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Ascent of Owls Head on 2009-10-24

Climber: Monica Trust

Date:Saturday, October 24, 2009
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Peak:Owls Head
    Location:USA-New Hampshire
    Elevation:3700 ft / 1127 m

Ascent Trip Report

I usually don't write trip reports but I think this particular hike merits one since it has received so much attention in the media. I have had so many people say they read the story in the paper or heard it on the news. At first, I have to admit I was a little embarrassed because it seemed like it was publicized because it was two women getting stranded in the woods. I mentioned that to Michael and he disagreed at first but we will never know if it received so much attention because it had more to do with gender or if it truly was newsworthy. I was thinking of not writing my report and just letting it drop but when my daughter asked me why I didn't tell her about what happened I decided I should write this report. One of the rules in my family is if something happens to any one of us then every member of our family should know about it before the world does. That way they hear what happen from us rather than from someone else. I broke that rule when I didn't tell my kids and I feel badly about it. They should know...they need to know what actually happened...good or bad...they are my family.

Despite being a rainy Saturday, Erin and I decided to continue with our plans to hike that 18-19 mile trek to Owls Head. I had just hiked it a month earlier in the rain so I didn't think anything of hiking it on this rainy Saturday either. This hike is not a favorite of mine but Erin had asked me if I would do it with her. Her plan was to hike it alone. My plans were to hike in the Pemigewasset Wilderness (Bonds, Zealand, N&S Twin, etc.) with Michael but he had to change his plans because he had some unfinished business in the Adirondacks. I couldn't in all good conscience let her go alone. Not that she couldn't do it because Erin has hiked alone in the winter without a second thought. Hiking is a companionship thing for me. Solo hiking is do-able and can be pleasurable but hiking with someone else is better in my opinion. Sometimes just to be able to hear someone ahead or behind you is enough. But I had done this hike before with large groups and we had the same thought "this is my last time I'm hiking to Owls Head." But here I was for the third time... hiking in the rain for the third time.
The trail was its usual muddy self and the river crossings were typical of what you would expect. It took us about 3 hours to hike in about 7 miles. We moved at a good pace with a few short breaks along the way. It rained on and off while we hiked and river crossings weren't any different from the last time I was here. I started to have some knee pain in my right leg as we got closer to the trek up the slide to the summit. As we started to climb up the slide I knew we had a long trek back and the climb down would be worse on my knee and the pain was worse when I climbed down, so I told Erin to go ahead keep hiking and I would wait for her on the slide. I described the false summit and told her about the bushwhack to the true summit and off she went. At this point the rain began to pick up so I took out a poncho that Mike had lent me the day before, took cover under it and put on warmer layers. I knew it would be a while before Erin would be back. I waited about 1 1/2 hours and began to get worried because I thought she would hike pass me on the slide on her way down. About 2 minutes later I heard Erin calling me from below. She hiked past me but knew my whereabouts. At this point my knee pain was worse, I could hardly bend it so I took some Advil. On our climb down. The heavy rain created a flowing river on the trail. Erin was excited she had gotten the peak. It was challenging trying to find the true summit but she was determined and that's what I admire about her. She still hadn't eaten lunch so we decided to stop so she could grab a bite before we headed out back to the trailhead. We noticed an abundance of puddles as we hiked back. When we got to the first river crossing the water level was a lot higher and we couldn't see a way to cross. We took out our map and noticed we were on the wrong side of the river and eventually we had to get to the other side to make it out of the woods. We studied the map to see what our options were to get back. Even though we were on the wrong side of the river we decided that we might see a better place to cross somewhere along the river so we bushwhacked along side of it. I'd like to add that bushwhacking is basically getting slapped in the face with wet pine branches, and poked, prodded and scratched with sharp branches. I only know one person who loves to bushwhack and I question his sanity sometimes.

In order to stay close to the river, we were hiking on steep banks with dead trees and mossy rocks. We never saw a place where we could cross. The river was raging and tempting us to cross it but our fear of being swept away kept our boldness at bay. Plus I had just gotten my fifth Blackberry on Thursday night and wanted to hold on to this one a bit longer. Many times we could see the trail across the river and wished that there would be a place with rocks to hop and shallow water to wade through but that opportunity never revealed itself to us. We bushwhacked for about 4 miles and finally found the trail. We were so excited that we found the trail but we heard a loud roaring sound ahead of us. It was another crossing, a place we had been just a few short hours earlier. It was unrecognizable because the rocks we used to cross were no longer there. Instead we saw the black water flowing with white water dispersed throughout. We looked at each other and knew that we had reached the end of any hope of making it safely across the other side. We looked up and down the bank hoping that there was a someplace where we could hop some rocks. It was 5:30 and night approached quickly. We decided we would have to wait until morning when there was daylight and when the river was passable.

