The Airline and Israel Ridge Loop, while not the hardest, steepest pair of trails in the White Mountains, is a strong contender.
We chose to try this pair of trails in May as part of Ara and Ron warming up for their Appalachian Trail effort that would start in June. What we didn't know was how much snow was still just below treeline, or how hard and slow that would make our progress.
The trail is best started near dawn - we hit the mountain a little late and pushed the day pretty close to dark.
The bird life is very noisy on the lower parts of the trail. And if you are in a quiet spot and listen for vibrations that are transmitted through the ground at very low frequencies, you can hear / feel the rapidly increasing tempo of the thump of the ruffed grouse.
The Air Line steepens and becomes very rocky as it enters the conifer zone. Shortly after that, the first ice and snow appeared, mostly on the trail.
As we ascended the snow thickened, eventually hitting two to three feet. It was fairly well consolidated, but there was still some postholing. Also, the snow / ice mix tended to be taller at the center of the trail, which sometimes made balance problematic.
Our first view of the King Ravine headwall showed gullies full of snow, but as we popped up above treeline, we left the tiring snow trails behind.
The air is thinner here, so it is a good idea to take a break, have some light snacks , then push on more slowly. It is possible, though unlikely, to experience altitude sickness near this level, so listen to your body.
The trail ahead is relentlessly steep and the air is thinner, colder, and there is more wind, so some of the clothing you may have given up as you warmed up from exertion may have to come back on.
We hiked across the Gulfside Trail and then started up the summit cone.
Unfortunately, a third of the way up, we came across a party that had brought a dog, and the dog had been unable to continue on the rough sharp rocks; he had just laid down and refused to continue. Please, if you care about your dog, don't bring him up here - the exertion, thin air, and walking barefoot on the sharp, rough metamorphic stone; all this will at best make him miserable, and at worst may kill him.
By the time we reached the summit, it was cloaked in cloud. But that didn't spoil the moment. For me, it was the goal of a year ago, almost to the week, when I was lying in the hospital recovering from the two surgeries I had required to have my gall bladder removed. For Ara and Ron, it was proof that they could hike the Whites with an AT weighted pack.
But we were already running late, and Sue was waiting for us at the Israel Ridge trailhead. And without a cell signal, we couldn't call to say we were late, so she would worry.
We traveled to the giant cairn at Thunderstorm Junction, and then took our best shot at the Israel Ridge Trail. We turned out to be right, but as we descended behind Mount Sam Adams, looking at our most spectacular view of the day (rough terrain, snowfields, a huge column of cloud, and distant peaks), we had to wonder what it would be like if we were wrong, and had to turn back, ascend, and then go down the Air Line or the Valley Way.
Fortunately. we soon reached territory I knew from a prior ascent of the Israel Ridge Trail and we started the descent.
The snow and ice had been bad on the Air Line, but it was much worse on the Israel Ridge. The descent also seemed to make it much more intimidating. Finally, the steepness made a misstep seem likely to lead to a dangerous fall - a fall that could turn this from a mild epic about which fun stories could be told, to a real epic requiring a rescue. The pressure of time was on us as well. Sue was waiting below, and would be worried if we were late, and, in addition, a hike we thought would be eight or nine hours was heading toward lasting twelve and ending in the dark. We also would have several water crossings ahead of us, and we didn't know yet how high or rough the water might be.
Sometimes we had to walk on the moss at the edges of the path; other times we were on the hump in the middle of the trail, descending at a fifty. sixty or even seventy degree angle.
In one spot, the trail was so steep we had to bushwack to the side and cross underneath a boulder. In other dangerous spots, we benefited from the new ladders constructed by the Randolph Mountain Club.
Our first water crossing, high above the valley floor, followed some very steep - but fortunately snow free - terrain. We made it fine and then hiked a near deathmarch above Cascade Brook. The final crossing put us on easy terrain and we hiked the last segment at about three miles an hour, making it a little over twelve hours from end to end.
To complete our "full variety day" the rain started as we crossed the field to the parking lot. That night, three inches of snow fell on the summit, and the snow continued through the next day.
Above Treeline Warning
People have died above treeline every time of the year. On the summits, the air is thinner (approximately equivalent to Denver, Colorado) and at any exposed altitude weather conditions can vary from sun to rain, sleet or even snow in moments. Winds frequently exceed 30 mph and can generate severe wind chill, even in summer. Check weather reports, but prepare for the worst.
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