When we arrived at the trail junction of the Sphinx and Great Gulf Trails we had to reassess and recalculate our plans for the day. Karen, Dave and I had planned to complete a challenging day hike: starting on the Caps Ridge Trail, hiking over the south arm of Mount Jefferson, descending the Sphinx Trail into the Great Gulf Wilderness and returning to the Gulfside Trail by ascending the Six Husbands Trail. We would need to hike light and fast-14 miles and 4,300 feet of elevation gain in one day. The weather forecast was for near perfect conditions for a hike above tree line: sunny all day, temperatures in the sixties with minimal winds of around 20 mph. It was a “go for broke day”. The downside was the time of year. The days are getting shorter. We had twelve hours of daylight and had to average over one mile per hour hiking time. That meant we would have to be on the trail at 6:30 a.m., sunset at 6:45 p.m. We did not want to be on the Caps Ridge Trail after dark, with only our headlamps to guide us. The AMC White Mountain Guide describes it as, “Steep and rough with numerous ledges that require rock scrambling, are slippery when wet and the upper part is exposed to weather.” This is not a trail for night hikes.
Dave and I had been planning this hike since last year, but our personal schedules and weather conditions proved to be a major barrier. As the autumnal equinox approached we knew that winter was biting at the heels of the shoulder season. We either waited another year or go for it now. We decided to go for it now. Karen learned of our quest and was eager to join us as she is on the Red-Line Journey (hiking all the trails in the AMC White Mountain Guide). Her husband Ken was laid up with bruised ribs from mountain bike accidents a few days before. We knew that to complete this challenging route we could not take many breaks. We could save on pack weight by refilling our water bottles along the Sphynx Trail and eat as we hiked.
Our plan went awry at the outset. We arrived at the Caps Rudge Trail head at 8:00 a.m., an hour and a half later than I had planned. This meant we would have to increase our pace over difficult terrain. With my gimpy knees, that would be problematic. The hike up the Caps Ridge Trail to the Cornice Trail, which encircles Mount Jefferson, was slow. With the sun rising over Mount Washington we paused several times to take in the magnificent views of the Southern Presidential Range. Each time we halted we lost valuable time. We wanted to marvel at the mountain views and didn’t want to make this a race, but on the other hand we needed to keep moving to complete our goal. This is quite often a dilemma for hikers: attempting to reach a summit or planned destination and not having enough time to complete the journey before nightfall.
Hikers quite often overestimate their abilities, underestimate the challenges of the hike and are overtaken by darkness, resulting in a search and rescue effort by the NH Fish and Game. This is more often the case during the shoulder season, when days get shorter and night time temperatures drop below freezing. The Accidents section of Appalachia, the AMC mountaineering journal, often reports hikers overtaken by darkness without a headlamp, flashlight, map, compass or GPS. I recently encountered a young man walking along the Lincoln Brook Trail at around 2:30 p.m. He was planning to summit Owl’s Head Mountain, which entails climbing an unmaintained path on a slide that ascends the mountain. He had to hike 4 miles to reach the summit of this remote mountain and then hike out to his car parked at Lincoln Woods. He had no headlamp, no map or compass and only a bottle of water. He was on his way, not to summit Owl’s Head, but to being lost in the darkness of the wilderness. Who knows what may have happened to him if our paths hadn’t crossed. I urged him to turn back, which he did, and advised him to begin this long arduous hike of around 15 miles at sunrise.
At the junction of the Cornice and the Gulfside Trails, we paused to discuss our options for the day, given the fact that we got a late start. We understood the need to stay together and “be on the same page.” Often hikers get separated and have not agreed to turnaround time. This quite often leads to disaster. We decided to continue our hike, descending into the Great Gulf on the Sphinx Trail. When we arrived at the junction with the Great Gulf Trail we would reassess our options.
Our descent onto the Great Gulf Wilderness was one of the more challenging, yet engaging hikes I’ve experienced. The name of the trail is derived from a rock formation seen from the upper reaches of the trail. The trail dives steeply into the Great Gulf and provides an important escape route for hikers who get caught in a storm in the vicinity of Sphinx Col, which lies between Mounts Clay and Washington. The trail took us through an alpine meadow, before it began to pitch downward over rock ledges. The views into the Great Gulf and the Carter range were spectacular as we descended. We crossed a steam several times, where we refilled our water bottles and paused to admire water cascading down the mountain and over rock ledges. Footing was treacherous in several places where the trail follows the stream bed. Rocks were covered with slimy moss and I had to take great care not to end up sliding down the trail.
When we arrived at the junction with the Great Gulf Trail we stopped to take a breather, have our lunch and reassess our plans. It was approaching 1:00 p.m. and we had another 3.5 miles and 2,250 of elevation gain on the Six Husbands Trail to reach the Gulfside Trail, where we would begin our return to the Caps Ridge Trail and eventually the trailhead. We were averaging one mile per hour and that would mean we would be hiking down the Caps Ridge Trail in the dark. I was somewhat reluctant to give up the goal, but reason overruled emotions and we decided to return the way we came. This decision would put us on the Caps Ridge Trail before nightfall. If we had started the hike 2 hours earlier we could have continued on our planned route, but this wasn’t the case. We turned around and headed back to the Sphinx Trail. As the old adage states, “going on is optional, returning is mandatory.”
As we get deeper into the Autumn season remember to plan your hikes carefully, keeping in mind that the daylight hours are shrinking and day time temperatures are dropping, especially at higher elevations. Once the sun sets, temperatures fall dramatically, so carry extra clothing (e.g. fleece pullover, gloves, hat or beanie, windbreaker) extra snacks, headlamp, map, compass and plenty of water. Small streams and standing water may begin to freeze on trails. Therefore, hike cautiously, as black ice is a mean culprit and can cause a serious fall. Always check your route and hiking time and if you are hiking with comrades, be sure you are all in agreement with the route and turnaround time.
This maybe a good time to order a Hike Safe Card from The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. They cost $25 per person and $35 per family. The card is valuable for anyone hiking, paddling, cross country skiing or engaging in other outdoor recreation. People who obtain the cards are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued. An individual may still be liable for response expenses if the actions that created to need for the emergency response meet criteria set forth by legislation (RSA 206:26-bb). For more information on how to purchase a card go to: www.wildlife.state.nh.us/safe.
Remember to always hike smart and safe.
For comments or questions Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org