It has almost been a year since our previous backpacking trip. A busy summer delayed us until now. We finally got to go on our first trip of the year which was a 3-day, 2-night trip from September 21st to the 23rd.
My college roommate, Chris, picked me early Friday morning and we drove to Long’s house to wait for the others. On the drive I called the other guys to make sure everyone got up. Sadly that was not the case and we waited for nearly an hour for the other car to arrive. I felt bad for Chris who drove in from Worcester.
We got on our way with only a brief stop to buy gas and last minute drinks. We arrived at the Saco Ranger Station shortly after they opened at around 8 AM. We did our normal routines of buying parking passes, using the facilities, and filling our hydration bladders with fresh water.
We arrived at the Ethan Pond trailhead and posed for a ‘before’ photo. We started hiking along the Ethan Pond Trail. Rathana nearly passed out during this leg which was mostly uphill for a couple of miles. Sai also struggled with the incline and contemplated staying overnight at the Ethan Pond Shelter with Rathana while the rest of us continued hiking and meet them there the following day. We were only a couple of miles into our journey so I urged them to continue and I’m glad they did.
We were tired so we agreed to break for lunch at the first dry clearing we found. The Ethan Pond Trail was very muddy so it took us a while before we found a suitable spot to stop. Eating our first real meal of the day seemed to lift everyone’s spirits.
The trail was mostly flat but remained very muddy. Puncheons liberally decorated the trail and spared our legs. A stream ran parallel to the trail and we found an opening which revealed a wonderful resting spot. The stream bed was lined with flat rocks and the crisp water skimmed its surface. The stream fell over gentle cascades. In the summer you could sunbathe on these rocks. It was a beautiful location.
We reached a junction and followed the sign for a tenth of a mile to the top of Thoreau Falls. I stood at the edge and admired the sheer scale of its natural beauty. I did not want to get too close to the edge and accidentally slip. We relaxed here for a bit and had some snacks. Some of the guys enjoyed dipping their weary feet in the cold water which fed the waterfall.
We backtracked to the Ethan Pond Trail and continued north. We reached a beautiful clearing with Zeacliff to our left and White Wall Mountain rising to our right. I knew this trip would include some scenic locations but it is absolutely breathtaking experiencing it in person.
We had been hiking for several hours and Sai was starting to lag behind. We got to Zealand Falls but some of the other guys went on ahead uphill toward Zealand Hut. I rushed to catch up to them and have everyone stop by the falls instead. Zealand Falls was not as grand as Thoreau Falls but was still pretty as the sun started to set. We rushed to pump water from the falls.
It was getting darker. Sai was struggling to keep up. Long, Chris, and I blazed ahead along the A-Z Trail to look for a good spot for our group to sleep. We aggressively hiked the trail and found a spot right off of the trail but it was on an incline. I did not think it was worth it to squeeze my tent between the trees and repack it the next morning. I set down my tarp and Chris and I laid our sleeping pads and bags on top of that to camp out, cowboy style. The others eventually caught up but decided to set up their tents. We retreated deeper into the forest to eat dinner.
It was the first time I slept outdoors without a tent. The wind was strong at times but the fresh air was refreshing. It was late enough in the season that we didn’t have to worry about bugs. I loved looking up at the stars. It was very liberating. The only downside was that my sleeping bag is made of very slick material and I kept sliding down the incline. I ended up putting my backpack under my legs and that kept me from sliding.
I woke up at 6:45 AM the next morning and got up to eat. I wanted to get moving by 8 AM because we had a full itinerary and didn’t want a repeat of the previous night. I was frustrated that the others lagged to get up, eat breakfast, and finish packing. We didn’t set out until almost 9 AM and I knew we’d be in trouble later.
We continued east along the A-Z Trail. We didn’t hike as far as I would have liked the previous day so we had a long way to hike before reaching the base of Mount Tom. Chris, Long, and I formed a mini group and set the pace. We reached a junction and continued up the Mount Tom spur. We reached the summit. I finally claimed one of the 48 4000-footers! There were many college-age students and other hikers along the trail. I was mildly disappointed that we weren’t alone but they were nice and I don’t mind sharing the beautiful New England fall foliage.
While at the summit we paused to feed some gray jays with some cookie crumbs that Long had. It was really awesome how they flew down and ate right out of the palm of our hands. Nature!
We made our way back and found Sai resting by the junction. Dao and Rathana left their packs there and continued up to Mount Tom. I’m glad they got to go up there and bag one of the 48 peaks.
Long decided to stay behind with Sai and wait for the others to return from Mount Tom. Chris and I continued onto Mount Field which was about 0.9 miles away. It was crowded at the summit but I was proud to claim my 2nd 4000-footer. There was a nice lookout toward the Presidential Range and Mount Washington. The other guys caught up as Chris and I finished our lunches. I was still feeling a little lightheaded so I rested a few more minutes before Chris and I continued toward Mount Willey.
