The agony and ecstasy of climbing four-thousand footers: Mounts Willey, Field, and Tom

Okay, so the tight contour lines on my map suggested that the route up to Mount Willey via the Kedron Flume Trail was horribly steep.  And the guidebook described this upper portion as a “very rough and steep climb,” as the trail climbs 2,350 feet in 1.4 miles.  But the hike to the summit only totaled a combined 2.4 miles.  How hard could that be?

Now, I am dying as I climb straight up the eastern flank of Mount Willey in New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch.  This climb has got to be one of the toughest miles in the White Mountains.  I groan, pause, look up at a cliff, where eight ladders are built into this rock slab side of the mountain.  I know I can get up the ladders, which are well-constructed and hint at people, tools, civilization.  But how much longer will I have to continue hiking straight uphill before reaching the summit of Mount Willey?

Looking up the ladders on the flank of Mt. Wilily

I am alone today on this weekday morning in June. Despite the sweat dripping down my forehead and the steepness searing my thighs, I know I can reach Willey’s summit.  I may not ever publish a novel, pilot an airplane, or catch a baseball, but I will reach the top of Mount Willey.  Although that moment seems very far off today, I know that eventually this one-foot-on-top-of-the-other torture will end. I will reach the ridgeline, the ground will flatten out, and I will take in views of mountains folded upon mountains.

My plan today, after reaching Willey’s 4,285-feet summit, is to continue along the ridge to Mount Field.  Then, if the will remains, to follow the A-Z Trail to the half-mile detour up Mount Tom, a hike of about 8.5 miles altogether. In doing so, I will cross three of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers off my list.  This year, to celebrate my 50th year, I have set a modest goal of climbing five 4,000-footers, fitting in the hikes between work and family responsibilities, Little League, school activities, piano lessons.

After 30 years of hiking in the White Mountains, I’m about two-thirds of the way through the list. I’m not in any hurry to complete it, but since I’ve come this far, I want to climb all 48 of the 4,000-footers.  More than just a goal for a driven personality, the list provides a focus for exploring the endless cracks and folds of these ancient mountains.  And although I don’t always hike solo, I prefer hiking alone to hiking with partners not vested in the same goal, who might give up when confronted with this uphill climb above Kedron Flume.  I’ve come too far to quit now.

Finally, I arrive at the summit of Mt. Willey, unmarked by any sign. Trees mostly obscure the view, but a patch of granite ledge provides a view of Webster Cliffs on the other side of Crawford Notch as well Mount Jackson, and the cloud-cloaked summit of Mount Washington.  Mt. Willey is named for the Willey family, all of whom perished on August 28, 1826 in a rock slide, an event that created headlines across New England.

Willey House (After the Slide). Steel Engraving by W. H. Bartlett (1809-1854), 1839. Originally published in American Scenery, with text by N.P. Willis and engravings by Bartlett (1840). Although the Willey House lasted for a long time and became a macabre tourist destination, the illustration is probably at least partly imaginative, as it was completed more than 10 years after the slide.

Samuel Willey, his wife and five children, plus a couple of hired hands, had operated the Notch House traveler’s way station for several years on the floor of the Notch, in the shadow on Willey’s steep flank.  On the night of August 28, 1826, torrential rains fell, causing floods and destruction of bridges and roads throughout the White Mountains. Perhaps terrified by the rising river or by the rumble of boulders tumbling down the mountain, the family left their home that night to seek refuge elsewhere, possibly at a cave-like shelter that Sam Willey had built in June after witnessing the awesome power of a slide on the mountain across the river.

But at the split-second when Willeys left their house, a river of rock and mud slid down the mountain and buried all of them.   The Notch House they had abandoned was left untouched by the slide, which was split into two rivers of mud-rock debris by a rock ledge outcropping just above the house.  When friends arrived at the Notch two days later, they found no one at home. The family Bible lay open upon the table, suggesting that the Willeys had gathered to pray for their deliverance as rain fell in sheets and rocks hurtled down the mountainside.  Eventually six bodies were pulled from the rubble, but three of the children were never found.

The family’s fateful demise captured the attention of New England and the nation. Artists rendered landscapes of the Willey House and the Notch. Poets wrote ballads. Today, the Willeys live on as the nameless family in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale, “The Ambitious Guest”, a short story about a young man who stops for the night at a rustic tavern in the shade of a hulking mountain.  Below this steep cliff, my car is parked at the Willey House Historic Site, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  A small foundation is all that remains of the Notch House.

I push on, taking in views to the west of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and Ethan Pond, and aiming for Mount Field, 1.4 miles further on.  I enjoy walking through this green world of moss and balsam fir atop the ridge, just me, the forest and an invisible white-throated sparrow whistling in the trees.  Thus far today, I have seen only two other hikers, which is the beauty of weekday hiking in June, even if it comes at the cost of multiple black fly bites.

I’m feeling strong. One benefit of climbing straight uphill for two hours is that the hike afterwards seems easy. I will hit the summit of Mount Tom today.   I’ve got plenty of daylight and my husband has taken charge of the home front, so there’s no reason to hurry back home.   A thin layer of clouds has covered the sky all morning, providing relief from the sun and moderating the temperature.  A slight breeze riffles the trees.

