We were finally back to the AT around 11 a.m. from our little “Detour.” We pushed over the other side of Guyot and continued on our way. By about 1 p.m., we made it to Zealand Falls Hut and began to make our lunch. Suddenly, one of the Hut seasonal workers approached us and offered us leftovers from last night’s dinner. Stuffed shells exploding with ricotta and marinara sauce sure did help ease our frustrations from taking the wrong trail. After we got properly full, we resumed hiking.
We enjoyed this easy cruise in the Whites, the only of its sort. At about 4 p.m., we made it to a highway crossing and decided to try and hitch a ride to the nearby AMC Highland Center mentioned in our guidebook. Here, many people stay in the lodge and enjoy the attached dining. We thought it was worth checking out.
Hitching a ride proved easy and soon we were at the Center. We were joined by our friend, Honey Britches, and began to make plans for the night. We considered dinner here, but were halted by the $30 plate price. Ramen would have to cut it. After charging our devices and successfully replacing our Darn Tough socks at the small gift store, we made our way back to the trail and camped at the nearest spot north of the highway.
Morning came and dense fog came with it. Today was a big day. We were making our way up Mt. Washington, the second largest peak on the AT and the largest in New England. Known for its crazy weather and wicked winds, we anticipated stopping at Lake of the Clouds Hut a mere mile from the summit.
Well, let’s get to climbing. We started our day around 7 a.m. consistently behind Honey Britches and ahead of the invisible hikers inevitably behind us. With the weather being so fickle, we were counting on work for stay spots at the hut.
All day we climbed into the fog. No views, cold winds, slick rock. We arrived at Mizpah Spring Hut around 1, very happy for a haven. We took lunch and noticed more thru-hikers arriving. We were unwilling to compromise our work for stay spots thus keeping this break short. We returned to the fog, winds, and drizzle for the next 5 miles.
Unlike other sections we had completed in the Whites, these 5 miles only took us 2 hours. The fog was so dense that we were literally approaching Lake of the Cloud’s porch when we noticed there was even a Hut there. Honey Britches had just arrived and checked about work for stay with a familiar face. This worker was a fellow 2015 thru-hiker that had already completed his hike and found a groovy place to work. He was part of the Pack It Out project in which he and his hiking partners carried out 1,100 lbs of trash. Woah. (More on this cool story here.)
Though the three of us were a little early for work for stay, we were admitted. Quite frankly, I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. We were several hours away from the next camping spot in good weather. Continuing hiking would have been annoying at best and downright dangerous at worst. It was only 3 pm, but I was overjoyed to be out of the wind, fog, and drizzle.
BigFoot and I were given our work task and decided to complete it immediately. We were asked to sort and inventory the chest freezer downstairs. It took us a total of about 15 minutes – definitely worth it for floor space and dinner leftovers.
As the afternoon turned to evening, more and more thru-hikers arrived and not one of them was turned away. We all gathered in the back corner doing our best to keep our gear out of the way. In some ways, I felt bad for the tourists there dodging our things and holding their noses on the way to the restroom as we sat around with very little do to but watch.
At about 6 p.m., dinner was served, but it would still be several hours before the hungry hikers could feast. We all watched in agony as several courses came out of the kitchen. It was a heated debate – fire up the backpacking stoves or hold out.
By 9 p.m., remember this is usually past our bedtime, we were finally told to line up for dinner. The Hallelujah Chorus was in full effect.
While we ate, Honey Britches provided the after dinner entertainment as her work for stay chore. The Hut guests were nothing but impressed as she described the 1800 miles we had all already completed on the AT and the ups, downs, and answers to frequently asked questions.
It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time we were able to get to sleep. I was one of the first to wake up in the morning. I instantly noticed the light peering in the window and the outline of mountain. The fog had cleared!!
Those awake could hardly contain our excitement. At this time, you could see Mt. Monroe that was adjacent to the hut and even the peak of Mt. Washington. I got up to take some pictures and did my best to hurry along BigFoot.
We finally set out for the summit with several excited hikers behind us.
Upon arriving at the summit, we decided to go into the Welcome Center. Mt. Washington can be “climbed” by foot, car, or rail. The Welcome Center hosts huge windows to watch the ever changing views as well as concessions and even its own post office. We were stoked to get some hot coffee before moving down the trail.
While enjoying our break, other hikers were murmuring about staying at White Mountain Hostel in Gorham 14 trail miles away. We were easily persuaded and decided to call ahead. Two highways 21 trail miles apart connect to the small town.. White Mountain Hostel, among others, offers free slackpacking for the 21 mile stretch if you book two nights. We weren’t really sure if the slackpack was something we were interested in, but definitely wanted to stay there one night, so, we went ahead and made our reservation.
We left Mt. Washington in a clear patch, that was quickly replaced by moving fog. The 6 miles between the summit and Madison Spring Hut took us nearly 4 hours.
We took our lunch break with our fellow hikers while we discussed our plans for the night. Each one of us as excited as the other to get to a bed, shower, and town food.
After lunch, we took off and the sun came out in full force. Usually, I’m always happy for a sunshiney day. Today, though, was challenging. My poor hands had had enough sunburn, and the sunscreen did very little to protect them. At this point, they already blistered. From the sun. What the hell!!!
The trail was difficult, the pain was so real, but I tried my best to enjoy the views meanwhile praying that we would get under the tree line soon. It’s a shame that now was the time I was on the Doxys (for the Lyme) as opposed to the rest of the AT that was under the protection of the leaves in the green tunnel.
