Climbing Mount Madison via the Mad Gulf Headwall

After signing up for an advanced hike up Mount Madison (5,367 ft), I worried whether I could keep pace with a group I suspected had quite a few rambunctious guys. Pete Osler, a leader of the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, described the 12-mile trip as a fast-paced climb over rugged terrain with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain. “This is not your mother’s hike,” he wrote in an email just before our trip on Oct. 28.

At 8 a.m., it was pushing 40 degrees F when our group of nine–seven men and two women–set out on the Madison Gulf Trail, the the sweet scent of pine filling the air. We moved at a good clip for a few miles, rock-hopped across a few relatively tame streams, then stopped at the Bluff, the first wilderness camp site on the Great Gulf Trail, to take in views of Nelson and Ball Crags. The path was muddy in places with a few few fallen logs we climbed over or crawled under.

During our gentle ascent toward the Madison Gulf Headwall, I began to lengthen my stride in an effort to keep up with Paul Bunyan aka Joe Sahl, our co-leader and tallest member of the group who was moving like a racehorse on steroids.



















At Sylvan Cascade, we had a water break before climbing up to the verdant Mossy Slide at the foot of the headwall. From there we began our scramble hand-over-hand up the boulders. As we high-stepped onto ledges and hoisted ourselves upward using whole-body strength, , our conversations were punctuated by sighs and grunts.

I got caught off guard when my calf muscles in my right leg began to cramp.  I’d taken some electrolyte tablets earlier, but was still having trouble. Our fast pace out of the shoot and my lack of hydration on the drive up was the likely cause, but there was no turning back. I took it slowly until I got relief.












Midway up the headwall, our hiking friends hollered up the vertical trail that Steve was having trouble with his boots. But Sailor Rich, we learned, was using his knot-tying skills to secure the sole that was separating from the boot.

Continuing through an area of the headwall trail that merged with a cascading brook, we moved through a cool spray of water as we scrambled yet upward. Despite our challenges, everyone made it up to the treeline at Parapet Trail, where we stopped to bask in the sun.  After a few adjustments to Steve’s failing boots, we arrived at the Madison Hut just past noontime ready for lunch.













During our ascent up Mt. Madison, wind gusts up to 30 or more mph intermittently knocked me off balance. One of my poles had jammed before the hike so I had stowed them on my pack. Instead of balancing between my poles, I lowered my stance and used my hands when necessary to steady myself on the rocks.












Soon we arrived at the summit and took in the panoramic view of the Presi [Presidential] Range with Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson and Mount Washington rising majestically above the Great Gulf Wilderness. It was remarkably clear and mild day for a late October hike.












Descending from the summit on the Osgood Trail, we traversed over huge rock piles, heads often down as we swiftly moved from one boulder to the next, trying to avoid  loose rock.












We worked up heat by the time we reached the next trail junction, so stopped to delayer before a rock outcrop that reminded us of the Dolomites in Italy.















On our final leg of the Osgood, we were making good time, but had to stop to examine a wet depression in a rock that looked to some of us like a prehistoric dinosaur track.















We arrived back at the parking around 4:30, eager to take off our boots. Steve untied one of his boot reinforcements to show off his soon-to-retire gear while the rest of us took off our boots. His boots had totally failed but we were happy the reinforcement lacing kept him from turning back. We left as a group and came back as a group with no injuries, only a few cramps.















Lessons Learned:

  • Keep in mind glue can degrade in boots you’ve stored in your closet for a few or more years
  • Hydrate well in the morning before you hike and remember coffee doesn’t count
  • Never wax or grease on your poles since it will attract grime that can jam your pole connections, rendering them useless

Photo credits: All photos by Johanna Knapscchaefer except one of the group ascending the headwall by Rich Dietz. Thank you Rich!

Posted in Hiking, Hiking in New England, New Hampshire Living, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Winter Wilderness Travel



Crunch, crunch, Crunch…

That would be the sound of our group of six trudging up a snowy hill.  It’s 9 o’clock on Saturday morning at Cardigan Lodge in snowy western New Hampshire. After a power communal breakfast, we’re practicing new crampon steps to assist while climbing icy mountain trails in high elevations or above treeline in winter.

“Shorter steps,” hollers Jim, one of our two instructors, as I adjust my stride. I focus on placing my pole before taking a step, always trying to have three points of contact to avoid slipping.

Crampons, the spiky metal stabilizers you strap on your boots for safely when navigating ice at high elevations, take time to master.  Although I’ve climbed more than a dozen New Hampshire 4,000-footers in winter with experienced winter mountaineering friends, I still want more crampon practice since many of those peaks only require microspikes, a less aggressive form of traction. I’d like to build confidence for the more exposed peaks.


