Trip Report: Pleasure in moving through space on the Osceolas

Mount Osceola: 4,340 feet. East Osceola: 4,156 feet. Campton, NH. 2022-10-08 (Saturday.) By Mt Osceola Trail (from Tripoli Road.) Approx 8.4 miles, round trip.

Trailhead: 1215. Osceola summit: 1330. East Osceola summit: 1410. Car: 1615.

Cool autumn weather, temps in the low-mid 40s throughout the day. Rime ice in the trees near the east side of Osceola summit. Breezes were felt around the 4,000 foot mark, increasing with altitude and exposure; quickly diminishing on the descent. Bright sunshine throughout. MW-OBS reported 100 mile visibility — a true bluebird day. 

Leaves, they are a’changing. 

Three months later, and I’m getting out of my car a second time at the Tripoli Road trailhead. Almost the same start time, but a very different ending time — a bit over five hours the first, under four hours the second. Did I lose anything with the faster time? 

As I write (and painfully edit) this, it’s been two full days since I set foot on the trail. I’m still very jazzed about the whole affair. I moved fast. I visited a beautiful mountain. I saw an unbelievable number of beautiful mountains. The weather was fine. There was a lot of sunshine. In aggregate, there was a lot to be (still) doing the happy dance about. I’ve had a run of good luck with the weather in the mountains lately, and that’s very nice indeed. 

One bummer stood out: there were some really awful traffic delays driving up. It took 15 very frustrating minutes just to get across Concord, when it almost never takes more than about half that time. And so the stand-out there is that I might have spent more time driving than actually hiking, which is a bit amusing. It’s OK: I got in a couple more backpacking trips this summer than I’d expected. Two days later, I’m not thinking much about the traffic, as much as I’m still jazzed about the trail. Priorities, right? 

The lightness of hiking 

After a first and second pass of pondering the opening question, the shorter trail time doesn’t seem to have diminished anything. Indeed, I think it actually enhanced the trip. I moved very fast, and more so than I’ve been moving lately. I don’t think I felt entirely like I did pre-COVID, when I was road racing faster than I’ve ever raced in my life. But it came tantalizingly close. It felt good. 

Somewhere, I’ve got a photo of me finishing a race about 3-4 years ago. It’s dark (the race started at night) and I’m wearing my white Red Sox #33 Jason Varitek jersey. There’s no mistaking it’s me in that photo. And the photographer got me mid-stride, where both my feet are off the ground. Like master Yoda, I’m levitating as a true Jedi does. Now, if I can just master levitating X-Wing Fighters… 

It’s rare to recall how one felt at various mundane times. It’s uncommon to remember the less mundane times. I mean, there’s too many cherished moments to remember everything. But wow, I remember that moment. I ran really fast, winding up in third place in my division. Even my overall time was enviable: I think I ran sub-7 minute miles. In my 40s, I was running faster than in my 20s. Your sense of “being fit” when you do that kind of thing… let’s just say you’re not thinking of putting your cardiologist on speed-dial, right?

Zen and the art of moving through space

There’s a pleasure in moving quickly through space. When you get it right, you just float. There’s a zen calm, despite all the chaos of racing — driving yourself to the edge of your ability, ready to puke at any moment, praying you don’t (because that would scotch your time) and your whole body is on fire, gasping, trying to wring out every last oxygen molecule from each breath, your chest as heavy as concrete from all the effort, while your brain screams “go faster!” But if you get it right, looking back, you floated in a sea of calm. All is well with the world. 

More than just racing, I feel like pre-COVID, I was in better shape. I was getting ready to hike the AT, pounding out miles on the trail about as effortlessly as one can in the Whites. Thru-hikers were telling me to quit hemming and hawing, and just hike the damn thing. By their estimation, I was ready, and indeed already at Katahdin. I just needed to do the 2,000 miles. And so without all that in my life, lately, I’ve been missing that feeling. That zen. Or, in another paradigm, there’s been a disturbance in the force. Talk about being at loose ends…

Always with you what can be done

Like in racing, I jumped out from the trailhead like a bottle rocket. The parking area and Tripoli Road itself was utterly packed with cars. I’d lucked out and scored a parking space, but there was still a lot of people on the trail. I just wanted to get away from them all, and so I raced upwards. Of course, that just meant I’d meet up with everyone who’d started out some time before I did, and there were a lot of hours between sunrise and when I finally hit the trail. Despite that, something primal implored me to shove myself forward at a blistering rate. Under-dressed for the cool weather (my skin was pretty chilled) I was drenched in sweat in short order. Dragging myself upward, my spirits soaring, I flew up the trail. 

The odd thing about the Mt Osceola Trail, at least from Tripoli Road, is that it’s “rocky” but a lot of that manifests as slabby stretches that make you move angle-ways across them as they slope downhill, and you move across the hill. I came across a lot of people who seemed to get bogged down in all this. It’s all good: you just need to be decisive when you move. In the moment, it’s just magic when you can dance across the tough spots.

