|©1997 George Steffanos|
SATURDAY, 9/3/8 3, MILE 1754.6 --- The same sad old story. Originally, yesterday was supposed to be an easy day. I should have been able to take my time over an undemanding stretch of trail and save my strength for the White Mountains. I needed the rest. My legs were feeling a little beat-up from the two big climbs on Thursday and the humping I had to do that day in order to make up for my late start. Then, of course, I blew any chance for a restful day yesterday by getting an even later start. I found myself grinding out more fast miles on tired legs, struggling to reach yet another road crossing by nightfall. What this all boils down to is that my legs were doubly sore today. Shooting pains were running down the muscles of my left thigh on the steep stretches today. Unfortunately, virtually all that today's trail had to offer was steep stretches.
My mission for today was to climb the highest mountain on the Appalachian Trail since Mount Rogers in southwestern Virginia, about 1250 miles ago. I was at the trailhead on New Hampshire Highway 25 at 1:30 P.M. (I know..... I know) Once again, I had my work cut out for me, thanks to a late start. I was looking at a six mile, 3728-foot climb; followed by a three mile, 2932-foot descent into Kinsman Notch -- the kind of backpacking trail that makes your knees ache merely by reading its description in the guidebook.
The Green Mountains of Vermont, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, and most of the other major mountain ranges along the Appalachian Trail are all long, basically continuous ridges. New Hampshire's White Mountains are a series of shorter, roughly parallel ridges separated by deep, narrow, glacier-carved valleys called notches. The terrain is spectacular -- perhaps unsurpassed on the Appalachian Trail, but it is rugged country for backpacking. I will be making my share of long, precipitous climbs and descents over the next week or so. At least I know what I am getting into. I have already backpacked the entire section of the Appalachian Trail which lies between Franconia Notch, the divide between Kinsman and Franconia Ridges, and Madison Hut in the northern portion of the Presidential Range, most of it several times.
There was very little climbing along the first mile, from Route 25 to Jeffers Brook Shelter. That allowed me to make good time early in the hike, but it only meant that the remaining five miles to the summit would encompass most of that big climb. I left a quick entry in the shelter register and resumed hiking.
There continued to be very little climbing along the next mile of trail after the shelter. I passed the first weekend hikers of a typically lively Labor Day weekend in these mountains a quarter-mile past the shelter, at the point where the AT turned onto a dirt United States Forest Service fire road. Two vans were parked at that trailhead, and a bunch of people were unloading a ton of camping gear. It appeared that no thru-hikers were going to be able to make use of Jeffers Brook Shelter tonight. Those people were about to make it their own private cabin for the weekend. The nice thing for me about day-hiking this heavily-used portion of the AT is that I need not worry about jerks like that hogging the shelter in which I had planned to stay on any particular night.
The Appalachian Trail briefly followed the U.S.F.S. fire road before turning onto a paved road for a while. Eventually, the trail turned off that road, passed through some fields, and re-entered the woods. That was the point where the real climbing began. During the next two-and-a-half miles, the trail rose about 2800 feet -- an average grade of about twenty percent. It was a typical White Mountains trail: deeply eroded and covered with exposed tree roots and rocks. I stopped twice, very briefly, on that long climb in order to catch my breath, but, otherwise kept on plugging away. It was an extremely warm day for early September in these parts; I sweated like a politician hooked up to a polygraph. I passed several day-hikers along that climb who looked even worse than I felt. Nice guy that I am, this cheered me up a bit.
The AT finally reached the ridgeline near the south peak of Mount Moosilauke and turned onto the traces of a very old carriage road, which it followed along the ridge for the last mile to the main summit. This road had been built in the 1860's, when a rustic hotel was on the summit of the mountain. The hotel burned down in 1942, and the carriage road has long been abandoned. Today, it is simply a wide, rocky foot trail, lined with eight-foot-tall spruce. Their aroma filled the air, reminding me of my childhood, when my grandfather used to take my brother and me to pick out our Christmas tree. Just for old time's sake, I tried to find the saddest, skimpiest specimen on the ridge and imagine it decorated with my grandmother's exquisite antique ornaments but increasingly-expanding views soon distracted me from this stroll down memory lane.
The spruce gradually diminished in height as I ascended the narrow ridgecrest. Soon, they were little more than stunted dwarfs, and I was surrounded by panoramic views. Eventually, the spruce disappeared altogether, giving way to alpine vegetation as I climbed the summit peak. This mainly consisted of a plant which resembled golden-brown grass, rock lichen, and low shrubs which grew out along the ground rather than up into the violent, destructive winds which frequently lash these exposed summits.
Quite a few weekenders were on the summit. You meet some good people in the mountains as a rule, and most of these were no exception. There were, however, four unbelievable idiots who were off the trail, lying on a carpet of the grass-like plants, all of their gear spread out around them. I guess they noticed all of the signs asking people to please stay on the trail and warning that merely walking on the fragile alpine plants could kill them, but they did not let it trouble them.
After about twenty minutes, I started down. The descent was very steep, even worse than the ascent had been. For about a mile, the trail dropped sharply over huge boulders, with many steps installed along their sheer faces to ease the difficulty somewhat. The steps looked like a fairly recent improvement. I cannot imagine how treacherous that descent must have been without them. It was rough enough work even now.
Nevertheless, it was a very scenic trail, running alongside a series of attractive cascades. Surprisingly, I only ran into two more weekenders along those final miles from the summit to the road. I arrived at New Hampshire 112 in Kinsman Notch at 6:55 -- almost a half-hour later than I had expected to be. My ride was also a half-hour late, so no harm done. Still, I know I am back in the White Mountains when it takes me five-and-a-half hours to hike nine miles with an almost empty pack. The next few days should be quite interesting, unless I can get some early starts. . . Yeah, OK.
It has occurred to me that, while I went to some pains to describe the forests of the southern Appalachians, which I had never seen before this hike began, I have neglected to adequately describe the northern forests, perhaps because they were already so familiar to me from past hiking trips. Tomorrow, I am going to attempt to rectify that omission with a slightly extended entry on the next section of the AT.
SUNDAY, 9/4/83, MILE 1769.8 --- I hit the trail at noon today, meaning that I wasted no time in making things interesting in the White Mountains. I faced fifteen miles of very rugged trail, and currently night has been falling about 7:30. I seem to be unable to function anymore, other than in a crisis mode. I may be growing addicted to risk and adrenaline. Today, I experienced generous portions of both.
