Kinsman Range, White Mountains National Forest
It was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire that I thought my Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike was over. Up until that point, I hiked through the infamous, ankle-twisting rock fields of Pennsylvania, survived a brutal cold-snap over Memorial Day Weekend in New York, and sweated through a heat wave in the Connecticut woods, the desolate trees already stripped of their summer leaves by swarms of gypsy moth caterpillars. But I had been warned that the terrain in the Whites, especially in the Kinsman Range, was like nothing that I had ever hiked through.
Sundae, Twister and I had set out that bright July morning from Kinsman Notch, intending to tackle an eleven-mile (18 km) stretch of trail up and spend the night at Kinsman Pond shelter. The three of us believed that we were playing it appropriately conservative with our mileage. And the day started out beautifully – 7 miles (12 km) up and over Mt. Wolf, the New Hampshire woods a riot of summer green. We had lunch next to Eliza Brook, the water levels high from a series of thunderstorms over the holiday weekend. The trail had been strewn with boulders and the going was slow, but it was nothing that we could not handle.
But after the creek, the trail veered upwards. It was 2.5 miles (4 km) to the top of South Kinsman and the path now looked like it had been hacked unwillingly out of the side of the mountain. We were no longer hiking, but bouldering with full packs over a trail that was made up of sharp talus and slick slabs of rock, a grade of 15% or more. The brutal edges scraped us as we climbed.
Despite the blue skies and perfect summer hiking weather, I was becoming deeply shaken. The severity of the trail, the precariousness of the rebar and rickety ladders, and the steep drop-offs on either side made me question every foot placement. I had previously thought that the limitations of my small frame – 5’3” (160 cm) and 108 pounds (49 kg) – just meant that it was difficult for me to keep up with taller hikers on trail. But I had always managed to get into camp, even if it was hours after everyone else. But now I was at a distinct disadvantage. Both Twister and Sundae were taller than I was, and seemed to be enjoying the challenge. I, however, was battling a sense of hopelessness that I would ever get to camp. If anything, I now understood why Frodo and Sam had had a breakdown in Emyn Muil.
The three of us eventually came upon a white blaze painted in the center of a rockface. We had no clue how to move forward.There were no easy handholds, no evidence that previous hikers had pulled themselves upwards using the spindly pine trees on either side of the trail. The only thing that looked promising was a mud-covered tree root, situated partway up the cliff.