In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, trees shrink and bend against the weather as they struggle to live at 6,000 feet. Lichen and short grass grow in desperation below the relentless wind. Tuckerman Ravine is one of the hardest trails in New England and it rewards hikers with unobstructed views for every difficult foot step to the summit of Mt. Washington. I haven’t seen it by the power of my own feet since I was a kid. The trail begins as a raw, rocky trail that cuts a wide path through the trees. You must hop and lunge with careful balance as you weave your way over the hills leading up to the mountain from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
Johnny Null and I were distracted by the friendly hellos of passing hikers when suddenly the canopy opened up to a breathtaking view of the mountain before us. We hiked 2.4 miles to Hermit Lake Shelter in good time, although not good enough to get one of the three tent platforms available. Luckily there was plenty of shelter space, they can accomidate over 80 people in total. The three-sided shelters are scattered around Hermit Lake between large boulders and mossy landscape. To walk to our chosen shelter we had to pass by a foreboding view of the bowl, a scoop in the side of the mountain from which a large waterfall seemed to mysteriously flow. A steep cliff and patterns of pine trees were the backdrop to this vast landscape. This was where the trail would take us the following day.
We tried to guess which trail of rocks would take us to the top and talked until our headlamps were needed to move. I am not a child on this mountain now. I share it with my true love. He encourages me to write in my journal, as I always do when I am out in the wilderness, because it is where I feel most at home. I think about how hard the last couple of years have been and how real love can sneak up on you when you least expect it but I write about how Johnny makes me feel. I also write about what this adventure means to me, how being on a mountain always erases doubt and sadness within me. His eyes told me everything, what this was like for him, how it made him feel.
The air began to chill and we sat closer under the moon as it shimmered through the trees behind us. Once we wandered back to camp, sleep came easily. The rush of the waterfall distracted me from any other thoughts. Only the occasional owl or shifting of our shelter-mates broke through the roar. This place is sacred to me.
It was warm and windy in the predawn hours. Our meals were such a feast on this trip that I found my wish to eat more drew me out of the tent around 6:30am, not to mention the draw of unknown terrain. We packed up and moved to a tent platform, pulled down our bear bag and ate breakfast.
The 1.8 miles to the summit are rough and mostly barren rock. Ceaselessly ascending, the trail pulled us into the bowl along the wild waterfall we listened to all night. The bowl brought us to the foot of the cliffs known as the headwall. Tiny waterfalls embrace their freedom as they thrust themselves off of it. The sun is captured in every drop and amplified against the amber clay and scraggly plants.
After a wet climb, we reached the top of the headwall. The wind picked up and we stopped to eat trail mix and put on a warmer layer of clothes. Throngs of people climbed past us toward the summit over large rocks covered with bright green and dark brown swirls of lichen. There were few clouds in the sky and we could see the blue silhouettes of all the surrounding mountains.
Our muscles pushed against the dropping oxygen. The summit was hidden except for the occasional glimpse of a metal spire. Rock piles, called cairns, guided us on the right path. We stopped to breathe at each one and occasionally added a small rock so that they will reach tall, continuing to guide hikers and skiers in the coming winter. Soon, we could hear cars and as we came to a road, we saw that the summit was bustling with people who had come to take in the beautiful view by car, train or foot.
Even though we were cold, now that we had stopped moving, we waited in line at the summit sign to get our hard-earned picture. Inside the observatory we enjoyed homemade beef jerky and talked with some northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. The hiker area downstairs was restful. After we made our way back to the trail we were happy to say good bye to the bustling summit and retrace our steps to secluded Hermit Lake. We celebrated our climb by finishing a bar of chocolate and laughing about how the trail was not as hard as we thought. We had an animal adventure, but I will leave that for Johnny to tell you about in his next entry, but it was a first sighting for both of us.
Despite our exhaustion, we made time to look at the hundreds of pictures we had taken. Night fell and we didn’t stay up to watch the stars. The wind howled down the bowl and rattled our tent all night, but we slept warm and cozy. It was such an honor to be able to take Johnny Null on his first backpacking trip, seasoned day hiker that he is, because he has given me so much since our friendship began years ago. I love watching friends fall in love with backpacking. When they wake up and you can see that glow that says “Can we do this again?”
The next morning we packed up and took a last look at the morning reflected in Hermit Lake. Time flies in the mountains, hiking back down through the rocky corridor seemed to take no time at all. We talked of conquering Devil’s Path next year together. I felt my sense of hope returning from the awful long vacation it had taken. My body wasn’t sore like it usually is on day three with a backpack. I ate different on this trip and my mindset was different; I didn’t come here to escape. I didn’t have to conquer any great demons on this mountain. It was just filled with joy.
The sun shined so bright all weekend that it could not have been a more enjoyable adventure. Tuckerman Ravine Trail was open and straight forward. In good weather it is challenging but not defeating. In bad weather it is only for the most experienced hikers. I would also make the suggestion that it is probably not suitable for kids under 10 years old. If you plan on hiking the whole trail in one day, begin early because it is a difficult 9 miles in total and will take longer than you think. Make sure you have the right gear too. Weather can change in an instant on the mountain and we saw many people wearing jeans, with no jackets, who were unprepared if they were hit with an unexpected storm or an injury forced them to spend the night at higher elevation.
If you are interested in having your own adventure, there are many trails up Mt. Washington and a few options for spending the night on the mountain as well, including Hermit Lake Shelter and Lake of The Clouds Hut. You also have the option to drive the Mt. Washington Auto Road or take the Cog Railway, if you are not inclined to travel by foot. Here is a topographic map of the area, more geared toward skiing but it will give you a quick peek at the terrain. More detailed maps are available for purchase…map 1, map 2 (the one I used because I didn’t have time to order, I cut out the insert that gave a close up of Mt. Washington)
More pictures and stories coming soon including Mt. Washington in Macro and how to make delicious, cold trail coffee.