My First Time Hiking Mt. Washington, New Hampshire
January 1, 1970
by Bree Poulin
Right in front of me was the fabled “Halfway House”, a place I had only heard about in stories before now. According to my Dad, it was more like three-fourths of the way up, instead of half, but I didn’t know for sure. I turned around to look behind me at the cragged rock path I had just stumbled up. My father was still behind me, huffing through his teeth and a collar of sweat turning the grey shirt around his neck two shades darker. Past his head, I saw the valleys of the mountains and the land below where we had begun our trek. I felt like a goddess up in the clouds looking on her land below.
Preparing to Climb
I still remember the first time I hiked Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I was 16 years old, and I had just graduated a week-long police training run by the Connecticut state police and the American Legion.
I grew up hearing my father talk about Mt. Washington; how he and his four other siblings would hike up with his parents and have lunch at the top every few years. How he had done the grueling- yet satisfying hike more times than he could count. And now, after having spent a week being yelled at by State Troopers and performing 4 am physical training with the twenty-three other members of my class, I was ready to take on another challenge.
I told my father I was ready to take on the hike, and within a few weeks, we were standing on the ground looking up at the impossibly tall mountain we were about to spend our day climbing.
I second-guessed my decision halfway through walking up the hill from the parking lot to the bathrooms of the Cog Railway visitor center. We (just my father) decided to start our trek on the west side of the mountain at the Cog Railway Station in Mount Washington, New Hampshire. Throughout the years, my father had always hiked the mountain following the same trails; the Ammonoosuc Trail going up, and the Jewel Trail going down. And that’s how we planned on forging up again today. Our first mission was to find the trailhead, located at the back of the visitor center. We spent about ten minutes searching for it in our sleep deprived states (neither of us had had our morning coffee yet) before finding it set back a bit into the woods.
I was a tad apprehensive. Here I was, about to hike one of the largest mountains on the east coast! I needed a moment to appreciate the gravity of the mission I had set myself on to do. However, my father disagreed with that sentiment.
“Alright let’s go. We’re wasting daylight. Let’s start this crap before our mind’s wake up and figure out what the –bleep- we’re doing.”
I started walking.
The Ascent on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail
The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is about 4.5 miles long and begins on the western side of the mountain. After the first mile-or-so of hiking up a decently steep, dirt path, we came across a waterfall set into the stone mountainside. When we arrived, there was a couple sitting on one of the rocks, letting their feet dangle into the shallow pool at its base. A golden retriever, I can only assume was their dog, was loafing around happily in the water beside them. The scene was delightful. Behind me, my dad huffed.
“This is where it starts getting tough.” My father warned me. His face was already red with exertion, and a thin sheen of sweat made his arms and neck shine. I could feel my own pulse pounding under my skin. The bit we just did wasn’t tough? He must’ve sensed my question, or read my raised eyebrow because he answered before I had a chance to express my concern out loud.
“Get ready to climb some stairs. It’s straight up to the top from here.”
He wasn’t wrong. For the rest of the way up, we climbed steep, stone stairs set into the side of the mountain and angled rock faces that were slippery even when dry. As we climbed, I started to notice the trees getting shorter and shorter, until eventually there were no trees at all- just the open air at our backs. The end of the tree line is where the incredible views began. I could see the jagged edges of the neighboring mountains that slipped down into valleys. I saw the way the sun reflected off of stone faces, set into the hillsides. I was mystified. By this time though, it was around 12 noon and the need to keep moving was ever present. It would take us four hours to climb up, and another four hours to climb back down, plus whatever time we spent exploring at the top.
For the rest of the way up to the “Halfway House”, I turned back as much as I could to see how the world was unfolding out below me.
The Lakes of the Clouds Hut
The Lakes of the Clouds Hut stands at approximately 5000 ft elevation and rests around two-thirds up the mountain; Making its nick-name the Halfway House, well, bologna. However, it’s actual name, refers to the pools of water that collect in little basins around this part of the mountain. By the time I saw it’s slanted wooden roof, my legs ached, and my throat was beginning to hurt by how cold the air had become at these new heights. Stated simply, I was exhausted.
