For the 17th year in a row, I carried an American Flag and took to the rocky slopes of the Northeast’s Highest Peak, Mount Washington (6,288′), to celebrate the 4th of July Weekend. After spending 12 hours on the mountain, I sadly never made it to the summit for only the second time in the years carrying on the tradition. What lead to the failure to summit was a series of blunders, poor decisions, bad weather and a one of a kind adventure through a seldom travelled place. This is the story of our Raymond Cataract Adventure…
When: July 5, 2009
Where: Mount Washington
Time: 12 Hours
In all the years that I’ve been hiking in New Hampshire, in all the times that I’ve taken to the mountains in the area of Pinkham Notch, one visible feature always stood out to me. ON the slopes of Mount Washington, right in between Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines, is a large series of waterfalls. The Cutler River flows from the high plateau of the Alpine Garden and tumbles down the mountain towards the Ellis River. This waterfall is best seen from the slopes of Wildcat Ski Area, and is visible at times while ascending the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. It is known as the Raymond Cataract, and my curiosity of its grandeur had finally got the best of me. I’ve taken many ways to the top of Mount Washington and this year called for a change. The options were to either ascend via Nelson Crag Trail or via The Raymond Cataract. I left the choice up to Sarah, telling her that I didn’t think the trip up the Cataract would be too bad. She reluctantly agreed to travel to the Cataract and so it was..
(Picture of the Cataract [Center} May 2007)
I set my alarm for 4:30 am to much of Sarah’s disapproval. I then re-set it to 5am… and when it went off at 5, the snooze button got quite the work-out. I eventually shut the alarm off and we both fell back to sleep, waking at 6:30 and hurriedly stepping out the door and heading north. I mentioned to Sarah that it was very likely that we were now going to have a rather late day, but of course we’d have to see how things played out. When we got out of the car at The AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitors Center the wind whipped through the parking lot. There was a slight chill in the air and the mountain was completely obscured by clouds. We stepping inside the center and filled out the trail register in the event of an emergency. And as we started hiking up the Tuckerman Ravine trail I was quick to realize two big mistakes. I never packed a compass and I left the description for what we were about to tackle back in the car. The description was another mistake. After some online research I found a copy of the 1969 AMC White Mountain Guide which had a rather vague description of the then over grown Raymond Cataract Route. It’s been 40 years since that description was written and it was the last description to grace the pages of “The Bible” and even then the route was described as overgrown.
So with no description, no compass and the bare essentials, Sarah and I continued hiking up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The sun was finally out and it is a god send. 30 of the last 40 days have been rain here in New Hampshire, so any chance to play in the sun is an opportunity to be taken advantage of. We soon came to an unmarked trail junction where a fire road heads north towards Huntingtons. We decided to take advantage of the possibility of a short cut and headed down the fire road. The ground through here was overgrown, moss covered and absolutely saturated. We passed over the Raymond Path and immediately we came to a first aid box just before the cutler River and to the left was a trail I had never seen before. We travelled a few feet up the path and saw a sign hanging from the trees explaining that the Lions Head winter route was currently closed for the season. We decided since we were virtually right next to our river, that we should enter the woods here and begin our bushwhack.
(The Fire Road)
(Lions Head Winter Route)
About 30 yards into the woods I looked to the left and spotted something on the ground. I wandered over and picked up a leki hiking pole. This was an odd place to find such a thing but considering our close proximity to the Lions Head route, I was not that surprised. I handed the pole to Sarah as we proceeded to carry it with us with the intent of adding it to our collection of poles. After climbing a few hundred feet along side the river, I glanced across the river and spotted something else. I crossed the river to investigate and what I found was an old down sleeping bag which had obviously been washed down from up stream. What was mysterious to us is that where we were, and what we saw from here on up, gave us no indication that there is any suitable place for camping making this sleeping bag slightly out of place. A few more hundred feet up the trail and Sarah yelled, “A BONE!” “A What?!” “A Bone!” I walked over and we quickly ruled out the possibility of it being a scapula and identified it correctly as a moose antler. We joked about our findings and wondered what the next thing we would find would be. Sarah guessed a Boot and my guess was the body of a missing hiker who has been missing since June 9th. But trust me… We were NOT looking very hard for that.
