A Change in Terrain

It has been 19 weeks since I departed from Georgia. In that time, I have covered over 1,800 miles of the Appalachian Trail and have encountered all kinds of terrain, wildlife, and weather extremes. I went from nascent backpacker to seasoned veteran rather expeditiously, and after being immersed in such a lifestyle for nearly four and a half months, I had developed a daily routine and confidence in my abilities as a hiker. I felt like I was cruising along in terms of my average mileage, with only a few speed bumps along the way in regards to unfavorable weather or trail conditions. And then I hit the wall: the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Warning sign
One of the warning signs prior to entering a particularly technical section of trail in the White Mountains.

New Hampshire is known as “the Granite State” for a good reason, as this type of rock is found in plentiful quantities throughout the White Mountains. I’ve always considered myself liberal-minded when it comes to geology, as I work hard to discourage favoritism for certain rocks, be they igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. But here’s the trouble with granite: it is extremely slippery when wet from precipitation, making it a hiker’s worst nightmare under such conditions. Much of the White Mountains have required steep rock scrambles, often ascending 2,000 or more feet within a couple of miles. And as the old adage goes: “What goes up, must come down.” Let me tell you, it is the coming down that is the most challenging and nerve-racking part. This sudden change in terrain has led to a dramatic decrease in daily mileage, as I went from comfortably hiking 20 miles a day down to 13, and those with great difficulty.

steep stairs
Part of the steep descent from Mt. Moosilauke. Occasionally in popular areas, trail volunteers put in steps, such as these, or other aids to assist hikers in scaling these nearly vertical sections.

All this physical and psychological fatigue, when combined with other mishaps that occurred, culminated in my worst day on the trail so far. It was the morning of my fourth day in the White Mountains, and despite the lingering soreness in my legs and my wearied state of mind, I had renewed hope – my shoes had finally dried out! Torrential rain from previous storms had transformed many sections of trail into mountain streams or quagmires, rendering my shoes and socks thoroughly soused. I have found few other things as demoralizing as putting on damp socks and shoes in the morning, thus to finally have dry feet to start the day was a special treat indeed. I quickly realized as I left camp that I needed to find water before beginning my steep ascent of Mt. Garfield. Unfortunately, there were no other water sources other than a large pond at the base of the mountain. Typically, it is better to obtain drinking water from running sources, such as small streams or springs, but as I was already dehydrated and had no other options, I had to settle on the pond water, teeming with all kinds of microorganisms, trusting that my water treatment would kill off any pathogens. Another hiker showed me the path leading to the water’s edge and advised me to balance out on a log to collect the least scummy water away from shore. Red flags should have gone up when he told me to balance on a log, and certainly when I saw the narrow, partially submerged pine trunk, but for some reason I figured if he could do it, I could also. Within a few awkward seconds of teetering, I lost balance and found myself standing shin-deep in stagnant water. So much for dry feet, I muttered wryly to myself as I wrung out my socks after emerging from the shallows.

alpine pond
While alpine ponds can be beautiful, they are not always the best source of drinking water.

That rude start to the morning proved to be prophetic for the rest of the day. While it was fortunate that the weather was beautiful, it also ensured the ubiquity of hordes of day hikers (having to fight the crowds to get a glimpse of a vista has the tendency to detract from the experience). I only briefly admired the view from atop Mt. Garfield before I had to make way for the others to have their turn. The descent from the summit was one of the scariest in my recent recollection. Nearly vertical at times and over granite rock, it took immense focus and caution to scale down. At one point the trail was more or less a small, steep waterfall, and the flowing water made an already difficult task exceedingly treacherous. And then what I had dreaded finally happened. Despite all my efforts and care, I slipped and fell. I landed directly on my tailbone with all the force of my weight and that of my pack, and for a moment I even feared I may have broken it. I could no longer contain the emotions I was feeling – the stress, the frustration, the fear, the pain – and I openly and bitterly sobbed right there where I had fallen. A funny thing happened with that cry, though. Rather than sink further into despair, I felt a gradual release of all those pent up feelings. That’s not to say I suddenly felt chipper and skipped along carefree the rest of the day. Instead, I eventually got myself up, splashed some water on my face in a lame attempt to conceal the fact that I had been weeping, and continued the precarious descent. But I felt the lightness that comes with acknowledging and embracing one’s emotional state, gloomy feelings and all.

The scenery at the summit of Mt. Moosilauke.

Changes, especially those that involve unexpected challenges, can be difficult to accept and adapt to. Just when you finally hit your stride and are comfortable with your daily routine, the terrain suddenly changes and you’re back to all the hardships that come with having to readjust. I certainly never believed that I could possibly be sore again after hiking continually for four months, but all the recent technical climbing has resulted in aching muscles like I had in the first two weeks of my journey. But with the change in terrain, has come unimaginable beauty. With many climbs above treeline, the unobstructed views of the White Mountains are hands down the most memorable so far. Had I been completely averse to the change, I would have never had the opportunity to witness such grandeur. Is it still daunting? Yes. Am I still exhausted most days? Absolutely. Is it still worth it? Without a doubt.

Franconia ridge
Franconia Ridge

Until our paths cross again,

      Ashley Sylvan

4 thoughts on “A Change in Terrain

  1. Amazed by your journey. In awe. As you describe the events and knowing you a little I can picture what you are describing.


  2. Your adventure is well written, hilarious, descriptive and awesome! Thank you for sharing your story. Lynne (friend of Kim Sass)


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