My dad wasn’t doing too well either. He was stumbling behind me a bit and he was grumbling something under his breath about how it sucks to get old. I wasn’t listening. My own breath was too loud in my ears to really listen anyway. I found the doorway to the hut and stumbled in to find a seat on one of the many picnic tables inside. I had made it this far, and I was going to feast on the single Cliff Bar that I had carried in my pocket up the mountain with me from the bottom. And darn it, was it going to be delicious.
We only stayed at the hut for a half hour before continuing. As always, the sun moving steadily across the sky held us accountable.
As promised, my dad and I passed a few of the mountain lakes on the rest of the way to the summit. I only took a few seconds to appreciate the stillness of the surface, and how the clouds above reflected off its glass-like surface, before allowing my mind to ponder other things; like, how refreshing it would be to jump in it? Or, how much will my legs hurt tomorrow?
It was only a little bit over a mile to the Summit but that was easily the hardest part of the climb. By that point, my legs were already exhausted and my spirit had been lost somewhere back near the halfway house in the garbage can with my Cliff bar wrapper. Which, also consequently reminded me of how hungry I was.
During this final trek, I kept my hand firmly wrapped around the challenge coin I had received at my American Legion Youth Week police training graduation a few weeks before. I kept hearing Trooper First Class Scott’s words bellow in my head, “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter!” He always used this in context with morning PT and any other physically strenuous thing those blue and gold demon’s had us do. This time, however, I was silently cursing him out in my head. I DO mind, actually, so the pain in my legs and the growing pit in my stomach does matter!
All of my hostility died away the second I put a spoonful of hot chili in my mouth in the visitor center at the top. To this day, I still have never had a more delicious chili. It warmed all my bones and magically transformed me back into a happy hiker.
My dad and I did our due diligence at the top of the mountain, taking our picture with the Mt. Washington summit sign and marveling at the view from the top of the world. From here, the clouds made curious shapes on the mountainsides, and the sun shone down in beams through the breaks in the clouds.
To this day, I will only go to the top of Mount Washington if I climb it. I refuse to take the Cog Railway or the Auto Road because I want to earn that view. I think the best way to truly appreciate the beauty and freedom at the top of a mountain, whether it be metaphorical or literal, is to struggle on the way up.
The Descent on the Jewel Trail
The Jewel Trail is a more scenic journey of Mt. Washington. From the start, we traveled down the path along the very edge of a cliff off the mountain. A wrong step or a hefty gush of wind easily could’ve sent us on an unexpected skydiving adventure. But we took our time, picking our footfalls carefully and not taking any unnecessary chances.
For a short way, the trail even follows along beside the Cog Railway. We took a short stop in order to take a few artsy pictures on the tracks and wave to the tourists heading up on the train before continuing on our merry way. I will say, going down the mountain is a lot less exerting than hiking up, however, it is a lot harsher on the joints. Born and blessed to a family with bad knees, I felt the strain rather early on in the decent. The continuous stepping down and harsh impact on the ground below did not bode well for my body, but it was easier to ignore than the sweat dripping down my back on the way up.
It took us close to four hours to hike all the way back down. We both fell into a comfortable silence, each us focused more on putting one foot in front of the other and getting back to the car before the sunset. The way down was honestly just uneventful. My mind was lost in the clouds still, already reminiscing about the top of the mountain and the liberating feeling of the air, and my dad was humming something by ACDC. We were both pretty content.
Getting back into the truck at the bottom was surreal. In a matter of close to 10 hours, we had climbed and descended Mt Washington. In the driver’s seat, my father was swearing that that was the last time he would ever climb the mountain. In his words, he was getting too old for this. But for me, it was only my first time, and I was hooked. I vowed to climb it at least once every summer and carry on the tradition of my dad’s family.
The following summer, my dad broke his vow and climbed Mt. Washington once more with his brother (my uncle), my cousin and me. The summer after that, I hiked it with my partner, Aaron. As of today, I have climbed Mt. Washington three times, and I am already looking forward to a few months in the future when I can once again ascend its heavenly heights. Every time I reach the summit, I am amazed all over again for the opportunity to see such a breathtaking masterpiece of mother nature, and it makes me thankful that I am able to make this journey just like my father and my family has done before me. Nothing humbles me more than standing on the top of such a mighty mountain, and I urge everyone in the United States and the world to share in that feeling of freedom.