We continued our bushwhack up the mountain which was going ever so slowly. It wasn’t a terrible whack but things were definitely starting to get thicker the higher up we went. From time to time we would follow along small herd paths which had been travelled by animals, We spotted a few old boot prints from other hikers (surprisingly), yet no sign of the remnants of an old trail of any sort. In my naivety I thought for sure we’d find the old trail and be able to follow it… not so after 40 years of dormancy. We came to a spot which was a little bit open and warranted a break. We’d left the fire road some 2 hours ago at this point and I could heard the roar of cascading water. I told Sarah I was going to head left and check out the waterfall and I’d be back. I carefully whacked over to the tight drainage and lowered myself cautiously the rocks below. Here I was, after so many years finally face to face with this magnificent waterfall. I stopped for a bio break, took some photos and even spent some time to set up my tripod for a few snaps. While I was gone, Sarah started to freak out at my length of absence and she started blowing her whistle and calling my name. Never once had I heard her as I was all smiles in the water. I took my shoes and socks off and waded in to the other side and felt the mist falling across my face. The sun shone brightly above and this had truly become a place of pure ecstasy.
(Sherpa and the Cataract)
(View across the Valley from The first fall)
I made my way back to Sarah at which point I was mildly scolded for the time I had taken over there, it must have been a half hour or so so the scolding was well deserved. We continued up the slopes of the mountain as it grew ever steeper the further along we seemed to go. Trying to bushwhack our way through thicker and thicker trees and spruce, it was no picnic and getting worse. The worst parts were where a random ledge would appear before us and trying to find a suitable way around it was a chore. We still made decent time ascending the slope but started to wonder if we had gone up the right drainage. Was this truly the waterfall I’ve been looking for? In the description it mentions a part of the waterfall where the trail actually travels BEHIND the falling water. This is what I wanted to see, this is what peaked my curiosity, I had to find it.. I needed to wet my soul and dare to explore further. The forest grew thicker and thicker, it was getting tougher to find a route through the trees and we were using our entire bodies to push, pull, crawl and almost cry our way up the mountain.
(Sarah trying to find a way up through the thick brush)
And then the sound of the rushing water grew louder again. I told Sarah I wanted to travel left again and check out the river. I pushed through the brush and emerged at a rocky opening some 30 feet above the flowing water. Like a true explorer seeing someone so magnificent for the first time that it takes your breath away, I had found it. It could have been the fountain of youth for me when I saw it and I called Sarah to come over. I travelled back through the trees and found her then led her to what I found. We both stood on the cliff side and gazed out over the small open expanse, as the water came roaring off the top and pounded down on the rocks below. The fall has to have been 130 feet high, with all the rain we’ve had the foaming water was a magnificent sight. High winds blew the misty air abound and I told Sarah I was going down for a closer look. And as I looked closer, I saw it, As the water cascaded down the mountain, you could see where the trail had once travelled BEHIND the waterfall. I had made it, this is what I had come looking for and it was a truly fulfilling moment in my life. I went to the bottom of the falls and took a few photos of its magnificence. I took a photo of the water cascading further down with the valley out in the distance. This place was magical indeed and one of the true hidden spectacles left in New Hampshires Mountains. I crossed the river and scrambled up the side of the river grasping tightly onto moss, curious over grown weeds and by pulling on spruce roots. Before I knew it, I was on the far side of the river, staring right into the small space behind the waterfall. To think that this was once the route over 40 years ago, not knowing how many people have been here since.. I knew I needed to seize the moment. Sarah told me she didn’t want me going behind the waterfall… but this is why I had come here. I ignored her and carefully made my way behind the fall. The water rushed beside me, a cold wind blew the mist back in and I was awe struck. The space got smaller and smaller until I had no choice but to step in the water and crawl under getting soaked in the process. It was beyond cold but I had done it.. I made it through… and I loved it.
(The Highest Fall)
(The water continues on)
(The Fall – High Sarah!)
(I’m Going in!)
(Sarah Stays Safe)
From here our entire day changed. What was a relatively harmless bushwhack turned into all out mayhem. Having forgotten the description now wrecked havoc on us. No compass made it even worse. I thought I had found a clearing off to the right so Sarah and I scrambled up along side the waterfall and then headed for it. When we got there it was nothing more then another moss covered, saturated river bed. We simply turned to head uphill. The brush got so thick that it was tiring to move aside. We couldn’t see our feet, we couldn’t see anything. Nothing left, right, forward but only occasionally back could we see subtle views of mountains rising above around us. Our legs and arms were getting scratched to hell and it was slow and torturous. At one point we found some more interesting items in the woods. This time it was silver shiny fabric that was just laying on the ground after having been torn off the pants of some wary hiker. It was definitely some kind of insulant and not very old. We finally emerged after a few hours in a small area of low lying krumholz. We made quick work of walking through this area. As we hiked along I had told Sarah that I thought we were drifting too far right all this time. After emerging into the opening and glancing down at the view, we had indeed drifted too far to the right and we were only making things worse for ourselves.
