Trails: Pine Link to Howker Ridge Trail to Osgood Trail to Mount Madison Summit to Madison Spring Hut to Pine Link
Mileage: 7.8 round trip
Time: ~10:30 am – 7:30 pm, 9 hours with probably 2 hours combined breaks
Last Sunday, after waking late and sipping coffee, we decided on an ambitious outdoor adventure: hike Mount Madison. Even though it is July, the weather is forecasted to be cooler (mid 70’s F) with the overnight clouds clearing by mid-afternoon. We live in Northern New Hampshire, so hiking up a 5,000 footer on a mid-day is no big deal. A lot of peak bagging hikers prefer to wake at the crack of dawn, reaching the summit by noon, home in time for dinner. We, on the other hand, are that couple you see starting their hike up at 11 or 12. It doesn’t matter to us, it’s usually just a short 15 minute drive home, plus there are fewer people on the summit and trail heading back down. We also have the experience and credentials to know what we are doing. Both of us worked for one of the busiest mountain hiking State Parks where rescues (day and night) were commonplace and both have wilderness first aid and responder training. Our packs are equipped for almost any emergency, but most importantly our will power and brains would prevail. (How Andrew got his “Runs with Chainsaw” nickname and Lindsay experiences that “spiraling down effect” another day.)
So, after packing our gear we drove over to the Pine Link Trail Head. We got the last parking spot and jumped out of the truck without noting the time. It must have been some time between 10 and 11, since we were listening to “Car Talk” on the radio when we pulled into the lot.
The Pine Link starts off steeply, surrounded in a hardwood forest. Two groups of two young men passed us going down. One of the first guys looked at Lindsay and said almost exasperately, “How far to the parking lot?”. We had only been hiking for about 10 minutes. “So close,” Lindsay responded and confirmed it again when the man questioned again. His questioning led us to believe that they were doing a presidential traverse and probably stayed at a hut that night, uncertain of where they were now. Wonder if they even had a map?
The forest changed after a few miles to the typical high elevation spruce, fir, and birch. Instead of black throated green warblers, we heard blackpoll warblers, winter wrens, and thrush (possibly bicknell’s). We took a short break on a mossy rock just as we started seeing views through the trees. Before long we reached the Howker Ridge Trail junction, and stopped for lunch.
We could hear people coming up the Howker Ridge Trail but they never caught up before we packed up and continued up the trail and to our first “Howk”. The bald top afforded some good views to the east, but the summit of Madison was still buried in the clouds. We decided to take the Howker Ridge Trail to the Osgood Trail (AT) and then onto the summit. We passed two single woman hikers on their way down.
The exposed upper section of the Howker Ridge trail was intense. The wind blew fiercely from the north-west and Andrew tightened his baseball cap, while Lindsay donned her winter hat. The scree rocks made traveling slow and the last 0.5 mile seemed to go on forever. We counted steps to pass the time. Two hundred and sixty-two steps since the big boulder, 160 steps since our last water break, 83 steps since I lost count. The cairns were tall and each one had a white rock on the top. Andrew thought the counting made him concentrate too much on his footsteps, but Lindsay thought the counting distracted her from the time. At last we reached the Osgood Trail and we both seemed to surge with a new sense of determination. We reached the summit (5,366 feet) seconds after the clouds lifted and we took turns sitting on the tip top rock with the survey marker. This would be Lindsay’s first presidential summit and she shared her excitement with Andrew who could claim this as his second time to the summit of Madison.
On the west side of the mountain heading down toward Madison Spring Hut, we passed many groups of people heading to the summit, most without even a water bottle. Probably out for a quick jaunt up after eating lunch down at the hut. The Madison Spring Hut was just recently renovated and Andrew explored the entire building while Lindsay people watched and eavesdropped on the others in the great room. After refilling our water bottles with hut water and our bellies with snacks, we headed back out to the Pine Link. The hordes of hikers around the Hut would be the last people we would see on our hike.
The Pine Link from Madison Spring Hut is a less traveled boulder scramble about 500 feet below the summit. Many of the boulders seemed to lay precariously on top of one another, forming deep, dark chasms. Some boulders tipped unevenly under our weight and we hopped along as quickly as possible, longing for trail ground. After the Watson Path junction, the boulder field lessened and eventually a ledge allowed us to not pay as close attention to our feet placement. Although, we were both feeling aches in our knees and backs so careful placement was always on mind.
Just before reaching the Howker Ridge Trail junction, the trail went through a high elevation bog with log puncheons to define the trail. We both heard and saw Boreal Chickadees. We took a break and Andrew declared this his new home. The sun warmed our wind burned cheeks and dried our packless backs.
Lindsay continued on the trail, finding a sunny mossy rock to sit and think. It was probably close to 45 minutes later when we met back up and began hiking again.
We heard a helicopter close to the mountain and both immediately thought of the over heard radio babble at the Madison Spring Hut. Newspaper reports the next day confirmed that there was indeed a rescue.
Back down the Pine Link trail we followed moose tracks for several miles. Every wet spot or bend in trail we were certain we would see the moose, but he or she never showed. Lindsay remembered the marinating tofu and squash at home. Kabobs were on the menu for tonight and they would be delicious after this long hike. We reached the parking lot (only 2 cars left) at 7:30.