We went to look for a place to set up camp. We talked about what we had to make it through the night. Certainly we wish we had more--maybe a sleeping bag or two. I had brought my emergency bivy sack with me to New Hampshire but for some reason it never made it into to my pack for this hike. I would later regret not putting it in my bag while I lay shivering in the cold and wet night. Regardless, what we did have was enough to get us through. A tarp, extra warm clothes, one pair of dry socks, plenty of food and water. We put to use everything we had including our pack covers, poncho, waterproof map and backpacks to help keep us dry. Our thoughts were shelter, survival and then we began to consider the people who were waiting to hear from us. We lamented that they would worry and we hoped they wouldn't think the worse. Without a signal my phone was useless to us except to tell us time throughout the long night. We hoped that they would not worry about us. Darkness came quickly but we both had laterns and headlamps to brighten our camp. We ate dinner 1/2 a turkey and swiss cheese sandwich on rye. After finishing we took all our food and put in a dry sack and hung it on a tree about 200 feet away on the trail. Even though animals didn't concern me, it gave us peace of mind to have food away from us while we tried to sleep. We layed under the tarp trying to keep from getting wet from the rain and to occupy our thoughts with other things and to keep our minds off the long night that lay ahead. We joked about our friends waiting for us in front of the fire drinking wine. We were so jealous of them. What we didn't know was that they were worried about us and they decided to come looking for us. I knew Michael was in the Adirondacks trying to get that last peak. I was dying to find out if he had made it safely back from his hike and if he finished his quest. Then I wondered if he would worry about me. I knew he would try to reach me when he was done. All these questions and concerns would have to wait...
The coundown began until dawn. Twelve hours until daylight and we could attempt to cross the river. In my mind I began to make plans for what we could do. I hoped that the river would calm and the level would decrease but if not then we would have to bushwhack back to where the river begins and go around to the other side. Neither of us wanted to do that long trek of being poked and prodded. Many thoughts went through my mind but I was never scared...There was a calm that took over me.

I have been in precarious positions before but this time it was different. Usually Michael was with me and I always felt safe with him. Throughout this whole ordeal I thought, "What would Michael do?" I tried to think of different options and I knew there had to be fall back plans. We got very little sleep as we watched time pass by. The tarp covered and protected us from the scattered showers and we huddled next to each other to generate some heat. Everytime one of us started to shiver the other would wrap our arms around to keep warm. As the night went by, we counted the hours left until daylight. It felt like we only had minutes of sleep every hour. We rejoiced after we looked at the time and it said 4:21! We had about 2 more hours left until we could maybe see sunrise. At about 6:00 AM, it was still dark but we knew light would shone through soon. We could not wait any longer because our discomfort from lying on the ground all night got the better of us. Erin's right hip was bothering her from lying on something that poked her all night...maybe a root or maybe something inside one of our backpacks. She could no longer lay there so she said she was going to get up. I too was uncomfortable but really didn't want to get up.

We walked back and forth on the trail so that we could stay warm. For breakfast we had peanut butter cookies and we savored every bite. Our walking was good because it warmed us up. My knee pain was still bad but I popped a few Advil and it subsided after a while. Finally when the sun came up we assessed whether the river was passable. No, not yet...

At 8:00, we decided to walk back along the river to see if we could cross the river. We walked probably 1/2-1 mile and crossed a small brook but we couldn't see any promising crossings. So we decide to go back and wait. We got back to the "campsite" and Erin decided to try to light a fire but her matches were too damp. I tried to build a bridge to a rock with big logs but they were just swept away. We had to just wait for the water level to go down. It already had from the night before so it was just a matter of time.

At about 10 AM, as I was sitting on rock trying to snooze in the heat of the sun, I heard a whistle...I thought that may be Michael, Mike and Emily or John, Erin's husband, coming to our rescue. I looked up and saw four men in ranger uniforms carrying ropes. I was excited that our predicament looked like it would end soon. The rangers and volunteers were awesome. They asked if we were okay and if we were hungry. We said we were fine. We asked who called and they said "Mike, Mike and Emily". That was music to my ears.

When we got back to the trailhead, the truck drove past Michael, Mike, Emily and John. The smiles on their faces were priceless and such a treat to see. Our ordeal was behind us now.
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