Monday, February 28, 2011

Once Upon a Time…I Hated Hiking! My Hike Up Mount Washington, Aug. 25, 1998

I’ve hiked Mount Washington once. This was back in August of 1998, only a couple days before I started my freshman year at UNH. It was a tough experience for me and I can recall, for many years after hiking “The Rock Pile”, I never wanted to set foot in the White Mountains again! Let me fill you in on what I remember…try not to laugh at me too hard!

I guess it all started the night before we hiked. Let me give you a little background. It was our (my high school friends and I) last summer before we were all split up to attend the colleges of our choice. If I recall correctly, my buddy, Dave, wanted to do something memorable and epic before we left. He chose the task of climbing Mount Washington. He had recruited my other good friends Kevin and James to make the trek with him. In high school, all three of these guys were varsity track stars (and I was far from it…I was a wrench head, working on cars, rather than an athlete). The four of us were hanging out and Dave asked if I wanted to join them on a hike to the summit of Mount Washington. I recall asking where it was…yes, that’s right, I didn’t even know where it was. He told me a few hours up north and continued to explain that it was the “highest point east of the Mississippi, north of the Carolinas”, a phrase that has stuck in my head for the last 13 years, and one I still use to describe the mountain today. He also told me about the weather and that it was not a hike to be taken lightly. I, being ignorant all together about the White Mountains, simply responded “sure, what time are we heading out in the morning?” How hard could it be, right? I grew up in South Hampton and my Dad owned over forty acres of woods and trails (all flat trails), I figured I hiked those all the time. Boy was I in for the surprise of my life!

On the day of the hike, I dressed in what I thought was adequate attire. I wore a pair of Vietnam era jungle pants, Nike sneakers and a short sleeve cotton tee-shirt (fatal mistake number 1…cotton shirt). In the event it got a little chilly, I brought along a very thin Reebok windbreaker. If my choice of clothing didn’t clue you in that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, let me tell you what I brought along for nourishment. My small knapsack contained two small, 16oz. bottles of water, a tuna fish sandwich and a granola bar, and that’s it! (fatal mistake number 2…not enough food and water)

Dave picked us all up around 6 am. We hit Dunkin’ Donuts in Amesbury before making our way onto Route 95. As predicted, it took us about two hours to make our way up to the Conway area. I remember thinking the mountain landscape was quite impressive. I had only seen the White Mountains once before in the fourth grade for a field trip. I recall thinking, “wow, these things look pretty high”, but I don’t recall being nervous about hiking Mount Washington at all. I remember thinking that this will just be a walk in the woods.

As we pulled into the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center across from Wildcat, we wasted no time finding the trailhead for the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Right way, the trail started climbing moderately and I remember saying, “is the trail going to be like this the whole way?” Dave just laughed and said something to the extent of, “Karl, it’s a mountain, of course it’s going to be uphill the whole way!” At that point, approximately ten minutes into our trek, I feared I had made a huge mistake.

The first couple miles below tree line seemed like ten. I was falling behind my friends constantly and as I tried to keep up with them (did I mention they were high school varsity track stars…just making sure I mentioned that), I was making myself nauseous and I was out of breath. With every step, the scenery looked the same to me, trees, trees and more trees! As groups of hikers passed, I wondered what the fascination was with climbing a hill, just to turn around and climb back down again. For heaven sake, there’s even a road that goes to the top of this one…why the hell am I hiking up it?

After a grueling couple miles, we came to an opening with a small building which I think was the Hermit Lake Shelter. It’s been so long, that I can only assume that’s what it was. Dave informed us that we were halfway to the summit (in mileage) and my jaw dropped. “How is that even possible?” I thought to myself. I definitely thought we were most of the way there at this point. I was worn out and beat. I didn’t want to keep going. My friends, however, encouraged me and said that I could do it. We stopped for a moment to have a snack and some water. I downed most of my water supply (probably 25 oz. of my 32 oz. I had brought along) at that stop and tried to force down a candy bar. I can recall that being nauseous, I didn’t want to eat anything but knew I had to, to build some energy. I also remember looking in at my tuna fish sandwich and thinking, “There’s no way in hell I’m eating that thing”. In hindsight, I think tuna was a bad choice for a hot day on Mount Washington!

