I was probably a sophomore when I first really heard about the legendary hike known simply as "The 50"--a continuous hike along the Appalachian Trail from Hanover, NH to the treeless summit of Mt. Moosilauke. The hike is organized through the Dartmouth Outing Club, and ends at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge after usually 24-30 hours of hiking. I was, of course hooked, but who would I hike with? I finally assembled a team of a former roommate and two brothers at my fraternity, but after getting a 30-mile training hike in, the group fell apart last-minute. I managed to scrabble a team together of people left in a similar situation, and we were ultimately selected through random lottery to be one of the participating teams!
Gathering gear (like headlamps) proved relatively painless, at least up until the day of the hike. After pushing my way through a kelp sea of bureaucracy to be able to rent two pairs of hiking poles from the campus outdoor rentals office (which should have been open in the first place), returning to our starting point last-minute, and discovering one pair of poles didn't even lock, we were as ready as we would get. Team Phoenix, which had risen from the ashes of three other teams, was about to hike. Now, all we had to do was hike 53.6 miles to the lodge.
The four of us set off at a brisk pace toward Velvet Rocks, the large hill outside of town, on that warm, still sunny afternoon, with no idea what the following 24 hours would bring. Our only goal for the moment was the first support station, an easy nine miles away at the base of Moose Mtn. I and my three teammates, Andy, Emily, and Megan (names changed) powered our way over the top and along the largely flat east-tending section of trail to the first station, remaining in good spirits all the while. Shortly before 5 PM, less than three hours after leaving Hanover, we arrived at the station in time to see the group before us leave--with the last of the water!
Team Phoenix, Three Mile Rd.
Some of the support crew left to bring more, while the rest stayed and moleskinned Andy's feet, already irritated by mud and wet socks. After refilling, we continued hiking up to the summit of South Moose, eager to get to our second station before nightfall.
The views from South Moose were nice, though the clouds building up in all directions were a bit worrisome. In another hour or so we had made the easy trek to the summit of North Moose, then began the long downclimb to Goose Pond Rd, complete with a light sprinkling of rain. Since Emily didn't use poles, and we were an additional pair short, we decided to improvise and each use one pole for the descent while taking turns using full pairs on uphills. We would continue this pattern for the rest of the hike.
At Goose Pond Rd, we reached the first section of trail I'd never hiked, however we had no problems finding and staying on the trail. After passing through a curiously flat marsh, we began the brutal climb up to Holt's Ledge--all the more so because of our drive to reach the valley beyond where our second support station lay. At last, legs burning, we topped out and were treated to a view of the Dartmouth Skiway below, as well as what appeared to be our next objective disappearing into the clouds. Our group began the downclimb as fast as we dared in the waning daylight, stubbornly refusing to pull out our headlamps. Finally, just as I though we couldn't go any farther, we emerged onto Dorchester Rd. A short walk, a long rest, two bowls of alfredo pasta and a change of clothes later, we were ready to begin the new twin challenges: Smarts Mountain and night hiking.
Headlamps on (and luckily adjusted and duct-taped where necessary) we passed through a series of fields where the trail was just barely discernible in our limited vision. It was one of my first experiences with night hiking, and I found the idea that my universe, for all intents and purposes, consisted of a hundred feet square of mysterious forest slightly unnerving. Despite this, and that forbidden word lurking beneath all our minds (bears), we soon found night hiking surprisingly pleasant. Crossing the road again, we began the first half of the 2000-foot climb up Smarts by ascending Lambert Ridge with its open rock ledges. By day, this makes for beautiful views to the south; by night, it's a navigational nightmare. Luckily, I'd done the trail two years before and we thus avoided most of the pitfalls.
As the trail flattened for a short while, we caught up with the group that had been nearest us and passed them. There was a certain psychological comfort in now knowing we were not at the tail end of the groups, but more incentive to keep up speed. After making the surprisingly quick final ascent, we stood at last atop the broad, indistinct and wooded summit of Smarts Mountain, halfway point to Moosilauke! It was 12:30 AM. Somewhere far below, thousands were settling in comfortable places and delving into the final Harry Potter, but that was a pleasure that would be denied to us for some time yet...
The cool air and clouds were comforting, but we were now entering unknown territory, trail none of us had ever hiked. We could now only hope our maps did not lie...
A seemingly endless descent later, wet, muddy, and all the more discouraging because we'd soon be regaining almost every foot of it, we reached the tricky Jacob's Brook crossing, and mere feet later, the third support station! And the theme was Christmas. However, as we rested, there came the first indication that all was not well. Two other hikers ahead of us were dropping out, one of them an acquaintance of mine; at the same time, Megan was having troubles with her heel, but decided to keep going to the next station eight miles distant before making any more decisions. I hoped and prayed that, above all, we all made it out of this insane adventure in one piece. It is all one can hope for...
