Ethan here, stealing the spotlight from Summerset for a post. I’ve been working on the 48, and expect to finish this summer. I was at the AMC awards ceremony a few weeks ago to see Summerset collect her certificate for completing the 48. I came away from that ceremony sure of one thing: I didn’t want to finish my 48 on Owl’s Head. I wanted it out of the way.
And so…yesterday was the day. The weather seemed reasonable, and so I went for it. This was an 18 mile hike with several stream crossings, 2 of which were sort of a big deal. I can summarize this hike as follows.
- Park at Lincoln Woods, full of anticipation.
- Fly over the bridge and march aggressively north for a few miles.
- Turn left, and march aggressively west.
- Stop short and scratch your head at a big whacking stream crossing.
- Finally pick your way across, and bushwhack around until you find the trail again.
- March for a little longer, and struggle over the next oversized stream.
- Now pick your way for a few more miles across a narrowing trail with spots of boggy mud. Enjoy the sounds of Lincoln Brook cascading down the rocks as you hike.
- Two smallish stream crossings later, find the two cairns, axe-blazed trees, and fallen logs that mark the path to Owl’s Head slide, the way to the top. You’ve come 8 miles.
- Climb at a steep angle for several tenths over a loose, gravelly mix of sharp rocks and vaguely attached trees and shrubs.
- At the top of the slide, you end up back in the woods, but the terrain is still quite steep, and includes a section where water cascades down. So, it’s not only steep with bad footing…it’s also wet.
- A little longer, and you get into a flat area. A sign points you to the left (north), indicating .25 miles to the true summit.
- Wander through an area of excessive blowdowns and left-to-right-and-back-again path, which for me was able to be followed because of an somewhat visible monorail, trees stripped bare of bark, and the broken limbs of those who had come before me. Trees limbs broken by hikers, I mean. I didn’t see any human limbs left on the trail. (At least, not any broken ones.)
- Finally make it to the summit. There’s a cairn in a somewhat open but still wooded area that marks the spot. I had cell signal clear enough with my Verizon iPhone that I was able to call Summerset to let her know how I was doing.
- 9 miles have gone by, and now you have to go back.
- Pick your way carefully back the way you came, being aware that it’s easy to get turned around up there, so be patient, don’t lose your bearings, and take your time until you finally arrive back at the path that takes you more or less straight down.
- Go carefully down the tricky path until you get to the top of the slide. Somewhere in here, I lost the rubber tip on one of my trekking poles that were strapped to the back of my pack. In a few spots, I was on my backside, and the bottom of my pole would hit the rocks behind me. I’m guessing that’s where I lost one of the tips.
- There’s a path parallel to the slide (on the right as you come up, on the left as you head down) that lets you bash your way downhill using the trees as handholds to control what is in essence a highly controlled fall down the side of Owl’s Head.
- The slide side path runs out, and you have to face the loose gravelly mix of the slide for a few hundred vertical feet down. On a clear day, there are views to Franconia ridge and more. You can see Garfield all the way to your right, and as you sweep around to the left, you can see Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty, and Flume off to the far left. The “V” of the Lincoln slide is prominent. The ridge is the only rewarding & unobstructed view you’re going get, so drink it in.
- Back at the bottom of the path, you come back to Lincoln Brook trail. You’ve got 8 miles back. Turn left, and start marching.
- Depending on your level of fitness, the 10 miles you’ve already come maybe was no big deal. As far me, Owl’s Head slide just took it out of me. It took me longer to get back down than it did to get up. I really, really had a hard time with it, and by the time I was back at the bottom, I’d already done enough mileage to account for an average day’s hike. Now, I was still feeling decent, but…
- The stream crossings on the way back are an interesting challenge. You’re tired, and maybe a little wobbly. Your balance isn’t as good as it was on the way out. So, there’s a little more deliberation required. The two largest stream crossings were a mix of apathy about getting wet, and a desire just to get safely across and keep hiking. I just plunged on in, but was only up to my thighs at the deepest. On the way in, I’d shed shoes and socks as I didn’t want to do all those miles in soaked shoes. On the way back, I didn’t care.
- With the last major stream crossing behind me, I had something like 5-6 miles to go. These are easy miles, mostly flat or slightly descending. If you’re in shape and do those sorts of distances often, you’ll march out as fast as you can, and the biggest battle you’ll fight is boredom. Once you make it back to Lincoln Woods trail, it is tedious, especially at the end of a long day. Boredom was not my biggest challenge. I was just out of gas. My feet were sore, I lacked energy, and my speed kept declining. At the very end, I was trudging along, looking up the trail for the next sign that would give me confirmation as to how far I had left.
- Oh. And did I mention the rain? I got rained on solidly for a good couple of miles in that last stomp down Lincoln Woods trail.
In summary, bagging Owl’s Head in a single day is a serious, long hike. I overreached. I was beat-down tired on the way out, and fighting very sore feet where each step was uncomfortable. Mentally, I was fully baked. I just wanted to get out of the woods, out of my shoes, and off my feet. Yes, I bagged the Owl. But at the same time, the Owl bagged me.
There are two other hikes I’ve done where I felt similarly pushed. On a multi-day hike with Summerset last summer, we went from Lake of the Clouds hut to Highland Center via Mt. Isolation in a day. That was a LONG hot day that included one stretch of poorly maintained trail, and was the third day in a three day journey that took us over most of the Presidentials starting from Appalachia. While she’s now well past me in her level of fitness, we were both pretty done by end of that day. The other day that beat me down was when I did Carrigain the first time, and my knee was causing me a lot of pain while I descended. I couldn’t wait to get out of the woods that day either.
I think Owl’s Head was the hardest I ever pushed myself, though. It’s pretty tough to hike 8 miles just to get to a trailhead, and then find that the trail is as hard as anything in the White Mountains. And then you have to go back! I understand why a lot of people hike in and camp at the base of the slide. That might make sense for you, just depending on your level of fitness. No matter what, don’t underestimate this hike. The book doesn’t really do justice to the difficulty to be encountered negotiating Owl’s Head Path.
And now for the pictures.