At the April 2002 Trip Planning Meeting of the Boston Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) I decided to lead an trip up Mount Washington by the Great Gulf, returning to Pinkham by a route to be determined at the summit. On paper the statistics for that route are not very impressive, 12.1 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Having often looked at the headwall across the Great Gulf from Mount Madison I knew better. We would select participants rigorously!
A superficial look at the map suggests that the ascent falls into two distinct parts: an easy walk up the valley to Spaulding Lake followed by a steep climb up the headwall. Though this map does not show it clearly, Spaulding Lake is at an elevation of 4,228 feet, so it is in fact a 4000 footer! Since the trailhead is at 1,350 feet, the hike to the lake involves an elevation gain of 2,878 feet, almost as much as climbing Mount Garfield!
Since I was in Colorado hiking Mount Elbert in the two weeks before our trip my co-leader, Duncan, did all the screening. The number of participants was fluctuating, due to additions and cancellations, but on the Friday before the hike (scheduled for Saturday July 20th 2002) we had four participants, plus the two of us. Duncan drove over to my home in Thornton, NH (just south of Lincoln and Woodstock) on Friday evening. On Saturday morning I received an email from one of the participants; he had partied too much the previous days and did not feel up to a strenuous hike. Good judgment!
We left home before 7:00 AM, and reached Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at exactly 8:00, the planned meeting time. Shortly thereafter Kathy, one of the participants, arrived. When 8:30 rolled around and neither of the other two had shown up we left Kathy's car at Pinkham and drove in Duncan's car to the Great Gulf trailhead. We started hiking around 9:00 AM, later than planned but no problem in July with its long days.
At first we cruised. It was still early, the temperature was comfortable, and the first three miles or so of trail was easy (good footing and moderate inclines). After roughly an hour we reached the opening known as "the Bluff", with a primitive tentsite. We crossed Parapet Brook (easy crossing that day) flowing down from Madison Gulf, and climbed a little hogback to reach the second tentsite. We then descended and crossed the West Branch of the Peabody on a suspension bridge. Shortly after we reached the large rock known as the Clamshell, I suppose it does look vaguely like one.
Beyond the Clamshell the trail got rougher, narrower, rockier and wetter. Our boots started to sink in the mud. We slowed down appreciably. We met a Forest Service ranger at the four way intersection with the Wamsutta and Six Husbands trails and had a brief chat with him. He told us that only one of the two tentsites on the Wamsutta Trail was closed, and that all the other tentsites in the Great Gulf were open.
Beyond that junction the trail became even rougher, and in a few sections followed the West Branch closely, climbing up over wet and slippery rocks. We crossed the West Branch, the stream was neither deep nor fast flowing, but the stepping stones were few and far between. My two companions crossed with dry feet, I decided to wade across it. We passed Weetamoo Falls and recrossed the stream. After a final rocky climb we reached Spaulding Lake in time for lunch.
The trail up to Spaulding Lake is in the trees, with a few places where views can be had through openings. Earlier in the day there were many clouds, hiding the mountains. Later we got a couple of good views of Jefferson's Knees, and wondered how a trail (Six Husbands) had been put up on one of them!
By the time we reached the lake the clouds had lifted, and we had a complete view of the Great Gulf, from Mount Madison to the vicinity of Mount Washington (the summit itself is hidden until you almost reach the Gulfside Trail). The view was spectacular, and I can heartily recommend a trip to the lake for those who do not feel up to climbing the headwall. The headwall rises almost vertically to Mount Clay, fortunately the grade the trail follows is somewhat less steep. It was clear that we had a lot of work ahead of us!
The trail up the headwall was very steep, but easy to follow and with reasonably easy scrambling. Hands were only occasionally needed, the hard work was done by the legs and the lungs! We often stopped, to breathe and to enjoy the views. We met two parties going down, and were glad that we would go down by an easier route.
It took us almost two hours to climb up to the rim of the Gulf, where we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by other hikers. The solitude was over. We climbed wearily up to the summit (an additional 400 vertical feet) and happily sat in the cafeteria. We had all had a good lunch at the lake so none of us had any real food, though I did indulge in an ice cream.
After roughly half an hour we started down Tuckerman's Ravine Trail. My recollection was that the Lion's Head Trail was somewhat rougher and we wanted to go down the easiest way possible. We were tired, and the trip down to the floor of the ravine was slow. We stopped again for a good rest at the ranger's cabin near Hermit Lakes. From there the trail was good and the grades easy, we went down quite fast, thinking of the hot shower that awaited us at Pinkham!