Conquering Chocorua

Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)… White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385

If only I’d seen this

About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.

Note how ominously close that sun is to the horizon – that’s also where we’d been a few hours prior

My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”

Not the steepest, scariest part of the trail

It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”

My usual view of Chocorua from White Lake State Park

The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.

Not enough information

We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”

I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!

Chocorua is on the left here. We’d be coming down where the white cliffs are to the right.

Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.

The wild blueberries were superb and I grazed continually as I hiked!

We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.

The view of Chocorua from Middle Sister

This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.

But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….

See more pictures here!

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The white gulls are crying

I was, perhaps, unduly influenced by Tolkien in my youth. And by “unduly influenced” I really mean “secretly spent Junior High living in Middle Earth” and “can still recite Elvish poetry”. I was raised in tall and wild mountains with tall and wild trees and short and prosaic people, (Ah, Tuffy Suter!) although one or two of them might have passed as Bjoernings.

My first love – you would dream dreams too if you read Tolkien in this place

In one scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” (skipped over in the movies) Legolas is warned by Galadriel of the lure of the sea – that once he hears the gulls cry he will never again know peace. Of course, Legolas does not then say, “Right ho! I’ll just head back through the Mines of Moria and forget this whole Fellowship business.” He travels the Paths of the Dead and in the course of commandeering some slave ships hears those fated gulls.

I always thought this bit was lame because pffft. The sea. Lamesauce. I was all about the mountains: high, majestic, completely familiar and yet unknowable, omnipresent and unscalable with volcanic secrets buried deep in their hearts and an aspect of icy glory overlooking millennia of maudlin human history. Give me the mountains, the forests, the deep glades and rushing streams and I will be content. I lift my eyes unto the hills. Living between the mighty Mt. Rainier and the sliver of the Pacific Ocean known as Puget Sound, my heart could have been swayed either way. But I turned my back on the sea and gave my heart to the hills.

This has remained true even as my coastal allegiance has switched. I spent four years of college in New London – gazing out of Long Island Sound – and only ventured to the shore a handful of times. I live now within 10 miles of the Atlantic Coast in an old and storied land, and over the past few years – again – I have only ventured to the seltzered strand a handful of times. When I drag my complaining menfolk to wilderness, I drag them to the lakes and “mountains” of New England. (I spent several years rather disdaining the label mountains for the worn down nubs of granite in New England, but closer proximity has given me rather a more grudging admiration.)

But then this new job, and this new commute that have driven so much of my wordcount in 2012. And as part of this urban 2 mile adventure I undertake every day, I pass over a tiny slip of the sea – the shivered remnants of the once great Fort Point Channel. It is the ocean in its most bounded – a sliver of barren water bounded on either side of my commute by iron bridges, commuters and noisy trucks.

My seducer

And yet that sliver of water is to me as the gulls were to my dear Legolas. It commands my attention when I pass it. Is it high tide, low tide or some in between state? I gaze at the mussels and barnacles encrusting the stations on the bridge. On dark dull mornings, the water is a choppy gray. On bright cheerful afternoons, a sparkling blue. The waters carry with the mysteries of the ocean, unbounded, unknown, unplumbed and it lures my imagination. As I once gazed out my window and imagined myself trekking on dusty trails through quiet groves, now I imagine myself the intimate of those vast waters. I see a slowly growing friendship between myself and the mysteries of the deep – or at least of the New England coast.

This summer I’ve managed already to cadge an invitation with a friend to spend at least a weekend close enough to hear crashing waves in your sleep. Gloucester and its beaches are a quick jaunt away, when the heat of summer weighs down the suburbs. Perhaps some chance will come to gaze on Maine’s rocky coast and investigate tide pools. And my summer plans tentatively include a few days on the other coast – the mists and rocks of the Oregon coast.

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voice of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me;
For our days are ending and our years are failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves on the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover,
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!