Columnist: New Hampshire’s white mountains

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2016

Straight ahead is Eisenhower. My 11-year-old grandson tells me the rounded, domed peak mimics the late president’s bald head. I am impressed with George’s cranial knowledge of past presidents. We are sitting on the veranda of the Mount Washington Hotel looking south and east toward the Presidential Range.

From our view on the veranda we look out at a number of summits — Pierce, Eisenhower, Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Reagan[1], Jefferson, Adams and Madison. Franklin was named for Benjamin Franklin, who while never president, nevertheless served a critical role in the founding of our government.

There is a Mount Jackson, but that is named for Charles Thomas Jackson, a New Hampshire geologist, not Andrew Jackson. There is also a Mount Lincoln, but that is in Franconia Notch, not the “Presidential Range.”

The White Mountain National Forest, WMNF, was established in 1918. While we typically associate Theodore Roosevelt with conservation efforts, it was President Benjamin Harrison who, in 1891, signed the bill creating the National Forest System.

At 750,852 acres, the WMNF seems large, but relative to the 190 million acres of National Forest owned by the federal government it is small. Geologists estimate that the White Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Range, were formed about 100 million years ago.

Even to a white-haired grandfather of 10 that seems a long time ago. However, the Barberton Greenstone Belt in South Africa and the Hamersley Range in Australia date back three to five billion years.

The WMNF is truly a place to be enjoyed by any and all who venture north. A hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, winds its way through and over peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Eleven hundred miles of other trails make hiking in this preserve special.

My son, his wife and their four children, who are staying with us, spent one day climbing the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, which begins near the base of Cog Railway, to the top of Washington.

It is the possibility of membership in New Hampshire’s uniquely restrictive 4,000 footers club – there are officially 48 peaks above 4,000 feet in New Hampshire – is one reason people return to the area year after year.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the White Mountains is the vegetation, and the changes one can see as one climbs through deciduous forests of Maple and Beech, to higher elevations with birch, hemlock, red spruce and balsam fir, into what is known as the Upper Boreal Zone — 4,000 to 4,400 feet — and finally into the alpine region above tree line.

Once above tree line, ground cover includes various sedges, grasses and rushes, plants similar to those in the Arctic. Most peaks are windswept, thus devoid of any vegetation, apart from lichens that bravely cling to rocks and survive extreme cold and heavy snows.

Clouds, which cover the Presidential Range 60 percent of the time, mean that moisture is greater the higher one climbs. Nevertheless, the soil is more acidic and contains fewer nutrients, as the mist washes restoratives down the mountain.

As a national forest, the White Mountains may be selectively logged, but its real purpose is as a place to be enjoyed by people for the beauty of its peaks, gorges and vistas — to be at one with nature. Sitting on a ledge between Adams and Jefferson looking into the Great Gulf, or standing atop Madison looking south and west toward Washington one is reminded of man’s relative insignificance.

While there are wild animals like moose, black bears, white tail deer and even the occasional bobcat, the risk to campers and hikers is the vastness of its space and, more especially, the weather. It is easy to get lost if one wanders off the trail, and the weather, especially above tree line, can change quickly.

While mountains like the Matterhorn, K2, Mount Blanc, or even mounts Rainier and Hood in the U.S. are far higher and more difficult climbs, Mount Washington consistently ranks among the deadliest. That is because it gets more visitors, and hikers become surprised by high winds and low temperatures.

Its modest height of 6,288 feet belies the ferociousness of its weather. Average wind speeds are in excess of 40 miles per hour, with a record wind gust of 231 miles per hour recorded in April 1934.

Temperatures in July and August average in the mid-40s, with frequent dips below freezing. More than 130 people have died on the mountain, generally because they were unprepared.

But on this trip we are staying at the Mount Washington Hotel, with its golf courses, hiking and riding trails, tennis courts and swimming pools. For a few pleasant days, it is a place to forget the 24-hour news cycle: The election, with the braggadocio that is Donald Trump and the stink that emanates from the dissembling and corruption that is Hillary Clinton; the persistent slaughter of innocents by those we dare not name; and political correctness – a guise in the form of feigned respect, but in reality an attempt to disparage independent thought.

As we turn from the majestic view and return to the rest of our family, I realize George was right. Before being named Eisenhower in 1969, the peak was known as Dome Mountain, and before that Mount Pleasant — two words that, when used as adjectives, were appropriate to our 34th president.

It makes me wonder, where is a man like Ike today, and why, with mountains and ideals so high, have we descended so low?

[1] In 2003, New Hampshire’s State legislature changed the name of Mount Clay to Mount Reagan. The peak had been named for the 19th Century Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names, being politically coy, has so far refused to honor New Hampshire’s wishes, continuing to call the 5,533-foot peak Mount Clay. It will surprise no one that I prefer New Hampshire’s choice.

Editor’s note: Column edited for length.

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He may be reached at