Mt. Willey: A Ruthless Hike Up the Willey Range Ladders for Lucy's #13
Although, I have ascended the Willey Range trail before I don't remember it being a thankless climb seeming to go on forever. For some reason my brain blocked out how relentlessly steep and grueling this trail is. Maybe I'm just more out of shape than I realized, but our hike last week was surprisingly difficult. I went into it thinking it would be a quick little jaunt to grab Lucy's 13th 4,000 footer in NH, but I was so wrong it's comical.
I recently started a Facebook group called JP Hikers, so when one of our members posted that she was looking for a partner to hike Willey, Field, and Tom the next day, and I spontaneously jumped on the opportunity. Lucy has been slowly chipping away at her NH48 list, but when we hiked Tom and Field last April we left out Willey because we didn't have a car spot. I had been itching to get back to it, but I was worried about the infamous ladders.
Willey Range trail is most known for a set of eleven ladders built into the steep rock face a little ways before the summit. I had ascended them once before and remember them being lots of fun, but I figured they might pose more of a problem with Lucy. I was glad to do it with a buddy so that in case anything went wrong Lucy and I wouldn't be out there by ourselves.
When we started up Ethan Pond trail it wasted no time gaining elevation. From the start it ascended steeply. Not gradually sloping or steadily inclining, this was really up from the beginning. I found myself out of breath after just a few minutes. As we made our way to where it turned into Willey Range trail, the incline leveled out for short stretches allowing us to appreciate the foliage around us. The colors were vibrant, even more so than last weekend. When we got to that first trail junction it got even steeper. There had been no gentle warm up, but now that we were just over a mile in our muscles had finally adjusted.
From here the terrain was really rough. There were small, ankle breaking rocks beneath the layer of leaves threatening to throw us off balance with every step. We took lots of short breaks between sections of steep terrain, and I was sure by the looks of the topographic map that we were close to the ladders. You can see where they are on the map because all of the little lines are smashed together. That's usually a signifier of a fun scramble or climb, but in this case we would be assisted by the famous ladders.
When we finally reached them I was relieved because I knew we were close to the summit. My plan was to take Lucy up and down the first ladder to make sure she would be okay coming down them after summiting. I didn't want to get all the way up just to get stuck carrying my 62lb squirmy pup back down the steep wooden rungs. Luckily, she easily went up and back down the first ladder. Each rung had pretty good surface area, so they were similar to narrow stairs.
Going up the ladders was probably my favorite part of this hike because it's such a unique section of trail. I'm continually surprised at what great condition they're in even with all of the traffic and rough winters they see. It was so much fun! When we got to the top I assumed that we would be just a few steps to the summit but I was wrong again. It was another steep climb to the summit. When we reached the lookout we cracked open a couple of beers to celebrate Shannon completing half of her NH 4,000 footers. After a long break she continued north to Mt. Field and Tom. Lucy and I spent a little more time taking in the views of Crawford Notch and Webster Cliffs across the way.
I'm never a fan of the hike down from summits, but this one was especially tedious. Not only did we have to be cautious of the loose rocks when we were making our way down, we also had to be wary of slipping on the leaves that lined our path. Lucy did really well on the steep parts and to my surprise the ladders were no problem to get down. As we descended slowly we took in every breath of the autumn air knowing that this may be the last time we inhale the earthy scent this year. We took our time and I kicked leaves along the trail with every step. Lucy loved jumping in the little piles and rolling around in the foliage. When we finally made it back to the car we were both tired and relieved to be crossing the finish line.
Mt. Willey (4,285 ft) via Ethan Pond Tr and Willey Range Tr [5.33 mi, 2880 ft, 4:20].