Adventure Report: Swan Song Loop, 30 Miles, Five Headwalls and Courage by Amy Hanlon
September. The days start getting shorter, the weather starts cooling down, and I have less free time to spend gallivanting in the woods. I try to take advantage of any free moment I have to do something awesome. This year a few brave souls and I decided to attempt a Swan Song Loop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sounds innocent enough...30 miles, 15,000 feet of elevation gain. It was aggressive and challenging, yes, but I felt confident that my group and I would be up for it. I had this year alone completed a Pemi Loop and a Presi Traverse in the Whites, a Devil's Path traverse and two half Devil's Path traverses in winter and finished 2 fifty milers and a 50k, and summitted the highest peak in the lower 48 states, all while being a working single mom. Yes, I was confident in my abilities. The question was, was I too confident?
6 am – Mendy Taylor, Chris Gallo and Bob Najar, three very strong hikers and I began our adventure heading up towards the King Ravine Headwall. I established myself early as the weakest link. Climbing isn’t my strong suit, and climbing up steep and exposed rocks poses some mental challenges for me. I don’t want to fall! So every step I take is with care and caution. Even with my slowness, I plodded along, behind the other three, catching up after the climbs.
The day was beautiful. The views spectacular. We hiked by countless beautiful waterfalls, mountain lakes, and incredible mountain vistas. We made our way up our second headwall, the Great Gulf Trail up to the summit of Mt Washington. We stopped for some food and drink and to refill our water and continued on our way down Tuckerman’s Ravine. I found myself feeling very nervous about the Huntington Ravine climb. We had a car at Pinkham Notch so it would have been very easy to bail. And I wanted to! My group convinced me I could do it. Bob Najar knows the Whites very well, and he promised to stay right behind me and assist me if necessary, and that calmed my nerves a bit and we carried on.
Bob kept his promise and stayed right behind me up Huntington. I found myself quite frightened and he did a great job calming me and talking me through the nerves I was experiencing, reminding me to find good hand & foot holds, and use my legs, and breathe! I don’t know if this type of climbing will ever be something I am comfortable with, but I did make it up, with the help of my friends. So onward we pressed.
Daylight began to wane on the way down and after the experience I had on Huntington I was apprehensive about the Madison Gulf Headwall, which would certainly be in the dark. I suggested considering a bailout, but Bob, knowing the trails very well was confident we would be able to get up and over the headwall safely and soundly. I was not exactly overflowing with self confidence, but forward I went.
Eventually we plodded our way in the dark to the headwall. The temperature was moderate at this point and up we went. Bob agreed to stay with me again, as he had on Huntington. If I hadn’t have had this luxury, I probably would have turned around and taken a bailout trail. Slowly I moved forward. Mendy and Chris were ahead of us, out of earshot at this point. The “trail” was just piles of steep, wet rocks that needed four point climbing. I was intimidated but kept going; Bob continued to encourage me, and then with only a 5% chance of rain and little wind in the forecast, the wind began to pick up and the temperature dropped. Fog set in quickly making visibility even trickier. Bob and I ducked between some rocks to put on every bit of clothing we had, and I knew time was of the essence. We needed to get up to the hut. I knew I couldn’t rush on the slippery rocks, but I couldn’t mess around questioning every step for 30 seconds either. Some dark thoughts crept into my head at this point. And then it began to rain. Argghhh! Things felt even more urgent, and thankfully Bob remained cool and calm, and forward we headed--panic wasn’t an option.
Eventually enough we found our way to the top of the headwall, reconnecting with Mendy and Chris. We were all cold, and mentally and physically exhausted. The visibility was so poor that we struggled to find the cairns leading to the hut. But together, finally, at 11:30 pm, we finally made it to Madison Hut. None of us had planned to stay – but all of us knew hiking the 4ish miles back down to Appalachian in the cold rain and wind wasn’t in the cards. Someone from the hut gave us blankets and we all found a corner and hunkered down for the night.
This adventure was by far the most intense I have experienced in my 41 years. I was tested and went places within myself I just haven’t been before. Will I attempt it again? Likely not. But I think I woke up Sunday morning stronger and smarter with much clearer understand of my strengths, and more importantly, my weaknesses.