Yikes! My First Ever Solo Hike Was Mt. Washington

This was a trip about hiking and solely just that.  Alone. By myself. Sounds daunting?  Heck, yeah.  I don’t know why I chose Mt. Washington as my first ever solo hike in the U.S. However, this became one of the most enjoyable trip moments as a solo hiker. As opposed to a beach trip that can easily be handled via a simple routine of relaxation, hiking trips even in the form of day hikes carry with them an element of risk.

Of course, White Mountains have been known for finicky and unpredictable weather.  The elements can be at their worse especially when you’re atop some peak or summit.  People who are hardcore hikers are said to frequent this area for the purpose of peak bagging various peaks named after U.S. presidents.  For the much more adventurous souls, trekking in this area often means doing the Presidential Traverse.

As a first time hiker in this part of the country,  I was satisfied for the purposes of this trip to do a summit hike in a day of Mt. Washington, which is deemed as the highest point in the northeast U.S.  Indeed, that by itself was enough to give me an idea of the level of difficulty that hiking in this region of the U.S. entails; nonetheless, that realization did not deter me from wanting to return and do a hut to hut trek over a span of days in the near future.

There are a few ways to reach the Mt. Washington summit but for this trip I opted for the classic Mt. Washington route which starts at the Tuckerman Ravine trailhead, next to the AMC’s Pinkham Notch visitor center and lodge.  The starting elevation at the trailhead is 2,032 feet. Mt. Washington’s summit stands at 6,288 feet.  The ascent via Tuckerman Ravine trail is merely 4.2 miles but the elevation gain is 4,250 feet!  On top of it, the trail is known for being rocky, rugged, muddy and slippery when wet.  Over a hundred people have died hiking it.  In fact, at the time I went, a few days prior, there was a report that a hiker slipped and fell to his death on the Tuckerman Ravine trail.  Given the risks involved and the fact that this was going to be a solo hike, my plan was to play it by ear and cautiously be attentive to the weather conditions.

To ensure I had proper rest for the grueling day hike, I decided to book a bed at Joe Dodge Lodge by Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.   I was lucky enough to be the only one in the two-person room that night.  The facilities include shared toilets and showers, a mini-store, a visitor center full of hiking information and a dining hall.  The place is very cozy and obviously caters to hikers.  One can even pay for a three course dinner for convenience’s sake. The mini-store has all the snacks, last minute gear, maps etc. that a hiker can buy at the last minute before hitting the trail.

The night prior to my Mt. Washington hike, I met a few people from Canada and other parts of the East Coast.  Most of the people were older; nonetheless, we all appeared to have the same agenda, that is, to do some type of hiking in one shape or form in the area known fondly as the Whites.  During dinner, I was lucky enough to get some insight on the trail. I also learned that I was fortunate enough to be visiting that weekend because the fall colors (it was September) were at peak and guess what?  We were supposed to experience a minimally windy and sunny weather over the course of the next few days.  For once, what sounded good to be true turned out to be really true!

The next morning, I woke up around 6 am, put on my hiking attire and prepared my gear.   Before heading out, I ate a full breakfast which was included in the room cost.  My start time was at 7am.

Early on, the trail was already climbing up steadily uphill as I passed a few scenic waterfalls.  The trail was definitely rocky so one must carefully pay attention to one’s footing to keep balance.  Along the way, I passed several groups on the trail but eventually I found myself hiking alongside another solo trekker.  Although she’s not a newbie to the White Mountains trails, it was also her first time summiting Mt. Washington via the Tuckerman route.

After a slow going ascent on the rugged trail, we made it to the first landmark, the Hermit Lake shelter at 2.4 miles.  From Hermit, our next stop in 1.2 miles was the Tuckerman Junction but along the way to that point we had to overcome the so-called “headwall” which is where most unwanted accidents happen especially when there’s rain.

