“It should be a good hike,” he says, with the usual confidence that is a sure sign that I’m about to get in over my head. How bad can it be? Im not the most experienced backpacker that ever walked the earth, but I’ve climbed 4000 footers before. Its not Everest, no biggie.
As I stand there at the base of Mt Whiteface looking up, studying the contours of the ridge and comparing it with the map, it occurs to me that we were in for a long afternoon. “Its just 3000 feet of elevation,” I tell myself. I decide to further delude myself into thinking that the 50 pound pack on my back wasn’t really THAT heavy, and besides, it’ll get lighter as I drink more water. Don’t be a wuss, let’s get moving.
We start down the scenic dirt road that leads to the trail head. Passing the Squirrell Bridge on our left as we approach a gate leading to a farm. The sign saying “Hikers Welcome” invites us into the beginning of the climb. We make a left over the bridge leading to Blueberry Ledge Trail and after a gradual increase in elevation, we get our first taste of whats in store. A steep 45 degree grade greets us. I dig my poles in and propel this 50 pound heavier, precariously balanced version of myself forward.
It went on like that for sometime, until we came upon a, no kidding, babbling brook. This seemed like a good (and only) place to refill as much water as we could. We dropped our packs, had a quick snack and went about getting the water refilled. After a few minutes respite, we geared up and pressed on.
The trail was winding and steep as we negotiated further up the mountain. Boulders and loose brush made navigating upwards challenging. I referenced the map and checked it against the gps and saw that we were nearing the Blueberry Ledge Cutoff. This is the first opportunity we were going to get to catch a view of the valley, and a small indication of how far we’ve traveled. About a third of the way up, and still plenty of work left to do. I stopped to enjoy the view for a moment and was reminded why we were there. The view from the top was going to be fantastic.
I lurch forward and it occurs to me that climbing this mountain, or any for that matter, with all this gear, was really a contest of wills. The mountain doesn’t want me here, which is evident by its challenging nature, and I want to get to the top. Someone had to prevail. At this point, there was plenty of opportunity to retreat to the comfort and relative safety of the car, but we didn’t start this hike to give up before reaching the objective. If it were easy, everyone would do it. We were camping on the summit, not going home.
With the Ledge behind us, the hike becomes somewhat mechanical in nature. Stick, stick, move. Stop, breathe in, exhale. Stick, stick, move. Our next landmark is the intersection of Blueberry Ledge and Tom Wiggin Trail. To me, the TW trail represents the point of no return. After that point, the trail gets steeper and rockier, and there really is no turning back. We finally reach the intersection, and stop for lunch. We drop packs and I rest a moment on a downed tree. I fetch a PB&J out of my pack and have some water. From this position we have a pretty good view of the summit. There’s a large bare ledge that we’ll have to negotiate, to reach the smaller ledge above it.
Onward. Stick, stick, move.
We pass a groups of hikers on their way down from the summit. “Not far,” they tell, us. “Its not bad from here. Mostly rock scrambling.” We help them take a couple photos, exchange well wishes, and move on. “Rock scrambles?” I thought. That’s not going to be easy with all this weight. I was starting to feel the fatigue creeping in as we moved on. We get to the first ledge and I see what we’re in for, steep slopes of bare rock face, with little in the way of traction or hand holds. Its precarious, but it works.
The next ledge reveals the remains of what used to be a ladder. “What idiot took this thing out,” I think to myself. What the ledge lacks in a ladder it makes up for in old bolt holes, just the right size for a trekking pole. So with my right I stick the pole in, and attempt to stabilize myself as I negotiate this increasingly tricky climb.
We overcome this small obstacle and are next met with an actual rock face, maybe ten feet in height. Not really an issue with less weight and fatigue but in my current state of weight and wear, it posed a bit of a challenge. I hand my poles up to my partner and finagle my way up and over the top. He decides that this is a good place to stop for his lunch. I’m more than happy to take a break. I drop my pack and find a shady spot to rest.
At this point I’m noticing that I’m feeling pretty beat up. Thoughts of quitting are beginning to invade my head. “Just turn around and this will be over in no time,” they taunt. I was tired, dehydrated, and ready to throw in the towel.
Wait, dehydrated? Dude, you’ve got 5 liters of water. Thats ELEVEN pounds. How could you possibly be dehydrated?
You see, the babbling brook we stopped at, what seemed like a lifetime ago, was the only available water on the hike, and what I was carrying was all I was going to have until more than halfway through the hike down tomorrow. I was so concerned about running out of water, that somewhere along the way, I stopped drinking enough. Rookie mistake. I know better than that.
My partner finishes his lunch and is ready to go. My energy waning, I heave my pack up on my shoulders and forge ahead. “We’re sleeping on the top,” I tell myself ,”Move.”
My pace had significantly slowed. Each step presented an effort. Each ledge we had to climb over, became increasingly difficult. At one point, as I stop to regain my composure, my partner looks down at me and for the first time, expresses some concern. “We’ve gotta hustle up, bud,” he says. I look up and while I contain the four letter words I was thinking, I tell him I’m on my way. As we encounter more ledges to climb over he starts to offer assistance. “I’ve got it,” I tell him as we mount ledge after ledge, refusing to accept any help. Each scramble gets me closer to the top, closer to my tent, and to the end of this surprisingly difficult hike. I was getting this done on my own.
And then, as if by miracle, we find the top. From ahead of me I hear,”Dude, get up here. You’ve gotta see this.” I round the corner, to find my partner on the summit overlooking the valley. The TriPyramids off to our left and Winnipesaukee way out in front, it truly is a beautiful day.
Camp gets set up with the usual ease, and I take my chair out to the face to drink some much needed water and enjoy the view. As I explore the summit, I find a plaque bolted on the face that reads:
Louis S. Tainter
In the acquisition of lands
For this national forest he rendered
A notable service and in conformity to his wish
His ashes repose herein
Hell of a guy that Louis Tainter. Hell of a guy.