After hearing about the New Hampshire Chapter’s Appalacian Mountain Club’s winter school, I decided to join the Advanced Winter Wilderness Travel workshop. It’s never too late to solidify your skills, learn new ones and review safety, especially when your life can depend on it.

The weekend program on Jan. 21 to Jan. 23 covered everything from how to pack your backpack with proper gear, to how to recognize signs of hypothermia, fun skits for practicing how to respond in an emergency, and map and compass work for bushwhacking in the wilderness.


Out on the Holt Trail, we have been  walking a half mile or so in what feels like meditative silence. Then the conversation begins. I tell Joe, the other instructor, about a rescue I helped with on the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Moosilauke (4,803 feet) in winter, when suddenly  Jim hollers from behind. “Is this the right trail?”

We check our maps and realize we have blindly followed Joe up the wrong trail. This motivates us to work as a team to avoid any other bluffs. We’re in a new mindset. Checking your route at every junction is important, especially in winter when taking a wrong turn can result in a longer hike that might have you descending in darkness when the temperature plummets.


This is one of many impromptu lessons in the woods. Our instructors explain how to manage our body heat by layering and delayering our clothing, how to efficiently pack up your gear to avoid getting cold, and how to make tough decisions about whether to turn back before summiting a mountain if the weather suddenly changes or it gets too late to safely descend before dark.

Up on a steep section of the trail we have our first chance to practice our crampon steps on thick ice. This is where we learn to trust our crampons.

“If you find yourself uncomfortable climbing down a really steep slope, try going backwards,” says Jim, leaning forward on his poles as he moves backwards using aggressive front-point steps. We practice front-pointing, the American step, side-steps, and crossover steps, getting a feel for which works best in which situation.


Then above Cardigan Lodge, we head out to the windy slopes toward the summit where we have to navigate rock and ice, carefully placing our poles with each step. It’s a little unsettling traveling across rock, some glazed with ice in fog.

“Isn’t it best to avoid the bare rock and walk through the icy areas up here?” I ask Joe.

“In New England, it’s impossible to avoid rock,” he quips.


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A Little Rain Never Hurt Anyone


Mom with my sister on a trip to St. Pierre and Miquelon, France

“A little rain never hurt anyone,” my mother always used to say when my sister, Greta, and I complained about not wanting to hike or bike on a rainy day.

“Why can’t we stay home and watch TV like everybody else?” we used to whine when our parents dragged us out rain or shine on weekends to hike in the Pine Barrens or bicycle through the countryside of Southern Jersey.

On a recent overcast Saturday morning, I thought of Mom when I decided to ride my bike to Crane’s Beach. I’d heard about a group of runners at the Ipswich Y and thought I’d try to meet up with them. It started drizzling when I arrived at the beach just past 9 o’clock and I never found the runners, who likely cancelled their run that day. Rather than run alone, I decided to join a team of volunteers for the Trustees of Reservations, picking up trash on the beach.

Out on the beach, the wind picked up and within ten minutes I felt chilled from the gusty wind and rain now steadily falling. Figuring I would work up extra heat exercising, I wore only my water resistant wind breaker and nylon wind pants. A poor decision. Rather than calling it quits, I put up my hood for warmth and sucked it up.  A little rain never hurt anyone, right?

While scouring the beach, I found a tangled ball of string from a kite, a designer ball paddle, a green plastic sprouting lid, and a plastic bag along with plastic pieces of many sizes that accumulate in unsettling abundance in our oceans causing problems for aquatic life. For an hour, I slowly walked a mile up and down the beach, beside a vast expanse of tall golden grass cowering in the wind amidst the dunes. On the mostly clean beach where waves lapped on the wet sand, I filled only a fraction of my garbage bag as a few other volunteers carried out their heavier bags.

The cleanup was scheduled until 12 noon, but the wind and driving rain chased most everyone off the beach by around 10:30. After dropping my bag at the volunteer station near the pile of other bags, I quickly gobbled a granola bar, guzzled some water, then hopped back on my mountain bike, eager to work up some heat.  As I peddled through the rain, my eyes open only a slit, I recalled the days I had spent on the back of a bike as a toddler in a rain poncho, while touring Germany and Denmark on bicycles, and later riding my own 10-speed derailleur bike in France when an occasional rainstorm sent rain dripping down my nose. Occasionally I hit puddles that sent an arc of water droplets from my front fender-less wheels up to my face and, from the back wheel, a line of gritty sand up my back.

