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.
- 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!