After resting, we all got up and hit the trail again. We hung a right and headed up Lion Head Trail. This trail was different than the trail we had just completed before our break. I remember the trees got a bit small and the trail got a bit steeper. As we climbed up, nausea came back and I had again hit a mental wall. I had no desire to be there and I’m sure my attitude showed it. As we made it above tree line, I recall looking behind me and seeing the Wildcat Ridge. It was beautiful. However, I wouldn’t acknowledge it because I was convinced I was having a horrible time. To the left of us was Tuckerman Ravine and that was quite the impressive site as well. I’m not sure any good views could have got me out of the mental and physical funk I had fallen into.

As we continued on, I could see the top (or what I thought was the top). We had pushed above tree line and had emerged into a giant pile of rocks. Some larger than others and required us to do a bit of hand-over-hand climbing. Being able to see the top gave me the energy I needed to get there. We kept moving and the top got closer. Then, just when we were able to peak over what we thought was the top; there stood another huge pile of rocks. I remember that this defeated me mentally. I told my friends to leave me there so I could rest, and I would catch them on the way back down (fatal mistake number 3…don’t request to be left on the side of Mount Washington by yourself). I remember Dave looking at me and saying, “We’re not going to leave on the side of Mt. Washington, Karl, that’s how people die!” I didn’t care though, I just needed to stop. If I did make it to the top, how would I even have enough energy to make it back down?

We pressed on over the huge pile of rocks. Each time we made it over one, another appeared. This happened for what seemed like an hour or so. Also, the wind picked up…I couldn’t believe it, but I was cold. My sweat covered, cotton tee-shirt (see fatal mistake number 1) was giving me chills from the wind. I put my wind breaker on, but it wasn’t much of a layer and didn’t provide much warmth. Finally, we hit the top. Buildings and cars in the parking lot were insight. I was very happy we could stop hiking up, but I was still concerned about making it down. The long row of stairs at the summit was a killer at this point. I remember standing in line to touch the summit marker, and getting mad at families who had just driven up. I felt as though hikers should get the right of passage of the summit marker…of course, I was in a crappy state of mind at this point! :)

This is the one picture I have of me on Mount Washington in 1998. It was taken
with a crappy, disposable camera. I think it was taken just over Tuckerman
Ravine...but proves I was there...even though development came out horrible!

Once inside the building, I got some food, sat down and relaxed. My friends walked around and did exactly what folks should do when they summit…checked out the scenery, visited the gift shop, etc. Me, I sat in the cafeteria and tried to devise a plan to get down…either by car or maybe by train. After about an hour on the summit, Dave rounded us up and said it was time to move out. The clouds had rolled in making the summit look quite spooky and the temperature was dropping a bit.

The four of us exited the summit on the same trail we came in, however, decided to descend via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail the entire way. The food at the summit and the fact that we were descending rather than ascending gave me a new found energy. I recall Kevin and I practically running down the trail and left James and Dave in the dust (fatal mistake number 4…don’t run down Mt. Washington wearing Nikes, it’s a good way to break an ankle). At one point on the descent, I remember stopping at a fast moving brook or waterfall. Since I was out of water, I took a sip and remember thinking it must be the cleanest water around (fatal mistake number 5…don’t drink unfiltered or untreated water from a brook unless you want to risk getting a bad pathogen!).

We made it off Mount Washington that day. I had summitted and lived to tell about it. I was sore, beat and I had blisters on my feet. Surprisingly, I wasn't even a featured news story on WMUR for being one of those ill prepared hikers. I give my friends a ton of credit for putting up with my whining and complaining a good portion of the day. And I learned that hiking Mount Washington was not a stroll in the woods. I can honestly say from that day on, I never wanted to hike another mountain ever again. From that point on, I hated hiking…of course, that was then and this is now!

