I post this to tell just how quickly and easily things can go wrong, even if you think you are very prepared. I consider myself a responsible hiker, but I made mistakes today. We are all fine, but things could have turned out very differently. I risk getting blasted here, but I want to share this so maybe someone can learn from my errors.
First, thank you to those who responded to the "easiest 4000 footer" thread. The info was very informative, and we chose Tom today because I felt it was the best fit for our family and the potential afternoon weather. My husband had to go away on business AGAIN this weekend, and since it's been 2 weeks since we've hiked, Alex and I were itching to go. Sage said she was game, as long as I carried her as much as I could.
We set off early. The forecast was for a chance of thunderstorms. As it has been for much of the summer. Early this morning I checked the weather forecast for the towns surrounding Crawford Notch. Thunderstorms were possible in the afternoon. Okay, so as long as we got to the summit before the afternoon and were on our way back down, fine, right?
I packed the usual abundance of gear/clothes, packed the kids' packs, and off we went.
There were quite a few groups of hikers at Crawford Notch, which gave me a false sense of confidence. One group of adults with a young boy were heading up to do all three summits (Tom, Field and Willey). A couple of women were headed up to do one or two peaks. There were 3 other groups of various folks. We had company setting out, so again I felt fine about this endeavor.
Sage hiked like a champ all the way up the Avalon trail. She got tired around the A-Z intersection, so we sat a bit and rested.
I began to carry Sage as much as I could up the A-Z. This was difficult -- I had packed a ton of clothes for Alex AND Sage. They have their own packs with their own change of clothes in them, but I also carry coats, extra clothes, etc. in my own pack. My pack weighed a ton, so I had to carry Sage for ten minutes, then ask her to walk for ten. We understandably went at a slow pace.
Halfway up the A-Z, I heard thunder in the distance. I could not get a good glimpse of the sky to see if the clouds were threatening, or if they were far away. In the past, thunder had rumbled while we were hiking, but I had always had a visual on the sky and could tell if it was far off, coming close, etc. Today, I could see a bit of the sky, but not enough to really tell much of anything. It was sunny where we were, so we continued up.
Mistake number one: I should have turned back here. Thunder -- even in the distance, as it was then -- coupled with not being able to see the sky put us at a disadvantage. I didn't have adequate visual information and should have turned back.
We made it to the Tom Spur path at 11:15am. At that point, the thunder sounded a bit closer. Two groups of hikers were coming down off Mt. Tom, one of them was the people we had met in the parking lot. I asked both groups of people what the clouds looked like. Both groups, independently, told me that there was a nasty looking thundercloud moving away from the mountain. That it has gone right by us and was moving away. BOTH groups told me this. The first group said they were continuing toward Mt. Field and that they figured the danger of thunderstorms was past, at least for a while. I looked up and saw grey sky, but with sunshiny bits coming through. I did not have a visual anything other than what was right above me. So we continued on.
About 5 minutes after we started on the Tom Spur, BOOM! Within 10 seconds of the first BOOM, lightening started hitting what felt like areas right around us. Hail began to pour down.
As fast as I could, I got the girls off the path and into the adjacent (short!) trees. I grabbed the raingear out of my pack and put it on them both. We assumed the lightening "safety" position (crouching down with just the soles of your boots touching the ground) and huddled close together but not touching. I told them calmly that we would wait a few minutes and then decide what to do.
After 5 minutes, the frequent lightening was starting to push my panic button, and I wanted to get the girls back down to the interstection with the A-Z trail. The trees were taller there, and it was just overall a better shelter area than the short trees we were now in. I told the girls my plan. I told them we had to move as fast as we could. I told Alex she could start ahead while I grabbed Sage and ran after her. I made the split-second decision to leave my pack (and come back for it after the girls were in a more sheltered location...we were not far from the A-Z intersection, perhaps at most .2 mile). Alex made a dash for it, I grabbed Sage and ran after Alex.
