See that mountain? Someday I'm gonna climb that mountain...
by Rick Bolger
"Daddy, can we get ice cream?" We were nearing the Willey House wayside in Crawford Notch State Park, New Hampshire. "Can we see the zoo?"
I bet every visit I've ever made to the White Mountains includes a stop at the Willey House site. And every future visit will too, I'm sure. Even as a self-absorbed kid, I always marveled at the mountains looming over that valley. During the 1960s and early 1970s there was a small menangerie that I will generously call a "zoo" on the north side of Rt. 302, alongside the pond. Walking through that zoo was mandatory on every trip, and I bet my folks grew to dread it. They probably had to pay something, and whatever it was (perhaps a quarter) it was surely a rip-off for the odd woodchuck, bobcat, chipmunks and few deer on display. My dad probably would've skipped the place to avoid my whining, but he couldn't help standing and staring up at the mountains. I loved the zoo, begged for ice cream, and stared up at Mt. Webster like my old man. And I loved to pester my parents with questions about the hapless Willey family.
Sometime in the 1800's Mr. Willey elected to start a farm in this valley. How he could be so dim as to try to scratch out an agricultural enterprise in one of the narrowest, rockiest valleys on earth is never explained in any of the interpretive material. From Crawford Notch the Saco River valley spreads out below, and while it is beautiful, Mr. Willey must've done quite a sales job on Mrs. Wiley to make her buy into it as they rode through the notch.
Mr Wiley: "Here we are family! Below us in that valley yonder is the site of our new farm!"
Mrs. Wiley: "So we will be way down in that valley...and it appears that the only way out is through this narrow mountain pass...isn't this kind of desolate?"
"Fear not, Mother Willey, it merely means that the neighbors won't pester us...think of all the money we'll save on Halloween!"
"But look at all the rocks..."
"Hard work never killed anyone!"
"But Pa, what about all those crevices and alluvial fans on the mountainsides?"
"Well Ma, that's part of the natural beauty of this place...the soaring cliffs...the precipices..."
"What about those long, treeless swaths of rock...so many!"
"Now Ma, again, surely that indicates a good source of water in the springtime!"
"They look like rockslides to me."
"Come now, Ma Willey, there's way too many scoured paths -- couldn't possibly be that many rockslides. And even if they were, there's so many rocks at the bottom that these mountains must be plumb out of rocks to slide!"
"If you say so."
"That's my girl!"
And so Mr. Willey descended on the valley with his sinewy cattle, corn seeds, and gullible family. The area is so rocky and inhospitable that they must've had a perfectly miserable existence. Surviving photos depict tired children with resigned expressions on a hardscrabble farm and a dreary home to match, like shellshocked photos of wartime children in Dresden except the Willeys were regularly bombarded by tumbling boulders and slides. During one horrific rainstorm, the house was under constant threat, so the Willeys hid away from their home in a root cellar, only to be crushed and covered by a million tons of granite. The house was spared. The only intelligent perspective is that at least this tragic event spared the poor idiots from any further misery.
The house no longer stands; I believe it was demolished by subsequent slides off what will forever be known as Mt. Willey.
I want to climb THAT mountain...
Around 1971-72 my Dad led us on a hike to the top of Mt. Willard, a severe cliff that stands as a sentinel at the northwestern end of the valley. One side of Mt. Willard forms the western flank of "the notch of the White Mountains," or Crawford Notch, (where I imagine the aformentioned Mr. Willey stood hawking the virtues of the valley below). From the Crawford Depot a 1.5 mile trail leads to the summit of Mt. Willard, and when you step out of the trees to the edge of the cliff, you stand dumbfounded for a moment and either gasp or stare or both. The glacial Saco River Valley rolls out below, with the Willey House wayside off in the distance, and various mountains and notches beyond. On the right (west) looms the massive flank of Mt. Willey, and on the left the rocky peak of Mt. Webster completes the perfectly framed scene. It is, without question, the most picturesque view in the White Mts., and so is one of the more crowded trails, due to its relatively short distance for such a magnificent reward.
