High Points: New Hampshire

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Mountains are like baseball games- there are obscure stats surrounding them for pretty much anything you could imagine: Highest peak west of the Pyrenees and east of the Rockies. Highest point north of the 43rd parallel and below tree line. Highest granitic summit north of the equator and south of Tulsa. But New Hampshire’s Mount Washington (6,288 ft) has real clout among the nation’s summits, and one of the most infamous stats- highest wind speed ever recorded by man at 231 mph (and it’s also the highest peak in the northeast on that side of the Mississippi).  231 mph!! And people complain about Great Falls being windy. It’s also home to another stat- oldest man-made attraction in the country: the Mount Washington auto road is 154 years old this year. It’s also home to a newer, Warcken-applied stat: biggest rip-off in all the land.

Due to inclement weather, we (read: I) actually considered taking the auto road up and claiming our summit so we could move onto better hiking weather elsewhere, but after getting some more information on it I decided I wouldn’t take that road if someone paid me. It’s $28 per vehicle, and there’s a whole list of vehicle restrictions on the auto road website:

  • Jaguar, Saturn and Sterling autos with automatic transmissions must show a “1” or “L” or “S” on the shifter to be allowed on the Auto Road. Transmissions showing an “S” must demonstrate that this shifter will allow the transmission to be locked into 1st gear. Model year 2009 and earlier Honda and Acura vehicles must meet the same requirements as described above.  Model year 2010 and later Honda and Acura vehicles are all allowed regardless of transmission type.
  • Maximum wheelbase on any vehicle: 161 inches (This excludes many club cab pickups and limousines).
  • Maximum width on any vehicle: 85 inches including mirrors (mirrors may be folded in to achieve this width).
  • No Hummers, except H-2 & H-3.
  • No trailers, RV’s, campers or vans converted to RV’s.
  • No mopeds or scooters.
  • No dual wheeled vehicles.
  • No pickups with permanent additions that extend wider than the cab (campers, rack bodies, or very wide mirrors).
  • Some former police cars and taxis have the 1st gear locked out and cannot be allowed on the road.
  • No Lincoln Continentals 1969 or earlier.
  • No bicycles.

Our day up Washington started off a little in the dumps. Wendy had been acting up, sputtering and lurching again after Katahdin, so we’d taken her to Augusta, ME to have her diagnosed with a bad O2 sensor. The Augusta store didn’t have the part so they sent us to their Farmington store for the repair, and the crew there replaced the O2 sensor no questions asked. One of their mechanics told us it was still misfiring but ‘should quit’ once we got down the road a few miles. It didn’t. We made an appointment at a Ford dealership in New Hampshire and took it into the same chain store in Gorham so they could take another look. The chain asked us to come in the next morning so they could run diagnostics on it again, and they found and replaced a corroded spark plug. Problem solved! Ford appointment canceled.

It was getting late and we hadn’t had breakfast yet so we took advantage of our Burger King gift card (thanks Sharyn!) and loaded up on the value menu. We picked up a hitchhiker on our way up who was headed to the same trailhead and waited until we dropped him off to eat our breakfast in the parking lot. I was ready to hike, really excited, my legs were feeling good, everything was good, then on our way to the trail Greg realized he’d forgotten his rain pants so I went back to grab them for him. Looking back I think it was the lingering smell of Burger King that threw me over the edge of insanity, but when I started back for the trail I looked up at that mountain and saw storm clouds gathering above it and I lost all motivation for hiking and a terrible feeling came over me, like we would certainly die should we attempt a summit that day. I quickly ran back to Greg to share my fears with him. Do you know what he said? “Well what are we supposed to do about it?” Oh, gee, I don’t know, what do you think? Go up with weather vanes attached to our heads? I told him I thought we should consider hiking another day, or perhaps a drive up instead. Greg refuses to pay $5 for parking at a ball game, there’s no way in hell he’d be talked into $28 for a drive, which I knew, and I also knew this was the best weather day for the peak, and the best weather for the next two peaks in Vermont and New York. I knew I would lose the battle, so I’m not sure why I even started. I also don’t know why I started hiking up that mountain, which I did bad feelings and all. Not to be outdone, I guess. Or the prospect of holding my getting-struck-by-lightning above Greg’s head the rest of our lives. “Oh yeah, like that time I told you I had a bad feeling about Washington?” “Like the time I got struck by lightning? Like that time?” Again, looking back, it was definitely the Burger King. Back in Maine my friend Bekah really shone some light on the effects of bad food going into my body. For instance, on my birthday I woke up in a terrible mood for no reason. She asked what I ate the night before. Shells & Cheese and Lil’ Smokies. Greg and I might have the worst diets on the planet, and Bekah is a gorgeous hippie who knows her stuff. Consequently we haven’t had lil’ smokies or eaten at Burger King since (thanks for nothing Sharyn!)(p.s. Just kidding).

