Chutes and Ladders...or hiking the Sphinx and Six Husbands trails

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Jun 29, 2009
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With all the rain that pounded the Whites on Saturday July 1st, I was looking for a relatively dry hike with easy water crossings. So naturally I chose the Sphinx, Great Gulf, and Six Husbands trails. Thus on the morning of July 3rd, I started up the Jewell Trail. This trek would take me from Jewell to Gulfside to Sphinx to Great Gulf to Six Husbands to Gulfside and back down Jewell. I left the Merrill low-tops in the car, and instead wore the LL Bean Crestas. With all the mud on the trails and all the fun water crossings, the Crestas would prove to be worth their weight in gold on this day. I also had two extra pairs of socks in the pack just in case. Jewell was Jewell. Gulfside was some kind of windy. Higher summits forecast had called for temps in the high 40's and sustained WNW winds in the 35-50 MPH range. The forecast did not disappoint. The Gulfside walk involved eating many mouthfuls of wind, and generally just trying to stay upright.

I cached a nalgene of water at the Gulfside/Sphinx junction, as I would be returning to this junction later from the opposite direction. I love the Sphinx Trail. It is steep and wild, with lots of beautiful falls and cascades. Descending certain portions of the Sphinx require using a bit of care, but there really aren't any places on this trail that have dangerous exposure or tricky spots with little to no hand's nothing like Huntington Ravine or Six Husbands. One of the interesting features about this trail is that the trail coincides with the brook for about 100 yards...pretty cool.

Then onto the Great Gulf trail for about a mile. Almost lost the trail a few times...typical Great Gulf trail stuff.

Then onto Six Husbands trail, which was the main focus of this trip, as this would be my first time on Six Husbands. After a brief descent, you hit the one and only river crossing on this trail. And after a heavy rain, this crossing is a good time. Up until this point, with all the mud and all the crossings, my feet had no business being dry, and yet they were. That would end here. This is why I carry extra socks. At any big crossing, I don't waste a lot of time searching for the perfect path for rock hopping. After a quick scan up and down stream, if I don't see a convenient rock-hopping path, I just walk through the water. It's just water. Again, this is why I carry extra socks. After the junction with the Buttress trail, the trail starts to climb and passes through and around some interesting boulder caves and obstacles. Some of these rocks looked like they were ready to roll. A bit spooky in some places. Then come the five ladders. At the top of the fourth ladder, the trail crosses an inclined slab with an unhealthy drop-off to the left. I've noticed it's not cool or fashionable in some hiking circles to admit something is hard. But since I'm not cool, I have no trouble admitting I found this slab a little dicey. There was nothing to grab, and with boots on instead of low-top Merrills, I couldn't paste my feet at all. There is also a rocky overhang on the right that prevented me from getting close to the wall and grabbing cracks along the wall. Then came the fifth and final, and apparently new, ladder. Convenient but not totally necessary compared to the first four. Before, in between, and after the ladders, this trail has lots of steep scrambling. Six Husbands is similar to Huntington Ravine as far as level of difficulty, but Huntington is wide open...turn around at almost any point and you have amazing views behind you. But Six Husbands is much more jungle-y. Some great views back into the Great Gulf, but it's often very closed-in, very wild. A bit after ladder five, there is one more spot that was tricky. A steep slab with precious little to grab onto. It was here that I met three guys descending who were happy to see me as they were not even sure they were still on the trail. One of the guys said, "Yeah, we just wanted to get off the AT, so before hitting Jefferson, we took the Colonel's Cutoff Trail, then started coming down Six Husbands. Man, that Colonel's Cutoff trail doesn't look like it gets much use." It took me a second to register the "Colonel's Cutoff" reference, but when my brain processed what he was talking about, it was hard to suppress a smile.

Eventually the grade moderates as the trail reaches the top of Jefferson's Knee. From there to the Gulfside, it was mostly boulder hopping. Then it was south on Gulfside and grab the nalgene at Sphinx junction. Washington was still in the clouds and the wind was still hauling, so I went back down Jewell.

Overall I would rate Six Husbands in the same general ballpark with Huntington Ravine: steep, fun, rugged, and sometimes dangerous. Wouldn't want to descend it even in perfect weather. Whereas Sphinx is more like Great Gulf Headwall: steep, fun, rugged, and NOT sometimes dangerous. No sweat descending those two. Not a perfect comparison, obviously, but just pointing out that Six Husbands is much more difficult and tricky than Sphinx.

Regarding photos and video, Six Husbands is one of those trails where you need a person in the shot to show proper scale and perspective. Without a person in them, the shots are kind of flat. Next time, I'll have to bring someone with me.

Quick note on the GPS tracks below. Garmin "Base Camp" does not recognize the latest version(s) of Google Earth. So I had to uninstall the latest Google Earth and then install an older version (about three versions older than the latest). Then I could view the GPS track on Google Earth.

Here's a little movie of the hike




along Great Gulf Trail

Cool wall. A hiker in this shot would really show the scale.

One of the many places on Six Husbands that made me think of Aron Ralston

Looking back down ladder #1 ... nice soft landing

Takes a bit of work to get onto ladder #3

Looking back at the tricky slab at the top of ladder #4

Guessing this is the abandoned Adams Slide trail

Great Gulf viewed from Six Husbands Trail near the top of the "knee"

Looking back at the top of the "knee"


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May 13, 2013
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I did a similar loop of these trails last year. Took Great Gulf all the way to Six Husbands, then across Gulfside, down Sphinx and out. Definitely fun trails. I don't know if I'd rank Six Husbands quite as dangerous as Huntington but it is certainly a steep trail. I did it on a really hot day and as I walked the flats to Gulfside Trail I was absolutlely gassed. Sphinx does have a unique feel to it. And I agree on the photos. I jockeyed position with a group of three people on my way up so I got a few shots with people in it and it definitely adds to the perspective. Nice trip report.


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Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
Great Report. The slab after ladder 4 is definitely challenging as it drops away to a cliff to the left (to the right in the photo).