There were plenty of warnings along the way.
"The area ahead has the worst weather in America," read a bold, yellow sign on the Crawford Path at Mount Washington. "Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."
Well, hell. We were almost at the summit. I wasn't about to quit now, hailstorm be damned. And anyway, what was the point of climbing a mountain with the worst weather around if we didn't run into a little bit of winter in September?
The lore of a mountain can be your greatest downfall, so it's best not to let it intimidate you, (even if you are prone to exercising extreme caution, and checking the summit's weather conditions at least once a day for fun — nay, as a form of obsession — during long stretches when you have absolutely no plans to climb said mountain).
My hiking partner's cavalier attitude toward mountain dangers helped matters. He scoffed at poring over the weather report. He figured we could always start, then turn around if
things got ugly.
But having made it to the summit once before and shuttled back down it in a van, I was intent on doing it right this time. Both ways.
By foot, by car, they come
The draw of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, and of the White Mountains in general, is an interesting one. Not being from around here, I learned of it in the most casual of ways, from those "This car climbed Mt. Washington" bumper stickers seemingly affixed to, like, every one out of three cars in New England.
What was the big deal with this Mount Washington? This 6,288-footer was the highest peak in the Northeast? And the coveted peak, it was a place crawling with tourists, who'd made the trek up the auto road, casually, with snacks at their feet?
But as I learned during my first climb, sharing a mountain with a road didn't cancel out stunning natural beauty. It doesn't make the climb any less humbling. And while on it, you bond with it — with the waterfall you take a snack break by on the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail, the shortest trail to the top on the west side; with the sweeping views, the iconic Mount Washington Hotel a mere dot on the panorama; even with the fog that builds up so thick up top you wonder when there was ever such a thing as summer.
Sunshine, hail and bacon
The Ammonoosuc trailhead is technically a quarter mile before you reach the parking lot for the famed Mount Washington cog railway, but we cheated and parked at the railway, making this climb a 7.6-mile round trip hike. It was a sunny, brisk morning, and the leaves were just starting to change.
The sun stuck around long enough to let us take in the views of the mountain range. But above treeline, the sky began to turn, and by the time we took our lunch break by Lake of the Clouds, near the Appalachian Mountain Club hut of the same name, we were shivering in our hats and winter jackets. It had begun to hail.
Only 1.4 miles to go. Throughout our adventure, my hiking partner had optimistically underestimated the amount of time it would take us to get from Point A to Point B, so I began at this point to disregard his estimates and, while not exactly curse the hike, wish we were at the summit already. There comes a point when the views, breathtaking though they may be, all start to look the same. I had reached that point.
Thankfully, my partner had brought along the ultimate snack, a carnivore's dream: a pound of crispy, salty, succulent bacon, tucked away in a blanket of paper towels soaked through with bacon fat. Consuming approximately a half pound of bacon in six hours would sour my stomach by the end of the day, but nothing got me going more in those trying moments than the thought of this tasty snack. (So sorry, pigs.)
By lunchtime, the hail stones had started to clump on the ground. The heavy fog killed our visibility, and we could barely make out the weather tower at the summit. But there it was. This wasn't fiction; we had made it.
We warmed up inside the summit building before making the treacherous hike back down Ammonoosuc. We found losing our footing on wet rock no fun at all and thought of countless other ways we'd rather be spending the 2½ hours it took to get back to the car.
Hiking down a mountain challenges you in different ways than climbing up, my friend pointed out: You're mentally exhausted from calculating your footing so you won't take a spill and crack your skull open.
But I made it down on my own this time. No automobile to aid me. No broken bones to bring home as a memento.
I was hooked.