New Hampshire

It's more snow, now, than tree...

It’s more snow, now, than tree…

For Sunday’s hike, Siren and I headed to Crawford Notch and the Mt Willey Range. Siren has been living deep in the mountains of western New Hampshire for the winter, before she heads west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which you’ll be able to read about at her blog!). In the meantime, she’s checking off 4000 Footers in the White Mountains, one snow-covered trip at a time.

Such smooth ground cover, it's like walking on clouds.

Such smooth ground cover, it’s like walking on clouds.

Another three to six inches had fallen in the mountains overnight, giving us yet more deep powder to trudge through right out of the parking lot, and coating the trees so thickly that they often resembled strange creatures from a Tim Burton film. I guess there had been relatively little wind around there recently, because many trees had tall snow piles balanced precariously on top of long branches. Occasionally a brush of a backpack on a low-hanging branch would send snow falling from the trees in such large dumps that our entire snowshoe track would be obliterated. I can’t remember the last time I had such wonderful snow conditions in the White Mountains.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

The climb to Mount Tom, the northernmost of the three peaks of the Willey Range, is a mellow hike by local standards, but we saw no one until we neared the summit. Signs and blazes on the trees were set low to the ground, giving a good impression of the snow’s depth, but otherwise there was little sign of humanity. Just the way I like it.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

As we traversed between Mount Tom and Mount Field, the snow covering the trees became denser, like we were walking through a garden of giant marshmallows. With the corridor of the trail mostly below our feet, the marshmallow trees squeezed into the trail much tighter than one would be used to in summer, and breaking trail in the virtually untouched ground cover slowed us to a fairly slow pace. But there’s nothing to complain about in that. This was some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve had in a long time. With the mountains in the clouds, we could focus on closer views of snow mounds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

Atop Mount Field, the sky cleared a little bit and we ran into a few other hikers. For such a nice day on a fairly popular mountain, I was surprised to see so few people on the trail, but certainly not disappointed. There’s something of an enchanted forest feel to the mountain when it’s so quiet and buried like this. We may have never been more than three miles from the nearest road, but it never felt like we were anywhere near civilization.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

After Mt Field, we decided that two peaks were good enough for the day (it was a long drive back for each of us), and so we descended along the Avalon Trail, with a brief stop for the only views of the day on Mt Avalon. Though it’s the shortest peak we hit that day, I often get the best views from there because it is short enough to keep its head out of the clouds, unlike the higher peaks of the range. And, as an added bonus, the steepness of the trail heading down allowed for some long and exciting butt-sledding– the icing on an already wonderful cake of a day.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.

Last weekend had much better conditions than the previous one, so I tried to make up for the few days I’d taken off in the poorer conditions by doing two great day hikes. The first was a late start to the iconic (and difficult to pronounce) Mt Chocorua. Chocorua is one of the southernmost peaks in the White Mountains, and not particularly tall at only 3500 feet, but it has one of the most distinctive shapes in the area, with a snaggle-tooth rocky peak jutting up from the ridge. That rocky peak, battered by high winds and totally exposed, is similar to many much higher summits, which makes it a great place for epic views and some exciting scrambles.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

Hiker Box, Badass, Siren and I set out late in the morning on the Piper Trail, which is one of the more popular trails up the mountain. For winter, the trailhead isn’t plowed, but an old couple who share a driveway with the trailhead allow hikers to park in their yard for $3 per car. I’m happy to pay the small price, since they’re friendly folks and seem perpetually amused by the crazy people walking up the mountain behind their home.

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Despite the clearly broken-out trail, the low temperatures and frequent powdery snow from this winter kept the ground soft, making snowshoes a must for the entire ascent. In most winters, microspikes would have been more than sufficient, but they work best after a few freeze/thaw cycles turn the packed trail into something between ice and snow. There hasn’t been any thawing this winter, which is just the way I like it.

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Walking through the woods for most of the approach, we could see the jagged summit through the trees most of the way. The sky was mostly overcast, but once we broke above tree line the clouds proved to be just high enough to allow some grey views of several mountain ranges, from the Sandwich Range to the Presidentials.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

The last half mile to the summit is entirely exposed ridgeline, walking on rock and ice. We probably should have switched to microspikes or crampons for this section, but rugged snowshoes worked well enough if we slowed down and took care in our footing. There were plenty of other hikers out this day, though no one spent more than a few minutes getting buffeted by wind on the summit.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

We snapped a few pictures, then booked it down the trail for dinner at the Yankee Smokehouse in West Ossipee. It was a late night once we included the drive back from the trail, but even with a 11 AM start on the trail, we managed not to hike in the dark at all. A great start to a great weekend!

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Philip starts the day with a climb into the new powder.

Another week of heavy snow in New England meant the mountains were ripe for exploration. My friend, Hikerbox, had one 4000 Footer left on his peakbagging list before he heads out west, so he proposed an overnight hike to Mt Moriah for last weekend. Philip and I gladly joined in for the opportunity to do some alpine snow camping.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Entering the Wild River Wilderness, the trail disappeared into the snow within 100 feet.