Another seemingly endless climb later, and we were atop the ledges near the summit of Cube.
Mt. Cube at last, and minutes from dawn
The pre-dawn air was just light enough to cast a reddish hue in the sky, and we could just discern the silhouettes of mountains around us. A few disappointing false summits later, we were atop Mt. Cube, and had completed the last major climb of the hike before Moosilauke. As we rested atop the chilly and windswept summit, the sky began to turn a shade of blue as clouds raced past mere feet above us. A half-mile below, I could see the lights of a small community in a valley. It was, I realized, times like this that made me remember why I hike.
The Best and Worst
As our surroundings became apparent in the growing pre-dawn light, we switched off our headlamps and began the long descent to NH 25A. Emily and I took the lead, as Alex and Megan hung behind. As sunlight began to stream across the hills, I struggled through the trees to catch a glimpse of our final objective, still some fifteen miles distant, but could not. Perhaps it was just in the clouds.
After crossing the first brook, I thought our road crossing would be imminent, but I soon found myself becoming discouraged at the seeming lack of progress. On top of this, Megan was slowing down on account of her heel, and we often had to wait for her to catch up. After what seemed like an eternity, we made it to 25A, where we took a short break. Making an assumed (but correct) right turn, we followed the road for a short stretch as it passed through the bog between the Baker Ponds. We soon spotted the turnoff, but my heart sank: there was a massive puddle of water right in the middle of the trail, with no way around or over. What the hell is this!?
I thought, as I attempted to walk on the few loose floating logs and found my feet submerged. This is exactly what our feet DON'T need right now...
The next ten miles were supposed to be among the easiest, but because of Megan's injury we could progress only slowly. I just yearned to make it to the fourth station, 1.8 miles from 25A, so we could rest and recapitulate. At last, we did.
As we sat, changed clothes again, and chewed on dry pancakes, I observed my teammates. Emily seemed very chipper considering the circumstances. Alex was beginning to feel the sleep deprivation of the night, but was otherwise in good spirits. Megan sat despondently, staring at the ground. As we got up to continue the hike, she remained sitting...and waved us on. I was crushed, though surely not as much as she was. Megan had completed a similar hiking feat previously, so her ability to do the 50 was never in question, but she had simply been the one unlucky enough to fall victim to an injury first. It could have been any one of us, and as we were to later discover, it would be again.
We offered Megan some words of encouragement, then left, anxious to make up time on the following flat section. Powering our way up the first small hill, we set off at a breakneck pace through the peaceful and sun-dappled woods. Passing a small pond, we then ascended Ore Hill and came down the other side onto NH 25C, having done the most recent section at over three miles an hour. The next section, I assured myself and my teammates, would be largely the same. Oh, how wrong THAT assumption would turn out to be...
Crossing under the power lines, we ascended a small bump, then began climbing Mt. Mist, a rather insignificant, treed-in summit dwarfed by both Moosilauke and other more interesting nearby summits. Nonetheless, the climb seemed without end. Alex and Emily were beginning to slow, and Alex had decided to nap when we reached the next station. Also, their feet were getting worse; for reasons unknown, I had developed nary a blister up to this point. Little did I know, the most mentally trying part would be the descent from the summit.
We made our way downhill at an ever slower pace, even with the poles. According to the route I assumed was correct, we would skirt Wachipauka Pond, then descend the rest of the way to NH 25. So you can imagine my surprise when, after passing the pond, we began to climb again! Consulting the map, I realized the trail was on a different, and hopefully slightly shorter route. Another steep and endless downclimb later, Alex and I reached the road; Emily caught up a few minutes later.
I thought, all we have to do is climb a few hundred feet and hike one or two miles, and we'll be at the support station. How hard can it be?
As it turned out, this was a rhetorical question I should not have answered. First off, the river crossing at the road was...well, nonexistent. Whatever means of crossing the river had been washed away, or never had been there in the first place. Emily was our saving grace as she mentioned having remembered a small bridge to cross off to the left. This we found, but then had to bushwhack a few tenths of a mile to return to the trail. From there, we came to one of the steepest climbs yet, gaining those few hundred feet all at once. The trail flattened out, and I began to sense a familiarity about the place. Of course: this is Jeffers Brook, where we camped on my DOC First-Year Trip, almost two years ago
I thought. It felt oddly like coming home...