The headwall came into view just a few steps away from the Hermit Lake shelter.  As we approached the headwall, we realized that the ascent wasn't going to be as bad given that we were very lucky to have the sun out and the trail, though a bit wet, was easily manageable. Despite the uphill workout and the maneuvering required to deal with the rocks, we were going to be just fine.

As we hiked up further to get to the Tuckerman Junction, the scenery became more vast and the rocks much larger.  From the junction, we veered to the right and from there we had only 0.6 miles left to the summit.  Piece of cake?  Not quite.  Despite the low mileage left to get to the top, this turned out to be the most exhausting part due to the fact that by then my level of energy had diminished combined with the need to expend much higher level of energy to scramble over the rocks while trying to maintain a high keen of awareness of what the heck I was doing with my limbs.  Luckily, I was able to replenish my energy with my trail bars and the fact that we had this unusually gorgeous day with such lovely 360 degree vistas surrounding us.  With all that in mind, we pushed forward to the very top.

Of course, when you get to the top, you realize it's anti-climatic for the very reason that one can catch the train easily to the summit instead of putting in the hours of work hiking up like we silly hikers did.  Nevertheless, despite the trainloads of clean tourists, I welcomed the hot food and coffee from the cafeteria along with the warmth of the indoors.  We were fortunate to have a sunny weather at the summit even though it was chilly and windy.

After a meal and the obligatory photo shoot by the Mt. Washington sign, my companion and I started our trek down the mountain via Lions Head route.  The descent via Lions Head trail is about 4.1 miles with an elevation loss of 4,250.  Of course, despite knowing downhill would be less grueling than what we did thus far, it couldn't be denied how secretly we both wanted to just hop on that train to take us back down.  That thought escaped my mind though after a brief second and off we went.

I'm not going to lie.  The downhill wasn't that easy after all.  It felt like we were descending forever, so much so that my feet and knees started getting noticeably sore.  Again, the rocky terrain was the culprit for the physical pain.  The nice dirt paths were certainly few and far between.  Every chance we got to be on them felt like heaven compared to the hellish downhill over uneven rocks. The redeeming moments were the 360 degree views of the surrounding peaks and the valleys.  Also, it turned out there were less hikers on this trail compared to Tuckerman Ravine so I was glad I had this companion with me to push me through the ordeal.  Eventually, we reached the intersection that took us back to Tuckerman trail.  Thanks to my trekking poles, my knees managed the brutal and super rocky 4,250 feet descent without an issue apart from the usual soreness.  As we reached the end of the hike, I said goodbye to my trekking companion who I found out to be an avid hiker and a published author of a book called, It's Not About the Hike.  You can check out her website and book here.  Her reasons for hiking and writing were both inspirational.  It was great for a moment to hear another avid hiker's personal view on one of my favorite endeavors.

By the time I got back to the lodge, the sun was still shining as I sat on the bench chatting on the phone with a friend to let him know I made it back just fine.  As I was sitting there, it dawned on me that I have just put my body through a rigorous ordeal of hiking up and down a mountain with a total elevation change of 8, 500 feet in just a little over 8 miles and the fact that this was my very first significantly strenuous solo hike.   I took a moment just to enjoy the sense of personal accomplishment before driving out to the hostel in Conway for the night.

Again, as always, trekking or adventuring solo never leads to it being done alone.  That may be for the best as a solo trip on this kind of strenuous trail can easily lead to a disaster if the elements are not in your favor.  After all, you can never be certain how the weather conditions will go as you venture further out on the trail.  One's personal safety must always come first.  Although I would have appreciated the peace and quiet of a solo hike up Mt. Washington, I am glad that this journey was experienced jointly with another person who shares the same level of passion towards hiking. Finally, on such rare occasion, it is worth mentioning the fact that I owe the rain gods big time for this one as I was without a doubt spoiled rotten on the mountain, as I pranced around with the sun shining on my face (in my mind, at least).  In a nutshell, the entire experience was an unforeseen state of pure enlightenment.  Just like the weather that day, my Mt. Washington hike was perfectly orchestrated by fate.

Marinel DeJesus