So I stood there in 1971 (72?) at the top of Mt. Willard, and immediately recognized my old friend Mt. Webster. Dad was engaged in conversation with some older gent, and I interrupted that Mt. Webster was the best. The older fellow replied "Mt. Willey is higher." I told him that Mt. Webster looked steeper, or cooler, or something like that. Exasperated, he replied, "Yes, but Wiley is higher." I told him I didn't care; I like Mt. Webster better. I believe I then inquired about climbing Mt. Webster, and my father said that we would not be doing that. "Then can we go to the zoo instead?"
After descending Mt. Willard we did indeed tour the zoo; probably because I pestered my parents about it. At the time I did not know that this visit would be my last; the State of New Hampshire no longer operates the zoo. I returned in 1985 to find that it was gone. (at right is a really neat photo of the Willey House Wayside circa 1970 that I am "borrowing" from an old travel book...now click here and you'll be able to see what the zoo looked like in a really high res close up -- it is the only published photo of the zoo I've ever seen). All that remains of the zoo is a nature trail. Again in 1985 I stared up at Mt. Webster, wondering when I was going to climb it.
In October 1994 I returned to Crawford Notch. This time I was the dad. We climbed Mt. Willard, and I pointed up at Mt. Webster and stated that we would climb it someday. With twin 3 year-olds, it seemed like a ridiculous statement. When we got down from Mt. Willard I made them walk around the nature trail, and I told them at least 20 times that it used to be a zoo. I still point it out to strangers and say that it used to be a zoo, and I probably always will. Somebody has to do it.
Alright already, the climb....
Fast forward to Labor Day weekend, 2000. Rainy weekend, looking for a hike. The clouds lifted a bit on Sunday, but possible climbs in Franconia and in the Presidential range were nixed by clouds. Driving down into Crawford Notch State Park, I noticed that Mt. Willard was clear...but how would the view be? A lot of families were headed for the Willard trail. Driving on, we made the obligatory stop at the Willey House wayside. It looked as if the view from Willard would be ok...we can see the top of Mt. Wiley....and on the other side, Mt. Webster. Hmm. Mt. Webster. Like so many times before, I stood and stared up at Mt. Webster. Why don't we climb Mt. Webster?
Like Mr. Willey before me, I now faced the challenge of selling my loved ones on a monumental task with questionable motives and no visible evidence of a potential reward.
So I explained that we could either climb Mt. Webster, 5.9 miles roundtrip, or do two hikes (one now, one later) that would easily add up to a full 6 miles. The girls all voted for the shorter hike, never mind that the hike to the trailhead was .3 miles from the road. We packed a hearty lunch and plenty of snacks and liquids, and set off.
The Webster Cliff Trail is actually part of the Appalachian Trail; for northbound AT "through hikers," Mt. Webster is the first step on the Presidential Range.
The Appalachian Trail crosses US 302 about a mile south of the Willey House wayside, at Arethusa Falls road. The trail begins with a small bridge crossing of the Saco River, requiring the hiker to hoist him or herself up 3 - 4' where the bridge stairs have been washed away by spring floods. After a fairly easy first mile -- a long switchback on the southern flank of Mt. Webster (shown in the right side of the photo above) -- the trail assaults what may be the soft spot of the Webster cliff, which is to say it is not quite hand-over-hand climbing.
A major hurdle presents itself at the end of the north leg of the long switchback. It appears in the form of a modest 12' high granite wash that requires some scrambling and use of handholds for all but the seriously demented climber. It was at this spot we first encountered other hikers on the trail, climbing down with all sorts of trendy gear and flailing about with ski poles. Standing aside so as not to be impaled, we watched them scratch and hop and generally treble the modest difficulty of their descent.
This particular gully is insignificant compared to the scoured slide paths elsewhere on Webster, but it is interesting in that this 12' swath was formed in much the same manner as the awesome 1,500' slides that sweep down toward the Willey House. While climbing it I realized this, and also recognized that I was finally on one of those slide paths that beckoned to me as a child, if only in miniature. (I am pleased to report that age has diminished all desire to climb straight up the face of Mt. Webster.)
