Number 1: Do not go with these people.
Oh sure, their names may be Pete and Betsy (sounds harmless enough, right?) and they may be dear friends and 25+ year Campus Crusade Staffers devoted to Christ and ministry, but they also happen to be undercover “Extreme Backpacking Vacation” Operatives. They will casually mention the idea of a weekend backpacking trip, and they may even mention that it will simply be a 25 mile loop over 4 peaks of the White Mountains (how hard could that possibly be?), but there will be MUCH they are leaving out so that they can enjoy torturing you later – when there is no escaping.
Number 2: Stream and River Crossings are the LEAST of your worries.
About an hour into our 3-day 25 mile loop, we encountered a succession of water crossings – some of which proved to be a challenge to traverse. Some of us even ended up with slightly wet shoes and socks – oh no! Carrying a 30+ pound backpack can throw off your balance in an instant. And to think, I pulled out my camera to capture what I thought was going to be the extent of the water and the difficulty of this hike.
Number 3: You cannot trust the hikers going in the opposite direction.
(i.e. friendly hikers – especially those in their 20’s – who pass by and offer to take your photo are simply other planted operatives who lie about what you are about to encounter.) Strangely, we passed a lot of hikers going in the opposite direction. It should have been a clue. And they did say that it was windy on the peaks we were trying to reach. They even said that at times the rain up there felt like sleet. But they said it with such joy and exuberance. One young couple even asked as they passed us, “Aren’t you guys just loving this rain?” They were serious. We should have turned around right after this group photo was taken.
Number 4: Double check and then meditate upon the ELEVATION given for each peak.
If we had truly considered, even just for a moment, what it might look and feel like to reach a peak that is just 20 feet short of a mile high, and if we had then done a little mental math about the number of miles the trail map and signs said we would need in which to accomplish those feet, then we might have anticipated that MOST of the trail would look like this:
Number 5: Even if it will add another 10 pounds, pack some serious rock climbing gear in your backpack.
You will, of course, only do this if you have successfully completed item number 4. If you disregard checking elevations, you will only continue to be in denial about the difficulty of the trail. But actually, now that I think about it, denial may have been a useful coping and survival skill. We were at least 10 miles from any sort of civilization here, and had no choice but to go forward. Better to keep thinking the trail might get easier somewhere ahead. (It wouldn’t.)
And this is where the photos end for day number 2 of our hike. The trail was so steep, the clouds and fog were so thick, and the rain so heavy, that I had to get out my poncho, waterproof pack cover (Thanks, Jenna!), and put the camera away for safe keeping. If I had taken a picture during the next 2-3 hours of the hike it would have looked something like this:
Seriously, we could not even see our friends who were sometimes less than 5 yards ahead of us on the trail. The only way we could be certain they were still in close range was hearing the whipping of the plastic trash bags they were using to try and cover their packs in the driving wind and rain. I have to admit to being pretty scared. We were 9 hours into this hike, had 4 more to go, and were completely drenched and windblown – not to mention completely drained physically and emotionally. If there had not been some joking at our somewhat dangerous predicament, there probably would have been some tears. Many of the jokes were because Robert had pulled/strained a muscle in his groin about mid-day, and at this point was having to manually lift or drag his right leg along on this incredibly strenuous journey. It appeared that we had decided to take a stroke victim along with us on this harrowing hike.
Number 6: Huts are a nice way to backpack, but you need a reservation and about $100 per person.
Once we finally reached the Mt. Lafayette peak, there was a sign for a “hut” 1.1 miles down a trail to the right of our intended trail. Pete called a “committee meeting” and announced that he was concerned about our safety. (You think?) Should we hike a mile out of the way and see what this hut might be? That would give us an added 1.1 mile to the ten we need to hike tomorrow in order to get back to our car. Or should we press on for another 4 miles in the wind and rain, over two more peaks to our intended campsite? (What’s another 4-5 hours of hiking after we’ve been scaling rock faces for 9 hours already?) Even though delirium was setting in, we had at least a shred of common sense left, and so we headed for the hut. It only took us 2 hours to hike that 1.1 miles. Robert (our stroke victim) took the lead, and about an hour and a half in started calling… “Hut!?! Hut?!? Where are you hut???” Delirium had obviously arrived in full force.
We finally began to see lights and some sort of a structure in the distance. “It’s the hut! And it’s nice!” called Robert. And he was not delirious in this case. It was very nice – compared to our other tent-camping-in-the-rain option. We could see warm and happy people inside drinking coffee and playing card games around tables. (It was now about 8:30pm.) We walked in looking like drowned rats and ALL eyes were on us. An older female volunteer whose spiritual gift was obviously NOT mercy, asked us, “What was your alternative plan?” Pete replied, “This hut. This hut was our impromptu alternative plan.”
The front desk guy asked if we were okay twice before giving us the bad news – they were booked.
BUT, if we would sleep on the dining room floor, and eat our own delicious freeze dried meals, we could stay for $8 per person as opposed to the $100 per person all of the other “hut hikers” were paying. Whew! A hard wood floor has NEVER slept so good.
Number 7: Hindsight and lifted fog is 20/20, there is such a thing as a false peak, and when the guide book lists the hike as “strenuous,” you should assume that even Lance Armstrong will have difficulty with it.
