Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Notch

Proposition for today's hike:  Warm up by coming up the Notch Trail, a 2 mile side trail.  Then hike 8 miles of Appalachian Trail, going over two summits and turning around atop a third one, then back over the other two.  Now make your way down through Mahoosuc Notch.  Then turn around and come back through Mahoosuc Notch ... in the pouring rain.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012:

That's what was on today's agenda.  The good news is that I live to tell the tale.  The bad news - had one fall in Mahoosuc Notch (when the rock was still bone dry) that 'beat me up' pretty good (bumps and bruises and scrapes only).

The full story of today's hike is well covered in my personal journal account, so I'll copy and paste it here:


Got up at 5:05 and started getting ready then headed out for the longer (11 mile) drive on the rough Success Pond Road (15 miles in all from the Gorham Wal-Mart). I parked, finished getting ready and was on the trail at almost the same time as the last two days: 6:45.

The hike up the two-mile-long Notch Trail was very easy all the way – an old road for the first mile and then gently graded trail with some bog boards the rest of the way. I was at the AT in less than an hour.

As described in the AMC guidebook, though Notch Trail comes out right above the Mahoosuc Notch, you can’t see it from the trail junction. It had been intermittently foggy anyhow, so I just headed south away from the Notch and began the steep climb up the Fulling Mill Mountain south peak. There were some views at the summit and it was above the fog. The views were limited at a couple of exposed rock areas.

Then I descended with a few tricky spots of bedrock and reached the Full Goose Shelter. I had had all kinds of whimsical thoughts about how this shelter got its name until I realized that it was actually one of the most unimaginative choices for a name possible. The shelter is named for the two mountains that it sits between, Fulling Mill and Goose Eye. So much for my imagination.

From the shelter I climbed again to the north peak of Goose Eye where there were some decent views from the open broad summit and then from a series of level areas south of there (see photo) all the way to the base of East Goose Eye (at left). Finally I climbed back up to the summit of East Goose Eye, which was my turn-around point. That climb was steep and over much of the same difficult bedrock type of route as many other mountains, but they seem to have made this one a testbed or showpiece for how you could stabilize the trail by using board bridges, steps and ladders. The biggest part of this climb was all on these man-made fixtures.

On the way back down that section I was passed by a group of four young thru-hikers and later, on North Goose Eye by a middle aged man. I talked to all of them just briefly. There was also a group of about 6 young boys with a leader who passed me. Then I passed all these people as they were having lunch at Full Goose Shelter.

I had made my turn-around point very early, and got back to the junction with Notch Trail at 1:10PM. So I decided to take the leap and do Mahoosuc Notch today despite the forecast for showers after 2PM. I figured the rocks would remain wet into tomorrow if we did get rain, so why not take the bird-in-hand and hope the rain holds off and knock off the Notch today with good dry rock.

So in I went.

The tough trail starts abruptly and has a few brief breaks, but is every bit as intensely difficult as I’d heard. I felt a little overwhelmed by the constant tough footing (and hand placement) decisions, and was trying to fully immerse myself in the experience, so I and didn’t narrow down my focus to just the immediate next ‘move’ (you can’t call it a next ‘step’ in most cases, as you can for the rest of the trail – often the ‘move’ involved arranging at least three limbs and sometimes your butt or back as you shift your weight up, down, sideways or forward).

As a result of my poor focus I trusted all my weight to a foothold (lower center in the photo at left) and slipped because it had been worn smooth by so many other hikers before me. I fell on my butt, bruising it, and scraping my right elbow on the rock face at right. My chronically bad left wrist (a joint problem acquired in my auto assembly plant summer job in 1969) also got its problem re-injured/aggravated. The result on my body was that I felt as though I had been beat up - literally.

But I got right back up and went through the place I had just fallen, no longer trusting that foothold without a good strong hand-hold (upper right behind leaves) to help distribute my weight.