We took the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to the Lion Head summit trail.

We didn’t get on the trail until after noon, we didn’t have a map, our original trail was closed for snow so we had to detour on a tougher route, and of course there was a chance of afternoon thunderstorms on the mountain already known to have some of the worst weather on the planet. I cried three times on the way up and didn’t say more than three words to Greg the whole time, those words being ‘Fine’ after he would ask how I was doing. Who does that? Who climbs a mountain against their will? Every step I took I asked myself why I was still going. If you don’t want to hike, don’t freaking hike! It was my damn highpoint ego, driving me forward. Greg did give me a little boost, though; he told me if I was still having a hard time I could just hitchhike down from the top. A little sun through my clouds! And no, my damn highpoint ego didn’t count that against me at all. Even though I felt like I weighed 500 lbs and could hardly lift my legs (my ‘ham hocks’ according to my husband), we still made it sometimes-straight-up four miles in record time. I think because I was focusing on a ride down.

We came up over the ridge and what do you suppose was there to greet us to the summit of the highest point in the northeast? Not a ‘Welcome to Mount Washington!’ sign. Not a ‘You did it! Even though you felt like a French toast stick dipped in high fructose corn syrup, you did it!’ sign. There was nothing but a big, fat ‘NO HITCHHIKING’ sign. Oh how I wanted to cry for the fourth time. But I wasn’t sad, I was real pissed. Not at Greg, at that dumb mountain for telling me whether or not I could get into a vehicle with a  stranger. The nerve. The audacity. Of course I wasn’t going to pay any attention to it anyway, but just the fact that that was what greeted us to the top turned my stomach sour for the whole place. I gritted my teeth and flared my nostrils and went to get our pictures, have some lunch, and get the hell off that mountain. We wandered into the gift shop where they had a price list for the one-way hiker shuttle down. I thought if it was $5 or less I would support their dumb mountain and not hitch down. It was thirty dollars. I about choked. And that was only until 4:00p. You know what they charged after that? FIFTY EFFING DOLLARS for a ride down a mountain. If I was gritting and flaring before, my teeth about fell out after that.

“Hike Mount Washington!” they said. “You can get a sticker proving you did it!” they said. “And then you can pay $50 after you realize what a burly hike you’d gotten yourself into and the storm clouds roll in by the time you get to the top and you realize you couldn’t hike back down if someone carried you.” they said. Preying on the hikers. I’d had enough.  We took shelter next to the Cog Railway office ($46 for a one-way ticket) and had our pb&js and watched a hiking family of ten come up and buy one-way tickets down. I about hocked a peanut across the room. $460!! Nearly half a month’s budget to get down a mountain! I went into the bathroom and put my big girl long underwear on; I took a caffeine pill and 800 mg of ibuprofen, and told Greg I was ready to get off that circus of a highpoint. It had just started to drizzle as we set out, and I half-heartedly asked a couple of groups if they had any room for a moody little monster on the way down but they apologized and said no, they didn’t, but they would if they could. Cue: Caffeine pill. I’ll tell you what, after Washington I’ll never hike without caffeine pills in my pack again. Greg didn’t know what had come over me. I went from moody monster to non-stop chit-chatter in about ten minutes and talked the entire way down, topics of conversation including my full car-owning history and weapon of choice in a zombie apocalypse. Good old Greg, he just waits patiently for the storm clouds to roll off (or ignores me most often, which is exactly what he should do) and accepts his real wife back with open arms. We met up with a couple from Boston hiking down and got to talking to them about the zombie apocalypse and before we knew it we were back at the cars, alive and well and free of lightning burns, and I didn’t cry once on the way down.

Move over, Lady Campfire, Highpoint Heidi’s coming through.

I learned a lot about myself on that hike. One, I can hike a mountain even when I feel like cement. Two, when I’m feeling like a cantankerous old woman I should just set my ego aside and let Greg hike by himself. Three, caffeine pills are like, super totally awesome. And four, caffeine pills are like, super totally awesome.  We both agreed we never needed to visit Washington again, that there are plenty of other NH mountains to climb should we ever get the urge. Afterward we enjoyed leftover cold spaghetti at the trailhead and hot coin showers in the visitor center. A great end to a tough day.

Epilogue: I looked up shuttle rates on the auto road website after we got back to civilization. If you need a ride down after the last hiker shuttle has left, rates increase to $200 per person + the price of a ticket whatever that is, and in regards to hitchhiking, it’s “not allowed as this can lead to unsafe weight loads in the vehicle on this steep mountain road.”

Give me a break. Sayonara, Mt. Washington.


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