It was a steep climb, of course, out of Kinsman Notch, but much shorter than those awaiting me in the days ahead in Franconia and Crawford notches. The surrounding forest initially was mostly hardwoods, with a few clusters of fir and spruce. Through the trees, I had glimpses of a large pond below, just west of the notch. As I climbed, the hardwoods gradually gave way to the fir. The trail was grassy and the surrounding woods were lush and green, moss-covered and carpeted with ferns. The Appalachian Trail slabbed the side of a low knob and reached the ridgecrest in a very flat, grassy col covered by a large bog. The trail crossed the shallow water and deep, black mud on a long series of wooden bog bridges.
After the col, the trail passed through a forest dominated by dark fir trees interspersed with clumps of yellow birch. A mile from the notch, on a wide, flat section of ridgecrest, a side trail called the Dilly Trail led to the right across the plateau and descended slightly to a high rock projecting out over the trees and overlooking Kinsman Notch, with the buildings of the Lost River Reservation visible below and the minor northern peaks of Moosilauke's ridge on the other side of the notch commanding the scene. I absolutely had no time to waste taking side trails such as this one today, and I cannot really explain why I did, but it was a nice view.
From the Dilly Trail junction, the Appalachian Trail climbed steeply over a good-sized knob, descended into a shallow, very mossy col, and crossed a tiny trickle of a brook. It continued along the crest of that low, nameless ridge, crossing a series of rugged knobs and damp cols. Small bogs were scattered through all of the cols and along every flat expanse on the knobs. The forests of the White Mountains, like so many of the major ranges, fall very close to the category of rain forest (being this far north, they get a variety of more interesting weather as well). The forest was intense -- a dense mass of fir with a few spruce and yellow birch mixed in. At occasional intervals, solitary white birch trees stood as lonely, bright sentinels in the gray and deep green twilight beneath the conifers. Trees seemed to be growing out of every mossy boulder and rock outcrop. As dead fir needles fall to the ground, they cover the rocks and begin to decompose. Mosses grow on the resulting duff, holding it together with an iron grip. Then, the trees can take root, often creating the amazing sight of a mature fir tree apparently growing directly out of or through a mossy boulder.
After one last col, the AT ascended to the highest portion of the ridge, where three large knobs formed its summits. All three were heavily wooded, but the first one had a good peephole viewpoint through the trees, overlooking the Pemigewasset River valley, the Loon Mountain ski area near Lincoln, New Hampshire, and a small portion of Franconia Ridge.
A long, knee-killing descent led off of that ridge, followed by a long ascent of the south ridge of Mount Wolf, with one memorable view on the way up from a wooded knob topped by a huge hunk of exposed granite which rose above most of the treetops. It looked back across the ridge towards Gordon Pond, a small, secluded body of water sitting on a high plateau just below the ridgecrest, near the col between that first, nameless mountain I had traversed today and Mount Wolf.
When that climb finally ended at the east peak of Mount Wolf, a short side trail led to another rocky outcrop with an excellent view of Franconia Ridge, stretching from the vast naked granite expanses surrounding the summits of Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln; southward past the spider-web network of rock slides which run like scars along the wooded slopes around Mount Flume's summit; to Whaleback Mountain's sheer, naked cliffs. Much of that stretch will be part of tomorrow's adventure.
Another steep, treacherous descent took me down off Mount Wolf. It seemed endless, threading over slippery rock slabs, mossy boulders, and exposed tree roots. The Appalachian Trail dropped off the ridgecrest and wandered well down the east slope, eventually coming to a crossing of a large stream named Eliza Brook, the first running water I encountered today larger than a trickle. Just before the crossing, a short side trail branched off to Eliza Brook Shelter, where I took a twenty-minute break. The shelter was in a nice location: perched near the edge of a wide, flat, fir-covered ridge about twenty feet above the brook rushing through the shallow, boulder-filled ravine below. Some day, I would like to camp there. Today, I still had eight miles to hike, And I had used up four hours on the first seven miles. My chances of reaching Franconia Notch and the road by nightfall were looking, to say the least, grim.
Nevertheless, that break was a good idea, because the ensuing climb up Mount Kinsman was a bear. The AT followed Eliza Brook back up towards the ridgecrest. At first, it climbed on a weedy, grassy old woods road above the brook, but it quickly descended back to the water's edge, along which it climbed, often torturously, over the boulders filling the ravine. The brook was a typical very clear, very cold northern New England stream. It threaded its way through a narrow defile clogged with mossy boulders and old, mossy blowdowns. I climbed past rushing cascades, small waterfalls, and occasional deep, quiet pools. Rocks were everywhere -- piles of small, loose stones and long, flat, sloping slabs. The trail often threaded through narrow spaces between boulders. It was rough going, and I gradually fell farther and farther behind.
The going got tougher when the AT crossed the brook once more and climbed straight up the side of the ridge, crossing a number of dry, shallow, boulder-clogged ravines. The ground was a mass of hummocks. The slow years had coated rocks with dead fir needles, and trees had grown upon and around them until the boulders were just soft-looking bumps on the forest floor.
The AT finally regained the ridgecrest at the shore of Harrington Pond, a small mountain tarn located in a high, flat, wet sag lying between a low, flat-topped knob and tall, brooding gray granite cliffs on Mount Kinsman's south ridge. The pond was surrounded by a desolately pretty marsh of knee-high golden-brown weeds and low water grasses. The marsh, in turn, was encircled by a forest of low spruce stunted and gnarled by wind and weather. Gray trunks were covered by a green, scaly plant that made them appear leprous. At intervals, the bare, broken skeletons of trees that had lost their grim struggle with the elements gave silent testimony to the harsh, unforgiving climate up there, far above the sheltered valleys. It was a lonesome, beautiful spot, resembling something out of the subarctic. Although little more than a good, fresh breeze was blowing, it whistled through that high sag like the winds at the edge of the world, where the ancient map makers would write, "Here be dragons".