Though the trail up to the Carter-Moriah Range’s ridge was broken out by a few sets of snowshoes before us, the snow was still so fresh and fluffy that we needed snowshoes the entire way. I find this to be a rare luxury in the White Mountains, where for the past several winters I’ve seen only snow that’s so packed down by hundreds of pairs of feet that snowshoes become nearly useless. Once the snow falls in the Whites, the trails get packed so quickly that most people leave their snowshoes in the car and go out with just Microspikes or similar light traction.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Squint real hard and you can imagine granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

With a couple hours listening to the soft swishing of our snowshoes, we were at the top of the Stony Brook Trail, where all previous tracks turned north toward Mt Moriah. Instead, we took the path not traveled at all, and dropped down the Moriah Brook Trail, wading through several feet of soft powder until we decided we’d had enough and stopped to make camp. This was only around 12:30 in the afternoon, so we used the time to dig a kitchen pit, gather firewood, and build ourselves a nice home for the afternoon and evening.

Home sweet home for the night.

Home sweet home for the night.

One of many great things about winter camping is that you can build as elaborate a camp as you like without as much worry about Leave No Trace as summer. We dug down close to five feet into the snow to make a fire pit, added benches, a counter, and a wind wall before we were finished. When we left camp the next morning, we knocked much of the snow wall down into the pit, and by summertime there will be no evidence we were ever there.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

Beginning the ridgewalk along the Carter-Moriah Range.

We had a long, relaxing evening with plenty of hot cocoa and snow melting, and a late winter bedtime of 8 PM. I especially love backpacking in winter with fresh snow because of how wild and lonely the world becomes. The snow mutes all sound, and the blackness of the forest closes in around you in ways that you don’t get in other environments. It’s as peaceful as can be, and in many ways the most remote you can get.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

Sheltered below the summit of Moriah.

In the morning, with a few new inches of snow and more coming down, we met the rest of our group back at the trail junction, and proceeded to hike through the snow and clouds to Moriah. There were few, if any, views from the open ledges on the way up the mountain, but that didn’t make the trek any less delightful. We pushed through deep snow drifts, and into marshmallow forests, occasionally blasted by a bitter east wind. The summit was too windy for lengthy celebrations when Hikerbox finished his final NH4K summit, but the trudge back to the cars was reward enough.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

Hikerbox celebrates quickly on the summit.

With more snow falling throughout the week, it looks like this delightful winter will continue. I’m hoping for many more overnight trips in the near future.

Descending into the ice and fog.

Descending into the ice and fog.

The first view of Cabot, from down near the Berlin Fish Hatchery.

The first view of Cabot, from down near the Berlin Fish Hatchery.

Not long after the balmy 50 degree days in Utah, I ventured into the northernmost part of the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire for a weekend of serious winter backpacking. This would be a practice run, since I hadn’t been on a winter overnight trip in a few years, so we picked something moderately difficult– First, climbing to Mt Cabot via Bunnell Notch Trail, where many peak-bagging day-hikers go, then continuing along the Kilkenny Ridge Trail to Unknown Pond, and down the Unknown Pond Trail to complete the loop. Everything after Mt Cabot was barely traveled, and would be much more difficult.

Getting into the thicker snow near the summit.

Getting into the thicker snow near the summit.

Since Cabot is the most remote of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers (at least the furthest in driving time from Boston), I wasn’t sure how well-traveled the trail would be. It turned out to be packed into the snow pretty well, but since it was so far north the snow still had the texture of freshly trod powder rather than a solid crust highway. We had easy walking on snowshoes up to Bunnell Notch, then a steeper climb along the south slope of Cabot to reach the old fire warden’s cabin near the summit.

Camped near the Cabot Cabin, with a good view into Vermont.

Camped near the Cabot Cabin, with a good view into Vermont.

There were five of us, plus one dog, with varying degrees of winter backpacking experience, so camping accommodations varied as well. Steve, whose first deep-winter overnighter was with me a few years ago, had a new single-wall tent, and I had a new Black Diamond Firstlight tent, so we set up nearby. The others occupied the bunks in the little cabin, and we all gathered inside for dinner and sunset. There was no liquid water near the cabin, so we had two MSR Whisperlite stoves running full force for over three hours to melt snow, boil water, and cook dinner.

Sunset from the front porch of the cabin.

Sunset from the front porch of the cabin.

The daytime temperatures on Saturday were balmy mid-20s, so we had to be careful not to sweat too much on the hike up. We knew the nighttime temperatures were supposed to be quite low, with extra wind chill to boot. And boy, did the mountains deliver. High winds blasted all night, coating the tents and cabin with new rime ice. We forgot to check the thermometer when we left the cabin in the morning, but by noon the temperature had dropped down to -10F, while the wind continued to blow a steady 10 to 20 mph.

A frosty morning at Cabot Cabin.

A frosty morning at Cabot Cabin.

