Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mt. Madison, last ascent into the alpine zone, last trail of cairns

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States.. At 5367' Mt. Madison is the fourth highest, and also the northernmost peak in the northern Presidentials. It was also the last peak of the vacation and by the 4th day I recognized the progression to the Presidential ascents.

Leaving the parking lot there is always a bit of relatively flat hiking the length of which varies depending on the trail and the mountain. The longest flat was Eisenhower, the shortest Madison via the Pine Ridge/Howker/Osgood trails. Here the trail immediately begins climbing. Which really isn't so bad on the way up. It's on the way down, when you want a few feet or so to stretch out your legs that you miss the flat.

After ascending for a mile or two, whatever it takes to reach an elevation somewhere around 4000' the trail enters the Alpine Zone. There is always a sign somewhere in the area to warn you that "the area ahead has the worst weather in America many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad." (kinda like waving a red flag in front of adventure junkies). Soon after the trail breaks into the open areas of the zone, so it would be hard to miss. The thing about the Alpine Zone that I love is the contrast of the bigness, and harshness of it, with the tiny plants that live there.

Simultaneous with entering the Alpine Zone, or because of it, the trees disappear and trail markings change from blazes to rock cairns. On the trails around Adams and Madison these were particularly interesting. Someone has taken a great deal of care to top them with a large piece of white granite and many of them looked much like stone lighthouses, and they stood out clearly against a sea of gray rock. Pretty, but also potentially lifesaving. In the heavy fog that often sits on these peaks you need all the help you can get to stay on the trail.

Once in the land of cairns the trail switches, basically from a walking trail to a rock hopping exercise. Once again the value of good gear, in this case boots, is a welcome thing. Hopping across rocks, following the cairns to the Big Cairn which marks the summit can be heck on your feet. But as with the others the summit of Madison was worth it. The view was a little hazy but really its not just the view. It's the sense of accomplishment, of being in the clouds, in the sky that just makes it all worthwhile. I especially like looking back down the mountain, picking up the hints of trail we hiked, seeing where we've been, and feeling just great that only a few hours ago I was way over there and that now here, under my own power(and with the help of some awesome hiking poles) I stand.

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