Monday 15 June 2020

Remembering a stormy autumn walk in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

Continuing my delve through photographic archives I came across some colour prints taken back in October 2003 on my only visit to the Appalachian Mountains of the Eastern USA. The photos, taken on Kodacolor 200, are grainy and soft, which reflects well the conditions I encountered, the autumnal weather being wild and stormy with frequent snow and rain.

Mount Washington

On this trip I spent eleven days walking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. These are the highest of the Appalachians*, reaching 1,917 metres on Mount Washington, a mountain notorious for storms and bad weather.

*Correction. Outdoor writer Craig Romano  points out that  the highest mountains in the Appalachians are in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, where Mount Mitchell reaches 2,037 metres. Mount Washington is the highest peak in the Northeastern USA. The reference book for my incorrect fact is not one I'll trust in future!

During the walk I was on the Appalachian Trail much of the time and I climbed 22 of the 48 1,220 metre (4,000 foot) mountains in New Hampshire, including Mount Washington. I hadn’t set out on a peak bagging trip, but the White Mountains are heavily wooded, with the treeline around 1500 metres, so only by climbing to the summits are there many views. 

The White Mountains are steep, and trails tend to go straight up and down, often along rocky chutes between the trees, so walking is not easy. Combined with the stormy weather this made for a tough trip.

Like the Scottish Highlands the Appalachians were part of the ancient Caledonian Mountain Range, which split as the Atlantic Ocean formed, so it’s not surprising that the White Mountains reminded me of the mountains of home, only with more trees. 

Because the areas above the trees are small and fragile camping isn’t allowed there. However, on the mountainsides there are few areas flat enough to pitch a tent. So that hikers don’t have to descend into the valleys to camp wooden tent platforms are provided. I only found out about these when the friend who gave me a lift from Boston asked me if I had plenty of long guylines. I hadn’t and quickly bought 15 metres of cord as my tent required pegging to stand. As it was, I had to extend pegging points and guylines off the platforms to the ground or to trees. This took time, especially in stormy weather, and getting a taut tent was just about impossible. If I’d known about the platforms in advance I’d have taken a free-standing tent.

There are staffed huts in the mountains, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. However, the only one I considered using was full, so I ended up camping nearby anyway. There are also some lean-to shelters and I almost stayed in one of these. But just after I’d settled in a large party arrived so again I ended up pitching the tent. 

Between the high sections of the walk I did find flat campsites down in the valleys. It was a relief to pitch the tent normally.

As the walk progressed so did the autumn colours, making up for the overall grey and white colouring of the sky and the mountains.

There's an account of this walk in my book Out There: A voice from the Wild.

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