And that’s the way it went the rest of the way - never trusting all my weight to a single point of contact. There are four ‘tunnels’ where you squeeze through openings beneath gigantic boulders. These were the truly unique highlights of the Notch for me. The rest of it was usually just making your way over or among huge boulders, with a few very difficult ups and downs, but the latter was probably limited to a dozen places.

Near the lower end there is one completely flat bit of trail, with all rocks out of view. It's like The Lost World - a serene little meadow. You think the Notch might be over, but then you plunge right back into the huge boulders again.

Still, the lower half of the Notch has slightly smaller boulders and was quite a bit easier. The real gauntlet of continuously huge boulders runs for about a third of a mile at the upper end.

As I was coming down I was passed by two of the young kids who had passed me coming off East Goose Eye – a guy named ‘Hawk’ with blond hair in a braided single-cornrow Mohawk and braided beard who had put on a gray plastic winged helmet, like the ones from Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings, for his traverse through the Notch. With him was a fit young girl named ‘Peeper’. They were soon out of sight, but when I got to the east/north end of the Notch they were there eating and apparently waiting for others in their group. We talked briefly and the girl described her father, the guy I had talked to on North Goose Eye.

So as I headed back up into the notch, I passed him and we talked for a few minutes. Gumpy and Peeper are a father-daughter team from NH doing a thru-hike and reporting it on Trail Journals (I found their journal this evening). They have hooked up with four others: Hawk, another young couple who I also passed and talked with, and a sixth who had fallen a day behind. They are all hiking together, at least in theory. I continued on, passed the leader with his six early-teen boys, all chatting and enjoying the experience as they rambled through the Notch with the ease and fluidity that comes with youth.

I was feeling that the return trip through was a little more comfortable. I had gotten into a good ‘zone’ with my ‘moves’ and was not wasting as much energy. Then it began to rain, lightly at first, but soon it was pouring down in buckets and sheets and the rock was totally soaked, as was I. But out of necessity I ignored the rain and clamped down my focus even more intensely. It got to the point where I was rejecting moves I would have used if the rock was dry, and opting for much more secure ones, almost always with three good points of contact, all on very secure places (very flat for the feet, very good grip for the hands).

It felt like I had slowed down a whole lot doing this, but when I checked my watch when I finally got out of the south/west end and was back at the Notch Trail junction, I found that I had taken exactly the same amount of time (an hour and fifty minutes) to do the Notch in each direction.

By then it had stopped raining but so much had fallen that everything was still dripping and the trail was a mess of puddles. Still, the hike back down Notch Trail was like a stroll through Heaven – it’s just such an easy access point to get to such a grueling place – amazing that the nature of the landscape can change so abruptly.

I was back at the trailhead parking lot at 5:30, still feeling very beat up. I got out of all the wet stuff – haven’t been wetter in all my hiking (because I was using my butt on wet rock, tilted in all directions, etc., so the rain penetrated into more places than usual, and I couldn’t use the poncho in the Notch since its big folds of material would just get in the way).

So I took my time unwinding. I made the decision to take tomorrow as a rest day – the day I had planned to do the Notch originally. Now I’ll access the east end of it from Grafton Notch on Friday, saving me the extra 4 miles of another hike up and down Notch Trail.


Other than the shot of the site of my fall, I only took one other photo in the Notch.  A place like that is difficult to capture in a good photo. The wide view of massive looming cliffs is too wide for the camera, and jumbled boulders never photograph well, as I’ve learned from experience – without a 3-D perspective, rock piles just look like a wall of various textures.

So the much ballyhooed Mahoosuc Notch has come and gone.  It's billed as the most difficult mile of the AT, and I'd say it lived up to the billing.  In fact it's in a class by itself - a clear 'notch' above any other.  I've always raved about the joy of hiking every piece of trail both northbound and southbound, so you get to experience it from a different angle and often under different weather conditions.  Yes, it was good to do the Notch both ways today, and I guess in the end I'll be glad I got to hike half of it in the pouring rain.


Here's the map showing today's hike, with a link to more photos:

AT Day 193 - Mahoosuc Notch at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Maine

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