I was beyond thrilled to get back under the treeline. Honestly, this day in many ways defeated me. We still had a couple hours of walking left, which, so thankfully, became gradually easier and easier with the last two miles being nearly flat and made out of soft dirt. It had taken us nearly 12 hours to complete these 15 miles.
Happy to be done for the day, we called White Mtn Hostel, and they sent a shuttle to pick us all up. I was still on the fence about tomorrow’s potential 21 mile slack pack over the Wildcat Mountains. Could I really hike 21 miles before the sun went down? 15 miles took everything out of me to complete today, could I really squeeze 6 more miles into my day even without a pack?
The hostel shuttle arrived shortly and six smelly hikers piled into the minivan. The driver offered to take us to the store, and we hatched a delicious plan. Nachos. Family style. All the fixins.
We did our best to hurry through the store, but it was still nearly 8 p.m. by the time we got to the hostel. Upon arriving we were given the rules since White Mtn. does things a little differently.
First, all bags and hiking shoes were required to stay in the garage named Funky Town. Next, all hikers must change clothes into their clean loaners. Dirty clothes are left in a hamper, and the hostel employees do the laundry for you communal style.
Once changed, we made our way into a big kitchen where we checked in for the night. We were instantly impressed with how clean the hostel was. Honestly, no other hostel really compared. This is one of the only places we’ve seen with a system to deal with 20+ stinky hikers and their things that actually works.
Once we checked in, we immediately began cooking taco meat and chopping toppings. Massive plates were assembled, and these six hikers couldn’t have been happier.
After dinner, it was the moment of truth. BigFoot left the decision in my hands knowing that I wasn’t feeling my strongest. I’m not sure exactly what convinced me, but the decision was made. Tomorrow we would attempt the 21-mile slackpack challenge over the Wildcats.
Our host told us we would hit the trail as soon as we all had eaten breakfast in the morning. We were given day packs and strict instructions to bring a headlamp. Not everyone finishes before the sun goes down. Gulp.
We went to bed both nervous and a little excited. I remember waking up several times in the night, checking the clock, and trying to get back to sleep. I felt like a kid again – eager, excited, anxious.
Morning came, but first things first. Breakfast! It’s so wonderful to get a good meal in the morning and White Mtn did not disappoint. Creme brulee French toast, hashbrowns, homemade chocolate chip muffins, sausage links, coffee, AND orange juice!!!
The six hikers that arrived yesterday all piled into the van, and we headed toward the trail. It was about 8:30 when we started hiking, later than I would have preferred, but BigFoot and I were determined to finish this stretch before dark. Well… GO!!
The trail went almost exactly straight up, just as the guidebook stated. As we climbed vertical rock face, we were already happy with our decision to slackpack. Not having our big packs was already making a huge impact on our ability to climb and our speed.
At a little after 11, we made it to beautiful Carter Notch Hut sandwiched in between two very steep mountain peaks. We took a quick break to eat some snacks, even timing it to keep us on schedule. Before we knew it, it was climb time once more.
Once at the top, we were happy to see semi-flat terrain and took advantage of it by doing some trail running. The day went by in this fashion – steep climb up, trail run in flat sections, steep descent. (Like near death steep.) Repeat.
By about 3, we knew we were in the clear to make it back to the hostel before sundown. We were also happy that the last 5 miles were easy, just as we had been told this morning. The 21 miles slack pack ends once you hit the highway the hostel is on. No need for hitching, the AT literally takes you right to the hostel driveway.
10.5 hours later, the slackpack was complete, and we celebrated with delivery food! Keep in mind, on flat land we could hike about 3 miles / hour with big bags and 3.5 miles / hour slackpacking. This is a 2 mile / hour average, slackpacking. That’s how hard this day was. Despite the challenge, hiking is a little easier when you know your day ends with a shower, a hot meal, and a comfy bed! Challenge complete and bellies full, we slept oh so peacefully that night.
Morning began once again with a fantastic breakfast. We got our things together and vacated our room, but the hostel allows you to hang out, so we did. And boy did we get comfortable. Truthfully, neither of us wanted to leave, and our fellow hikers were hard to turn down. Should we take a zero day and chill?
After a bit of math and guidebook planning, I estimated that this zero day wouldn’t throw off our Katahdin summit date that much if at all. We could still take one more zero day and finish by Sept. 16th. The real question was if we wanted to take that zero day now or later.
Hmm… Now. In our favorite hostel on the trail, with a delicious breakfast, and our hiker friends. I voted now. BigFoot agreed. Zero day it was!!
(By the way check out White Mountain Hostel near Gorham, NH, for a truly relaxing stay during your hike in the Whites. Super friendly staff, shuttles, laundry, CLEAN hangout area, cable / the Netflix, and a delicious breakfast all for $33 / night. Steal of a deal. Call ahead,, they book up!!)
And we earned it, damn it! The Wildcat slackpack was the end of The Whites which were everything everyone told us they would be. Picture perfect in every way. But you really have to work hard to earn those views. We were currently sitting 16 miles away from the NH – ME border. Georgia to Maine was about to come true.
But it’s not just Georgia to Maine. It’s Georgia through Maine with Katahdin standing 282 miles past the state line. We still had nearly three weeks of hiking ahead, and I could hear my spirit waning. And the Southbounders had reported that the first half of Maine was equally as difficult as the Whites had been. Great.
I knew I wasn’t going home with 300 miles left, but I was getting exhausted in every way. The Lyme, the sunburn, the inevitable bruises and scratches, the smell, the rain, the hunger. I was getting really, really over the trail, yet knowing as soon as we were done, I would miss it.
But Maine, in all her glory, awaited, and after enjoying our zero day, we continued hiking north.