Mount Washington from Mount Madison

Mount Washington from Mount Madison, after ascending the Howker Ridge Trail. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)


Last night, I had a mild dose of insomnia. I briefly pondered what I could do about it. Another time recently, I thought of imagining myself outside in nature, and that was relaxing.

Once, I imagined myself out on a trail, walking peacefully along with a powerful sense of place and noting familiar landmarks. I guess that worked, because I don’t remember being on the trail very long.

Last night, in my temporary sleeplessness, I decided to think of individual mountains in the Whites, then think of the most exotic or unusual trails I have taken to get to the top of them. This was a fun and relaxing pursuit. Also, I think it worked because I only did about five mountains before dozing off.

Anyway, I am writing about it. I may give another sleepless person a new method to try (though it may backfire and wake them up more). But mostly I want to celebrate these dream mountains of reality that we dwell beneath, that offer a myriad of ways to reach their summits. Here are a few hikes — most on trails, some not, from last night’s midnight wanderings.

I started with Mount Madison (5,367 feet) at the northern end of the Presidentials, and worked south for a few peaks. Mount Madison’s northern side has the longest drop in the Northeast from the summit to the river valley in Gorham.

There are some challenging trails up that side. I remembered many years ago, I did the Daniel Webster Scout Trail from Dolly Copp Campground to the summit. It was probably in 1966. It is an old memory. In my youth, I made short work of the long, steep hike.

When you approach the top of Madison from the northeast or east, there are false summits to surmount, the final top almost anticlimactic.

One of my favorite hikes up Madison from that side is the Howker Ridge Trail. It climbs steeply up to a few bumps in the ridge, called aptly, the “Howks,” then slabs up through timberline and, joining the Osgood Trail, crosses a couple of false summits to the top. On one winter hike, I took a favorite picture on top toward Mount Washington.

Mount Adams (5,774 feet), is a spiritual mountain to some, though you could say that about anywhere. My favorite way up is the Lowe’s Path. This is because I am less goal-oriented than some, who might be inclined to do the Airline or Valley Way, more strategically placed for peak bagging.

The historical Lowe’s Path has the Randolph Mountain Club’s Gray Knob Cabin just below timberline, a great place to visit and talk to the caretaker and take a breather and have a snack before heading up to the long unhurried trek across the tundra to the top of Adams.

Also one winter, I hiked up the old Buttress Trail to Mount Adams, from the base of Jefferson Ravine. That trail is now defunct. To get to it, I had to walk in the long Great Gulf Trail from Route 16. On the way out at the end of the day, it started snowing hard, and the woods were very peaceful. But once in my car, the driving was dangerous, quite a contrast to the peace of the woods.

Ah, Mount Jefferson (5,712 feet). My favorite way up it in the winter was walking in the long Great Gulf Trail and up the Six Husbands Trail to the top. I found a couple of water bottles on the steep part of the trail, frequented by university outing club members with bulging packs. Plus, a water bottle insulator, which I still have.

The trail-less Jefferson Ravine held some magic for me as well, and once in the summer I bushwhacked up through it past a “moosey” bog at its base, with plenty of moose sign, and up through stunted spruce to the Six Husbands ridge just before timberline.

Of course, in later years, the hike in the winter up the Jewell Trail from the Cog base and across to Jefferson was ideal. Though, now it seems they charge to park at the Cog.

My fondest memory of Mount Clay (5,541 feet) was on a hike with a girlfriend on a warm mid-fall day. We started up Mount Washington on the Jewell Trail very late, leaving the Cog base at almost noon. Hooking onto the Gulfside Trail above tree line, she felt exhausted.

So, we decided to forgo Washington and climb to the top of Clay. We were already on its flanks. The afternoon sun cast gold on the brown sedge on top. A warm breeze blew through the sedge like waves. We were so glad we had not continued to the zoo on top of Washington. We stood in the saddle on Clay in a world of light and stone and waves of grass below the blue dome of sky.

In my waking dream last night, I didn’t linger on Mount Washington — there are so many routes and trails. Instead, I headed south, all the way to Crawford Notch, where I bounced around to different hikes, before falling asleep.

Mount Crawford (3,129 feet), is a popular lookout above Crawford Notch with a great view northwest into Crawford Notch itself. The Davis Path climbed up to it and past on the Montalban Ridge.

Adjacent to Mount Crawford is a steep trail-less ravine called Sleeper Ravine. It might be named for Kate Sleeper, who started the Wonalancet Out Door Club further south in Tamworth. I don’t know, but the name and the possibility of bushwhacking up the ravine to the Davis Path and descending past Mount Crawford back to the valley was attractive.

I picked a hot September day to do it. An interesting factor — Hurricane Irene had scoured the forest watersheds that August.

When I jumped from rock to rock across the Saco River in Bartlett to the outlet of Sleeper Brook, there was a giant pile of boulders that the hurricane has forced down the brook to its end. There was no sign of water; it was under the rocks. I had to walk up the brook a way before a gentle stream of water appeared.

The rest of the hike up was a delight, as if a natural janitor had prepared the way for me by cleaning out all superfluous debris and rocks from the brook bed. Finally, the brook disappeared into the mountain, and I only had to bushwhack through trees a couple hundred feet until I stumbled upon the Davis Path. I headed down it.

I was almost asleep. I thought of two other bushwhacks, both starting in Carrigain Notch. One was directly up Mount Carrigain (4,680 feet) and the other was up Mount Lowell (3,743 feet), an entirely trail-less peak directly across the trail from Mount Carrigain. Both were hard scratches, and Mount Lowell had fun scrambling as well.

But I will tell you about them some other time.

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