Climbing "The Rockpile"

Also known as Mt. Washington
Elevation 6,288' -- Highest summit of the Presidential Range
in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

Everything you've ever heard about this mountain is true. It is the highest, nastiest, rockiest thing around. The climb is surprisingly difficult, the weather can turn nasty in a heartbeat, and climbers can find themselves in a pile of trouble. Otherwise, a hike to the summit is spectacular.

Ally and Bryn at the Worst Weather in America sign

The environment above treeline (5,000') is best described as "sub-arctic," which in the wintertime becomes downright arctic. It is as treacherous as it is beautiful, so all but the hardiest souls opt to climb on clear, sunny summer days. As a result, the trails can get unpleasantly crowded.

Fortunately, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains at least a half dozen different routes to the summit cone. The most direct paths are painfully steep, while the easier paths are downright long. At the base of the summit cone, also known as "The Rockpile," the routes combine into what are essentially two trails for a final assault on the summit. Both will hurt your feet and lots of other body parts.

Of the various approaches to the mountain, two of them follow the backbone of the Presidential Range; one from the north (along the flanks of Mt. Adams, Jefferson, Clay, etc.) and the other from the south (humping over Mt. Monroe, Eisenhower, Clinton) along the original Crawford Path. Each of these has a number of jumping on points. They host the Appalachian Trail and are the longest routes to summit -- more appropriate for a long weekend trek.

The most popular approach is from the east. Using the AMC Hut in Pinkham Notch as a base, climbers follow trails up Tuckerman's Ravine, the Boot Spur, the Lion's Head, the Knife Edge, etc. These are steep, potentially troublesome trails for the novice. They are also crowded, as the overflow parking lots in Pinkham Notch attest.

The Cog Railroad

An hour or more away by car, the west side approaches are slightly longer but generally less treacherous. These are the the steep Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, and the more gradual Jewell Trail. Both originate from the same parking lot near the Cog Railroad base station. Of the two, the Ammonoosuc has claimed the most dead and mangled bodies over the years. But on clear summer days, even the casual hiker will enjoy a safe climb if he or she sticks to the trail.

approximate diagram of the western side of Mt. Washington

We began our journey on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail shortly after 10:00 AM on a sunny Saturday, July 2001. The sizable parking lot was at least half full, which promised a busy trail.

The first mile was an easy hike through mixed northern forest. The overall feeling was pleasant; sunlight occasionally sifting down through brilliant green all around. Eventually the trail joined the raucous Ammonoosuc River, which is more of a large mountain stream than river at this stage. At 1.4 miles we encountered the first monument, memorializing Herbert Young, a student from Dartmouth who ran out of gas on that very spot one December evening in 1928.

After the easy stroll through the forest, the monument seemed like such a shame. More than one person commented: "But he was so close...why couldn't he make it the rest of the way?" Disregarding the fact that the parking lot and pay phones weren't there 80 years ago, the hike ahead would make the answer crystal clear.

The next major landmark was Gem Pool (2.1 miles) which is a pretty spot, but quite crowded when we passed through, so we didn't linger. It was also an opportunity to pass at least 20 hikers that would potentially clog the way.

Immediately after the pool, the trail heads straight up the ravine wall. The hour after the pool is where those who can't "walk the walk" turn around and walk back. It is on this stretch where the trail punches up out of forest; trees thin and start getting smaller and smaller, disappearing altogether near the Lake of the Clouds Hut.

We made one wrong turn on the ravine wall; dozens of false trails shoot off onto ledges and down into mini flumes. No harm done -- we simply turned around when the side trail petered out -- but these sidetracks have proved deadly to others. Some unfortunate souls have followed the faint trails in poor weather, slipped and found themselves tumbling hundreds of feet down the ravine. The lucky ones end up with but a few broken bones. The only pain we experienced was the added steps on our brutal climb to the hut.

Leaving the hut.  The rise in the left hand side of the photo is the side of Mt. Monroe.

Just about the point when I seriously needed to rest, we came upon the AMC's Lake of the Clouds Hut in the col between the Mt. Washington summit cone and Mt. Monroe. Some clarification here: The Lake of the Clouds isn't really a lake, and the Lake of the Clouds Hut isn't really a hut. The latter is more of a mountain lodge with food service and dormitories, and the former is but a cold shallow pond. Most importantly, the Hut is a place to rest, eat lunch, buy coffee and dessert, snacks, and generally recharge before pushing on to the Rockpile.

From the Lake of the Clouds, the trail toward the summit is deceptively easy at first. The radio antennae, weather instruments, buildings and the rest of the summit claptrap are clearly visible. The Hut has been a pleasant surprise, and the rest will be easy...