A mile and half later we reached the summit of Mount Willey and my 3rd 4000-footer. I was relieved there weren’t many hikers here. There were lookouts on either side of the summit. It was really cool to look down and see our destination for the night, Ethan Pond, which looked like a speck from our height.
We started our descent at around 3:30 PM. It was only 1.1 miles down but it took over one and a half hours due to the steep slippery terrain and loose rocks. The scariest part was walking down several “ladders” which are really rail-less staircases. Considering the steepness of the trail, it is clear why these were left here. We had to take extremely easy down the trail.
We finally arrived at a junction and turned onto the Ethan Pond Trail. We reached the shelter a few minutes before 6 PM. Chris and I walked down to the pond to pump water while we waited for the others. While pumping we were surprised when another hiker named Brian came down to greet us. He is an avid hiker. We were relieved that he opted to stay at one of the open tent platforms and leave the lean-to which we claimed for our group.
It was pitch black out. I was afraid the other guys might not have made it down from Mount Willey in time and would have to emergency camp along the trail. I figured the other guys were at least an hour behind us. After dinner Chris and I went to pump water again. I periodically blew my safety whistle and was thrilled to finally hear a reply. Dao and Long showed up shortly thereafter and relayed that Rathana and Sai were further back along the trail. Chris and I rushed out along the trail to meet them. Chris grabbed Sai’s bag and we escorted them to the shelter. It was about 8 PM. I was relieved everyone was safe but I knew this was likely to happen considering how late we started hiking that morning.
After our guys arrived, two more backpackers arrived at the Ethan Pond shelter area. They carried in several containers of alcohol and started drinking. They acted like frat boys and were loud and annoying. They also built a fire despite signs prohibiting it and my petitions against it. It always bugs me when people aren’t respectful of natural resources.
The rest of our guys finished their dinners late. We all retreated to the lean-to for the night and slept in our sleeping bags on top of our sleeping pads. I’m thankful that we got the lean-to because it heavily rained throughout the night.
I got up at around 7 AM the next morning. Chris got up shortly thereafter and joined me for breakfast. I wanted to start heading down the trail but the other guys slept in for another 2 hours. Chris and I finished packing our gear and waited for the others to get up, have breakfast, and pack up.
We finally started down the Ethan Pond Trail. Our legs and knees were weary from a long weekend of hiking. Excitedly I raced ahead as we neared the Ripley Falls junction. The falls were only a quarter-mile from the junction but I was really disappointed that no one else seemed to share my enthusiasm. I spent weeks planning this trip and I was determined to complete my “itinerary” so I hurried to the falls. An elderly couple greeted me at Ripley Falls. The falls were just as beautiful and grand as I remembered them. I didn’t want to keep the other guys waiting too long so snapped a few photos and recorded a short video and headed back. On my walk back to the junction, I was pleasantly surprised to see a few of the guys change their minds and visit the falls after all. They left their backpacks with Sai and Chris at the junction and we waited for them to return.
It was another quarter-mile to the parking lot from the junction. After a quick group photo we headed to McDonald’s for our “victory” lunch. It was getting late and we got there at around 3 PM. I didn’t make it home until almost 6 PM. I always try to make it home from our trips before 5 PM so that she isn’t alone with the kids for too long. I was annoyed that there wasn’t more urgency earlier in the day to get home at a reasonable time.
Overall it was a great trip. I was pleased with how much we were able to fit into a 3-day backpacking trip; we hiked for nearly 20 miles, bagged 3 4000-footers, got to hand-feed some of the local birds, visited 3 distinct but beautiful waterfalls, and experienced some of the most scenic sights the White Mountains offers. I also learned a lot about myself and that you can push yourself well beyond where your body wants to quit. I’m proud of the guys for sticking through most of it.
I am glad that I learned how to pack smarter and reduce my pack weight. I was able to do more with a lot less equipment. The reduced load combined with better hiking technique definitely spared the wear and tear on my legs and knees.
Unfortunately not everything went as planned. I was displeased that some guys did not take my advice seriously to reduce their pack weight. It is a recurring problem bringing items that were barely used or provided limited benefit to the group. If you are already a slow hiker, those extra ounces make you even slower. This trip also reinforced the importance of time management. If you get a late start and/or hike at a slower pace, it can be dangerous later in the day if you run out of daylight and are stuck up on a mountain or find yourself in the middle of an unfamiliar trail and need to find shelter. It is nearly impossible to find a suitable location in the dark. We were lucky to find a spot on our 1st night. We were fortunate that the trail was easy to navigate on the 2nd night. We need to learn from these experiences and hopefully on the next trip we’ll make things easier for ourselves…and a lot less stressful for me.