The AT is a rough trail. At times it is nothing more than a game path traveled and kept packed by humans traversing the mountains. As you travel further north, the frequency at which you say “What the HELL?” tends to increase. I’m talking about the times where that familiar white blaze is painted in a place where no sane person would expect. WTF? Seriously? More and more do these words pass your lips as you push further into the North.
The great thing about following a game trail is that it generally follows a good route that takes you somewhere useful. This is not so with the AT. The AT used to follow a practical route, but now follows one that can be described as “retarded.” Nowhere is this more true than during its pass through the Mahoosuc Notch.
After hiking for over 3000 miles, I have a pretty good feel for the trail and can sniff out a political re-route. A camel is a horse designed by a committee. In the case of the Appalachian Trail, it is a route designed by the ATC (a committee), with results looking nearly as bad. I can’t say for sure that the original AT never went through the Mahoosuc Notch. However, my gut says it didn’t, and my gut has been proven accurate regarding this subject in the past.
What’s a hiker to do? I just suck it up and press on at 1 mph through the toughest and most interesting part of the trail.
Ice has been reported in crevices year-around. The notch is a cold and craggy place. I went through and what I believe to be the most challenging time- when it’s covered with a little snow. Zero snow means rock hopping, tons of snow means floating over obstacles, but a little snow means everything is slippery, and you don’t know whether you’re jumping on a boulder, a drift, 3 inches, or into a 15 foot hole in the ground that iced over. The passage through the Mahoosuc Notch in November is dicey to say the least.
It starts with a steep descent into the notch itself. This is pretty much par for the course in Northern New Hampshire and Southern Maine. These deep gashes in the mountains are formed by ancient glacial activity and make for treacherous and exhausting up-and-down hikes. The descent into the notch is mild compared to some of the climbs in the region. That was where the easy part of the day ended.
Upon reaching the bottom of the mountain, the trail levels out and heads north through a valley. Shear cliffs line the depression and soon you are passing large boulders. It is geologically fascinating.
Passing boulders goes to scrambling over boulders fairly quickly. Scrambling over turns to squeezing under. I learned what “most difficult mile” meant.
The most important lesson was to not trust the white blazes. It’s actually a lesson every hiker should learn before embarking on the Appalachian Trail: If the trail looks like it is about to do something dangerous or stupid, don’t follow it. Use your judgement.
While squeezing out of a cave the AT was routed through, my pack caught on the top boulder. My feet slipped and I simultaneously racked both shins against a hard rock. I sat there for a few minutes making that repetitive, “SHHHHH….AHHH” pain noise. It sucked. That’s why they call them the Mahousucks. One shin bled, the other bruised.
About half way through the notch, I started making good judgements and forging my own way. I no longer followed the trail into dark caves when there was an obviously better way around. The coolest part was hearing water roaring underneath the boulders and snow I was climbing over. When the stream would break through, it was magical to see.
I hiked along this stream for about 200 yards further than I needed to, because I missed where the AT exited the notch. When I finally rejoined the trail, life was good. Even though a steep ascent met me immediately after the slowest mile on the trail, it was a breeze because I didn’t have to scramble.
This day came in at less than 5 miles…Maine will slow a hiker down. The Mahoosuc Notch was tough, interesting, and fun all at the same time. What it was not, was a trail. Anyone that tells you there is a trail through the Notch has never been there. There is a route…not a trail. Write that down.