Fall hikes: Look out above!

Without April’s muck, May’s black flies, July’s thunderstorms, and August’s crowds, hiking in the fall can be sublime. Consider dry conditions, warm sun, and quiet trails for opportunities to see animals foraging for berries and nuts. Think of the golden late-afternoon sun warming yellow and orange foliage.

Then consider that the seasons change faster up north than at home. The ranger wasn’t joking when she admonished my daughter Grace and I that the summit we sought last weekend was 20 degrees cooler than the trailhead where we began, and the wind chill up there (at 10-15 mph) made it colder than that. We laughed at the warning sign posted at the trail head. C’mon, the sun was shining, we had food and water — what could possibly go wrong??

warning-sign-madison-hike

We’d chosen the trail to Madison Spring Hut because the 4,800-foot ascent was spread over a 3.8 mile trail, making it a relatively gentle hike. Compared to Mount Monadnock’s 3,600-foot scramble/climb in just a mile (white dot trail) it was a breeze. And then it got breezy.

As we climbed under the protection of a canopy of trees, we stripped off layers. I wondered several times if I hadn’t over-packed, as my backpack seemed to bulge with food, survival essentials like headlamps and gatorade tablets, extra clothing, and even waterproof matches. Surely I wouldn’t need most of it. My biggest concern was avoiding blisters caused by the new boots I’m still breaking in. The one thing we were slightly troubled about was our water supply, as we each carried a large bottle of water (and I had another bottle of Gatorade in my pack). We were counting on refilling at the hut, but the ranger at the trail head told us the hut was closing for the season that day and “might” be able to provide some. Neither of us liked that situation and it might have made us hike a little faster to get there before they closed the doors for the last time. (We had water treatment drops too but I’m not crazy about that option — we’d used it in Peru and didn’t die…)

Many of the people we met coming down were dressed for much colder weather. My brain took notice but didn’t completely register the reason: of course it was colder at the top, much colder. Given my experience at the Kinsmans a couple years ago, it should have hit me like a brick. But there was no snow on the ground to make it completely undeniable and duh, I was enthusiastic and enjoying myself so it never sank in.

When we broke out of the treeline, I looked up and saw thin clouds sweeping quickly across the summit. We were briefly showered in a light sleet when the wind blew. Windbreakers were in place before we approached the hut, but I could already feel myself cooling off rapidly. The northern side of every spruce tree was white with frost.

madison-hut-panorama

As we approached the hut, a sign to the left showed the trail to the summit of Madison (5,300′) to the left. I figured we’d go inside, get our water and have a snack then continue over the peak and down another trail … but it wasn’t to be.

Inside the hut, everything was boxed up and being inventoried. The kitchen was being cleaned by the AMC staff. And I quickly realized that the staff were not wearing hats and Patagonia down jackets because they’re young and hip but because the hut was just as cold as the outside temperature minus the wind. It was unheated. Still, we were there for water and a snack, which we immediately refilled and consumed. Then things unraveled.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize signs of hypothermia. I could barely eat and had trouble holding my water bottle to my lips for a drink. Grace immediately got me a hot cup of tea from the staff but it wasn’t quite enough. I stripped my wet layers off and put on dry clothes, then a down jacket and hat (look at that, those “extra” supplies in my pack were actually necessary!). I was still shivering uncontrollably. Grace put on tights under her pants, then extra layers. We were both shaking. I was amazed at how quickly the symptoms started and that they wouldn’t go away (multiple cups of tea later).

“Well, let’s hit the summit and head out,” I said to Grace. She shook her head. “No, we need to go back down. This is close enough to the summit today.”

I felt like a kid who had been denied a treat. I wanted to say we’d summited a 5,300′ mountain. It was only a few hundred feet away — we could SEE people climbing it. She pointed out that we could see people climbing it because the approach was completely exposed — to the wind, sleet, and whatever else. I knew she was right. Dammit.

grace-at-madison-hut

We took some pictures and hiked out. Thank God the trail we’d chosen was gradual as I was a little shaky at the beginning. Then we had a little Nutella and pretzels to celebrate, and made it back to the car in no time. And without injury.

Hike carefully out there. And don’t think that you have to go to the big mountains to enjoy beautiful scenery — there are at least 52 mountains in New Hampshire with gorgeous views that are more accessible than those over 4,000 feet. See this list for ideas.

madison-hike-sept-2016

 

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