Mt. Washington via Huntington Ravine, out via Great Gulf

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hikersinger

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Feb 28, 2012
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Location
New Boston, NH
Route
  • 08:30 Tuckerman Ravine trail from Pinkham Notch
  • 09:15 Huntington Ravine trail junction
  • 09:45 Raymond Path junction
  • 12:50 Nelson Crag trail toward Mt. Washington summit
  • 13:30 Mt. Washington summit
  • 14:15 Trinity Heights Connector from summit, along Gulfside Trail
  • 14:25 Great Gulf Trail, down into the Gulf
  • 15:00 (approx) reached floor of the Gulf
  • 16:50 passed Sphinx trail junction
  • 17:40 passed Six Husbands trail junction
  • 19:30 Great Gulf trailhead/car spot

I've been up on "the rockpile" (Mt. Washington, 6,288') several times, but not by all trails. I've approached from all directions, east and west, and south and north along the ridge, but one storied route remained on my to-do list: Huntington Ravine.

The Huntington route is one that's much less popular, not surprisingly because of its difficulty. The AMC White Mountain Guide calls it "the most difficult regular hiking trail in the White Mountains," saying "many of the ledges demand proper use of handholds for safe passage, and extreme caution must be exercised at all times." It goes on to give a clear impression that this isn't a trail for beginners or those with any difficulty or discomfort in steep places. In particular, it's "very dangerous when wet or icy, and its use for descent at any time is strongly discouraged."

I've experienced some of the steepest trails in the Whites and beyond, including the Flume Slide, Madison Gulf, and Holt (Cardigan) trails, and the slides on North and South Tripyramid. Still, from what I heard, Huntington seemed to present a challenge on a different level.

I had given thought to trying to get it done this summer, but didn't have any plans. Out-of-the-blue, a friend and former co-worker of mine (Matt) asked if I'd be interested in joining him and a friend of his (Daniel) to hike it up to Washington, and hike out via the Great Gulf. Both trails were chosen on purpose, being prominent on the Terrifying 25 list, which I'd also been chipping away at here and there. I'd not done either trail, and they seemed perfect for a weekend summer day in particular, so I was in!

My friend had to bag out due to lack of sleep the previous night, so it ended up being Daniel and I. The three of us have hiked a few times before, most recently this past winter; we attempted a Moriah-Carter traverse but had to bag out due to excessive ice and rain forecast.

A perfect summer day was forecast, with 85-90 degree temps in the valley, but very nice temps up high. I encountered lots of fog on the way up, but knew it would all clear by mid-morning, especially on the east side, which we'd be climbing.

Daniel and I got underway at 8:30am from Pinkham Notch, hiking up the Tuckerman Ravine trail. As expected, we encountered a steady stream of people heading up. The "highway" that is Tuckerman wasn't terrible, but thankfully it wasn't long before we reached the Huntington Ravine trail junction. The width the former was a good 10 times that of the latter, and much more worn down to rock; this tells you just how much each is traveled!

I didn't realize it again until recently, but I'd been along the bottom part of the Huntington Ravine trail 25 years earlier, when I hiked Mt. Washington with the Outing Club at St. Anselm College, my alma mater. We hiked in October each year, staying at Harvard Cabin each time, not far from the trail I was on (open only during colder months, by reservation). We certainly didn't ascend Huntington either time, but I remember both stays. One year, the weather was very pleasant and fair for October, and we actually slept outside on a bridge with a stream running underneath, and bright stars overhead. But, as much as that particular year was very nice, the next year brought us the polar opposite, with high winds and ripping frozen rain above treeline; it was so bad, we had to walk down the Auto Road.

Much of the lower part of the Huntington Ravine trail is straightforward, nothing steep; you simply ascend gradually until the bottom of the ravine, where the climb becomes much more rocky and steep. You knew you reached the ravine floor when you encounter large boulders, many of which feature neat little caves; reach your hand down into one and the temperature difference is stark: 20 degrees or more, I'd say! Along the way we crossed ski trails a few times; this is a popular place to hike up and ski down in winter; the neighboring ravine, Tuckerman's, is world-renowned for its skiing and has been featured in Warren Miller documentaries.

Before we started the vertical climb up the ravine, we encountered a medical rescue equipment shed. The nature of this trail -- and its use in winter especially -- calls for these resources to be more readily available, due to avalanche danger especially. A plaque on the shed bears the name of Albert Dow, a climber and rescuer who was killed in January 1982 by an avalanche while trying to rescue a fellow climber. It reminded me again of the book, Not Without Peril, which shares so many stories of hiking these and other mountains, all year round.

At this point, we were frequently blessed with increasingly wide glimpses of the ravine headwall. The scene reminded me of the topography of the south face of Mt. Katahdin, with its soaring cliffs and steep, rugged terrain. It didn't quite compare, but it was close. I was really pumped for this!

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The trail brought us steadily up to the bottom of the headwall proper. We were hearing voices straight ahead, as well as to the right and left. It was tough to know whether these voices were simply bouncing off the walls of the ravine, or if multiple parties were ascending via different routes. Upon closer inspection, we saw hikers and climbers in each direction, either hiking or rock climbing; at one point, we saw climbers with ropes and heard them speak of on/off belay, etc. Climbing isn't my thing; I don't mind steep, but I choose to keep my feet relatively squarely on the ground, thanks!

