The Situation Is The Boss, Man: Getting All The Buttons Pushed In The White Mountains
Words and Photos by Rebecca Sperry
Onward we go with our The GRATEFUL DEAD documentary "Long Strange Trip" inspired series. In it, Steve Parish–perhaps their most infamous roadie–described the period during the "Wall of Sound" era that featured the PA and speaker system that was the size of a small town. He reflected on the chaotic and unhinged ordeal of transporting the equipment from place to place and getting it set up by showtime, and how when the police, venue managers, etc. asked the inevitable question, "Who's in charge around here?", their response was always, "THE SITUATION IS THE BOSS, MAN." We couldn't help but wonder how many times the adventurers in our orbit have felt the same way in the situations they've found themselves in. Here, New England Trail Boss Rebecca Sperry recounts a winter trip in the White mountains where the urge to bag a peak was almost worse than the weather.
STOP: This area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died of exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.
The canary yellow sign stared me in the face as I made my ascent of Valley Way on a blustery Christmas Eve in 2018. The sun peeked over the top of the ridge as I made my ascent through the krummholz and stunted trees that line the taller peaks in the White Mountains. Rime ice had formed on the tips of the branches, glistening in the morning sun. The sky was bright blue with a smattering of cirrus clouds to the southeast, hovering just to the north of Mount Washington.
As I broke tree line heading towards the Madison Spring Hut, the bitter winds hit me, pushing me back as I pressed forward, determined to reach my destination. The hut sat perched to the left of Valley Way, at the base of Mount Madison's summit cone. This was my second ascent of Madison, but the first in winter conditions. The forecast called for winds in the 30-40 mph range, but the skies were clear, and there were no signs of adverse weather conditions on the horizon in any direction.
As I made my final push for the hut, I turned to my south and noticed two small figures making their way down the Gulfside Trail, heading in my direction. The straps on their packs danced in the wind as they weaved down the trail towards me. I watched as their trekking poles clicked against the rock-strewn trail, their goggled faces unrecognizable. It was as though we were on another planet.
They said a quick hello at the hut before beginning their own ascent of Madison while I prepared myself to begin the final 300’+ climb to the summit. As I continued to make my way up, the winds grew stronger from the north, pushing me down now and again as I tried to find my footing among the rocky terrain. Finally, I looked up toward the summit and watched as the pair of hikers disappeared over the top, and I was alone, at over 5,000', in the bitter winds, looking out at a sky that promised some semblance of good weather.
Like so many other hikers, I had been deceived by that bright blue canopy, thinking that I could handle the intense winds and biting cold that was permeating my many layers.
The final push to the summit took all of my strength of mind that day–but I made it–took no pictures, and then beelined it down the mountain to the false security of the hut several hundred feet below. Tree line was a safe haven for me that day, and it's often the invisible pull of the forest that draws panicked hikers off the open ridges, leading to their ultimate demise.
Fast forward to 2020, and I faced down a familiar but lower peak in the Presidential Range. My continual pursuit of goals turned my ambition to achieve them into a life-or-death situation on the side of a mountain.
And that's exactly what this was, the pursuit of a goal to hike all 1,400+ miles of trails in the White Mountains–known as red-lining or tracing–and to do it in a year, something that has only ever been done by one known individual, a man in 2013, named Matt Hickey. I set out to complete this monumental task for fun and gave myself one year, 2020, to do it. This eleven-mile loop was just a blip on the radar of hikes I needed to get done, but I was determined to check it off of my list, whether or not it was safe, whether or not it was realistic.
As I pulled into the parking lot at Crawford Path trailhead, the snow crunched under my tires. A shadow was cast over the parking lot, but the skies all around me were cerulean blue. From the comfort of your vehicle, it's easy to see why you would think that this was perfect weather for a winter hike. The sky has a way of luring you in promising pristine conditions, while the winds sneak in from behind, sending you sailing into a life-threatening situation on the mountain. I knew this trick and was prepared for frigid, below-zero wind chills that day. I had been there before, under that same bright blue sky, and I knew how to dress for it, how to ward off the cold, and what the necessary steps were to stay safe during winter hiking in The Whites.
I stepped out of my car, and the bitter cold slapped me in the face. The plan for the day was to ascend the three-mile Crawford Path, make my way across the exposed 1.6 miles of trail between Mount Eisenhower and Mount Pierce, and descend down Edmands Path, making a loop including a road walk back to the parking lot. It was an ambitious goal in winter conditions but a loop that I had completed before in summer and fall. A recent trip report from a week prior stated that Edmands Path had been broken out, so although I was prepared to be making my way through some recent snowfall, I knew that there would be a decently consolidated monorail to work with. Or so I thought.
There were a handful of other hikers on Crawford Path as I made my ascent, all of us bundled up, features masked by balaclavas and hats pulled low onto our foreheads. I bobbed up the trail with my snowshoes on my pack and spikes on my feet while the snow creaked and squeaked underfoot, the sound of significantly colder temperatures. At the junction with Crawford Cutoff, I stopped for a snack and threw on my puffy jacket, readying myself for the onslaught of winds that would greet me when I broke tree line in a little over a mile.