In the Whites, not every four-thousand foot knob or spur counts as a 4,000-footer for the list.  Each peak must rise at least 200 feet above the low point of a ridge connecting it with a higher neighbor.   Mt. Field, at 4340 feet, is only 55 feet higher than Mount Willey.  So while I enjoy the ridge walk, I know I will be heading down into a col and then uphill again.   Day dreaming about beer, (will I be able to find a can of Pamola Xtra Pale Ale in Bartlett or Conway?), I accomplish that little patch of up and down with a couple of slugs of water and minimal sighs.  I’m in the flow now, and soon achieve the summit of Mt. Field, marked by a pile of boulders surrounded by balsam fir.

On the boulder pile, I rest briefly as black flies feast.  Mount Field is named for Darby Field, the Englishman who led the first recorded ascent of Mount Washington in 1642.  Although Field’s 1642 ascent is well-document as the first European to climb the mountain, I’m skeptical of many claims to these ‘firsts.’  Moose hunter Timothy Nash is credited, in 1771, as the ‘first’ to discover Crawford Notch, which surely had long been used as a route through the mountains by Native Americans as well as European trappers and woodsmen (Laura and Guy Waterman’s Forest and Crag confirms, through a variety of sources, that the Nash story is more legend than truth, and that settlers had known of the Notch as a travel route by European settlers as early as 1764).

I push onward into the forest, gloomier now as the sun falls lower.  I check my watch: 4:30.  If I continue on down the A-Z trail, climb Mount Tom, and then head down the Avalon Trail to Crawford Depot, where I have parked my bicycle, I should be out of the woods by 6 p.m.

Although also wooded summit, 4051-foot Mount Tom (named for Tom Crawford) offers views of the red-roofed Mount Washington Hotel from an open patch on the east, and, also, via a short trail to the west, more views of the Pemi.  I am happy to have climbed these three mountains today, but wouldn’t recommend them to a casual hiker.  Too much effort for limited views.

Down, down, down, the last 2.3 miles.  At Crawford Brook, I pick my way across piles of rock rubble, perhaps deposited last summer by the deluges of Hurricane Irene.  Up the bank, then down again, tromp, tromp, tromp: the last mile is always the longest.

Lady’s slipper on the trail.

A white lady’s slipper blooms on the trail just a half-mile up from Crawford Depot, where the Crawford family established the early White Mountain tourism industry in early 1800s. (The family had first established a traveler’s way station for through-travelers in the 1790s, and by the 1830s, the Notch itself had become a destination). This section of trail is a well-traveled path, to Beecher and Pearl Cascades and to the views of Mount Avalon, so I am amazed that this lady slipper has survived, that it hasn’t been picked or trampled on.  Bravo, humans!

Finally, I reach Crawford Depot, where my bike waits.  I strap on my helmet, cinch my backpack, and pedal off down the Notch to the Willey House, two miles below, where my car is parked.  Down, down, down the Notch, my feet scarcely pumping the pedals, and the wind causing my eyes to tear.  Mountains rise above me, as I soar down the Notch.  Am I 21 again, setting out into the unknown?

Interesting images and links:

This 19th century stereoview of Mount Willey (undated), from a collection owned by Canterbury Shaker Village, provides a sense of Mount Willey’s scale in relation to the Notch House. (Scroll down slightly to see the image)

Artist Thomas Cole painted this landscape of Crawford Notch two years after the slide that killed the Willey family.  Also at this site is an abridged version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Ambitious Guest,” from his collection, Twice Told Tales (1841).  Cole is considered the ‘founder’ of the Hudson School. His work, along with other artists such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, helped to create the idea of “Nature” as a place of escape and renewal, and drove the development of the wilderness tourism industry that took off after the Civil War in the White Mountains and other destinations.

Additional sources:

Mudge, John T. B. The White Mountains: Names, Places & Legends. Etna, NH: Durand Press, 1995.

Smith, Steven D. and Mike Dickerman.  The 4,000-Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History. Littleton, NH: Bondcliff Books, 2001.

“The Story of the Willey Family.”  State of New Hampshire Parks and Recreation.  Accessed 6/15/2012.

Waterman, Laura and Guy.  Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains.  Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1989.

About Dianne Fallon

Maniacal Traveler Dianne Fallon writes from a house in the woods in southern Maine. Her interests include travel, hiking and the outdoors, and history, and she is quickly becoming an Instagram-aholic, @themaniacialtraveler.
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3 Responses to The agony and ecstasy of climbing four-thousand footers: Mounts Willey, Field, and Tom

  1. Mary says:

    Wonderful blog! My muscles practically ached as I read your account of the almost vertical hike. Thanks for the beautiful descriptions and photos…the lady’s slipper must have been a lovely discovery; it’s nice that you’ve shared it. The history of the area fascinates, and those are terrific links. Though not a hiker myself, I appreciate your drive to reach those summits!

  2. Pingback: Spooky solitude: The lonely trail to Owl's Head | Dianne Fallon, The Maniacal Traveler

  3. Walter says:

    Times are chnigang for the better if I can get this online!

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