The final ascent to the bottom of the main headwall led us over and around boulders and stunted trees, to the left side where the trail heads up the open slabs and ledges. It took us two hours to travel the 2.5 or so miles to this point. The remaining 0.3 or so miles up to the top of the headwall would take us over half that time, a little over an hour.

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... continued below ...
 

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hikersinger

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... continued from above ...

Overall, the headwall was not particularly difficult, though several places required some good balance, judicious hand-holds, and tall steps up to negotiate the way up. I felt invigorated through it all, and marveled at the views each time I turned around to gaze out and down the ravine. A few steps up the slabs, in particular, were particularly difficult; I could see why this trail isn't advised in wet or icy weather, and even discouraged as a descent. We actually crossed paths with a couple guys coming down; they seemed sure of themselves. Thankfully this day was dry despite the rough storms of the previous day.

Another slightly older couple, Gary and Lisa I believe, passed us at a very good clip while we were about halfway up the headwall. They humbly remarked that they hiked Huntington often, and had just done a mountain road race the day before; this is the kind of life I hope to lead some day, once I can live closer to the mountains!

We soon reached the top of the headwall and the junction with the Alpine Garden Trail, which runs along the top of the Huntington and Tuckerman ravines. The steady climb up to the Washington summit from here is like any of the other several trails heading up the alpine garden: lots of rock-hopping, which gets tedious. You're completely exposed to the wind, but on this day I welcomed the cool, steady breeze from the west. I did have to don my wind layer and hood to prevent the wind from giving me an ear ache, though.

We ascended up to and over Ball Crag, a small "bump" (elevation 6,112') just northwest of the Washington summit cone. From here we could see the summit and its main building clearly; the Cog Railway was also visible (and audible!).

We soon crossed the auto road, which I had traveled with my son a year earlier. Back further, just past the Alpine Garden trail junction, I came across the area where we parked the car to give it a rest and take in some views. I didn't know until I got out of the car and walked around a bit, that I was just steps away from the Huntington Ravine trail. I was so jealous of a couple hikers I saw that day; I wanted to be them and take on that trail. I was thrilled to take on that role this day, as I came upon a couple of tourists who had parked in the same spot.

As expected, the summit was pretty much a mad-house, with the auto, cog railway, and hiker throngs all converging in one place. I'd say there were a few hundred people up there. The summit sign had a line of at least 20 people for photos, but we sneaked up behind and out of the line of sight to "tag" the summit USGS marker. I counted this as my sixth hiking ascent of the mountain (have been up a few more times via car).

After downing two parfaits (food like that is so much more delicious at higher altitudes), we continued on our way, happy to leave the crowds. We headed west off the summit toward the Gulfside Trail, which would bring us to the top of the Great Gulf for our descent.

This next stretch of the trail is one I was also very excited about, as I've really only looked down into the Great Gulf from this point, and along the northern Presi ridge. We descended via the Great Gulf Trail, a tricky thing due to the nearly mile-long scree/talus slope. One bad step and you could tumble pretty badly, and rock is very unforgiving. Nearly the entire length of this trail lies within the Great Gulf Wilderness, so trail markers were minimal -- mostly old blazes painted on rocks. We only saw the occasional one, and I'm pretty sure we got off trail here and there, but we knew the general direction.

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Before too long we were down into the trees. The trail was a little tough to follow here, too, since it wasn't cut back very much at all. Quite overgrown: not what I would expect from even a wilderness trail. I co-maintain the Zeacliff trail, which also lies within a national Wilderness boundary, and the trail should be cut back two feet. Much of this trail had 0 to perhaps one foot cut back. On one hand I really loved the remoteness of the trail, but it did get old having to brush against branches nearly constantly.

At the bottom, there was a flooded section of the trail that required very careful stepping, but once we were through that the trail was usually easy to follow. We passed a small pond on the left, then proceeded alongside the west branch of the Peabody River, a very picturesque waterway with numerous cascades and small waterfalls. Along the way, we passed a bunch of really great-looking swimming holes.

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The going was pretty easy along the few-mile-long floor of the gulf itself. However, one section in particular just beyond the Sphinx trail junction, was difficult to get through, with a wide brook meandering in multiple directions, and no obvious trail path to follow. It seemed as if there was recent washout from storms and/or flooding. We stayed on one side and crossed one of the brook offshoots, then came upon what looked like a couple tentsites. No clear trail presented itself, so we worked back, then crossed another branch of the brook where it seemed there was a trail crossing, and eventually found the trail as it followed along the other side of the brook. Again, with no tree blazes or little cairns to guide you, it's tricky; but, score one for the allure of true Wilderness!

Here, back to the trailhead, was uneventful. We made good time as the trail very gradually descended, and had been for some time. We reached the car spot at the Great Gulf trailhead lot at 7:30, eleven hours after we set out from Pinkham Notch. Pretty epic day.
 
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JB

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To echo Richard, fabulous report and great pictures. It does look like it was a "pretty epic day!"
 
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