This was the view from the deck of the hut the next morning where we cooked our oatmeal over camp stoves while the rest of the hut guests had pancakes, eggs, and bacon inside. The middle peak is Mt. Lafayette where we had been standing during our committee meeting in the wind and rain. And lest you think that it looks like a short distance to that peak, remember that my camera has a “super zoom” on it. And do you see that peak to the left? Well, that’s what is known as a “false peak.” We kept hearing other hikers speak of this, but we had thought other “false peaks” BEFORE that one were THE false peak. Oh, the discouragement to find that we were not yet to Mt. Lafayette that horrific evening before!
And speaking of hindsight….there is actually a way to have foresight in these hiking adventures. It’s called a White Mountain Backpacking Guide or The Internet. Yes, both sources list our particular hike as “strenuous.” But what exactly does that mean? I mean, hey, we’re all in good shape and lead fairly healthy lives. We eat well, are all runners, and are all involved in some amount of weight training during the week. Strenuous? Surely we’re up to strenuous?! But when people at the hut asked us where we had hiked from, they were in disbelief when we said we had come all the way from 13 Falls campsite that morning. Very kindly they would reply, “That was a very ambitious hike you planned.”
Yeah. No kidding. And many of these were very experienced hikers who knew the mountains well. Strenuous? Yes. VERY.
Number 8: What goes up, must come down and going down is NOT as easy as you might think.
It was not too difficult to decide that we would just continue down the mountain the next day to the nearest trail head and parking area. This meant we would hike 2.9 miles rather than 11 miles on Sunday – our last day of the trip. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, just take a look at Betsy trying to scale this particular part of the 2.9 mile trail and you will notice that it was every bit as difficult as getting up the mountain. I actually began to realize that going up is much easier on the back and knees. And the rain had made everything nice and slick for our Sunday descent. It took us 3 hours to climb the 2.9 miles down from the hut to the nearest entrance to the state park. We were so physically exhausted that it felt like our legs were not attached to our bodies and could no longer respond to directives from our brains.
Number 9: Don’t lose hope. You may begin to long for the return of Christ more strongly than ever before, but unless you see Him coming on the clouds, it’s not your time yet.
Halfway down and Robert is either ready to end it all – or he’s wondering if it might be less painful to just roll down the mountain.
Number 10: Smiling and joking when you don’t really feel like it are excellent survival skills.
(And going on “double hiking dates” is the best way to prevent spousal abuse and/or divorce.)
Somehow, we manage a smile for a group photo taken by a young dad and his daughter. (Why am I the only one wearing my pack here?) There were jokes and wisecracks abounding which kept the mood positive and light. And I think we all admitted that had we been alone with our spouse, the tone might have been more negative. The restraining presence of friends can be a really good thing!
Number 11: Hitchhiking is illegal on the Interstate (or any paved road) in New Hampshire, so plan your trip accordingly.
When we got to the nearest trail head, we were still ten miles away from our car. Most of the hikers coming down the mountain that day were headed north, and our car was south, so they weren’t willing to give us a ride. There is a shuttle between some of the parking lots and trail heads, but none going to our particular lot. No choice here but to hitch a ride. The men headed out to the highway and planned to stand near the entrance to the southbound highway for better ride chances. Betsy and I stayed in the lot and waited.
A hiker and hut volunteer from Canada approached us in his car, and rolled down his window. Previously, he had told us he could not give us a ride because he was headed home to Canada, and that was, of course, not south. But, he had taken a look at his map and decided that our lot was not TOO out of his way, and that he did not mind giving us a ride. By this time the men had also found a ride. The man from Canada ended up doing the kind deed and within the hour we were on the road back home!
Number 12: To make up for taking your friends on such a horrific hike, take them out for steak, and they will agree to consider the possibility of remaining friends.
Yes, Pete and Betsy treated us to a delicious lunch at Outback Steakhouse in Concord, NH on the way home. I’m surprised they actually let us in the place looking like we did, but we did have shoes on (flip flops to show off our blisters), and shirts (that we’d been wearing for three days), so I guess they had to serve us. They did put us in a dining room not immediately visible to those coming in the front door which is understandable. We gobbled up our non-freeze dried food, used real toilets, and laughed until we cried at our foolishness.
(And then we got a flat tire on the way home, but that’s a whole other adventure. Quick Tip: Do NOT purchase cars with “run flat” tires!)
Definitely a memorable weekend getaway. Hopefully, my handy list of tips will help your backpacking adventure be a fun, but not SO memorable outing. One that will not require you to have therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome afterward.
Yesterday at church, on one of the powerpoint slides behind the words to a worship song featured a cross surrounded by rocks and boulders with a mountain peak in the distance. My chest immediately began to tighten at the sight. I think it’s going to take some time to recover.
This is what I’m thinking for our next getaway:
In all seriousness, we are so thankful to have been on this hike with our good friends Pete and Betsy. There is no other couple who could have made this a more fun and laughable time. And their prayers, scripture memory, humor, and stories along the way were a blessing to us. It’s a gift to have friends with who share your values and passions, and we are truly grateful!