is a relative term!

Today I hiked with Rich, Norm and Sandy.  Rich and I had a disappointing week and we needed to get away.  Hiking helps us unwind and seeing as how I hadn't hiked in almost a month, I needed it bad!

Rich always wanted to hike Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine trail; a challenge for someone height averse.  I wanted the experience, the exercise and the elevation gain (we'll be hiking in Colorado in two weeks). Norm just wanted to get out and hop some rocks.

Saturday's forecast was iffy, with severe thunderstorms and winds up to 80 mph (okay - "iffy" may be downplaying it).  Rich and Norm suggested we try for Sunday; I was concerned the bad weather would linger in the Whites making for a cold, foggy trip.  I was so wrong!

The storms quickly retreated before sunrise; the summit was clear from all viewpoints. Sandy met us at the trailhead. She and Joe hiked the Osceolas the day before and they barely made it to the car before the weather came crashing down on them.  She was glad to join us on this dry, clear day though her plan was to accompany us just to the floor of the ravine.

The trail to Hermit Lake Shelter and Tuckerman Ravine
The storms the night before intensified the rivers and made the damp areas wetter.  We met quite a few hikers along the way; these two ready to consume (and burn) some calories!

Hiking Washington is strenuous - bring lots of gorp!

On one of the bridges to Hermit Lake Shelter.
I've hiked to Tuckerman Ravine many times - always in the snow on my way up to watch the skiers (from March through May); never in the summer.  In the summer there're more rocks and fewer people on the trail.  

The deck on the shelter (ravine is in the background).
We had a quick snack at the shelter and then headed up to the base of the ravine (via rock "stairs").
Rock "stairs" up from Hermit Lake Shelter into the ravine.
The base of the ravine looks so different in the summer, with trees and bushes clinging to the headwall.  
Tuckerman Ravine in summer (trail continues on far right).
Norm struck up a conversation with several hikers from Montreal as we headed up toward Lunch Rocks, a well known spring skiing viewing spot. Here Sandy said her goodbyes and headed down to her car.  

And so it began - climbing up the steep ravine to the top.  Although there are no scrambles, the exposure was a bit daunting to Rich, who did not fully appreciate the beautiful views behind us.  We topped out and crossed a narrow stream, walking above the walls of the ravine.  

Heading up the wall of the ravine

We hiked to the right of the falls, turning left and crossing over the falls.
Gorgeous view!

At the top of the falls we carefully negotiated the narrow strip of trail above the walls of the ravine - turning right and heading up large "gravelly" rocks to the trail junction.

This rocky path above the ravine wall leads to the junction.
No, the top of the rocks in the picture above is not the summit, nor is it near the summit. Trail junction signs greet us and signal the beginning of the seemingly unending trek over those big, rough gray rocks the Northern Presidentials are famous for!  We continued on the Tuckerman Ravine trail (turning right at the signs).

The good news about these rocks? They're not that slippery in wet conditions.
Norm pointed out the orange stack on the summit (in the distance) and said, "You'll hate that stack soon. It'll look like it's moving away from you as you struggle on the rocks toward it."  He was right!

That teeny stack in the distance appears to move away as we advance!
Hopping boulders with us were hikers from Florida, the mid-west, and Canada, wearing jeans, sneakers, and full hiking gear (no shortage of diversity today!).

Tuckerman Ravine trail ends at the autoroad.  Eventually we saw the cairn and sign indicating the end (or beginning depending on your direction) of the trail.    

The sign indicates the end of the Tuckerman Ravine trail (taken from the autoroad).
Some hikers don't like to see the crowds on the summit; those who rode the Coach, the Cog or car.  I love them. Sweaty with dirty legs and my hair stuck to my head, I feel like Clint Eastwood coming into town in "High Plains Drifter" when I walk up to the summit sign.  They all look at me and whisper to each other, "I think she hiked all the way up here."  I'm cool.  I like it.

Crusty, sweaty indigenous mountain folk.
Can someone explain this sign to me?
We stayed on the summit a full hour - the sun was shining with very little wind. After lunch (on a crowded picnic table) one of our new Canadian friends came up to Norm with questions about hiking the Lion Head trail down. His wife was spent from hiking up the Tuckerman trail and didn't want to hike anymore.  She was considering taking the Coach or the Cog down but he had convinced her to take the Lion Head trail down as he heard it was a much easier trail than Tuckerman's. 

Perfect view from the summit parking lot.

Norm suggested that we too head down Lion Head; he too felt the trail was easier to descend than the Tuckerman Ravine trail. So the three of us and our four Canadian friends picked our way down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to the junction, taking a left and heading toward the "Lion Head" (which I am told if you look at just right, it looks like a lion sitting. I tried but could not see it).

That pile of rock in the center is the lion's head
Not a fan of rock hopping, I was thrilled when our descent flattened out and we followed what looked more like a path.
Scrubby spruce with a small path in the middle.
Breathtaking view from the scrubby lawn.
The lion head rock formation juts out of the mountainside with steep angles; we walked up on it and headed left to skirt around and descend.

This steep ledge area on the front side of the lion head takes a few minutes to descend.
We continued to negotiate around rocks, jumping down or lowering ourselves from the larger ones.  This trail is still quite exposed but we were nearing treeline; Lion Head trail is in the woods more than Tuckerman's - still, there's lots of trail out in the open here.

Once we got in the trees, the trail mellowed a bit but still offered some challenging scrambles; one particularly difficult one as it was very slick with no decent handholds.

Soon we were back on the Tuckerman Ravine trail, just below Hermit Lake Shelter.  The general consensus was that Lion Head trail may be less steep that Tuckerman Ravine trail but it is still a tough trail.  We passed Crystal Cascade where we found our Canadian friend waiting for his wife.  

This was one beautiful hike in perfect conditions - the kind you celebrate for days after. I marvel at my good fortune to have hiked all the Presidentials in decent weather.

After the hike I thought about Wieslaw Walczak, the speed hiker who fell from Tuckerman Ravine trail to his death in November of 2009. That weekend was the first time I volunteered at the hiking information desk at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.  I was being trained on how to assist hikers when the call came in from Mr. Walczak's wife saying that he had not come home. The staff assured me that calls like this aren't unusual and most of them turn out fine.  This one did not.  An experience hiker in great shape, Mr. Walczak apparently fell from the trail on to the rocks.  I tried to picture exactly where he fell; Tuckerman Ravine trail has a few stretches where that could easily happen. In the dark.  On an icy trail.  

As dangerous as it can be in icy conditions, in the summer the trail is fun, challenging and (walking above the headwall) exhilarating.  I would highly recommend this trip!