I love hiking now! So what’s changed? Who knows! Maybe I just eased into it with some easier peaks which allowed me the chance to enjoy the surroundings and didn’t shock my body to the degree Mount Washington did. In the last couple years, I can honestly say that hiking the Whites has grown to be one of my favorite pastimes and I can think of few hobbies I would rather be doing. As I mentioned in a previous post, I will be revisiting Mount Washington for Seek the Peak. I will be hiking it for the first time since the journey I just described to you. It’s been 13 years since I’ve set foot on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and I’m very much looking forward to it. However, I must say, I’m still a bit nervous because of my last experience. I think time will tell that I am finally ready to hike this great mountain and enjoy what it has to offer rather than curse it, every step of the way!!!

Karl Searl's Seek the Peak Page, Please Sponsor Me: Click Here



  1. Great story! I remember my fist summit hike...a similar story with similar mistakes only I loved it and only wanted more! I went back to the same summit less then a year later and did it right.

  2. Great story, of course I'm sure at the time it didn't seem so great. I remember my first hike. House Mountain here in Knoxville. It's nothing like the Whites or Mount Washington, I assure you, but it is a tough little hike in it's own right. The west overlook trail ascends 900 feet in less than a miles length so it can really do a number to you especially in the middle of summer. :P

    Enjoy your new experience with Mount Washington, I'm sure it will be grand. You are, after all, more experienced and will better equipped.

  3. Hi Karl, Great story, enjoyed the read. I too jumped into hiking after climbing Mt. Washington. My family has a camp in Tilton, so by 2007 I had hiked every trail up to Belknap, but in 2007, I took on Washington solo, which at the time was crazy, but now I'm thankful I took the risk, because now, with all the right gear, and being knowledgeable, its more rewarding each time I hike

  4. Awesome story Karl!! Hope you have a great hike up Mount Washington this summer!

  5. I'll even make you a tuna fish sandwich. I'm sure it will taste wonderful at the top after your trek up the mountain in the July heat!

  6. What a great story! :) I'm in love with hiking and look forward to climbing Mt. Washington one day!

  7. Great story Karl! This started off sounding like a chapter from Not Without Peril. Not unlike so many of the experiences of people going to Mt Washington for the first time. Glad that everything turned out OK back then. Now is a new time and Seek the Peak will be NOTHING like your first time. Glad I'll be there to share it with you.

  8. @MyLifeOutdoors - Steven, I'm sure the difference was you probably wanted to go hiking...I didn't at the time...not sure why. I guess I was just young. A lot has changed since then and I appreciate the mountains a lot more today.

    @Tim - Tim, 900ft in less than a mile is nothing to belittle...that a steep ascent. We have a few like that in the Whites. They can be scary, but they are so much fun! Is the one you're speaking of a slide trail?

    @Dan - You're absolutely right. I'm sure taking on MW for the first time, alone was quite an experience...and I'm sure you're a stronger hiker for it.

    @Chris - Thanks! I appreciate it!

    @Jill - Whatever hunny, love you!

    @Lovey - Thanks! When you do get around to hiking MW, it will be a day to remember.

    @Mark - Mark, that's hilarious and you're right, it does kind of sound like a chapter out of Not Without Peril! Yes, this is a new time for me and a new state of mind when it comes to tackling the Whites and MW. I can't wait until Seek the Peak! It'll be a great day!


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  10. What a great story! Your post brings back a lot of memories. I can totally relate, as Washington was my first hike back in 1995. My husband and I chose to hike it on Labor Day. I wore black athletic tights, cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt and carried a heavy wool sweater. We had to refill our water at the same place you did. We took sandwiches and homemade gorp. We headed up Tuckerman's Ravine the whole way, and I totally remember after 3 hours of hard hiking, seeing that boulder field that took us an hour to cross. Totally demoralizing!
    **edited for spelling/clarity; deleted other comment**

    What was even worse was seeing the tourists looking over from the edge of the parking lot wearing shorts and flip-flops! As if to add insult to injury a lovely, clean, well-dressed and groomed Quebec couple asked up to take their picture at the summit - they rode the Cog up. Sigh. Looks like we've both come a long way as hikers since then. I've certainly go
    t the hiking bug and will finish up the 48 this summer, Lord willing.


    (the Google account will take you to my sewing blog, not nearly as exciting as the hiking blog!)