Rattle River Shelter, NH to the Mahoosuc Notch, ME
I spend most of my nights solitary at a shelter, a three walled lean-to in the woods. It’s usually near a water source, like a stream or pond and has a privy (an outhouse). Sometimes they’re very basic in style, sheltered in trees, away from the chaos of the elements. Other times they are perched atop a scenic vista, still sheltered, depending on which direction the wind is blowing of course, and offer a great vista.
I woke at the Gentian Pond Shelter, one that offered a great view of the mountains. The morning light warmed the horizon, and I was out the front door, figuratively speaking, by 6:15am. The first songbird sung an hour earlier, and enough light to hike without a headlamp was just shy of 6am.
Today was a big day, a series of climbs and then the traverse of the infamous Mahoosuc Notch, the hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail.
First I climbed to the summit of Mount Success, 3,565 feet. It was a cold, brisk morning, with scenic views at the top. I realized on the descent, however, that my Black Diamond Climbing Crampons had worn down significantly over the last five days. So much so that I was now sliding unpredictably down the steep, icy trail. I tried swinging from trees and tried to avoid too many falls. By the time I reached a turn off to the Mount Success Trail, my pace had slowed to no more than 1mph, and my rear-end was bruised and battered.
I had a series of additional climbs ahead, before descending down to the Mahoosuc Notch. The notion of climbing up and down Mount Carlo and the Goose Eye Mountains seemed a dangerous task now that my crampons weren’t effective, so I decided to drop down the Success Trail, walk a logging road (CDT Style!!!), and then rejoin the AT using the Notch Trail. It added miles, but avoided the icy slopes, and let me tell you, I loved the spontaneity! And I yearned for the desert of my next thru-hike! I can’t wait for walking through the hot, dry desert of the Continental Divide Trail. Bring on the sunburn! Bring on the 30-mile waterless stretches!
But here I was, ascending the Notch Trail back to the Appalachian Trail and the Mahoosuc Notch. As soon as I reached the trail junction, elevation 2,400 feet, the terrain was coated in snow, a blue sky above. The notch in winter, without a doubt, is an intimidating feat. I was nervous entering the boulder field, which was covered in snow, a billowy mass of bumps. What challenges would I encounter, I wondered? Is this even possible? Am I risking my life?
You see, the notch poses a challenge even for hikers in the summer. Ice can lurk in hidden, shaded crevasses all year long. Boulders the size of refrigerators and SUV’S are perched, balanced on one another. The route is marked with blazes on the rocks, helping hikers navigate the most navigable route. In winter, most blazes are covered. It’s a fend-for-yourself experience. To get through, I swung like Tarzan using the trees at route’s edge. It was too risky to venture into the middle, where the depth of snow could be knee-high, thigh-high, or worse. A few years ago a moose fell down one of the slick, icy crevasses and died. It rotted there until the hiker season began, which will be at least another month, even two months, from now. I avoided the icy chutes at all cost.
It was slow moving, and at times required back tracking. Occassionally I’d descend into a cave, a white blaze painted on the walls. I’d take rest inside, a cold, dark place, but safe from falling down through the unsteady snowpack. By the end of the notch, there was two, maybe three feet of water at the bottom of the boulders. Dirt-smeared icebergs posed a new challenge as they looked like rocks, but weren’t rocks, and instead of finding any ease to rock hop through the last leg of the notch, I returned to the trees, swinging away from branch to branch. I got my upper body workout, that’s for sure.
Once through, I was relieved. I made it. I survived the notch. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking, and I’m glad to have experienced it. Immediately after, I climbed 1,600 feet up the Mahoosuc Arm. Another day of work. Another day of endless challenge. Just another day thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in winter.