The Crawford Path rides the side of Mount Pierce, a 4,311' mountain in the Southern Presidential Range, making its way up the western slope until it breaks through the trees less than 100' from the summit. My previous experience with this hike gave me the foreknowledge to know that once you break out of the trees, you will be struck by the cold winds coming down from the north. Despite the smaller stature of this mountain, it can still pack a punch to the underprepared.
Today's weather reports warned of frigid below zero temperatures, with gusts over 50mph from the northwest. "So, it's usual winter White Mountain weather," I thought as I read the weather report before leaving my house that morning. It's certainly not fun, or at least not until you're safe in your car at the end of a long day, reflecting on what you just accomplished. But this is what we do in pursuit of a goal.
Donning my puffy and ready to face the onslaught of winter conditions, I plunged beyond the safety of the trees into a wall of wind. "I hate the wind," I said to myself as I turned up the volume on my earbuds, trying to block out the elements with a hiking podcast, and began the gradual, winding climb towards the summit cone of Mount Eisenhower. The peak taunted me in the distance as I made my way above tree line. Winds whipped up the snow, and it swirled around my feet as I hammered my way across the trail, a tiny purple figure on a blanket of white.
The conditions continued to become worse as I approached the junction where Eisenhower Loop branches left and the Crawford Path branches right, around the summit cone. "I don't think I want to do this right now," said the voice in my head as I got to the junction. "But I can do the bad weather cutoff - The Crawford Path - and that will still count for my hiking goal. Then I can come back and do Eisenhower Loop this summer."
The trail leading around the summit cone appeared and then quickly disappeared as I headed down around the eastern side of Eisenhower. Less than a tenth of a mile from the junction, I reached the curve leading downhill, and the trail corridor was nowhere to be seen. Gingerly I stepped forward, straining my eyes to find some semblance of it among the krummholz, but there was nothing. The high winds had completely blown over the monorail, and despite my best efforts, I knew that I had no choice but to retrace my tracks back to the junction and either turn around or press on over the summit.
"I hate backtracking," I thought as I returned to the junction. "This is killing my time." I glanced down at my watch, where my elapsed time ticked away. The miles per hour mocked me at less than two. At the junction, I met up with two other hikers who had just come down off Eisenhower's top.
"The winds are whipping up there today!" One man said. "I'm sure!" I replied. "Are you going up there?" "That's the plan." "Well, have fun!" "Thanks, I'll try." A quick exchange among fellow adventure seekers and I was on my way, climbing gingerly up the side of Eisenhower. With every step, my anxiety began to rise.
"Holy crap, this is insane." As I crested the top of Eisenhower, just feet from the summit cairn, braced against the winds, I shut my eyes and pressed forward towards the massive stack of rocks that marked the top of this 4,780' peak. As I reached the summit, my rational mind told me to turn around. But I ignored my instincts that were screaming for me to go back. "I need to do this trail right now. I don't have a choice," I told myself and beelined it down. The winds hammered at me from the northwest, pushing me forward away from people, away from safety, sending me head on towards isolation, just two peaks away from that home of some of the world's worst weather, Mount Washington.
When you're in the middle of a terrifying situation, the worst thing to do is give in to the panic. I knew this, having spent almost my entire life battling a debilitating panic disorder, so as the tightness in my chest got progressively worse with every step, I knew that the wrong thing to do was give in to it. I pushed it aside as best I could, stopped thinking, and just focused on the podcast that streamed through my earbuds. "I just need to get to the bottom; then everything will be fine. It won't be as windy at the bottom, and I'm going to be fine." I flew down the side of Eisenhower towards the junction where Edmands Path branches left, and Crawford Path heads north towards Mount Washington.
While I focused on keeping my mind in check, my stomach tightened, and a grumble of hunger rolled through my core. "I'll take a break and have a snack at the junction. Then I just need to get to tree line. Everything is going to be fine." But regardless of what I wanted to believe, the truth was, at the junction, after inhaling a granola bar, I turned towards Edmands Path and the reality that there were no remnants of a monorail. My heart sank. The winds had completely erased the trail.
Full-on panic won't make the situation any better. This is common knowledge in any scary scenario. But as much as we tell this to our brain, once the adrenaline kicks in and our fight or flight instincts are ignited, there is no rationalizing with the desire to get out of the life-threatening ordeal. It was at the junction, after swallowing my last bite of granola, that my rational mind shut off and the desperate urgency to survive began to take over.
"There is no way I'm going back up on that mountain." I strapped on my snowshoes and prepared to break trail for the entire three-mile slog that would put me completely alone in below-zero winter conditions. The first two-tenths of a mile of Edmands Path skirted along the side of Eisenhower at a mild grade before entering the trees and remaining below tree line for the rest of the hike. "I just need to get to tree line," I kept thinking, and despite the winds growing increasingly stronger, I pressed forward.
