Monday, September 22, 2014

Mt. Jefferson Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) - 9/12/14

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights is an elusive natural light phenomena that occurs when there is a collision of mangetospheric particles and solar wind in the upper atmosphere.  With news of the sun unleashing a massive coronal mass ejection (CME), there was a significant increase in the chance of witnessing the aurora due the to the CME's force being directed toward the earth.  CME's happen every so often, but I guess more often the released forces are facing away from earth.  With a build-up of news stories, my brother and I easily made the decision to switch our plans, and head up to the mountains right after work last Friday night, September 12th.

After several hours of pondering where to go, and not surprisingly, we decided on the shortest route to the highest peaks...the highest peaks in New England, and specifically Mt. Jefferson in the northern Presidentials by way of the Caps Ridge Trail.   Here, we imagined that we would have a front row seat if we would be lucky enough for the lights to be visible. Instead of a longer hike of Cannon and the Kinsmans for Saturday, this night we'd just hang out up top of Jefferson and focus on the possible chance to see the aurora, and get some photos.
Ahhhh, love it everytime!
Highest elevation reached by a road in NH
Caps Ridge Trail

We hoped that at some point, we would come out on top.
Pothole Rock

Yay Fun!
Having only made up our mind by lunch time on Friday, we scrambled out of work at about 2:00pm, came home, packed our bags, and were on the highway by about 4:00pm.  We arrived at the Caps Ridge Trail head around 6:00pm.  This trail head is the highest one of them all in the White Mountains, at 3,009' in Jefferson Notch.  Although I've been to Jefferson 10 previous times, this was me and Bill's first time on the Caps Ridge Trail, which rises 2,700' in the 2.5 miles to the summit as it traverses three distinct caps along the ridge, which is Caps Ridge.  We were looking forward to the slight challenge, but we were up for it because we knew what possibilities lied ahead.  In short time, we started to get into the fog, at which point we then had no idea when or even if we'd come out of the clouds and get to see anything at all.  We carefully and steadily made our way around large boulders and up some fun scrambles.

Very near to the last "cap" we started to see a bluer fog, which was promising.  Minutes later, we were literally walking out of the top of the clouds into the alpine zone to an amazing sunset with full undercast, and stars already shining bright in the sky.  It was a moment of shock when I stopped and turned around for the first time.  I nearly fell over yelling to my brother to stop and see what was happening.  About ten minutes later as we near the junction with the Cornice, we look left and now we see some light rays shooting straight upward of the Northern lights, like nothing I've ever seen before.

My 11th summit of Jefferson
Bill's 2nd summit of Jefferson....but never in daylight!
It was about 8:00pm at this time, and we continued up in amazement.  An hour later, after the sun was gone, we arrived at the summit of Mt. Jefferson still looking at the start of the northern lights show.  We were just in time.

We found a pre-existing wall away from the summit to set the gear down and sit behind.  As we stood around for a few minutes, and before we even had the tripod up, we had another holy shit moment as the bright orange moon was just cresting the undercast to the south, and Bill scrambled to assemble the tripod.  I've been up here in a full-moon, so immediately when I saw what was happening next, I couldn't believe we were also going to add a nearly full moon to this beautiful night.
Nice and comfy with a beer, taking in a moonlit undercast and northern lights
Bill sitting with the big dipper and northern lights.

We spent a couple hours actively taking photos (pretty much Bill's job for the night), drinking a pint, and cooking our food on our stoves while we sat in amazement.  There was another good-sized group a short distance away on the summit of Jefferson who were there for couple to a few hours, and we chatted with two of them.  The northern lights got increasingly better as the clock went from about 10 to 11:00pm.  In the beginning, there were mostly upward shooting rays of light, and then the later it got, it became mostly a bow of green glow across the northeastern sky.  As the moon continued to rise instantaneously in that time-frame, the northern lights would become just about drowned out for the naked eye close to midnight.

One of the most amazing sights I've ever witnessed while hiking...
Moon, undercast, northern lights, stars oh my!

With the show over, it was time to get some rest in our sleeping bags.  For a couple of hours we peacefully napped under the moonlit-starry sky and fresh air.  That fresh air though, started to get pretty chilly, and we opted for departing sometime around 2:00am.  We arrived back at the trail head at 4:30am.
I might have seen the northern lights one other time in my life, but I don't really remember it.  Seeing them from the highest peaks in New England was just out of this world, and you have to take every moment of it in, because you just don't know when it will happen again.  The best advice I can give to anyone who seeks their chance to see northern lights, is to pay attention to the news, specifically news of astronomical events.  And...if there is ever something similar to happen again where there is a high chance of the northern lights and spectacular weather, don't even think twice, plan that hike and go.  Even with it forecasted, one has to be incredibly lucky to be granted such a night in the Presidential Range in mid-September.

Thanks to the many many folks (including family) who've already taken the time to comment on our photos and this hike.  It got even better for us after the hike as we found our headlamps in a few photos taken by others taking in the sights from the Presidential Range.  It was truly a special night for anyone who got a view of the event.

Hike Stats
Trails: Caps Ridge Trail
Distance: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,700 ft.
Actual Book Time: 9:30