A bright yellow sign stood guard at the trail with an ominous command to turn back immediately if there was any question of the weather’s safety.
“Wow, that’s intense,” Debbie remarked. On a day like today, the bright blue sky made the threat seem innocuous, but it was not hard to imagine getting disoriented if there was the least bit of fog at the summit. We knew our clear day was an exception, not the rule.
Past the sign we viewed the elusive Lakes of the Clouds up close. Their shallow, clear water reflected the sky and the outline of the rocks surrounding them. We stopped for a few pictures, then set our attention on the task ahead. It was time for the final push up the summit.
At the base of the summit, the trail changed and the reason for the mountain’s nickname of “The Rock Pile” became apparent. The trail was nothing but rock upon rock upon rock. We pushed our tired muscles upward, moving to the side of the trail to let other hikers pass by, welcoming the opportunity to take a rest. The trail became busier as different routes up the mountain converged into the final ascent.
The view was more breathtaking with every step. Below us lay the Lakes of the Clouds hut, growing smaller and smaller in the distance. Mt. Morgan rose beside it with folds of mountains fanning out in all directions, lessening until they faded into the distance like an echo.
About halfway up the summit, we caught up to an older man who stood out from the other hikers. His heavy jacket and khaki pants made me feel hot just looking at him. Arms held aloft for balance, he struggled from step to step in his white sneakers. We stopped nearby and engaged him in conversation. Come to find out, his grandson was getting married at the Lakes of the Clouds hut today. They had driven up the auto road and the wedding party had hiked down from the summit for the ceremony. He had started out with them but realized that he wouldn’t be able to make it all the way down and back (he had just had a knee replacement not long before). Debbie offered him the use of her trekking poles, worried that he wouldn’t be able to make it back up.
“I’ll look for you at the top and you can return them then,” she reassured him. He agreed, reluctantly but gratefully, and we moved on ahead. A ranger had noticed his struggle and was staying back with him, so we felt better about his well-being.
We kept up the conversation to distract ourselves from our tiring legs and set a slow but steady pace with stops along the way. Despite our elevation, it was warm with only a touch of breeze to cool us off.
Closer to the crest of the mountain, we passed cairns with wind-driven ice rhime sticking out on one side. I grabbed a handful, expecting it to turn to slush in my hands. It didn’t.
“It’s hard,” I said in surprise.
“Does it feel dry?” Debbie asked.
“That’s how it was in Alaska,” she explained from her experience of living there. I studied the phenomenon for another moment before we moved on.
Bits of flat trail began to intertwine with the rocks as the last few yards of the trail rose to the level of the summit. We reached the end of the trail and crossed over onto the crushed gravel covering the top of the mountain. It was surreal. We had made it to the top!
We stopped for a moment to celebrate, hugging and cheering. Once again we gathered in a little circle and thanked God for seeing us through the ascent. We wove our way through the crowds of “soft goofers” (those who ascend the mountain via car or train – we were “hard goofers” since we had come up on foot. Debbie admitted a decided feeling of superiority over the soft goofers. We thought there should be a shorter line to the summit for hikers. We’d worked harder to get there, after all. ;)) milling about the summit area and made a beeline for the restrooms. The visitor building was crowded with Labor Day weekend tourists, and we didn’t spend much time inside.
After we freshened up, we went back out and found a place to sit and have lunch. Debbie kept watch for the man to whom she had loaned her trekking poles, and after a few minutes she spotted him, with the ranger by his side. We were so glad to see he had made it back to the top okay. She went over and greeted him, and Wendy and I watched as he gave her a hug to thank her as he returned her poles.
