The Rock Pile

One of the draws of New England for this particular trip was Mount Washington. It is the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi {behind Mount Mitchel, NC and Clingmon’s Dome, TN}. But because of its location, it has alpine terrain and some of the most brutal weather in the world. Up until recently, it held the record for highest observed wind gust of 231 miles per hour.
The reason this mountain is a draw is that it is a high point in one of the 50 states {#5 on my life list}. Coming to New England meant a chance to bag it and see some beautiful scenery.

Upon further research, I came across warnings about weather {Backpacker named it one of America’s Ten Most Dangerous Hikes} and the brutal steepness of the trail. One post I read described New Hampshire as not knowing how to build a switchback… they just build their trails straight up the side of the mountain – this is no lie.

So with this information in hand, we began planning our hike. Daniel and I have been hiking for decades. We are experienced and in decent shape. That being said, I am also pregnant and we wanted to make sure that weather wouldn’t be an issue. We also had Sophie to consider.

The night before our intended hike, we realized that the weather observetory was calling for rain and fog early in the morning, but it was to clear up that afternoon {normally bad weather rolls in later in the day}, so we planned to make a later start than we normally would have.
After sleeping in and packing our gear, we were at the trailhead parking lot, ready to make our summit bid at 12:30 PM. We were greeted by a staunch warning about weather and the importance of being prepared. We felt prepared and headed out onto the Jewel Trail.

The Jewel is the easiest of the trails that ascend Washington. That being said, it climbs 2,800 in 3.5 miles. The mosquitoes and tiny black flies were brutal – we really couldn’t stop to break without being eaten.

Once we made it to the Alpine Zone, the bugs disappeared and we enjoyed amazing views. We climbed through scrub for a little while before reaching a boulder field and the Gulfside Trail leading to the summit.

The Gulfside Trail tacks on another 1.7 miles and an additional 1,000 feet of elevation gain. At this point you are fully exposed and your “trail” is all a huge boulder field {the boulders are the reason it is called The Rock Pile}.

At one point we considered turning back for Sophie’s sake – she was struggling with picking a route over some of the bigger boulders. But she was a champ and we kept going.

We passed many people coming down the trail. They all looked fresh – like they had just stepped off of a train… We are guessing they road the Cog Train up the mountain and walked down.

The weather was perfect all afternoon.

Daniel and Sophie were making good time, but I was really struggling with speed on those boulders. I am slow going up steep sections of hill and this entire trip was just that, a big continuous hill. In addition I am pregnant and really had to think about every step because of balance and fatigue.

We briefly discussed turning back, but we were so close to the top that we thought we should go ahead and approach the summit. Part of our reasoning was there would be a chance that we could ride the railway back down OR possibly hitch a ride from the people who drive to the top to visit the observatory and experience the high winds.

So we pushed on.

And on.

We both finally reached the top after 5 hours of hiking {mostly because I was slow}. We decided to check about the railway so I went to speak to the ranger. Unfortunately, the last train had left 20 minutes before we arrived – we had actually watched it go down the mountain and we both knew that we had probably missed it.

The ranger told me about the possibility of riding a shuttle down, but it was on the other side of the mountain and we wouldn’t have a way to get to our car. This put us in a bit of a bind. We quickly discussed and agreed that Sophie and I should ride down and Daniel would hike. 

It was a hard decision, but since it was late in the day, I was tired and we didn’t know how Sophie would do climbing down the boulders, we decided it was the best option. Daniel could make it down the mountain fastest without us and we would wait at the Mount Washington Auto Road tour guide post.

Thankfully Daniel made good time down the mountain, but it was a nerve-wracking separation for both of us. Splitting up was not our preference, but it was the best choice.
Mount Washington is dangerous {like any mountain or outdoor activity} because the weather can change on a dime. The day we were there, the winds were blowing 65mph at the top. You have to be prepared. We were prepared for weather, but we didn’t make the wisest decisions about time. If we had left earlier in the day, we would not had to make the difficult decision to separate. In the wilderness you have to be smart and on top of your game ALL of the time.
We learned a lot from Mount Washington.

— Highest Peaks I have climbed: Mt Magazine, AR; Mt. Elbert, CO; Mt. Mitchel, NC; Mt. Rogers, VA; Clingman’s Dome, TN; Mt Washington, NH; Brasstown Bald, GA

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