Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to hike for so long because I’ve been struggling with stress reactions in my shins from last ski season. Injuries are so frustrating when all you want to do is be on top of a mountain. Ugh! In the meantime, I’ve decided to recall a hike from last summer when I was forced to turn around and play it smart.
Is it still considered a summer hike if the wind is 40 mph above treeline, you are hiking in a cloud, are wet and cold, and have to turn back .5 miles from the summit because you are afraid of freezing to death? Is it considered summer if you are scrounging in your pack for layers, hating yourself for not bringing gloves, and hunkering down behind large rocks for protection from the wind? Did I mention this hike was done in mid-July, on a day that was 80 degrees at base-level? We even left the dog behind because we were afraid she would overheat on such a hot day. We lathered up in sunscreen. I brought my Cold Pal sweat towel. We started early to avoid hiking in the midday heat. Yup, the weather can change in an instant above the treeline, especially in the Presidential’s.
This would be my second time hiking Mt. Jefferson and this hike would be my first repeat hike after finishing my 4,000 footers. It had rained the night before so the rocks were slick and the tree branches were dripping steadily. Slugs had come out in the rain, and crowded over the rocks, roots, and dirt of the trail. Last time I hiked Jefferson, it was a bit frosty.
This time I was excited to take a new route up so I could red-line the trail. The trail started gradually getting steeper as it went on. My last several hikes involved long stretches of flat at the beginning and then going up, so starting to go up directly from the start was a bit surprising for me. This was not some 17 mile gradual trek but a steep climb up to the towering Presidentials.
As we hiked up, wet bushes crowded the path and soaked us as we pushed past them. With tree pee in addition to our sweaty shirts, we quickly became drenched. Though I was wet, I was so hot, and was looking forward to a windy relief above the treeline, which I could hear thrashing through the treetops above. As we gained more altitude, the trees thinned and we could feel some muted breeze. I took a break for a quick snack of trail mix, but as soon as I stopped I was quickly chilled by the wind and pulled a light sweatshirt over my athletic tee. My dad and I both started to become nervous of climbing above the treeline in such brutal weather. He was sweatier than I was, so the wind felt even colder to him. We hiked for what seemed like miles after that break, waiting to reach the treeline. As we hiked, I tried hitting the wet branches with my poles to shake off as much water as I could before I walked through them, but that was ineffective. My fingers were becoming numb, so I wrapped my sweatshirt sleeves around them. Finally, the trees became shrubs and our shelter melted away.
As soon as I stepped above the treeline, my body automatically took a deep gasp of breath, like I do when stepping into a freezing shower or jumping into cold ocean water. I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through my veins as I leaned forward into the extreme wind. We were immersed in a wet, cold cloud and I could only see a few yards of the rocky trail ahead of me. We were wearing all the layers we brought, yet I was dying for more. I had my sweatshirt over my tee, and my dad had a light windbreaker over a long-sleeve. I expected my journey above treeline to be hot and exposed to the sun. The sweatshirts were just backup in case of unexpected weather. Clearly, we didn’t have enough. But, we had come so far and needed to get to the top. My shoelace was too tight and bruising my ankle, but it was too cold to stop and retie a shoe. I wish I had pictures, but there was no way I was stopping in the wind and exposing my hand. We had to plow forward, climbing up the rocks. I was exhausted. We were waiting for the turnoff to the peak, but each sign we passed by was for a different trail. At last, we had to stop to consult the map, so we hid from the wind behind the largest rock and crouched into balls.
We had left from our house in Bethel, Maine, so we had to bring the much less reliable map we keep up there. It seemed to be missing trails and we were very confused about our location. My dad estimated we were a half mile from the peak and that the sign we were waiting for was just a bit further up. But, as I was curled up in the tiny cave underneath this boulder, I was absolutely freezing. I needed the single windbreaker we had. My dad took it off to give to me, but without it, he could not go on. Together, we decided that we needed to turn around. Even if we only had one extra mile up and back, it would be the hardest mile of the hike. We still had to go down all the way we had come up to get back to the cover of the trees, and there was no way we could have made it given the wet state we were in and the amount of clothes we had. With the wind to our backs, we descended as quickly as we could. I was so upset that we were so close but couldn’t finish. I worked so hard to get all the way up here, but we just could not make the final push to the peak. The wind and clouds died a little as we neared the trees, so we were able to snap a quick picture:
Under the shelter of the trees, we were still cold as we ate our sandwiches. Maybe it was because they were exposed to a rough journey, or maybe it was because we felt defeated and were angry, but the sandwiches were gross and we only ate half.
It was a slow and rocky descent. The trail we were hiking down was definitely steeper than the trail we had come up. We almost missed the turnoff for The Link, which was so overgrown that it looked like nobody had hiked it in months. Towards the end, the terrain eventually flattened out. What we had thought would be an 8 mile hike ended up being roughly 11 miles (the map we had did not have mile markers). I was disappointed that we did not get to the top, but we had to play it smart. We were not prepared for what the weather had thrown at us. You have to pick and choose the days to hike above the treeline, and this was not one of those days. There’s a reason they always have that scary sign when you are nearing the treeline on some mountains. (I am including a picture for those who are not familiar).
This was my second time ever having to turn around on a hike. Both were weather related. I did not get my ice cream sandwich (our tradition after hiking 4,000 footers), but I did get to go on a nice “walk in the woods” and get a lot of exercise. Maybe I didn’t get to type a new date into the spreadsheet, but I did red-line a new trail, and I sure had a crazy adventure.