It’s our second day on the trail. We’ve come in early June, midweek, to better our odds of avoiding the masses. Keith is a good partner for this mission. An old friend with whom I’ve logged innumerable miles, he just moved back to New Hampshire after several years in Denver.
“Sure, the Whites get busy,” Keith offers, “but so do many of Colorado’s 14ers.” I nod, point taken.
Even with as much time as I’ve spent in bigger, grander Western ranges, I still love the Whites, with their airy ridgetop trails, weathered granite faces, and extravagantly green valleys. Those are many of the same reasons that millions—millions—of other people love the Whites, too. Is that a problem?
I put that question to Gene Daniell, editor of the AMC’s White Mountain Guide and a member of their Four Thousand Footer Committee, which registers hikers who reach all 48 White Mountain summits above 4,000 feet. In recent years, the number has leapt from 160 annually to around 220.
Gene puzzles over some hikers’ “unreasonable expectations” of avoiding crowds in banner destinations like the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge. But, he adds, most “hiking in the White Mountains is concentrated along a few trail corridors. There are places you can go and be virtually guaranteed of having the place to yourself.”
Walking Bondcliff’s alpine ridge, with cliffs plunging off to our left and 360-degree views, Keith and I seem to have found one of those places. We’re standing in the heart of the Northeast’s largest federal wilderness, the Pemigewasset, a long day’s march from asphalt. To the southeast, Mt. Carrigain looms like a resting elephant. Mt. Washington shows scattered patches of snow through a veil of haze. West of us, the long rampart of Franconia Ridge seems an impregnable wall of forest and stone.
And we have only clouds of black flies for company. Our solitude seems to push the invisible wilderness boundaries back even farther, to swell distances and contours. Sharing this spot with 7 or 23 other people would shrink it in our minds and rob us of this expansive quietude; it would stifle our whispered conversation with the wind.
We climb the boulder-strewn trail up Mt. Bond, plop down against a summit boulder for lunch, and watch the sky grow overcast. From Bond, we descend into subalpine forest where lady’s slipper blooms, then ascend to the flat top of Mt. Guyot, bright with the tiny white petals and rich green bedding of diapensia. We slog up 4,902-foot South Twin Mountain, where the wind throws roundhouse punches of arctic air cold enough to chase off any crowd. Then, down yet another rock-strewn trail to the AMC’s Galehead hut, we find refuge from a brief rain among 15 to 20 guests there on a Thursday afternoon.
The AMC’s huts have their supporters and detractors. Some say the huts increase crowding by attracting people who otherwise would not sleep in the mountains. Others maintain the huts manage crowds by concentrating impact. There’s truth to both arguments, but I’ve stayed in huts and don’t begrudge folks the experience.
Keith and I plunge back onto the trail, which bounces up and down like a kid on a trampoline until the day’s last half mile—a hands-and-feet scramble up wet ledges and boulders that more closely resemble cliff than footpath. The challenging conditions beg the question, “How could this draw a crowd?”