By the time I arrived home, my hair was mostly wet despite wearing a hood under my helmet and much of my jacket and wind pants had soaked through.  Even for a dinky 15-mile ride, I pledged always to remember to take my rain gear along.  A little rain never hurt anyone, my mother always used to say, but I prefer to stay dry, especially in the cooler months!

So when was the last time you got soaked on an outdoor adventure?


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Pacing Yourself


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Preparing to Summit Mt. Garfield, Photo by Lisa Cook

Last Sunday I joined the New Hampshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club for a hike up Mt. Garfield. (4,500 ft) in the Whites. After weeks of holiday preparation and family gatherings, I was ready for a New Year’s climb! Leaders Barbara Audin and Norm Michaels originally scheduled an ascent up Lincoln (5,089 ft) and Lafayette (5,260 ft), but predictions of 55 mph or higher winds and severe cold above tree line required a last minute change of plans.

Our group of eight departed on our 12.5-trek at 7:50 a.m. in 28 degrees F after putting on microspike traction devices.  I was chilly in the parking lot, but wore only one thin layer of fleece over my hiking shirt, knowing I’d quickly work up heat on the way to the Garfield Trailhead. On past winter hikes in similar temps, I’ve set out wearing my waterproof shell and thicker fleece only to get the stink eye from hiker friends when I had to stop to delayer after the first bend in the trail.

Winter hiking is about planning ahead, keeping everything organized in your pack so you can find what you need in a flash, and avoiding delays since no one wants to get cold waiting while Joey digs for her bag of gorp that slipped into the bottom of her pack. Keeping my pack organized has never been my strong suit, but I’m improving. This time I put my snacks and lunch items in the hood of my pack (leaving out a couple items to tuck into my my pockets), rolled my jacket and rain pants before inserting them vertically next to my crampons, and stuffed my warm mitts and balaclava on top for quick access before the final climb to the summit. I even practiced putting on my crampons to avoid fumbling while my hands get cold.

On our ascent in a few inches of new powder snow covering the thick ice, we stopped on the hour for short water breaks and snacks, keeping a moderate, steady pace.

“I’m not a fast hiker, which is why I like glacier climbing,” says Barbara Crane, as I nip at her heels, wishing she’d pick up the pace in the last steep stretch before the junction with the Garfield Ridge Trail. But she tells me she’s summited Mt. Rainier so I bite my tongue and get really interested in knowing about that trip. Before long I’m moving at her steady pace grateful I’m keeping my reserve of stamina and not drenching my shirt with sweat from overexertion. The temperature is dropping into the teens and I know a wet shirt in sub-freezing temps can lead to hypothermia. Not a good idea.

Within the hour, we summit Mt. Garfield where the stunted fir trees look like they are covered with thick white cake frosting. Those of us wearing crampons sidestep about 60 ft on an icy ledge toward the foundation of an old fire tower at the summit.  With hand assists, we help each other up over the last ice-glazed granite rock between gusts of wind before celebrating our success.

AMC book time for summiting Mt. Garfield is 3 hr 45 min, but we have arrived in 3 hr 5 min. Pacing ourselves has made a difference.

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Walking on Water


At a  holiday party for the Newburyport Writers Group, I spotted a  footbridge through the kitchen window of the Norwegian-inspired farmhouse where we were merrymaking. The sun had set, leaving the bridge mostly in shadows. This made me curious to go out and see the structure before driving home. 

“Would you mind if I went out back to take a look at the bridge?” I asked Donna Seim, the lady of the house, after a young dark-haired fellow reentered  through the glass doors from outside. “Of course,” she chimed back.

After sliding open the heavy door, I slipped out and made a beeline for the bridge, stepping onto a large green area that to my eye looked like synthetic turf for sports. As I began imagining our host couple playing tennis on this vast green expanse, I suddenly felt my feet sinking into the soft, cushy surface.

“Whoaaah, “ I hooted in a high-pitched distress cry, a sissy female reaction I wish I could erase from my neural pathways.  Cold water filled my shoes and socks as I took a few springy steps across what felt like a soggy trampoline.

As I landed on firm ground feeling relieved to be off the water, Donna’s husband emerged to check on his bewildered guest.

“Are you OK?”

“I had no idea this was a pool,” I said feeling embarrassed. “You know that scene from It’s a Wonderful Life where the dancers jump into the pool?”  He nodded and we laughed together by the pool as I tried to make light of my gaffe.