After a series of fatigue-hastening boulder steps and small switchbacks, I stood before a larger series of steps that had been painstakingly set in place by the thoughtful, energetic volunteers that maintain the AT. Wheezing, heart pounding, legs aching, I paused to size up this latest obstacle. Looking up at the first six or seven rock steps, it appeared that this was sort of a cross between a stone staircase and a stone ladder and would require some hand holds and a lot of serious strain. I tipped my head back to see the top, but only saw more steps. I looked higher -- more stonework -- finally disappearing into the trees hundreds of feet above, with no promise of a break even at that level. As leader, I felt compelled to yell "don't look up" to my unsuspecting wife and children.
Like a rock obstacle course, the AT beats on those who would climb Mt. Webster. In all fairness, its 3 mile length and impressive 2700' vertical gain presents no problem for anyone who is either in shape or hikes frequently. Being neither of these, it presented me with plenty of problem.
After humping my way up the staircase of pain, Webster gave little relief but soon provided a viewpoint that made the whole trek worthwhile. Then it was a series of ledges - each brutally promising to be the top, each leading simply to yet another gully and muscle-popping ledge. Finally, we reached a summit directly over the Willey House area. When I say directly over, I mean that it felt as if we were staring straight down at it. The height is dizzying; the pond looks like a little dot. We were also looking down - considerably down - at the sheer cliff of Mt. Willard. I imagined a young boy standing on it as I once did and boldly planning to climb the mountain I was finally standing on.
"Wow, you made it...we didn't think you would!" -- This from a couple of ski-pole happy hikers who passed us just below the never ending staircase. Considering my beet-red color, the fact that my hair was drenched clear to my scalp, and that I was hunched over and breathing as if I had been held underwater too long, I suppose their expression can be excused.
I crashed 30' higher where my family was already relaxing. (Did I mention that I was no longer leading?) This particular lunch spot was memorable due to the clouds racing through the valley below us, the cairn and sign commemorating a less-fortunate climber alongside us, and the young couple struggling to keep their passions in check on the ledge above us. So what if another part of the Webster cliff is slightly higher; this particular point was as far as I was willing (or able) to climb.
The descent was highlighted by aching and fatigue that begged me to collapse midway down the staircase of pain. My kind and concerned family stopped to wait for me from time to time. Sweat and fogging glasses made it very hard to see; three miles of downhill granite made it very hard to walk. Nearing delirium, I arrived at the bottom...crossed the bridge...then stood for a moment at the stairless end of the footbridge where, unwilling (and unable) to clamber down, I simply pitched myself off in the direction of the softest looking mud. Somehow I landed on my feet and subsequently stumbled into a few forgiving saplings. At the road I was overtaken by the same ski-pole bearing hikers I met on the summit, who now expressed further surprise at my successful descent, and then proceeded to drive off in a Volvo with all sorts of decals imploring me to save various sea creatures, and urging me to free Tibet while I'm at it. My less lofty goal was to make the last 40 yards to my car, so at the moment I was unable to offer any assistance to their assorted causes.
Spirits were lifted as my daughters charged out to greet me with a cup of juice and a snack.
"Are you OK, Daddy!?"
At this point, iron will triumphed over extreme pain and exhaustion, and I eventually stumbled to the car. Later, standing at the Willey House wayside, I skipped the walk around the former zoo, but still looked up at Mt. Webster. Then for some reason I turned around, straining to see the top of Mt. Willey. Like the old hiker said, "Willey's bigger." One of these days I'll let you know. Right now I just want some ice cream.
Looking East across US 302 toward the pond and former zoo. The side of Mt. Webster is in the background. The best place to stand and stare up at Mt. Webster is right by the sign or in the parking lot; some of the people visible in this photo are staring up at Mt. Webster. That's a Ford Mustang and a Buick Wagon, circa late 1960s. This scene will repeat itself for endless summers yet to come, sans zoo.
Click the photo for a super close up that will show the entry to the zoo.
Brynn and Ally on the summit of Mt. Webster. The mountainside slopes away quickly behind them, then disappears altogether due to the steepness. The Willey house wayside is seen far below. Click on the photo for a hi-res version that may take some time to load (117k) but the detail is amazing.
Looking north from the summit of Mt. Webster. In the left of this photo is the side of Mt. Willey. At center, below the girls, is the broad face of the Mt. Willard cliff, at half the altitude. In the right hand side of the photo, angling down, are two paths created by the area's infamous rock slides. Click on the photo for a more detailed picture. Shows Mt. Willard quite well.
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