"Oh my gosh, where is the trail corridor?" Less than five minutes from finishing my snack, I stood on the side of Ike terrified. "I can't see the corridor. The stupid snow is too high." My eyes scanned everything in front of me, from left to right, and I knew I had to be where the trail dipped below tree line; I knew it was right in front of me, but it was buried beneath feet of snow and continuing forward would put me at risk of falling into spruce traps or, worse, getting lost. I paced back and forth on a ten-foot section of trail for what felt like forever. I strained my eyes at the forest in front of me, trying to decipher some remnant of the trail, trying to make it so that I didn't have to turn around and go back up the mountain. Everything in me screamed, get out of here, NOW, but there was no getting out. I was scared.
The lack of trail felt like a wall that I needed to get around. I felt boxed in, trapped. Despite knowing that what I was doing was wrong, that the only way out was back up Eisenhower, I found myself stepping off-trail, downhill, towards the wilderness, towards danger, towards potential death.
"Ugh, No!" Less than ten feet from the trail, my right foot smashed into a spruce trap. "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh," I said aloud as my body contorted. I twisted around and grabbed onto the branch of a tree, bracing myself against the side of the mountain. One foot remained entombed in the tree that I was standing on top of, buried in six feet of snow. "Oh. My. Gosh." I said, and finally, after hours of pressing down on my panic, I let it explode. "I'm going to die here! Oh my gosh, I'm going to die!" Tears began to well up in my eyes, and sharp waves of panic rolled through my core.
I knew that if I hit the panic button on my Garmin InReach that I was committing to remaining there on the side of the mountain for at least six hours while a rescue was assembled and then sent up to find me. Everything in me screamed, "Get me out, NOW!" But "now" would take hours that I didn't have–I couldn't spend hours trying to stave off the panic that had taken over. I took out my phone and looked at the screen. My mind registered that I had some service, so I smashed my finger onto my husband's name and hit send without even thinking.
"Hi honey, I'm scared."
"Where are you? Are you lost?"
"No, I know where I am. I'm on the side of Eisenhower, and I don't want to go back up the mountain, but the trail is not broken out, and I can't find the corridor." As I said the words to him, the panic that had been clouding my vision began to evaporate.
"OK, well, can you go back up the mountain?"
"Yeah, but I don't want to. I'm tired. And I'm scared. I'm scared."
"Well, just relax for a few minutes and take your time. You have all day. Just take your time. You're OK."
"I'm OK." My animal instincts told me that I was in life-threatening danger. That I needed to get out, NOW. But I was OK.
"I want you to text me when you get to the other side of Eisenhower."
"OK. But can you stay on the phone with me for a few minutes now?"
I talked through what I was doing to my husband, pulled my foot out of the spruce trap, dragged myself back up to the trail, took out another granola bar, and slowly made my way back to the junction.
"OK, I think I'm OK now," I said a few minutes after righting myself and beginning my journey back the way I had come.
"OK, honey. You're OK. Just text me when you get to the other side of Eisenhower."
"OK. Love you."
"Love you too."
The sun shone down on me as I continued to make the slow climb back up to the summit of Eisenhower. I fought hard to keep my composure, to stave off the waves of panic that still continued to rise through me as I passed the summit cairn. But I was making progress in the right direction, back down the other side towards the safety of people, a broken trail, and home.
"I'm doing good. I'm going to be losing service again soon. I'll text you when I get to my car." I texted my husband after reaching the junction where Eisenhower Loop and Crawford Path meet. "OK, love you, just take your time," he replied.
Little figures bobbed along the trail in front of me. Men and women, fellow hikers, reminders that I was not alone and that things would be alright. Less than an hour after panicking on the side of the mountain, I broke through the trees on Crawford Path and let out the breath that I had been holding. Peace rolled through my core and reverberated out to the tips of my fingers while I took off my snowshoes and continued the final three-mile trek back to my car. In the parking lot, two hours after breaking through the trees, I plopped down on my seat and texted my husband that I was down–that I was safe. Finally, I gave in to the exhaustion.
There have only been two times over the six years that I have been hiking solo that I almost hit the panic button. Both times it was not because of an injury or because I was physically unable to go on, but because mentally, I didn't think I could go on. That March day on the backside of Eisenhower, the first time that I almost called for help on a hike, I realized a difference between what is perceived danger and what is real danger. In telling my husband what was really going on, I had, in turn, told myself. The poor decisions that I made leading up to that moment of panic were ones that I would never have made had I not been pursuing a goal of hiking all of the trails in The Whites.
"The trail will always be there." So we say, to those who humbly turn around, living to hike another day. "The trail will always be there. And I'll be there to hike it," I said, seven hours after pulling into the parking lot at the Crawford Path trailhead. The snow crunched as I drove out of the lot. Sun poured through my windshield, slowly settling to the west. Outside, the winds stirred up the snow, leaving feather-like patterns of white across the pavement as I drove home. "The trail will always be there, and now, I will be there to hike it."
Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker based out of New Hampshire. She hikes almost exclusively solo, prefers the less-traveled trails, and is working on hiking all of the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can follow her journey on her website: rebeccasperry.com