Climbing the rockpile.

Sandy climbing the rockpile. The col is behind her; the Lake of the Clouds and the AMC Hut are visible below the summit cone of Mt. Monroe. Elevation of Mt. Monroe is 5385'.

We powered up to the base of the rockpile, and then the fun began. A route that looked so easy and direct reveals itself to be a number of agonizingly steep switchbacks over a jumble of nasty granite. It is brutal, exhausting work; and it occured to me that almost any one of the 90 billion rocks would suffice as a tombstone. The only real satisfaction was watching the hut crew -- they call themselves "the croo" -- hiking the other way with 70 pounds of provisions strapped to their backs: Canned tomatoes, canned peaches, sacks of carrots and potatoes, and whatnot. I was in pain, but at least I didn't have to do that.

Arriving at the summit is satisfying but strange. Sweating, thirsty, mangy and exhausted, we were immediately face-to-face with old men in polo shirts, old ladies walking with canes, perfectly coiffed coeds with stylish outfits, babies in strollers...all refreshed and not winded in the least. We just realized a major accomplishment, yet we were almost beaten back by the crowds of gawking sightseers recently arrived by Cog Railroad or the toll road. It was almost a letdown.

Leaving the summit behind

After an hour relaxing and snacking in the modern summit building, we began our descent toward the Jewell Trail. A much less travelled connector trail leads off the summit to the Westside Trail, which eventually crosses the Cog Railroad and joins the Gulfside Trail. Just beyond the tracks, this trail runs alongside the Great Gulf (hence the name) which is an enormous gulley in the side of the Presidential Range. Here the rocks are somewhat less plentiful, the path is easier, and the view is outstanding. As stunning as it was from my seat on the Cog some 15 years earlier, it was even more compelling on foot. Every step brought a slightly different perspective to the rugged beauty of the immediate surroundings.

Approaching the Great Gulf, Mt. Clay behind

After we skirted around the Great Gulf, we paused to watch the "crossing in the clouds" on the Cog, which occurs when three trains arrive at the same spot. A strategically placed siding comes into play, and the scene resembles a noisy ballet as the little steam engines shuffle about. In a few short minutes the two ascending trains passed the descending train, so it was time for us to push on as well.

Brynna alongside the Great Gulf.

Photo: Brynna alongside the drop into the Great Gulf. In the photo above this one, Ally is approaching the Great Gulf; she was motoring ahead of me so I asked her to turn around for the photo. Behind her, the first knob is the summit cone of Mt. Clay. The photo below shows Ally beneath the summit of Mt. Clay. She's almost at the point where the Jewell Trail drops off of the Gulfside Trail. Elevation of Mt. Clay is 5532'.

The trail soon leads beneath the summit cone of Mt. Clay, which resembles but a mosquito bite of rocks next to the massive Mt. Washington. At over 5,000' elevation, Mt. Clay is no slouch and easily worthy of a climb. Since we were well into late afternoon, we passed beneath it. Even though it was a much smaller rockpile, it was still a rockpile, and we'd had enough for one day.

Approaching the Jewell Trail, Mt. Clay behind

The assorted connectors finally join the Jewell Trail below the peak of Mt. Clay. While the Jewell Trail is a much more moderate grade, the portion above treeline is still more suited to mountain goats than hikers. It seems to be just an extension of the rockpile, and unsure climbers find it slow going. The descent is preferable, however, to the nasty incline of the Ammonoosuc Ravine.

The Jewell Trail eventually winds into scrub trees, and then further into the mixed northern forest. It follows the north shoulder of the Burt Ravine along a moderate, but long, downhill grade. We found it painfully long. Eventually, the Cog was back within earshot, and we were lulled into believing that the end is near. After traversing the shoulder, the trail led us to an open view on the side of Burt Ravine, and to our great dismay the base of the Cog (near our parking lot) still appeared to be a long, long way down.

crossing the last stream before the end of the trail

The Jewell Trail eventually returns to the parking lot, on the opposite side of the road. It features a couple of interesting stream crossings, but is not as compelling a trail as the Ammonoosuc. But it seemed to be an intelligent way down; in fact, our loop is the route I would recommend to any first time climber. It is approximately 9 miles roundtrip. We were back at the car by 7:00 pm, and in much better shape than our climb of the much easier Mt. Webster almost one year earlier.

More climbing? Please click here for a short climb on the side of Mount Rainier
More New Hampshire? Please click here for a visit to "America's Stonehenge."

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