Every May, I try to fit in my “end-0f-the-semester hike”, a few days after completing grades and graduation. In May, this hike usually involves some snow and ice, along with cool air, few people. and open vistas.
I love my job as a community college teacher/administrator. But working with students from all ages and walks of life, I encounter more than the typical share of life’s challenges compressed into 15 weeks: students with depression and anxiety, illness and emergency surgeries, suicides and overdoses (usually of family members but sometimes a student), and other troubles, plus a couple of annoying cases of blatant cheating. I have plenty of students without such troubles, but the weight of those who do tends to build up over the course of the semester.
My work with students is a sacred space of sorts. I usually can’t do anything about the other issues, but I can help them learn to find good sources, or create smooth transitions in paragraphs, or develop an idea into a solid short story.
My end-of-the-semester hike is both a way to celebrate the finish and to enter my own sacred space, where the clutter and noise of the semester subsides, as it must, when I am navigating an icy patch of leftover snow on a steep trail.
This May, I decided to conquer Mount Monroe, one of a handful of 4,000 footers left on my list, a 7-mile round-trip hike via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, also known as the Ammo trail — 2,900 feet of elevation gain, most of it in one steep mile up the Ravine.
On Friday morning, I set out at a good pace through the forest of fir and birch trees. Without the hardwood foliage, the forest was both shady and full of light.
After an easy mile, the trail began to climb along the Ammonoosuc River. The tumbling river still shows much evidence of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 when a wall of water crashed through these mountains. I was planning to hike the Ammo Trail that weekend with my family, with an overnight stay planned at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, but the Forest Service closed down the White Mountain National Forest, a good decision that probably saved some lives and lots of worry.
After another (relatively) easy mile along the river, I reached Gem Pool. But I knew tough times were coming — 1,562 feet of elevation gain to the Lakes hut at the head of Ravine, then another third of a mile to 5,372-foot Mount Monroe.
Sure enough, the hike from Gem Pool was basically straight uphill. Is it the toughest mile in the White Mountains? I’m not sure if it’s any harder than Kedron Flume Trail up Mount Willey, or the mile from Galehead Hut to South Twin Mountain. Since I’ve hiked those trails, I knew I could get up the Ammo. But could I get down?
Even with the steeps, I couldn’t stop smiling, as I discovered waterfall after waterfall. I’ve never seen so many beautiful waterfalls on one trail, except in Iceland. As I approached the upper half of that mile, I began to encounter patches of hard-packed icy snow. The sun had softened up the snow, and on flat spots, it was easy to walk across.
But when the trail inclined, I had to consider whether to pull on the microspikes. Sometimes I could get around the icy patches, but since I was alone, I erred on the side of caution, and pulled on the spikes, then pulled them off, then pulled them on again. On the last quarter-mile below the Lakes hut, I wore the spikes continuously and they gave me confidence to work my way up the steep slabs of rock and snow.
Earlier that morning, I’d had delusions of grandeur, of possibly summiting Washington, or at least hiking over to the Jewel Trail after completing the hike to Monroe. By the time I arrived at Lakes, however, I knew that I would ONLY be climbing Monroe — more than enough for my first major hike of the season.
After passing the Lakes hut, and shedding my spikes, I continued to the junction of the Crawford Path and the Mount Monroe Loop and climbed up a pile of rock pile to Mount Monroe. Above treeline, I encountered no ice, just some patches of soft snow leftover from a storm two days earlier. The trail to the summit is a bit of tricky climb on rocks, but just a third of mile from the junction, so it didn’t take me long to get there.
On Mount Monroe, I enjoyed a quick lunch as the wind picked up and gray clouds hovered above Mount Washington. Although the forecast did not predict any storms, I know that in the Presidentials, the weather can change quickly. I made my way down to Lakes, and rested a bit on a sunny bench there, out of the wind. It was lovely to sit by the always-busy hut with no people except a small AMC research crew out collecting data on flower blooms.
Now, it was time to descend the Ammo. I was definitely glad I had my spikes. Carefully, I picked my way down the trail, sometimes sliding on my butt. The quarter-mile from Lakes into the woods was laced with hard-packed slippery snow, and demanded total concentration.
At one point, a text message beeped from my husband. I stopped to text him back, asking him not to text me again. I was confident that I could get down, but knew that I had to completely focus on the trail.
The waterfalls were still beautiful, but I couldn’t appreciate them quite as much on the way down. After the steep descent, I was relieved to get to Gem Pool, and to the easy hiking from there to the parking lot.
By then, the challenges of the semester were long gone, erased by the work of climbing up and sliding down rocks, reaching for sturdy branches, and putting one foot in front of the other. Now, I’m ready to begin again.
Sources and Resources
The 4000-footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History, by Steven D. Smith and Mike Dickerman. Always a great resource, especially the view guides.
Checking the Higher Summits Forecast, from the Mount Washington Weather Observatory, is a must before hiking in the Presidentials, where weather conditions can vary dramatically from the Valley.
Note: The Ammo trail is easy to follow but not well-blazed, so hikers need to keep an eye on certain turns where arrows guide the way. Also, a variation of this hike from the Cog Railway parking lot cuts about a half-mile off the hike.