The trail crossed the brook, then navigated a series of gravel, paved and dirt roads I was somehow able to easily follow. Marveling at the beautiful fields around us on the approach to the fifth station, I recalled something I had once heard: to the northbound thruhiker, these fields are the last pasturelands on the trail. At the same time, Moosilauke's summit, just a few miles distant, is the first true Alpine region encountered. It felt like we were approaching a crucial part of the trail.
At the last station, pleasantly located at a cabin with running water and a privy, we picked over the mostly-eaten food and considered our options. As long as we left before 2 PM, we had the option of climbing the 3000+ feet to Moosilauke's windswept summit. Leave by 4:00, and we could hike the Hurricane Trail around the mountain, arriving at the lodge by an easier and shorter trail. Past then, we would not be allowed to continue.
Alex rested for a half hour and felt greatly rejuvenated, energy-wise. However, his feet and knee were bothering him, so Emily and I lounged around as the station's safety dork looked him over and provided the best support to his knee possible--which is to say, not much. Emily had her feet looked at as well, and though I finally(!) was beginning to feel blisters forming, I saw no point in worrying about it after having hiked 46 miles already. While I waited, I sat, slightly drooling, looking longingly at the two copies of Harry Potter lying around on the porch...there were, however, more important things at hand.
Finally, at 1:40 PM, we were given the go-ahead for the climb up Moosilauke, and told that the views were going to be beautiful. We'd decided long ago that after coming this far, there was no way we'd wimp out and take the easy way to the lodge. However, bad luck struck again: within moments of the beginning of the ascent, Alex stopped. His knee was in simply too bad of shape to continue. "You guys go ahead, I'll see you at the lodge", he told us, turning around and heading back down.
Depressed at the loss of yet another teammate, but still determined to reach the summit, Allison and I carried on. This was beginning to take on the feel of a Tolkienesque adventure, as though we were shedding major characters in our quest to climb the One True Summit (which luckily for our sake was not a volcano!). I shall spare you the details of our long, long climb up to the Moosilauke ridgeline, but suffice it to say that it was steep, and we were slow. After two hours of climbing, we at last crested the ridge--only to meet up with a group of four hikers coming up from the lodge! Emily, who knew them, chatted as we dug into some powdered Gatorade they had brought along. Rejuvenated and ready to finish what we had come to do, we set off on what was to be the final climb.
Soon, the summit cone came into view, and it seemed close enough to touch. Dark clouds played overhead, but the views into the valleys were bathed in sunlight. I suddenly found myself wanting to weep with happiness, knowing we were so close to the summit. And I'm really not an emotional guy. Emily and I finally made the last few steps out of the pines and onto the ethereal treeless summit, a place of rocks and long grass rippling in the breeze. I found the White Mountains laid out at our feet, sun and clouds playing over the mighty ridges of Franconia. Even Mount Washington was visible, its very summit brushing the clouds. Looking back on our route, I could see Smarts, now just an indistinct dark blue hill, far, far below. Beyond, all was lost in haze. We stayed only briefly, then began the long, rocky downhill on the Gorge Brook Trail, leaving the AT at last.
As we started down, we ran into another DOC member who we both knew, up for an afternoon climb. He promised to rejoin us after visiting the summit, and sure enough he soon caught up with us. Aside from his curious insistence on asking me if I wanted water (I still had an untouched liter in my pack), he was quite welcome company. The downclimb was mentally agonizing in the same way the ascent had been physically; by now, Emily and I just wanted the hike to be over, and especially over by 6:30, dinnertime at the lodge. If we managed to keep a good pace, we'd maybe, just maybe make it in time.
The downclimb was longer than any of the others, but at last I recognized signs--both figurative and literal--that we were nearly at our destination. Emily and I crossed the long bridge, locked arms, and powered our way up that one last hill before emerging onto the grassy, sunlit lodge of the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge. We had done it: we'd hiked 53.6 miles in a bit over 28 hours, and had lived to tell the tale. The icing on the cake: we'd done it in time for dinner!
Well, I'll try not to make this like the epilogue to the last Harry Potter book, which I was to finally read the following day. We had a delicious dinner, during which my exhaustion finally caught up to me. I had to avoid falling asleep in my chicken and green beans more than once! My original plan had been to spend the night, but after realizing no one else was, I decided to return to Hanover that evening with everyone else. Once on our way, I at last fell into the blissful arms of sleep.
As of this writing, I'm back on campus and not much the worse for the wear. The pain in my knees and feet has sort of weakened and spread into my entire legs, and my fingers are slowly becoming less tender. In retrospect, I have this to say about hiking 50 miles in a day: if the opportunity presents itself and you're in reasonable shape for it, hike it once--and then never again.
It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and in all, that's how it should be.
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