The Appalachian Trail traversed the muddy shore on gray, weathered, old wooden bog bridges and began to ascend Kinsman's south ridge. There were no dragons here -- just another long, thigh-killing climb. The AT bypassed the cliffs which towered over the pond, but there were several great viewpoints atop rock outcrops along that climb, overlooking an immense, L-shaped valley encircled by the lofty, wooded heights of Mount Wolf, Mount Kinsman, and several of their spur ridges. The lower arm of the valley was a high plateau featuring Bog Pond -- a long pond of irregular shape surrounded by an extensive marsh speckled with tiny pondlets. From that height, the marsh looked lovely, but also empty and barren save for a few small groves of conifers. The upper arm of the "L" was the long, wooded valley drained by Eliza Brook, sloping down to Bog Pond's plateau from the base of Kinsman's south peak. Some thoughtful power company had run a transmission line through the heart of Bog Pond, a long scar which detracted from, but did not kill, its beauty.
To the southwest, Mount Moosilauke and its lesser ridges dominated the view beyond the valley. East of them was Loon Mountain once again, and beyond that were the mountains and foothills trailing off towards the low lake country beyond the southern-horizon. Interstate 93, which followed the Pemigewasset River valley, knifed through the green foothills like an open gray wound.
By this time, it seemed I had been climbing forever, but I could now see the crest of Kinsman's south ridge rising above the treetops ahead, and my ascent still had a way to go. I eventually reached the ridgecrest on a small, flat, boggy section covered with stunted spruce. From that spot, I finally caught a glimpse of Kinsman's south peak towering another several hundred feet above me. Make that a long way to go.
The climb up the side of the peak was just as steep as the climb up to the ridge had been. It may even have been steeper -- I don't know; I was too busy inventing creative new profanities as I climbed to pay much attention. It was late -- and getting later.
Ten minutes later, I broke out onto the summit area of the peak, a short stretch of alpine ridge consisting of gray, lichen-covered granite rock, very low scrub spruce, and ground-hugging shrubs of the type which I had seen on Mount Moosilauke. There were 360-degree views: Franconia Ridge to the east, Moosilauke and Loon Mountain to the south, Kinsman's north peak and Cannon Mountain to the north, and the valley and ridge country stretching out towards the Green Mountains along the western horizon. Not far above that horizon was the rapidly-sinking orb of the sun -- a pretty sight, but not too encouraging, considering the six miles I still needed to cover today. The summit was marked by a large rock cairn.
The Appalachian Trail re-entered the woods for a gradual descent into a col and a short, steep ascent of the north peak of Kinsman. It was covered with another forest of stunted spruce, but a large rock outcrop just below the summit to the east provided the best views on the mountain of Franconia Ridge with all of its spur ridges and of Franconia Notch far below. A few hundred feet below me was Kinsman Pond, another secluded mountain tarn sitting on a high plateau. To my north, Kinsman Ridge continued over several knobs known as the Cannonballs to Cannon Mountain, with its extensive ski area sloping down into the notch. I enjoyed the views for five minutes before starting down another rocky, steep descent, along which my knees began to tell me how much they hated me, not in words, but with stabbing pains.
About a half-mile later, at the point were the Appalachian Trail left the crest of Kinsman Ridge, a short side trail led to Kinsman Pond Shelter, located on the shore of the pond. I still had no time to waste, but the situation was already so hopeless that another side trip was not going to make it that much worse. I took a short break on the east shore of the pond near the shelter, at a spot with a wonderful view of both peaks of Kinsman across the water. The pond was another lonely place, surrounded by gnarled spruce woods. The west shore was lined with huge boulders which must have crashed down from the cliffs below the north peak high above, and the bleached carcasses of dead trees that had been washed ashore by the waves. The sun had already set there, and a freshening wind was chopping the surface of the pond into small whitecaps.
The AT descended off the ridge over sheer rocks on the Fishin' Jimmy Trail -- a cute, quaint name for a mean stretch of footpath. Steps installed on the rock faces made the descent possible, but not a hell of a lot of fun. Thankfully, this difficult stretch did not last very long, and what the hell, my knees were already shot, anyway.
Two buildings operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club sat on the shore of Lonesome Lake -- a large body of water high above the notch. They were the first of the eight A.M.C. huts I will be passing along the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains. They all offer food and lodging to hikers. The idea of spending the night there was very tempting, but I had someone waiting for me down below at the road crossing. I still would like to stay there some time. It was a lovely setting.
It was just before dark when I arrived. There was a captivating view of Mount Lafayette and the surrounding portion of Franconia Ridge. The summit was bathed in a pinkish alpenglow, eerily reminiscent of the golden alpenglow from my old daydreams of Katahdin, which reflected upon the still waters of the lake. I had a great picture set up, but some weekenders in a rowboat cruised right into my picture just as I was about to click the shutter. They were looking right at me, but I guess that they thought I wanted a bunch of morons in the frame just to make the shot perfect. I did not have time to wait for them to clear out. The light would not last long, and I was in a deep hole (well..... an abyss, really) for time as it was. I had to frame a lesser shot and shoot it quickly, because they were making a bee-line into that frame.
The Cascade Brook Trail was the path on which the AT descended from Lonesome Lake into Franconia Notch. Its footway consisted of washed-out tree roots and large rocks. I went as fast as I could, and the trail gradually improved. It was dark for most of those last few miles, but I managed to move fairly well by the light of my small pocket flashlight. There was one shaky moment when I took a spill and my light came apart with two pitch-black miles to go, but it worked once again after ten minutes of groping for all of the scattered pieces and putting them back together in the dark.
I was about a mile from the road when the footpath seemed suddenly to end at the bank of a wide brook. Crossing the stream, I could find no sign of a trail on the opposite bank. I was exhausted and hungry. An ordinary man would have panicked in that situation, but a thru-hiker has powers far beyond those of mortal men. I calmly surveyed the situation and coolly threw myself down on the ground, beating it with my fists and kicking it with my feet while I screamed, "I'm going to die in the wilderness!" Then, I had a heart attack and died.
Okay, what I actually did was backtrack along the trail until I found the true crossing of the brook several yards back. I had strayed off of the Appalachian Trail onto a herd path. Soon afterwards, I was at the AT crossing of US 3 in Franconia Notch -- almost an hour late at 8:55. It was rather depressing to have required eight-and-a-half hours to hike fifteen miles wearing a light backpack, but a hot shower, a good meal, and a comfortable bed soon cheered me right up.
Tomorrow, I begin a four-day stretch of hiking the last of the three-small segments of the Appalachian Trail which I have backpacked prior to this adventure. I am looking forward to seeing Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials again. After that, it will be all virgin territory for me, right up to a mountain in northern Maine I have seen only in my daydreams. 368.7 more miles to go.