Alex ran ahead, and I lost sight of her. Sage and I got to the A-Z intersection -- and ALEX WAS NOWHERE. I yelled for her, and then grabbed the whistle from Sage's pack and started blowing with all my might. I just blew and blew and blew. I saw what had happened. In the pouring rain/hail, booming thunder, and in her fright and fast running, she had run right past the Mt.Tom sign and continued along one of the three paths in front of me. I just blew, hoping she would hear it and turn around.
Thank God, she did. She wasn't too far ahead of us, but she had turned right on the A-Z (heading in the opposite direction of the way we had come up). After what seemed like an eternity of blowing that whistle (but was maybe 30 seconds?), she came into sight and ran back to us. She had no idea, in that moment, that she had run past the intersection. She had just seen trail and kept running. Then she had heard the whistle and turned around.
Mistake number two: Never (!!) Let Your Kid Run Ahead. Even if you think you are right behind them. I thought we were on her heels. She turned a corner, then got faster ahead of us, and then she just wasn't there.
I had the kids hunker down in the "safety" position, told them I had to retrieve the pack (my emergency gear was in it), and ran full speed back up the Mt. Tom spur. Getting it and coming back down probably took all of 3 minutes, but I'm sure it felt like an eternity to Sage, who was scared and crying when I returned.
I think I made the right decision in dropping the pack to get Sage down as fast as possible, My husband thinks that was a wrong move. In the middle of the lightening, I didn't want to take the time to get the pack back on, and I knew I would not move quickly carrying the pack and Sage. I just wanted to get my kids down further, fast. They had extra (warm) clothes in their own packs, which was with them. Yes, I had to leave them alone, together, to get the pack. I was gone perhaps 3 minutes. Yes, that made me very uncomfortable. Yes, I knew they would stay put, as I had told them to. Yes, I understand why my husband thinks that was a wrong move. However, again, in the moment, I strongly felt that leaving the pack and just hauling butt back down to better shelter was the right move for the kids' safety. Perhaps there's no right answer here.
After I got the pack, I grabbed Sage's hand and the three of us moved as fast as we could down the mountain. It was difficult. Alex has legs of steel and is good on a rocky trail, even if it's wet. She truly hikes like a fit teenager, she's rather amazing. Sage, on the other hand, was scared and tired, and I could not carry her while moving quickly down wet rocks. I did carry her as much as I could, but about half the time she had to walk holding my hand, moving fast with few breaks so we could make it down as quickly as possible. I just kept apologizing to her and telling her how proud I was of her, and that I would never, never keep going if I heard thunder in the distance, ever again.
We made it to the Avalon intersection. This trail was much easier, and I swooped up Sage and carried her almost all the remaining 1.3 miles. The thunder was still there, as was the rain, but at least the hail had stopped and the lightening no longer sounded like it was just around the bend.
Within the last half a mile, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We passed two male hikers going up the mountain. Alex looked at them as though they were insane and said, "Be careful of the thunder and lightening!!" They looked at her curiously, and I told them we had been hailed on the vast majority of our way down. They looked surprised -- I guess things had been sunny and pleasant in Crawford Notch??
We went on our way, Sage now walking again, and were finally, soon at the Depot. Now there was sunshine, and I looked up, behind us, and the mountains were clearing. Across the street, the southern Presidentials looked like they were still getting it good.
I promised Alex that in the future, at the first sound of thunder we would turn back. I also promised her that I would never let her run in front of us again.
So, as careful as I think I usually am, I made two major mistakes today that could have had serious consequences. In the moment, the decisions seemed sound. In retrospect, it could have been a disaster.
Lesson Number One: If you can't see the sky to judge what's going on up there, at the first sound of thunder, turn back. Even if the forecast is for afternoon storms and it's still morning. Even if the thunder seems far away.
Lesson Number Two: Never let your kid run ahead of you. Way too easy to lose sight, and too easy for them to turn down the wrong path.
So I'm humbled with today's experience. I have a ton of gear, clothes (hypothermia was never a danger), etc. But still I feel I put us in danger with two it-seemed-like-a-fine-idea-at-the-time decisions. So I'm putting this out there so maybe someone else can read and learn from my mistakes.