Friday, October 6, 2017

A Tale of Two Summits: Mount Washington and Katahdin


A couple of days ago I walked up Mount Washington, New England’s highest peak. I’ve been trying to go somewhat easy on myself, looking for the longer, more gradual trails than the shorter, steeper ones, so I opted for the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which follows the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River as it cascades down from the saddle between Mount Monroe and Washington, where the Lakes of the Clouds Hut sits close enough to a couple of alpine ponds to appear to have the twin benefits of mountain access and waterfront property. 

It’s an awfully nice hike. Perhaps the frequent stops to admire waterfalls and pools made the hiking easier, keeping my pace moderate and my eyes open. In addition, we seemed to have been experiencing, by my count, our third Indian summer, and the air felt warm, and the sun shone as if it were a summer day.

As the ridge to the north became visible, I caught a glimpse of a bright, aqua-green rail car being pushed by a white engine on the Cog Railway, slowly ascending. It reminded me of my first (and probably last) hike up Mt Washington. I was in 7th or 8th grade in Massachusetts and a kindly teacher drove “The Outing Club”- probably 4 or 5 of us in all – in his VW microbus to hike up the Jewell Trail. We left when the train began its ascent, and arrived at the summit – I remember it was cool, clouded-in and blustery – just as the train arrived there. I doubt the summit that day was anything like the circus it can be, but it was enough of a glimpse that in the last 40 years or so, I’ve tended towards mountains that don’t have an auto road and a cog railway taking people to a mountaintop where they can eat in the cafeteria, shop for souvenirs and visit a museum and historical sites. For some reason today, those things didn’t hold me back.

I took a side trip up to Mt Monroe’s summit where I ate my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then continued back down to the hut (closed) and the lakes, where a group had hiked down from Washington’s summit and were posing for all manner of photos with the pond and hut behind them.

Mount Washington is obvious for miles around, not only for its height and massiveness (the mountain seems to encompass the surrounding high peaks) but also due to the various antennae and structures sprouting from its summit. Aside from taking away from the wildness of the place, the structures lend a utilitarian quality. I don’t know what all those apparatus accomplish, but they certainly look like they must be doing something important- weather instruments, whatever the observations made by the Mount Washington Observatory are. I began seeing a few people up there too, although from the trail it still felt fairly quiet until just short of the top, where, oddly, I encountered a younger couple hiking toward me, and my first thought was that all these Millenials are really starting to look the same. But then I saw that the guy recognized me as well, and remembered me as the guy who had rented kayaks to him and his buddies last week in Maine.

The wind had picked-up enough that I held my cap in my hands as I entered the summit area and encountered hordes and hordes of people. Okay- Tourists with a capital “T.” It doesn’t get much more touristy than this. Most had obviously either driven-up or taken the train, and now wandered around, mostly looking for places to take pictures of themselves, hunched against the 35-mph winds. The summit sign had a long line leading to it. Thoreau wrote something to the effect that so many climb the mountain, only to look away from it, but now they get a ride to the summit and take pictures of themselves there.

Beside the summit building a long line of people, including a bunch of Amish, the men in flat-brimmed straw hats, waited for the trains to arrive. I joined others taking photos of the engines pushing the brightly-colored cars up the last incline. Nearby, a man in a cap with big NRA letters on front (this was two days after the Las Vegas shooting, and I had to wonder if he always made this statement) stood chatting with a man in a veterans hat, loudly talking about World War II  (no, they weren’t old enough to remember it so fondly). It took some effort to push my way through the waiting line so I could get into the summit building, and I found myself really disliking people in general, remembering why I prefer most of my mountain hikes to culminate at an undeveloped summit.

I went into the summit building, bought a coffee at the cafeteria and sat down for my second PB&J. It felt a bit like a food court at an Interstate rest area, or like a ski lodge where everyone has come-in out of the elements to show-off designer ski clothing, except that when you glance out the windows you look out at clouds just barely higher. It felt dark and noisy and stuffy, but the coffee was good and I was out of the wind. I sat and wrote a few notes and then finished my coffee quickly so I could leave.

I continued north on the AT, turning-off to descend the mountain via the Jewell Trail.

A week earlier, I’d hiked up Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It was a wonderful hike, worthy of more words than I’m giving it here, but the contrasts between the two mountains are worth noting. It was my first time up Katahdin, and I’d grown a little weary of admitting that no, I hadn’t hiked up it- summers and fall had been work-time for me since I’d lived in Maine. But now that we took summers off, essentially taking a vow of poverty and more free time, here I was. It also helped that our friend Susan made the parking reservations and put us up in a hostel in Millinocket the night before.

Katahdin is in Baxter State Park, which according to the wishes of Percival Baxter, the Maine governor who created the park with his own funds and wherewithal, has a few bureaucratic hoops for us to jump through to ensure the park retains its wild nature. It would be easy to whine about having to make parking reservations, or arriving before 7 am to either claim your spot or lose it. And thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail need to secure permits to hike up Katahdin – and the park limits the number of permits it will issue.

Susan and I hiked up the Hunt Trail, the final 5.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and met a few thru-hikers as we walked, which leant a particular feeling to our hike, sharing in a momentous event for people who had imagined this day for months. 

Arrival at the summit is akin to reaching the destination of a pilgrimage. Some arrive at the iconic sign in tears. Some kiss the sign or place their forehead to it for a moment of silent meditation. Some can’t contain themselves and cry-out in joy. Everyone poses for a photo with the sign, often in configurations that have been considered for months. Everyone who arrives at this peak has put some effort into it, and there’s a feeling of camaraderie… of sharing this amazing holy place with a variety of other hikers, who may be diverse, but at least share something- they’ve all taken the trouble to get here under their own steam. People were generally quiet and respectful of each other, quick to share the experience somehow – by handing-off a camera for a snapshot, or saying ‘congratulations,’ or just quietly smiling at one another. 

Both summits are something other than just the top of a mountain. They each have cultural implications- which is to say that you get to observe some human aspect of the place. Each is interesting in its own way, and worth experiencing. And its not lost on me that there’s something good in the fact that people who might never otherwise experience a mountaintop can get out of a car or a train at the top of Mount Washington. It has been a tourist icon for maybe a century and a half, and that in itself is interesting. It is what it is. But I am so grateful that Katahdin is undeveloped. Somehow, that experience from Katahdin stays with me a little more than the one atop Mount Washington; in fact it makes it easier for me to shrug-off whatever negative feelings I might have about tourist hordes atop a place that will never again feel so special and say ‘it is what it is,’ just knowing that places like Katahdin still exist.

You may have noticed that this blog post does not involve sea kayaking or Stonington. Yup.

These routes occur nowhere in my guidebook AMC's Best Sea Kayaking in New England.

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