MONDAY, 9/5/83, LABOR DAY, MILE 1782.9 --- Today marked the end of day tripping for a couple of days. I began hiking one of the longest stretches of the Appalachian Trail unbroken by road crossings -- the twenty-seven miles between US 3 in Franconia Notch and US 302 in Crawford Notch. As usual, I did not get started on the trail as early as I wanted. I wanted to wake up by 6:00 A.M.; I woke up after 8:00. I wanted to be on the AT by 7:30; I set out at 10:30. I wanted to reach Guyot Shelter, where I planned to camp this evening. I didn't.
The section of the Appalachian Trail which traverses Franconia, Garfield, and Zealand Ridges is one of the most heavily-used stretches of trail in the country, and I have known for more than a week that I would be hiking it over the Labor Day weekend. I have dawdled somewhat recently, enough to postpone my entry into this section until Labor Day itself. Although I saw many backpackers on the trail today, virtually all were heading out, while I was heading in. Most of the hikers traveling in my direction were dayhikers. Funny, but I never seem to receive a friendly response from a dayhiker when I say hello while blowing past wearing a heavy backpack.
The Liberty Springs Trail, on which the AT climbs up to Franconia Ridge, is a typical White Mountains access trail. That is to say, it is one long, sadistic climb. I have hiked it in the past, so I knew what I was getting into -- pain. Two factors compounded the difficulty today. One was my carrying a full backpack for the first time in almost two weeks. The second was the continuation of the unbelievable heat wave of 1983. The temperature was in the eighties and the humidity soaring when I began hiking up from Franconia Notch.
On my previous backpacking trips, I always wished to just once make the two-and-a-half-mile climb up to Liberty Springs campsite, just below the ridgeline, without being compelled to stop and catch my breath every fifteen minutes. The trail climbs 2300 feet from the floor of the notch -- a grueling trudge with a heavy pack on one's back. Today, I did it without a stop -- in one hour and twenty minutes. I wonder what I might have accomplished had I nte drenched in sweat. The Appalachian Mountain Club -- the organization that maintains the campsites, shelters, and huts in the White Mountains -- posts daily weather reports for hikers at all those locations. The weather sheet at Liberty Springs called for temperatures in the sixties at the summits today. That is rather remarkable, considering that those elevations experience a climate similar to Labrador in Canada's north country, and it was, after all, September. It was so steamy I could barely make out a trace of the floor of the notch, and the mountains on the other side may as well have been in Tibet, for all I saw of them.
I sat down for ten minutes at the site of the old Liberty Springs Shelter, which has been removed, and guzzled water, finishing the three pints with which I had begun the hike. That works out to a water consumption rate of 5/8-of-a-quart per mile -- a fairly impressive statistic. I refilled the bottle at the nearby spring and headed out once more.
Following another brief stretch of hard climbing, I reached the crest of Franconia Ridge. The rugged climbs continued as I followed the ridgecrest over Haystack Mountain, Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette. The footway was rocky and rough, and the elevation hovered around 5000 feet all along the trail. My lungs had grown used to low-country oxygen levels. Time began to slip away from me in large chunks.
For the entire distance from Little Haystack to Lafayette's north summit, the trail remained above treeline and the ridge was open and alpine. The views remained virtually nonexistent today, hidden behind a thick haze. Nevertheless, those two-and-a-half barren miles were pleasant to hike. Alpine vegetation provided an alien touch to the setting, and the exposure of the ridge allowed me the full benefit of the refreshing 15-30 mile per hour winds cranking past the summits. The perfect days I had previously experienced on that ridge also helped to alleviate any disappointment I might have otherwise suffered.
I passed my last fellow hikers of the day on the 5249-foot summit of Mount Lafayette, the loftiest peak in this section. The haze was microscopically thinner up there, and I could pick out the ghostly visions of Mount Lincoln and Lafayette's north summit, as well as Greenleaf Hut. This building, the second of the eight A.M.C. huts which the trail passes in the Whites, is located one mile down the west slope of Lafayette near a couple of small mountain ponds known as Eagle Lakes. It sits in a wonderful spot just at treeline. I was not headed that way today, however. I still had fading hopes of reaching Guyot Shelter.
Large hawks were circling just below the north summit as I descended towards it, battling the gusty winds. It was a haunting sight and a fitting farewell to the long, narrow, open ridgecrest. Just past the north peak, the Appalachian Trail began an endless, steep descent from Franconia Ridge, soon re-entering the forest.
A mile later, the AT passed through a col and began the traverse of a number of minor knobs along Garfield Ridge. There were no huge climbs, but they were all rugged and time-consuming obstacles. The intervening cols all tended to be boggy. At the beginning of the climb up Mount Garfield's distinctively cone-shaped summit, I passed another lonely, lovely mountain tarn called Garfield Pond.
The 600-foot climb from the pond to Garfield's 4488-foot summit seemed to last forever. On a clear day, rocks around the summit provide a grandstand view of the bowl-shaped Pemigewasset Wilderness, a vast, undeveloped valley draining a semicircle of ridges. Today, there was little more to look at than another birds-eye view of swirling water vapors.
Near the end of the descent from Garfield, the Appalachian Trail passed a spring at the junction with a short side trail to Garfield Ridge Shelter. I briefly flirted with the notion of spending the night there. It was 5:00, and I had only covered ten of the fifteen-plus miles to Guyot Shelter's side trail. The only problem with that idea was that it would leave me with seventeen miles to hike tomorrow, and I had told my mother to pick me up in Crawford Notch at 3:00. I decided to persevere in my goal to reach Guyot, even though that would require hiking well after dark.
From an outlook on a wooded knob a mile-and-a-half later, I caught a glimpse of the climb ahead up South Twin Mountain and changed my mind. The 1500-foot climb looked like Mount Everest at that point, as tired as I was. On top of that, both my legs and my flashlight batteries were seriously run-down from yesterday's night hike down from Kinsman Ridge at the end of an equally long, hard day. I took a lengthy, much-needed rest stop and rolled into Galehead Hut at around 7:30.