After leaving the cabin, it was a short trek to the top of Cabot, then the trail got a little sketchy. The day before, six Canadians had continued past Cabot (according to day-hikers heading back down the Bunnell Notch Trail), but other than that group I doubt anybody had traveled the ridge for many months. The Canadian Trail, as we began to call the snowshoe path we followed most of the day, shifted in and out of existence depending on how wind-sheltered the area was. Often, the track would split into many tracks that spiraled and circled, trying to find the Kilkenny Ridge Trail amid the deep snow. At one point, the Canadian Trail headed off into a long bushwhack near Unknown Pond that seemed to reach a dead end. We searched for a good half hour to find the actual trail, which the Canadians had found almost half a mile later at the end of their epic bushwhack. This was not easy going. We pushed to make a one mile per hour pace.

Gian tags the summit for one of his NH 4K's.

Gian tags the summit for one of his NH 4K’s.

With the temperature as low as it was, we could barely stop for more than a few minutes at a time, and nobody wanted to stop walking any longer than was necessary, so eating and bathroom breaks took a backseat to just getting off the mountain. Steve and the rest of the crew had to be back in Boston that night, but even without the long drive we were battling exhaustion all the way down to the car. Keeping your body warm in such cold conditions, breaking trail through deep snow, and carrying a heavier-than-usual pack load will beat you down fast.

The sun finally comes out in the midafternoon, but it's still too cold to stop moving.

The sun finally comes out in the midafternoon, but it’s still too cold to stop moving.

Once we finally arrived at the car we rejoiced a little, then got moving as quickly as we could for home. We stopped for burgers in Bethel, where we learned that the Northeast will soon be demolished by a “crippling and potentially historic” blizzard (according to CNN), so we kept ourselves awake by debating who gets to decide what is “potentially historic”, and “shouldn’t ‘potentially’ be applied to crippling as well as historic?” Very important things to think about. I was asleep by 8 PM, while the others had their drive further to Boston. A successful weekend indeed!

Unknown Pond. Why isn't anybody following me out here?

Unknown Pond. Why isn’t anybody following me out here?

Across Pinkham Notch to the Presidential Range.

Across Pinkham Notch to the Presidential Range.

By the time I wrote about the Steepest Climbs on the PCT and AT last week, I already had plans to hike across the Wildcat Ridge in the White Mountains. It just so happened that part of that trek is the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail. Though I figured we would take the normal winter route of climbing the ski trails at Wildcat Resort, my partner for the day and I egged each other on to try the Lost Pond Trail, ascending over 2000 feet in less than a mile and a half of trail.

Shimmying along the ledge sections of the Lost Pond Trail.

Shimmying along the ledge sections of the Lost Pond Trail.

Though we got a late start (entirely my fault due to a few senior moments), Mike and I were soon trudging up the seemingly vertical climbs on the Lost Pond Trail, with ice axes at the ready and televators up on our MSR snowshoes. From several ledges on the way up, we could see the car down below at Pinkham Notch.

This looks an awful lot like the steepest climb on the AT.

This looks an awful lot like the steepest climb on the AT.

There was one set of footprints on the Lost Pond Trail, but it was clear that this was not the common route for hikers heading up Wildcat. While the ski trails are certainly not easy, they are a much safer alternative to the usually summer-only route. This being a snowy Monday, we saw no one on the trail until we popped out of the trees to the top of the ski resort’s chair lifts. Skiers and snowboarders skidded by, giving us baffled sidelong glances, as if wondering how we planned on getting down the slopes with such strange footwear and fairly large packs.

Over an hour ago, we left the car right down where Mike is pointing.

Over an hour ago, we left the car right down where Mike is pointing.

After Wildcat D, just beyond the ski patrol shack, the trail became a fairly straightforward ridge walk, with some short, steep descents and ascents. It was funny to notice that the first two miles of hiking took over two hours to finish, while the remaining six miles took just over three hours. Of course, the Ridge Trail wasn’t easy by normal standards, but after sweating up the climb from Pinkham Notch, almost any trail would seem easy in comparison.

Televators and ice axes got more use on this trip than any other trail I hike.

Televators and ice axes got more use on this trip than any other trail I hike.

With the mountaintops shrouded in clouds all day, and a light dusting of snow sprinkling around, there were few views to be had. I’ve always thought that the solid greys and whites of the cloudy, snowed-in peaks of New England in winter are about as beautiful as you could desire. Even though the snow was pretty sparse compared to usual for this time of year, the scenery was exactly what I had hoped for, and the physical exertion of a long hike burned off all the tension and stress from the previous weeks of work.

At the top of the Wildcat Ski Resort's chair lifts, just beginning the easy part of the hike.

At the top of the Wildcat Ski Resort’s chair lifts, just beginning the easy part of the hike.

I haven’t been in the mountains nearly as much as I’d like this winter. The snow conditions haven’t been great, and there’s been plenty of work to keep me occupied in the meantime, but there’s no substitute for a good self-inflicted beating on a rugged mountain. Here’s hoping the conditions improve as does my scheduling.