(Sarah Emerges from the scrub)
(How ya doin Sarah?-Movie)
(Sarah’s In The Scrub)
After the short open area, we quickly realized that we were once again heading into the trees. Things had all ready been tough on us up to this point with a few touchy moments where our exhaustion and emotions were getting the very best of us. I was really feeling guilty for dragging Sarah up this route. Sarah is not one for bushwhacking to begin with and if I knew things were going to be this bad, I would have never taken her up here. She was tired, freaking out, falling, stumbling… you name it… just having a horrible time and it was all my doing. She lost her nalgene at one point and at some point not far after.. she lost her sanity. I did my best to stay calm myself but after a while I even began to lose it. It felt like we weren’t making any progress and I knew we had continued to drift to the right. I was beyond frustrated and the scrub was now so thick and in places it was nearly impossible to push through. I started to tear up and even hyperventilated a bit in not knowing if we would make it off the mountain before dark. It was pretty evident around 3:30 that we wouldn’t be making the summit today, it was now 5 pm. The sun had slipped behind the ominous clouds that shrouded the summit and the winds continued to increase as the temperatures dropped. A lot of people question how someone could die on this mountain, and after today I’ll never question it again. Because death is a very real possibility up here, and for a short time I thought we would be facing the possibility. We soon came up to yet another piece of junk. A HUGE section of sheet metal had blown off of the summit and had rested here. I picked it up and started thinking about how we could use it to build a shelter if needed. Sarah asked, Why don;t we just go back down? Or Left? I stopped to think about it and knew the best route was still up with the Alpine Garden now finally within our sights. If we could make it there, we could walk to the Auto-road or descend via Lions Head. The plans were running through my head as we continued to do the only thing we could do… PUSH UP. It was frustrating, aggravating, scary and insane.
(The Sheet Metal Shelter?)
(Taking in the view)
After countless hours of what seemed like no movement we finally emerged from the thick scrub and out into the reaches of the Alpine Garden. We stopped to put on warmers clothes. Pants, jackets, winter hats and gloves. The wind whipped across the landscape at around 40 mph. Peak gusts were approaching hurricane force (75 mph) at various points throughout the day. The clouds loomed dark over head as they encased the summit cone. We had emerged near to Huntington Ravine affirming that we had indeed gone WAY too far to the right. We now rock hopped our way across the Alpine Garden until we reached the Alpine Garden trail at around 6:30pm. It had taken us 7 1/2 hours to travel ONE MILE. We sat down on the trail and took in a deep breath. A hiker came by all bundled up and he asked us if we were ok. We were now, as we were happy to finally be on a trail. As I looked up at the summit cone I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be sumitted today and for only the second time on the 4th of July Weekend in 17 years, The other time was a torrential rainy day in 1994. Sarah and I decided to take Old Glory out anyway and to at least cary out the tradition of letting her unfurl in the wind and taking some time to remember America’s spirit.
(Let Freedom Ring)
After our break, we started to wander down across the Alpine Garden Trail towards Lions Head, our descent route which we hoped to finish just before dark. We found the headwaters of the Cutler River we gave us the gorgeous waterfalls earlier in the day. We stopped to appreciate where it all begins before heading on. What sunlight did peak through the clouds offered unique reflections in the water on the trail. The cairns marked our way and we soon found ourselves descending Lions head. We stopped for more photos and created a “weather video” for you to see how the wind was up high all the while looking down into the still snowy Tuckerman Ravine. I stood atop the cliffs and let old glory wave once more… sad to not be on the summit but again proud to be an American.
(The Headwaters of Cutler River)
(The Alpine Garden Trail)
(Sarah’s Lovin The Quartz)
(Old Glory from Lions Head with Tucks in the Background)
(The Wind – Movie)
We stopped at Lions Head to fuel up by eating our last sandwhich and some fruity snacks (junk food) before heading the rest of the way down. We felt so alone on the mountain as there wasn’t a single person in sight. On the way down off Lions Head we encountered a hiker heading up the mountain in sneakers and nothing more than a small hydration pack. I smiled because I knew what Sarah was thinking and then she said it… No Sarah.. it’s not too late, it’s never too late in the day and his journey is his own. We met a father and son looking for Hermit Lake Shelter. We continued down the trail enjoying much light conversation and laughing about the day, talking about where we had messed up and how safe we really were. It was a nerve wracking yet enjoyable experience. Pretty certain we travelled on terrain never travelled before, and we still got to fly the flag. And I finally made it behind that waterfall. God Bless America!