Worst Weather in America

Date of Hike: 8/24/16

Valley Way: 0.8 miles  /  Brookside Trail: 1.7 miles  /  Watson Path: 1.7 miles  /  Osgood Trail: 0.5 miles  /  Gulfside Trail: 0.9 Miles  /  Lowe's Path: 1.7 miles  /  Randolph Path: 0.8 miles  /  Amphibrach: 1.9 miles  /  The Link: 0.7 miles
Total Miles: 10.2 (4,779 feet elevation gained)

Trip Report:
- Wednesday August 24th was a beautiful summer day on the trails.  I started out at Appalachia and hiked along the Valley Way trail for just under a mile before hooking onto the Brookside Trail.  The Brookside Trail travels along the Snyder Brook over gentle grades and excellent footing for most of its length until rising steeply as it passes by Salmacis Fall to its terminus at Duck Falls.  It's a beautiful trail and less traveled than the highway feel to Valley Way.
- From here I headed up Watson Path to the summit of Mount Madison.  My route was the shortest but steepest and roughest route to the summit.  From Duck Falls the Watson path becomes very steep and rugged as it heads straight up to the Alpine Zone, it's a relentless climb, and IMO, the most difficult trail on Mount Madison.  Once above treeline the grade moderates but the footing becomes hellish, a jumbled mess of odd sized boulders, some move underfoot and they are rough to the touch.
- It's not a trail built for speed, that's for sure, but I was in no hurry as the weather was perfect, mid 60's, sunny, and a light breeze.  It was truly a walk in the park up to the summit of Mount Madison with stunning views over 75 miles in every direction.

-  However, this is not always the case above treeline in the Presidential Range...Thirty years ago to the day on August 24th, 1986, the weather plummeted throughout the day, by late afternoon it was struggling to stay above freezing, visibility was extremely low, wind climbed throughout the day from 40 MPH in the morning to gusts exceeding 100 MPH overnight, fog and drizzle turned into driving rain and spitting snow.  On this "summer" day the Presidential Range was home to the worst weather in America, no place for a hiker to be out unprepared.
- Unfortunately, there were three hikers who ended up spending the night out in these horrible conditions.  Two hikers with adequate gear spent a restless night hunkered down around Oakes Gulf and walked out no worse for the wear the following morning.
- On the summit cone of Mount Madison there was a terrifying situation unfolding as night fell upon the northern most peak in the Presidential Range.  A hiker in his 50's, who had been hiking with his son and a foreign exchange student struggled mightily to make it up to the summit, pushing through horrible terrain as the weather kept deteriorating quickly.  Their route was the same one I was hiking, needless to say it was the worst route to take on that day.
- By the time they summited the father was close to succumbing to hypothermia, while his son was quickly fading as well.  The foreign exchange student made it to the hut and alerted the croo who after much difficulty was able to get the son to the hut and warm him up.
- Saving the young teenage boy's life was a miracle in itself, he was hypothermic and barely able to move.  The hut croo, which were all college kids braved the hurricane force winds, low visibility, and rain/sleet/snow and saved this teenage hiker's life that evening.  Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending, the boy's father was barely responsive and in no condition to be saved when one of the hut croo found him just below the summit.  They didn't have the man power or gear to win the battle against the elements without putting more people in serious danger.
- The father perished that night, and the next day his body was retrieved and littered carried down the mountain, putting an end to one of the saddest ordeals ever to happen on Mount Madison.

- I was seven years old in August of 1986, my family had just started hiking but had not yet hiked a 4,000 foot mountain.  However, this tragedy has always stuck with me as I vaguely remember my father talking about it thirty years ago.  The whole story of the day is explained very well in Nicholas Howe's book, Not Without Peril, which I encourage every White Mountain hiker to purchase as reading material.

- As for the rest of my hike, I descended from the summit to Madison Spring Hut, went through the guest book from 1986 to see if there was any mention of the weather or that day.  Much of what was written on the 24th were from hikers who stayed overnight on the 23rd and were about to leave.  Most wrote about how great the weather was on the 23rd, some mentioned how the weather was foggy and rainy on the morning of the 24th as they were about to head down and go home.  I did find one entry on the 25th from a teenager who comically explained his hike up through the rain, wind, and fog the day before on the 24th with his family and friends.  He drew a picture of the mountain with the trail, trees, weather etc.,  one of the things he drew was a person with the words "Hiker lost in fog" written above it.

- Many hikers take lightly the big yellow weather warning sign touting worst weather in America, passing it by without thinking twice about it.  I've even taken a picture next to it poking fun, but on some days it's 100% true, on that day thirty years ago it wasn't the worst weather in America, it was the the worst weather in the world...

I start my hike on the easy footing of the Valley Way Trail 

Hiking along the Brookside Trail.  Most of the trail looks like the picture on the left, towards the end the trail becomes steep and rough (right)

 Salmacis Fall

Duck Fall

2.5 miles into my hike I hook onto the Watson Path for a relentlessly steep climb towards treeline

As I approach treeline the trail starts to moderate and becomes easier to navigate

The weather warning sign at treeline

Once above treeline it's just a jumbled mess of odd sized boulders

Making my way up to the summit on a beautiful summer day

Summit of Mount Madison

Mount Washington

Cater - Moriah Range

Carter Notch

The Wildcat Range and the ski area

Heading down to Madison Spring Hut

The hut croo from 1986

The adventurous and comical entry of a 14 year old, with the drawing including 'Hiker lost in fog'

 Madison Spring Hut

Madison's summit cone

The King Ravine

The A.T. (Gulfside Trail) below the summit of Mount Adams is a boulder sidewalk

Thunderstorm Junction and heading down Lowe's Path

Approaching Abigail Adams 

Looking at Mount Adams from Abbey Adams

Descending Lowe's Path

One last look back at Mount Madison

Beautiful late afternoon above treeline

Mount Jefferson and the Castellated Ridge

Once below treeline Lowe's Path is kind of rugged and slick for a mile 

 The nice hike back to Appalachia on Randolph Path, Amphibrach, and the Link

Cold Brook Falls

Cold Brook  Bridge

The 'Missing Link' boulder on The Link

Trails taken along the way


  1. Wow, just wow! Thanks for passing along your extensive knowledge of the past. I'll have to purchase that book soon.


  2. Chris, I have that damn story MEMORIZED! We were just discussing it the last few days! Thanks for posting the Hut log from then.

    1. What a coincidence! I bet there were other White Mountain enthusiasts thinking about this too.

  3. Hi Chris,

    Great report and pics as always.

    Thanks for sharing the story from 1986. It's one I ready many years ago in "Not Without Peril". I feel as though the reminders, although give me the chills to read, are always useful in helping me to stay prepared, educate my kids, etc. It's so important to respect the mountains and weather as they can be a scary place if unprepared.


    1. I agree completely, Karl. Very well said by you!