My boot soles were not gripping the wet granite as I climbed up through Castle Ravine in the White Mountains and I was slipping. Mt Adams loomed large and ominous to my left, its 5799’ summit shrouded in fog, and Mount Jefferson, scraping the sky at 5716’, to my right. These are the 2nd and 3rd tallest peaks in the range after Mount Washington. Our path is the Castle Ravine Trail and the Randolph Hiking Club’s guidebook describes it as “a wild, less-used ascent route, which is very steep and strewn with loose boulders. “
“Three points of contact,” the hiker ahead called out, reminding us that this is how we should execute this climb. I knew this, of course. It has just been over a dozen years since I climbed in these White Mountains. And CLIMB is exactly what you do when you hike here, because everything goes UP. These are rated as the most difficult and challenging trails in the entire country.
I grabbed the boulder ahead of me to hoist my body up and my long pink-painted fingernails scratch the granite. A nail chipped. I rarely sport long painted fingernails. Once a year I PLAY with them. I was recently in Mexico on a 10 day press trip and forgot a nail clipper so I decided on my once-a-year painted fingernails. Kind of like playing dress up. It is not appropriate for climbing boulders in the White Mountains however.
I was in these parts because my daughter Sierra was in a wedding, which our whole family attended (that’s why the painted fingernails). I decided to help her drive through the crazy Labor Day weekend traffic. While she was attending to her maid of honor duties, I went hiking in the Whites with my dear friend Al Sochard.
I had just hiked through the San Juans in Colorado and was in reasonably good shape, so I was not too concerned with keeping up. Al said we would hike with two of his friends, men in the early to mid 60’s- one had open heart surgery a few months ago and the other a hip or knee replacement or both. I figured we’d be taking it nice and slow. But the men were ahead, clamoring over the boulders like goats, because that is what you are when you live in Randolph, New Hampshire, whether you’ve been cut apart on the operating table recently or not.
Randolph has over 100 miles of PATHS that circulate through their backyards and neighborhoods, connecting them to the White Mountains National Forest and the Randolph Community Forest. They have been in place for over 100 years and they are maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. My friend Al is a member, as is Ben Finney and Mike Micucci, the other two hikers with me today. They wait for me as we climb up Castle Ravine.
I have seen some moss in my day but nothing like what I found in Castle Ravine. It is electric fluorescent green…almost unnatural, almost needing sunglasses. And it covers everything, like a scene out of the Pacific Northwest in the Olympic National Forest; even on the trail like a green carpet because this route sees little use as the guidebook states. But there was not a blow down in sight because the trails are kept in impeccable shape. It is worth the climb just to experience the moss.
We picked our way up the great north-facing glacial cirque between these two giant mountains, up the headwall to Edmund’s Col on the ridge…a place where the Appalachian Trail touches, where I have not tread for 34 years as a thru-hiker. AS we break above treeline, we encounter the famous White Mountains sign: “STOP! The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.” This sign always gives us pause and with that reminder, we pulled out our wind jackets.
When we gained the ridgeline, all was misty and foggy. Al and I leaned on the sign for a few pics and it felt good to be back.
We traversed the Randolph Path over to Israel Ridge, past a gigantic boulder of white quartz that shone through the fog like a beacon. This 410 million year old rock was formerly sand in a huge submarine deposit. By the time we descended the ridge, the fog had burned off and we were treated with stellar views out across the Northern Presidentials and the cirques below. We stopped at The Perch- a three-sided log shelter that is available for overnight camping, maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club. The club has 4 such shelters. I thought to myself that this would be a great place to be a caretaker, an employment offered by the Randolph Mtn Club each year- it would be a good place to finish my new book…a task I should perhaps be working on that exact moment instead of climbing on these trails! But I think it is important to make the time for just a simple quick day hike like this, to experience the beauty of the White Mountains. It had already been many years since I was here, when would I return?
On our descent, the view at Emerald Bluff called us out for a break, as did the waterfalls along Castle Creek. The ten miles round trip hike felt good on my legs.
On the last miles, there were multiple stream crossings. Al threw caution to the wind and just powered through the cold water, soaking his hiking shoes. He crossed the stream to my side, this old friend of mine and took my hand, chipped fingernails and all, to help me balance on the boulders and keep my boots dry.
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