This building, the third in the A.M.C. series of huts is located on a high, wind-swept col on the ridgecrest at the base of South Twin's summit cone. The summer season being over, it was no longer fully-staffed, and had stopped serving meals. For a reduced rate, I had a bunk on which to lay my sleeping bag tonight and the use of the stove to make my dinner. The caretaker told me that the forty-six-person capacity hut had been full the previous night, but there were only seven other guests besides myself tonight. I am glad I had the sense to slow down and miss the Labor Day weekend in these mountains.
I came thirteen miles today in nine hours. True to my prediction, the White Mountains have definitely taken their toll on my hiking mileage. Tomorrow, I must hike fourteen miles from here to Crawford Notch by 3:00 in order to be on time for my ride. I am going to get as early as possible a start on the trail as I can, and hope for a better day from my tired legs. I am not optimistic.
TUESDAY, 9/5/83, MILE 1797.4 --- I hiked much better today. Part of that was due to the quick return of my conditioning. Yesterday, my body was rebelling against the excessive abuse I had been inflicting upon it, with my recent late starts and constant down-to-the-wire finishes draining my reserves. Even as I was hiking so poorly, my body must have been marshaling its strength for the long haul. Today, my endurance was back and hiking was a pleasure. The second factor in my resurgence was the mellowing of the trail itself. Today's portion of the Appalachian Trail was a cakewalk compared to yesterday's. I had managed to knock off all but one of this section's grueling climbs yesterday, and I finished the last one, the ascent of South Twin Mountain, right at the beginning of today's hike, while I was feeling my freshest.
I have always been fond of South Twin. At 4902 feet, it is one of the loftier summits in New Hampshire, and the ridgecrest has an extensive alpine zone. It is somewhat more remote from roads than Franconia Ridge, and thus, one can usually find an escape from the hoards of hikers swarming Franconia's summits. Today was no exception. I covered the entire distance between Galehead and Zealand Falls Huts, seven miles, without seeing another hiker. Of course, part of that was due to my timing. Two days ago, during the holiday weekend, I imagine that all of the trails around here were teeming with humanity.
After South Twin, the trail was much easier, but that is a relative term in the White Mountains. I still had to contend with about a zillion rocks and exposed tree roots along the footway and several short, steep climbs. Nevertheless, there was nothing to compare with the earlier grinding ascents and descents, so I was able to maintain a good pace all day. The weather also helped in that respect. The thick haze and humidity once again wiped out all of the great views, preventing me from slowing down to check them out.
From South Twin Mountain, the Appalachian Trail followed the ridgecrest to Mount Guyot, another open summit. The trail then descended along a spur ridge into a col, where it began the traverse of Zealand Ridge. There were a couple of low knobs to cross, but nothing major. There was one nice vista, from a ledge overlooking a small mountain lake called Zeacliff Pond, and the pond was close enough to the ledge that the haze did not obliterate the view completely.
A short side trail about a mile later led to an even better viewpoint, overlooking Zealand Notch from the top of the cliffs forming the western escarpment of the notch. Far below, Whitewall Brook roared through a narrow defile between two sets of precipitous cliffs. The AT then turned away from the cliffs, descending steeply along a wooded ridge to a crossing of Whitewall Brook above the notch, turned again and followed the brook to Zealand Falls Hut, perched against the face of another cliff next to a scenic cascade. I stopped briefly at the hut to chat with the crew and refill my water bottle.
From the hut, the AT continued to descend towards Zealand Notch, passing Zealand Pond -- another small, scenic mountain tarn. The Twinway Trail, which the AT had been following since Galehead Hut, ended here, and the trail turned onto the Ethan Pond Trail, following an old logging railroad grade along the side of Whitewall Mountain, near the floor of the notch beneath the towering cliffs which form the eastern escarpment.
At the junction with the Thoreau Falls Trail, ten miles into my hike, I ran into a group of eight day hikers, the first people I saw on the trail all day. They were a bit lost; I set them off on the right heading before stopping to enjoy the falls. A stream called North Fork plunged down a series of granite steps into a deep pool.
I met only two other hikers on the trail during the remainder of the day. The long, gradual climb from Thoreau Falls to the crossing of a spur ridge of Mount Willey did not slow me down at all. I had to kill a few minutes here and there in order not to arrive at the road crossing in Crawford Notch much earlier than my ride.
The descent into the notch was much easier than I remembered it to be from earlier hikes of this section, or, more likely, I was simply in much better condition. The only real steep stretch was the last quarter-mile descent to Willey House Station Road, which the Appalachian Trail followed for a quarter-mile to US 302 and the floor of the notch. In spite of my deliberate procrastination, I was very early, arriving at 2:40. I felt very good about tackling this difficult section in a day-and-a-half, with a full backpack. After yesterday's hike, I had been a little concerned about how much the White Mountains were going to slow me down.
WEDNESDAY, 9/7/83, MILE 1797.4 --- The television weather report called for high winds and heavy,thunderstorms today, so I delayed my ascent of the Webster Cliffs Trail and the Presidential Range for one day. As it turned out, there was no rain in the valleys today, but the summits were clouded-in all day, and it was probably nasty up there. The valleys and the ridgecrests around here are like two different worlds when it comes to climate.
Thursday, 9/8/83, MILE 1809.4 --- It was mostly cloudy in Crawford Notch at 12:30, when I set out on the Appalachian Trail. A nice, stiff breeze was blowing, the air was fresh and dry, and the day was much cooler than the last few had been. As usual, that 12:30 start was considerably later than I wanted it to be. I was looking to get going before 10:00, but of course I didn't. Same old story.
Climbing the Webster Cliffs was not the ordeal I remembered it to be from earlier hikes. The ascent was remarkably steep, but a great deal of excellent trail construction work had made it a much easier climb than the Liberty Springs Trail had been. I did not take one break until I arrived at the top of the first set of cliffs, with their excellent view of the notch below. I really did not need to stop there, either, but I wanted to enjoy the spot, so I took a two-minute standing break, drank some water, and ate a granola bar.
My first sit-down break was at the summit of Mount Webster. It was 2:15, and I had hiked the three most difficult miles of the day, so I sat down for ten minutes and celebrated with more water and two Pop-Tarts. YEE, HA! Party animal.
The sky had been gradually clearing as I went along, but the clouds moved back in and then some as I climbed Mount Jackson. From the 4052-foot summit, I could see the entire length of the trail ahead to Mount Washington. Mount Eisenhower's summit was slipping in and out of the clouds, and the top several hundred feet of Washington was completely socked-in. From Jackson's summit, I descended back below the trees and continued along the ridgecrest to Mitzpah Spring Hut, located in a wooded col below the summit of Mount Pierce.