I glanced over towards the summit and saw a long line, and assumed it was to get inside the Tip Top House – a historical building that once was a lodging place on top of the mountain. After a second look, though, I realized it was a line to get to the official summit of the mountain! Everyone wanted to have their picture taken at the summit of Mt. Washington. While Wendy and I finished our lunch, Debbie held a place for us in the line and then we swapped with each other and took a look around the Tip Top House while we were waiting. After about 20 minutes (it’s a strange experience waiting in line to summit a mountain!), it was finally our turn. The girl in front of us offered to take our picture in return for taking hers, and we gathered around the sign and captured the moment on camera. Another moment of celebration, and then we relinquished our stance on the summit to the next group of people in line.
We spent a little more time taking in the views and after a quick stop in the gift shop, we prepared for the descent. The early afternoon sun cast clear golden light as we trooped down through the trail between tufts of alpine grass next to the tracks of the Cog railway.
We swapped photo-taking with a father and daughter to get a shot of each other standing on the tracks. The views from this point to where we picked up the Jewell Trail were some of my favorites. I used up the remainder of my phone’s battery capturing the last of the sweeping vistas, with the bright engine of the Cog in the distance, like a little toy train.
The bristly alpine grass gave way to rocks once again, and I was especially grateful for the use of my trekking poles. This part was the longest and least enjoyable of the hike, as there were no flat places to rest your feet. We stepped from rock, to rock, to rock, after rock, on a narrow pathway that followed the edge of a ravine through bent and mangled pines. Finally the trees grew tall and thick enough to make a bathroom break a possibility, so we found a spot to stop and rest. As Debbie and I sat on either side of the trail, munching on trail mix and granola bars, I spotted a gray-blue bird (a gray jay, as we found out later, very common in hiking areas like this) in the trees behind her.
A few moments later, movement beside me caught my attention. A bird had swooped into a tree only a few feet away. I froze in place, not wanting to scare it. We sat still and watched as it dipped into the pathway and snatched up a stray piece of trail mix. More birds came around, and after Wendy returned, she fed one from her hand!
We took turns feeding them, and they kept coming back for more. One greedy bird swooped down and instead of taking the piece of granola bar from Wendy’s hand, tried to swipe the rest of the bar hanging out of the pocket of my backpack.
A group of young adults stopped behind us on the trail, pointing out the phenomenon and taking photos. We showed them what we were doing to attract them, and one of the guys said, “Oh, I thought you were bird whisperers!” They took a turn handing the birds little bits of food and their amazed smiles were so fun to see.
Refreshed in body and spirit by our encounter with the birds, we hit the trail once again and were delighted to find out that we had made our way out of the rocky section. Further down into the treeline we descended, and the path became more like a regular hiking trail. We settled into a rhythm, trying to ignore our tiring knees and feet while we talked.
Although we were grateful for the more gradual descent of the Jewell Trail, the closed in trail didn’t afford the glimpses of grandeur that had fed our eyes on the way up. When a couple from the group we had met while feeding the birds earlier caught up to us, we learned we weren’t the only ones who felt the trail was a little uninspiring. “The other way, you got to see the view, but this is just trees!” the young man exclaimed in his Norwegian accent.
Dusk sifted down through the trees, and with every step we were more eager to get off the trail before dark. We passed a slightly older couple who were going at a slower pace than we were, and looking tired out. We asked them if they needed any help, but they said they’d be all right.
Finally, through the trees we could see the train, just across a small stream. We picked our way across on the rocks, joking at how unfortunate it would be to survive the whole day, only to fall in the stream at the very end of the hike. We all made it across and up the bank on wooden steps, and onto the pavement.
We had made it to the top of Mt. Washington and back!! We celebrated as much as our tired bodies would allow, and made our way to the tourist center for a bathroom break. The sun was setting beautifully, putting the cherry one top of our wonderful day. After exploring the gift shop (Tip: if you ever go to Mt. Washington, the gift shop at the bottom near the Cog Railway has much better souvenirs than the gift shop at the top), and a map filled with pins showing the worldwide locations from whence visitors to Mt. Washington come, we went back to the car. We were tired, hungry, and sore, but oh so very happy at the incredible experience that God gave us. It was an amazing day.