My wet socks squished as he guided down a few stairs and through the shadows to the banks of a stream where a red Japanese bridge crosses to the other side. I would have enjoyed walking across the elegant arch bridge he designed, but my wet feet were cold and before long he led me back to the house. While he ran upstairs to fetch a pair of dry socks, Donna apologized for not realizing I was not in the room (or perhaps I was jabbering with someone else) when she warned others about the pool out back.

I was grateful I had forfeited a pair of stilettos for a more comfy but much less fashionable pair of old Born clod-hoppers with flat soles.  Had I worn those high heels, I might have punctured the cover and sunk ever deeper into the cold water that night. Oh well, no damage done and now I know how it feels to walk on water, or almost…!

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Q&A: Sparks Flying on the Nation’s First Offshore Wind Vessel

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Tina Sylvia, 46, a Blount Boats’ master welder, chatted with me at a recent unveiling of the Rhode Island Fast Ferry crew transfer vessel now under construction at Blount Boats’ shipyard in Warren, R.I. The vessel is the first U.S.-built offshore wind vessel that will service the 30-MW, five-turbine offshore Block Island Wind Farm scheduled to begin operation by December 2016.

How did you get into welding?

I got kicked out of home ec in high school. I didn’t like the teacher and she didn’t want me in the class. I had a choice between welding and carpentry so I tried welding first and liked it.

Had you ever tinkered at home?

No. My dad was a doughnut maker, but my mom brought us [three kids] up on her own and taught us to be independent.  When something needed to be fixed, I changed my oil and sparks and everything that needed to be fixed, I did it myself.  I couldn’t afford not to.

What do you like most about welding?

It’s cool you can make metal stick together and build things. And you can take pride in your work when it’s done.

How many boats have you worked on over your decade working at Blount Boats?

About 31 boats.

What project are you most proud of?

This wind farm boat. It’s very cool that we’re building the vessel for the first wind farm in the U.S.

What were the challenges of welding the aluminum cabin?

Welding is all the same no matter what kind of boat you’re building, but I like welding aluminum better. It’s a lot cleaner than welding steel.  For the wind farm boat, they want the least amount of welds and no marks. The welds have to be small with little warpage. They don’t want it to look like other tin can boats.

What will you work on next?

The next one will be a steel party barge. Once we’re finished, I hope we get to go out on a family boat ride.

Read the Providence Journal article about the wind farm boat with a great photo of Tina welding!

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A Reunion with Dr. Ghaussy

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“The French have a saying: the days go slowly but the years go fast,” says Dr. Saadollah Ghaussy, as we whiz toward Washington, D.C. on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.  It’s mid-May and he’s taking me back to Washington, D.C. from Vienna in his shiny blue car on my four-day visit to the city.

“So true,” I reply, as he brings me up to date on what brought him to Washington from Tokyo after living and teaching in Japan for more than three decades. We dart like pond skaters through time, filling in the gaps that have developed since we were last in touch.

It has been 35 years since I last saw my professor when I was a student at Sophia University in Tokyo. One night, a small, close-knit group of my classmates and I joined him for a farewell dinner before I returned to the U.S. to study journalism at Columbia. We had passionately studied International Relations with him, huddling in each others apartments between classes to study together. I vividly recall his acerbic lecture about superpower politics in December 1979, following the Soviet invasion of his native Afghanistan. We were witnessing history unfolding.

We exchanged holiday cards for a number of years, but eventually lost touch. Then in 2008, a chance meeting while standing in a queue at Penn Station in New York City reconnected us in the most surprising of ways. That afternoon, I’d had trouble leaving work and missed a train for a business trip to Philly. After racing up a set of stairs from the lower train level, I jumped into line and caught my breath while staring at the briefcase beside the tall figure before me.  Then, like in a dream, I noticed the name “Ghaussy” on the name tag.

“Are you Dr. Ghaussy?” I asked with no inhibition, addressing the man as if he were my Afghani professor. In that illusory moment, it seemed time had stopped and he had never aged.  Then, the man swiftly turned his head in my direction to reveal a face with a striking resemblance to my professor. “No, I am not Dr. Ghaussy,” but I am Dr. Ghaussy’s son, he said, smiling.

“Would you like to speak to my father?”  At once, he whipped his cell phone out of his suit coat pocket and handed it to me. In a flash, I was chatting with Dr. Ghaussy from his home in Northern Virginia, enjoying the crisp, staccato rhythm of his speech.

While Dr. Ghaussy, now 83, and I had only a brief visit in Washington over coffee, it was wonderful to see each other and we pledged to meet again when next I visit Washington.  Time is precious.

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