I stopped on the front porch of the hut just long enough to eat another Pop-Tart. I considered topping off my water bottle for the trail ahead, but a quart of water still remained. A stiff climb up Mount Pierce was on tap, so I decided not to carry the extra weight. It was quite cool on the ridge after the heat of the past few days, and a powerful breeze was blowing. The weather sheet at Mitzpah called for fifty-mile-per-hour winds at the summits today, and I could find no reason to argue with that prediction as I went along. My legs were soon torn and bleeding from the impact of my body being buffeted by the gale into sharp rocks and bushes adjacent to the trail.
The sun began to re-emerge as I came out onto the south summit of Pierce. By the time I made the main summit, the entire mountain basked in sunshine and the clouds had lifted from the top of Mount Eisenhower, although they hovered dramatically just above the summit. From Pierce's 4310-foot summit, the Appalachian Trail remained above treeline for the rest of the day's hike. I got some excellent shots of the Dry River Valley and Montalban Ridge to the east, as well as the various summits and spur ridges of the Presidentials.
Traversing Mount Eisenhower, the AT skirts the summit, avoiding the exposed crest, on which hiking is not recommended in foul weather such as today's hazardous winds. Naturally, I took the loop trail over the summit. The wind was howling insanely. When the trail turned smack into the wind just as I topped the summit area, I was almost blown over backwards. For a few minutes, things were fairly intense. Fortunately, most of the ridge was partially sheltered from the full force of the blast, once I descended from the actual 4761-foot summit.
After Eisenhower, the trail descended into a col before another stiff climb up Mount Franklin, the first 5000-foot summit of the day. The sky had cleared very nicely by the time I reached this summit. I got some great shots of Mounts Monroe, Washington, and Clay (how did he get in there?) along the trail ahead. The few clouds remaining in the entire sky had lifted well off of the summits, save one -- the cloud that still blanketed the top of Washington, covering just the very tip of its summit cone.
It was getting rather late, so I stayed on the Appalachian Trail as it bypassed Mount Monroe, which I have previously climbed, and did not stop at Lakes of the Clouds Hut, located in the col between Monroe and Washington. I began the final assault on Mount Washington. The mountain's summit resembles a huge, barren pile of loose rocks, and those rocks make the steep climb somewhat tricky and time-consuming. Slowly, I approached the sharply-defined bottom border of the vast cloud as the sun, sinking low in the sky beyond distant Franconia Ridge, tinted it with gold and orange. It was like ascending into heaven. I reached the fringe of the cloud and plunged inside.
The view of distant mountains faded gradually into the golden mist, and then was gone. I was entering another realm that most definitely was not heaven. As I climbed, the fog thickened and the light faded until most of it was blotted out. I ascended through a dark, desolate landscape of black rock and dark gray cloud as a hellish wind screamed around me. It was beautiful, in a strange way, but it was a perilous beauty. I might have been on another planet.
A final surprise awaited when I broke out onto the flattish summit area at 7:00. It was a howling madhouse up there. The wind doubled. I was becoming dangerously chilled and walking became almost impossible. I was tossed about like an old newspaper. I had to lean forward with my arms at my sides and my body extended forward with my nose barely inches above the ground in order to move forward at all into the teeth of that tempest. In that posture, I could have beaten anyone in the world in a Limbo contest. I struggled towards the state-run summit house and shelter. Everybody, Limbo!
Somehow, I made it. I went inside to call my mother and tell her I would be walking down the eight-mile auto road from the summit. The original plan had been for her to drive up and pick me up, but the wind and my late arrival had closed the road. The people at the summit house told me I could spend the night there, and that sounded like a very interesting experience, but I did not feel it would be fair to my mother, who was up here to spend some time with her son.
I discovered that my mother had arranged for me to catch a ride down the mountain on one of the tanker trucks which were going to be bringing fuel for the summit buildings up the mountain all night. The man who let me into the summit house told me he would give me a ride down to where the trucks unload, as soon as one was ready to go back down.
He came back at 8:30 and told me the truck was ready. The speed at which he threaded his pickup down steep hills and around hairpin turns, winding through the maze of summit buildings in zero visibility, was incredible. He must have known every inch of that road; he did not slow down once. The wind was really ripping by then. It took every drop of my strength to open the door of the pickup when we reached the fueling area. Once outside, I could barely walk. I was trying to move forward; the wind kept blowing me backwards. It took me two minutes to make it over to the tanker -- the most difficult few feet I ever walked. The tanker drivers were all wearing parkas in the bitter blast, and I was in shorts and a tee shirt, with just a chamois shirt thrown over them for warmth. I was c-c-c-cold.
Five minutes after we started down, we were below the clouds and wind. It was a gorgeous starry night, with a few clusters of electric lights visible in the valley below. We made it down to the bottom in no time. My memories and the fresh scabs covering my legs were all that remained to me of a wild night on Mount Washington.
FRIDAY, 9/9/83, MILE 1822.3 --- Last night's weather forecast called for increasing clouds today, with a chance of rain tonight. Thus, as I drove to the Mount Washington Auto Road from Gorham, I was not expecting too much. What we got was one of those perfect days which are so rare in the northern Presidentials, but which, for some reason, I seem to enjoy every time I venture into these mountains.
We drove up the road to the summit, and I started hiking at 12:15. I told my mother to meet me at the road crossing in Pinkham Notch at 6:30, and she stayed at the summit house for a while to enjoy the gorgeous day. I climbed over the actual 6288-foot summit of the tallest mountain in New England and started down the other side. The last time I hiked the Presidentials, the Appalachian Trail did not traverse this summit. Thanks to a short connecting trail which links the old side trail to the summit with the Gulfside Trail, it is now officially part of the AT.
I had intended to stay on the AT and bypass the summit loops over Mounts Clay and Jefferson, which I have previously hiked, and take the summit loops over Mount Adams and Mount Madison, the only two Presidentials which I have never climbed. However, the day was so perfect that I had to hike the Mount Clay loop for the best views on the range of the vast semicircular valley nestled in the long curve of the northern Presidentials, known as the Great Gulf.