At the summit of Osceola, I saw some rime ice on the trees on the east side. The day was really nice: seasonally “warm” with absolutely unbridled sunshine. The leaves down low lent a golden hue to the trail as the sun passed through endless beech and birch leaves that have yet to fall. But up top, it was summit conditions, which is to say, “quite a bit cooler.” The rime ice was making a lovely contrast against the deep blue sky.

Moving through space means staying moving

The summit was mobbed, so I spent almost no time there. It’s weird, because my day job involves people in a total sense. But on my time off, I really don’t want to be around anyone. I’m peopled out by week’s end. And so I dove into the trail heading over to East Peak, hoping for some measure of quietude. Given it was a holiday weekend, there was actually some quiet, which was nice. Actually, the col felt remarkable for the amount of people on the main summit, but not on the col — I think the “big” summit was the only destination for a lot of hikers. Foolish, but it fit well with my agenda, which was to get away from the usual stresses.

I made it down the Chimney by the easier side, which I don’t regret — on the return, I went up the hard side. At the East Peak summit cairn, there was no-one around, fueling my suspicions that most people just wanted the view from the main peak. I turned around, and raced back to the trailhead. I was still soaring, fueled almost entirely on endorphins. The weather was perfect, the leaves turning everywhere… bliss. 

At the main summit, I paused for a few minutes to take in the view. There were probably half the amount of people this time around, and I wanted to see if there was a bear under the summit, as there had been one last time. Alas, no such luck. The feeling of the warm autumn sun on my face, though… yes please!

The return to the trailhead… 

On the downhill, I ran. Outright ran in as many sections as I could. I have thoughts on trail running. Not the runners themselves. I know running is an insanity few will ever understand. But the idea of doing so over rocks and roots… not for me. And yet, there I was, one short of being called a legitimate trail runner. Chest less on fire, but still being drawn forward, though downhill. It was intoxicating, the rush of moving over the trail so fast as I did. 

I did have one sidewards moment. One spot where I slipped on a rock, and a twist to *that ankle*. It was not far from the trailhead; on mostly flat ground not far from where I’d be done. A painful reminder: the destination is always the safe return to the trailhead. Fortunately, no long term damage. But still, a bit more frightening than I’d have preferred. 

A couple more turns in the trail, and then the car. A roundtrip of four hours, when I thought I’d be at least four and a half, maybe even around sunset. Afternoon sun shining in golden hues through the leaves. Views from the summit of a canopy of color spread across the valleys below. Wow! I’ll take it. 

As always, stay safe out there.

Nuts and Bolts: To get to the trailhead from Tripoli Road, take the Waterville Valley exit off 93. Follow to the east, and at the signs for the ski area, turn left. Where the road forks (left side will be for the ski area’s parking, etc, as well as Mt Tecumseh) take the right side. A bit beyond will be the bridge to the right that will take you to the Livermore parking area, which accesses Tripyramid and Greeley Ponds Trail. Don’t take that right, but stay straight: you’re on Tripoli Road. It’s bumpy, not at all “well maintained.” There are potholes, each of which could swallow your car like a Sarlacc. 

Trailhead will be almost exactly three miles after the gate. Probably about ten minutes drive time if you’re cautious; this is not the place to be daring. In any spot where you wish the road was a wee bit wider in order to pass someone coming the other way, it’ll invariably be narrower than you’d prefer. Or the other guy will be more in your lane than his. Sightlines are short: exercise a lot of “due regard” on this one road, even if you drive like a maniac everywhere else.

Blazes are really immaterial in the warmer months: the trail has usually been kept up quite nicely — kudos to the maintainers for their hard work. I can’t recall a point where I wondered where the trail went. There are enough people tramping up and down that the trail is pretty obvious across its entire length.

At the split by the Chimney, going right (if you’re above) will yield a harrowing descent, but to the left, things are a fair bit more moderate, even if they’re still a wee bit harrowing. I recommend the steep climb for the ascent, as the descent is crazier than it needs to be, when a safer route lies just a few yards away. Seriously, a fall from any height on the right side can easily make your outing far more complicated than it needs to be. Climbing up is almost always safer than climbing down: if you need the thrill, it’s there when you head back up. Knowing “you’re here”? There’s a yellow arrow pointing down on the right side. That is all she wrote, folks.

There was a piece on WMUR’s website about record crowds visiting the area this weekend. More than just the usual blow-ins from Massachusetts and New York, they counted people flying in from abroad, too. I didn’t take a strict tally, but off the cuff, it seemed like out-of-state cars outnumbered the locals by at least 3:1 everywhere I looked. Trailhead parking areas were laid out long before hiking became fashionable, and weren’t sized to accommodate huge crowds. If I were one to place bets, I’d say the safe money sits on this trend carrying through until at least the end of the month. Plan accordingly. 

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