Three hours into the ascent of the Six Husbands Trail, in the Great Gulf Wilderness, the trail seemed to dead end at a nearly vertical rock promontory. The trail was visible on the other side of the promontory, but there was no way around – we had to climb it. While I was evaluating the possible routes Janet said, “I see it,” and began climbing. I just had time to whip out my camera for a quick shot. There was nothing on her left except a 2000 foot fall into the ravine, so it was commit or fall off. With a smear and a jug she topped out and I followed. The problem was that it had taken 3 hours to cover 1.7 miles and we still had 7 hours of hiking to get back to the campsite.
The seed for the trip was planted during the Northern Presidential Traverse a few years ago. Coming down Gulfside Trail I saw the sign for Great Gulf Wilderness and said to Janet. “We should go in there some day.” The next thing I knew she had it planned out. It was scheduled and then postponed several times because of a bad weather forecasts. Suddenly last Friday there was a forecast for 3 days of good weather. Driving up Janet said, “I’m not sure we’ll be able to complete this.” It was the first time she said had ever expressed doubt about our ability to complete a hike. I wondered what she had planned.
Great Gulf Trail
On Sunday we drove to the Great Gulf Trail head off Route 16. The Great Gulf Trail crosses the Peabody River on a suspension bridge and then follows along the river, gently sloping through moss forests to The Bluff. Then it drops down to the river and we rock hopped to the other side. The Parapet River comes in from the north and the trail then follows West Branch Peabody River. Holes in the moist moss sucked in toads crossing the trail in front of us. It was humid and my t-shirt was soaked by noon. The placid pools along the river called out, but the energizer bunny was well ahead of me on the trail. We found a tent site and set up the tent and bear bag. I read the trail descriptions and wasn’t concerned – 7 miles seemed well within our range.
Ascent of Six Husbands Trail
The next day at 8:30 we began the traverse – Six Husbands Trail to Gulfside Trail and down Buttress Trail. Six Husbands started just across the river and it was too high to rock hop, so we waded across barefoot. The trails heads steeply uphill over large boulders and through 2 boulder caves. Then it climbs straight up the main buttress (aka north knee) of Mt. Jefferson to a series of ladders with spectacular views into the Great Gulf, to the aforementioned rock promontory.
After topping out the crux we reached the Edmands Cutoff at 11:45. It had taken us 3 hours to cover 1.7 miles (1850 vertical feet), well above the book time of an hour and 45 minutes. I began to understand why J had been concerned. The trail ascended through dense alpine conifers and across a talus field. It joined the Gulfside Trail, which is part of the Appalachian Trail. From Gulfside we had excellent views of the buttress we had just climbed, as well as Jefferson Ravine, Wildcat Ski Area and the Mt. Washington Auto Road. We passed Thunderstorm Junction and got down to Madison Spring Hut at elevation 4800’. It was now 2:40 and we still had 4 more miles and 1600 vertical feet to go. We bought some brownies and a headlamp, just in case.
Descent of Buttress Trail
At 3:10 we left the hut and followed Star Lake Trail to Star Lake and then headed down the Buttress Trail. Both of these trails, Six Husbands and Buttress, are little used because of their difficulty and it seemed like no one had hiked on Buttress in years. The vegetation made it hard to see the ground, which was little more than intertwined tree roots and boulders. Fighting through that we entered a boulder field. The trail (uphill at this point) was marked by cairns, so at least we could see it. But boulder fields are treacherous in any case. One misstep equals a broken ankle or worse. J stumbled a few times and realized she had to focus. We crossed it and entered an easier section thinking we were home free. Then came two steep slabby sections, which were wet and overhung. It was a tough choice whether to go down backwards and hope for a good foot placement or slide down on your butt. But then another boulder field loomed in front of us. My legs were good, but it seemed that my brain was giving up. There were too many boulders and I couldn’t decide which boulder to step on. From here the entire buttress and ridge was visible.
We finally reached the lower section of Six Husbands, waded across the river and made it back to camp at 7:00 PM. The hike took 10.5 hours, including a half hour rest at Madison Springs and covered 7.3 miles.
Great Gulf Trail – Route 16 to Campsite: 4.5 miles – 4 hours 20 minutes
Six Husbands – Gulfside – Buttress: 10.5 hours – 7.3 miles (including .5 hour break at Hut.)
Camp to Edmands Cutoff – 3 hours – 1.7 miles
Edmands Col to Madison Spring Hut: 3 hours – 2.6 miles
Madison Spring Hut to Camp: 4 hours – 2.6 miles
Great Gulf Trail – Campsite to Route 16: 4.5 miles – 4 hours 20 minutes
Total distance – 16.3 miles
Hiking in the Whites Mountains is hard and the Great Gulf trails are the hardest of the hard. Built in areas already cleared by nature – landslides and boulder fields, they follow “painfully direct routes to the summits.” Six Husbands and Buttress are the steepest of the steep and only strong hikers should attempt them. In Wilderness areas there are no mileages on signs, no blazes and blowdowns are left in place. Fires are not permitted in Great Gulf, there are no toilets, no trash cans and few bear lockers.
In addition to wilderness skills you must also have no fear of heights and some bouldering or climbing experience would be extremely useful.