A lot of hikers were on the trail today. Each time I travel these miles of open, alpine ridgecrest, it always makes me wonder how some people can spend their entire lives down there below the clouds. There is a stark beauty to mountains such as these which cannot be found anywhere else. Even the quality of the light itself is different. At that altitude, the air is cleaner and thinner. Thus, light is considerably less diffused than in the lower world. Everything looks sharp and clean, with sharply defined shadows and strong light-and-dark contrasts. I stood and drank in the beauty. I pondered the futility of memory. If those of us who have walked these ridges could truly carry with us the memory of this place, we could never allow any lengthy period of time to pass without returning.
I did take the AT around the summit of Mount Jefferson. After all, the forecast was calling for increasing clouds. I made my way to Thunderstorm Junction, a spot where several trails intersect in a high saddle between three of the peaks of Mount Adams, and turned onto Lowe's Path for the ascent of the main summit of Mount Adams. It was still a beautiful afternoon, and the views of Mount Madison, Mount Jefferson, and the surrounding valleys made the long side trip to the 5798-foot summit well worthwhile. I hung out for a while before descending into the col between Adams and Madison.
Madison Hut marked an important landmark on my thru-hike. I had covered all of the sections of the Appalachian Trail which I had previously hiked. Everything ahead was now unknown territory. I stopped at the hut just long enough to check on the weather forecast. The A.M.C. weather sheet also was calling for rain tonight. In this col, the Gulfside Trail, which the AT had been following, ended, and the AT followed the Osgood Trail up Mount Madison. The Gulfside had been a nice trail, for the White Mountains, but the Osgood Trail was very steep, very rocky, and somewhat hard to follow.
At the summit of Madison, the ridgecrest of the Presidential Range abruptly, comes to an end. Southward are great views of Mounts Washington, Clay, and Adams. Looking north, the slopes drop precipitously away on all three sides, providing unsurpassed vistas of the Androscoggin River valley and the Wildcat-Carter and Mahoosuc ranges. As I stood there on the summit, I noticed high clouds were moving in fast from the west.
The next few miles of the AT descended sharply along the crest of Osgood Ridge, remaining above treeline for another mile or so. Hiking this stretch of trail ate up an inordinate amount of time. It was one long pile of rocks and the grades were steep. I had to carefully pick my way along. That is extremely frustrating when you are in a hurry, which I was by this time. I was running about two hours late at that point, but I was frequently compelled to stop and crawl down smooth rock faces. All of those starts and stops prevented me from maintaining anything like my usual hiking pace.
Eventually, I entered the woods, dropping below treeline for the first time today. The rocks gradually petered out, but the going did not become much easier. The AT turned right off of the Osgood Trail onto the Osgood Cutoff, which dropped like a stone off the side of the ridge. I had to make my way very carefully down that sheer drop into the Great Gulf. Frustration was eating away at me. I was running later and later, yet I was crawling along -- not because of exhaustion, but because of the treacherous trail. My leg muscles were like caged tigers, eager to explode into action. I threw them a hunk of meat and told them to heel.
I finally reached the floor of the gulf, where the AT turned onto the Madison Gulf Trail and followed it through the Great Gulf Wilderness. I crossed a wide, rushing stream -- the West Branch of the Peabody River -- on a suspension footbridge, and at long last encountered a good piece of trail, where I pushed myself into high gear. It was already dark when I crossed the Mount Washington Auto Road along the crest of a low ridge two miles later. I passed a couple of nice viewpoints along that ridge before the AT began the final descent of the day along the Old Jackson Road, a grassy, abandoned woods road. It was flashlight time again with almost two miles to go.
I made excellent time until the very end, where numerous other woods roads crossed the Old Jackson Road. This section of trail was poorly marked, and I wasted a lot of time hunting for white blazes with my flashlight. Eventually, I began to be able to distinguish the lights from Pinkham Notch Hut flickering through the dark mass of the forest.
I arrived at New Hampshire Highway 16 in Pinkham Notch some time after 8:00 -- more than one-and-a-half hours late. Fortunately, my mother had met another backpacker who was much later in reaching the road than he had expected, so she was not yet in a panic. The forecasted rain had held off, although I hiked into the night. It was once again cool enough along the ridgecrest today that I had to wear my heavy shirt until I passed below treeline. The weather may finally be starting to break in my favor. Perhaps the long, hot summer is coming to an end.
SATURDAY, 9/10/83, MILE 1833.2 --- I started out this morning at 8:40, hoping to cover the entire twenty miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Range in one day, in order to make up for some lost time in the White Mountains. I'll save you the trouble of working out the mileage at the beginning of this entry. I didn't make it. I didn't even come close.
The AT was on the Lost Pond Trail for the first mile today, following the course of the Ellis River through Pinkham Notch and brushing the shore of a pretty lake. Then, the fun began. The AT turned left onto the Wildcat Ridge Trail and began an ascent which made the Webster Cliffs look like a picnic. It climbed straight up one cliff after another. On the plus side, I enjoyed some terrific views of the notch from those cliffs, in spite of the overcast and the fog.
The rains had come late last night, and the threat of more still lingered this morning. I began my hike walking in a drizzle and wearing my rain jacket, but that initial climb convinced me I could do without the jacket. My sweat was soaking me much more thoroughly than the light rain would.
When it finished with the cliffs, the Appalachian Trail traversed about a zillion steep little knobs known as the Wild Kittens. That's a really cute name, but I came up with several I thought much more appropriate as I struggled over the little ba_____s. Eventually, I reached the 4000-foot first summit of Wildcat, imaginatively named Peak E, and descended slightly into a col, where the upper terminal of a gondola ride was located. At a snack bar inside, I quickly chugged down two cokes before heading out to tackle the rest of the ridge.
The climb up to Peak D from there was nothing, but so were the views today from its wooden observation platform. Clouds and fog had smothered the ridge. The fellow at the snack bar had told me that all of this was supposed to burn off as the day went along, but that was not yet happening.
The descent and ascent on either side of Wildcat Col were both steep, rocky, and hazardous. Most of the way, I was compelled to clutch onto trees, rocks, and anything else within reach in order to avert a plunge. The trail over today's entire section was by far the most dangerous in the White Mountains, and that is saying a lot. It was of no help to me that the rain had made the passage over the frequent sharply-tilted, smooth rock faces even trickier today. It felt like ice climbing without the gear.
