Dedicated to sister, Joni, and brother, Craig. You have been short-listed to my little Hall of Heroes.
Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern US, is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, in Coos County, New Hampshire, and is noted for hosting unpredictable and erratic weather conditions. I wonder now that a park ranger described the Tuckerman Ravine/Lion’s Head trail down Mt. Washington as the ‘perfect’ hike. Her enthusiasm in describing the trail as such encouraged my siblings & me to estimate that we would easily make the 43oo-foot, 4.2-mile descent in about 2.5 to 3 hours and still have time to do another hike later. We’re all experienced hikers, after all, but what I hadn’t considered was that I, in particular, was not in prime condition.
After being shuttled up to the summit we crossed the roadway to the trailhead to begin our descent in winds that blew at about 55 mph. Tuckerman Ravine itself was closed for hiking so we would circumnavigate by way of the Lion’s Head trail rejoining the Tuckerman Ravine trail further down.
What lay before us at the trailhead, with no end in sight, was a boulder and rock-strewn trail that at times was indistinguishable enough to necessitate it being marked with giant cairns, a trail that had to be navigated with caution for fear of being blown over by the wind or injured in a fall. Still, the trail looked intriguing in its austere grandeur, so we set out.
The trail was tricky, my perpetually weak knees had seen better days, and because I hadn’t hiked since the spring and wasn’t in the best shape for hiking, my knees began to give out at 1.5 miles down the mountain. “Not to worry,” I thought, “I’ve scrambled up & down boulders before so I’ll just scramble along on my butt using my arms as crutches,” blindly trusting that I could do that for 2.7 miles. I lifted myself along the boulders, feeling strong in the arms, but I soon grew weary, stopped to bandage my knees (one with an ace bandage, the other with my brother’s tie-dyed bandanna), and continued on more slowly. Along the way I discovered that I was wearing through my gloves and the seat of my pants and rubbing skin against rock. We had only progressed a half mile or so with 2.2 miles to go.
Eventually I’d come to the end of my ability to scramble and had to get back on my feet, but my knees now worked only minimally, and I was becoming emotionally and physically spent after collapsing several times. I saw, too, that it was getting later and darker, and I wondered if I would even be able to make it down. I didn’t have a flashlight, and I wondered if Craig or Joni had one. I didn’t even want to ask because I was afraid they’d say no, and then what would we do?
My brother offered me his arm and shoulder as support so that I could lock my right knee, twist with my hip, and gently step down to the next rock…the only way I could move. In less brutal areas of the trail I was able to walk very slowly on my own, but in my eagerness to get off the mountain I collapsed many more times than I could count, four or five of those times in tears. Meanwhile, my sister tried to keep our spirits up with encouraging words as she kept us abreast of how much further we had to go. I’ll tell you, though, nine-tenths of a mile can feel like ninety.
We eventually did make it off that mountain, and we made it in record-breaking time: 10 hours and 20 minutes. We got down sometime around 7:30 or 8 pm, presumably making it the longest descent ever unrecorded in Mt. Washington State Park’s history. But we did it.
It took all of us about a week to fully recover the use of our leg muscles, and the hike still feels a little like the ‘hideous hike from hell,’ but the moral of this story about the ‘perfect’ hike of the park ranger’s experience is that every experience is a learning experience, and life is just living every step of the way. It had to be a hundred times more difficult for Craig to support me while finding his own footing over that rocky terrain, and for Joni…our scout forging ahead to see what was in our immediate future…who had to have been nearly overcome with concern for me.
The next time…and there might actually be a next time…I will be in better shape and have cortisone shots in my knees, but for this time I’ve learned that I, as well as my loving, heroic siblings, especiallymy loving, heroic siblings, have enduring patience and incredible perseverance. We couldn’t have made it without P & P, and I almost certainly couldn’t have made it without them. Thanks, guys. I love you two!
Photos taken by my awesome siblings, sister, Joni, and brother, Craig