I averaged about 1.3 miles per hour along the trail today. That brings me to another problem I have with the trail through much of the White Mountains. Having been out hiking now for more than four months, I know my walking paces very well. The guidebook mileages here are not consistent with the rest of the Appalachian Trail. Some of the major discrepancies I have encountered are unbelievable.
I kept falling farther and farther behind the pace I needed to maintain as the day wore on. There were five main peaks of Wildcat, but there must have been dozens of little knobs along the crest that did not qualify as peaks, and the AT climbed them all. Hazardous sections abounded. The day was windy, damp, and chilly, yet I was sweating like a pig.
The descent into Carter Notch was a bear, and considerably longer than the 6/10-of-a-mile length given in the guidebook. I forced myself to move along that stretch at what was at least a two-mile-per-hour pace, yet it still took me more than a half-hour. Give me a break.
I finally got down below the clouds in Carter Notch and even caught a glimpse of the sun. I took a long, relaxing break on the shore of one of the lovely Carter Lakes -- a fairly large tarn encircled by high cliffs. Having finally conceded to myself that I was not going to make it to US 2 by midnight at this pace, a change of plans was required. It was almost 1:00, and I had covered only five-and-a-half of the twenty guide book miles in this section. I decided to take the North Carter and the Imp Trails down into Pinkham Notch. It was another five-and-a-half miles along the AT to the junction with the North Carter Trail, and four-and-a-half miles down to the road on those two side trails. That would add another long climb to tomorrow's hike in order to pick up the AT where I left off, but it was my only real choice.
The climb up Carter Dome from the notch was worse than the climb down into the notch had been -- it was straight up for a half-mile. I swore and I sweated, and made my way up over the rocks. Finally, the trail mellowed a bit to the point where it was merely steep, and I made it to the top. I had climbed back up into the clouds, so there were no views from the alpine summit. It was still a wonderful spot, and I was able to relax and enjoy it now that I had given up on the twenty-mile day.
The Appalachian Trail descended slightly, and then climbed a northern summit of the Dome, known as Mount Hight. It was an excellent viewpoint, but not today. The entire ridge was very scenic, even if the trail traversing it was nuts. The trail down into Zeta Pass was no exception -- lots of steep rocks to crawl down. Zeta Pass was nice. A beautiful spruce and fir forest covered a col so deep it was practically a notch. On the down side, that depth meant another big climb coming out of the other side, which is what I got on the ascent of South Carter Mountain. Fortunately, the climb was merely steep, and I was able to walk it rather than crawl up rock faces. The remainder of the trail today was similar to this stretch, giving my knees a much-needed break from the insanity of the Pinkham Notch to Zeta Pass section.
There were many open areas along the crest on both South Carter and Middle Carter Mountain. The nicest was on Mount Lethe, a knob north of Middle Carter. It was very scenic, even though the clouds still were wiping out all distant prospects. It was past 4:00 when I arrived at the trailhead of the North Carter Trail, in the col between Middle Carter and North Carter Mountain. The AT crossing of US 2 was nine miles away, and I had needed seven hours for the first eleven miles. I was not up for my fifth night hike in seven days, so I turned off of the Appalachian Trail and began to descend into Pinkham Notch.
This route involved a 3000-foot descent along the North Carter and Imp trails. Both were much better trails than the adjacent portion of the AT. I was down at the road by 6:00. I walked about two miles south on New Hampshire 16 to the base terminal of the Mount Washington Auto Road, where a pay phone was in the parking lot. I called my mother at the motel to tell her about the change of plans, and she drove over to pick me up.
This was one of the toughest days of my hike, and it was all just to cover eleven book miles of the Appalachian Trail. Tomorrow, I will have to make up for that 3000-foot descent before I even start on the AT. This is screwing up my plans.
On the bright side, I passed the 6/7-point of the Appalachian Trail today, and Maine is close. Of course, I still have to finish the final nine miles of this ridge and the first seventeen miles of the reputedly even tougher Mahoosuc Range before I see that fabled country.
SUNDAY, 9/11/83, MILE 1842.3 --- I started up the Imp Trail at 10:00 this morning, telling my mother to meet me at the US 2 crossing at 7:00. That gave me nine hours to hike four-and-a-half miles of feeder trail and nine miles of the Appalachian Trail. I would need to average 1.5 miles per hour. On this trail, I was not sure I could pull this off.
I made my best time of the day on the Imp and North Carter trails in spite of the long climb, making it up in two-and-a-half hours, which put me almost a half-hour ahead of my required pace. Within one-and-a-half hours on the AT, I had lost the entire half-hour cushion on a steep, rocky climb up North Carter Mountain and an even worse climb down the other side. No views today, either. Yesterday's clouds were still around. In fact, they looked even more ominous.
After traversing a bunch of steep little knobs, I arrived at the side trail to Imp Shelter. Having run out of water, I headed over to the shelter. Just as I was arriving, a heavy downpour struck. I made a dash for the shelter, and made it while still fairly dry. The rain was brief, and I was able to wait it out.
I filled my water bottle and was back on the trail a few minutes after 2:00, with almost eight more miles to go. A long climb up Mount Moriah passed over a number of open ledges. Some day, I would like to hike this entire section in nice weather. Today, the clouds had lifted slightly, revealing some hazy views along the ridgecrest. The trail was steep, but reasonable, and I was able to remain ahead of schedule.
Shortly after Mount Moriah, the AT turned off of the Carter-Moriah Trail and left the open ledges behind. A mile or so later, the AT turned onto the Rattle River Trail and dropped precipitously off the side of the ridge. After another mile, the descent mellowed, and I had almost easy hiking down to US 2. I flew along for the first time in two days, following Rattle River down off the mountain and arrived at Route 2 at 6:00 -- an hour early. Remembering a nearby motel with a pay phone in front where I could call my mother to tell her I was early, I started walking the highway towards Gorham. The first quarter-mile on that road was an Appalachian Trail roadwalk, which I would have to cover anyway.
After more than a half-hour of walking, I decided that the phone was not as close as I had thought, so I sat down to wait for my ride. When my mother arrived, the phone turned out to be only about two more minute's walk further down the road. (Expletive deleted)
Today, I passed another big milestone. Less than 300 miles of AT remain. Tomorrow, I resume backpacking. Slackpacking was great, but I will enjoy sleeping in the woods again and escaping the tyranny of the dayhiking schedule, where I must make it to a certain point each day by a certain time. Time to carry my life with me on my back once again. 296.2 miles to go.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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