peak bagging

All posts tagged peak bagging

Only a day after arriving in Colorado, coming from sea level, I was up above 9000 feet and wouldn’t come back down to a reasonable elevation for the next five days. Hiker Box, whom I’d hiked with in New Hampshire in our snowy 2014-2015 winter, had moved to Boulder after hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year, and I had let him come up with all the hiking plans for the week that we would spend backpacking. We would enter the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of the Rio Grande National Forest and spend five days bouncing between peaks. I had no idea what to expect, having spent very little time off-trail climbing 14,000 foot peaks.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

Starting from Venable Peak, looking over our plan for the next few days.

After a breakfast at the tiny town of Crestone, we started up Crestone Creek, outrunning clouds of mosquitoes despite our heavier-than-usual packs. Five days worth of food in Gossamer Gear Kumo may be a little much. Hiker Box probably had the better idea with a slightly larger Gorilla. Sometimes a little extra volume to the pack and a solid frame isn’t such a bad thing. Anyway, we peaked out in the afternoon at 13,000 feet on Venable Peak, then dropped down to 11,500 in the Venable Peaks basin. Remember, this was now less than 48 hours after I’d woken up in my bed about 40 feet above sea level. Luckily, charging up and down the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the past several months helped keep my lungs spry.

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Hiker Box picks his way along the ridge of the Sangre de Cristo Range

Day two was our crusher day, charging up four more 13k peaks (Commanche, Horn, Fluted, and Adams). All of this was off trail, climbing steeply and clambering over boulders like any self-respecting New England hiker. As we reached the saddle between Fluted and Adams, a menacing-looking cloud front moved over, and we huddled in the saddle for an hour as it passed uneventfully. That was a little different from my usual experience. Then it was on to Mt Adams, the highest peak of the day at just under 14,000 feet, and requiring several short 4th class climbs. At least one of those caused us to name the hiking route, “The Dirty Pants Route” for a very scary bit of climbing.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

Evening camp below Adams, with alpenglow on Kit Carson Peak.

This was where a smarter person might have taken a rest day for the third day, but instead we turned the dial up, climbing Kit Carson, Challenger, Columbia, and Obstruction peaks (two above 14,000 feet). The last part of the day was a long traverse toward another 14er, but the two of us were so exhausted by the constant rock-scrambling for the past two days that we decided to bail on Humboldt and just head down toward South Colony Lakes, a pair of beautiful mountain lakes at the bottom of the basin below Humboldt Peak. This area was more crowded than other places we’d been so far, probably because of an easy hike to a 14er and another less easy 14er’s primary route coming up from the valley. A freezing dip in the water, and then an early bedtime for a long day.

Scrambling to the top.

Scrambling to the top.

The next morning we cruised up Humboldt Peak with empty packs, then back down to where we began the day, and then back up the other side of the valley toward Broken Hand Peak. The path we followed to a pass between Crestone Needle and Broken Hand Peak was pretty popular, but every single person going that was was heading for the taller Crestone Needle. We opted for the pretty peak of Broken Hand, and got to hang out with some goats to boot. What a difference a few hundred feet makes when you’re that high already– the peak is just as gorgeous, but not a soul had been there in who knows how long.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

Angry and tired, and not quite done with the day.

We finished the day down at Cottonwood Lake, a pristine and seemingly unvisited lake below Crestone Needle, where we waited out our first thunderstorm of the trip with a legion of marmots. There I discovered just how much marmots actually like human urine– you know how they say not to pee on vegetation because critters will tear up the plants to get at the salt? Turns out that’s true! They really like it.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Marmots surveying their kingdom at South Colony Lakes.

Day 5 was supposed to be a quick walk out, although the abandoned and overgrown trail made the first few miles a slow bushwhack through dense willows. Once on trail, we had to rush to outrun the mosquitoes again. I’m pretty resilient when it comes to biting insects, but as we got closer to the trailhead, they seemed to understand that they would soon lose a large source of blood, and attacked with gusto. Hiker Box estimated he killed well over a thousand of them in the few hours of walking down the hill.

Aww, nice marmot. They may be cute, but they're relentless when chasing your food bags.

Aww, nice marmot.
They may be cute, but they’re relentless when chasing your food bags.

By the time we ended the day back in Boulder, I had had an eye opening experience with this trip. There are a heck of a lot of mountains to play around in in Colorado, and if you stay away from the popular list of 14,000 foot peaks, you can go days without seeing a single person. Hiker Box and I already decided we’ll need to do more like this.

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.

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?

I summited my final New England 4000-footer earlier this week during a last-minute trip to Baxter State Park. It wasn’t a long trip like the one last month, but even a 24-hour period spent in the park is enough to settle my soul and recharge all the energy I’d spent frantically working on my apps since the last trip.

Awakening to a frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field campground, a view of Doubletop directly from the lean-to.

Awakening to a frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field campground, a view of Doubletop directly from the lean-to.

The New England 4000-Footer peakbagging list (48 peaks in New Hampshire, 5 in Vermont, and 14 in Maine) has never been a major goal of mine, but I enjoy checking items off a list. After hitting Hamlin Peak last month, I only had one to go, but I was in no hurry. I didn’t even plan on going to The Brothers Range this year. My friends, Angela and Ryan, had a few free days and wanted to get out to Baxter State Park, and the conditions proved to be just right, so we went for it.

Starting the hike directly below the cliffs of Doubletop Mountain.

Starting the hike directly below the cliffs of Doubletop Mountain.

We camped at my favorite Baxter State Park campground, Nesowadnehunk Field, and woke up to a thick layer of frost coating the car and field. Autumn has definitely arrived, with leaves just starting to change color, and high temperatures during the day varying between low 70s and mid 60s. This day was as perfect as you could wish for, with cool temperatures, crystal clear skies, and just enough wind to dry my sweat.

Reaching the tarn at the base of the Marston Trail's climb to The Brothers.

Reaching the tarn at the base of the Marston Trail’s climb to The Brothers.

The loop over the Brothers Range is, in typical Baxter State Park fashion, incredibly beautiful and unforgiving in its difficulty. We started from the Slide Dam picnic area on Nesowadnehunk Stream, looking straight up to the cliffs of Doubletop, and then a slow, gradual climb through dense forest to a tarn at the base of North Brother. This was the easy part of the day. From there came the stairmaster-climb to a saddle between North and South Brother, complete with dense moss beds and stunted fir trees.

After a long, steep climb to North Brother, the first views at tree line of Katahdin, the Klondike, and the rest of the Brothers range.

After a long, steep climb to North Brother, the first views at tree line of Katahdin, the Klondike, and the rest of the Brothers range.

Throughout the day, we saw not a single human, nor heard any human sounds. A few small camps on lake sides in the far distance were the only discernible evidence of humanity. From the tops of the three mountains on the loop, the only sounds between our conversations were the whispering of a light breeze, and the occasional chickadee singing in the trees. I can think of no better way to spend a day. No mountain top has been more peaceful for me in recent memory, even The Traveler, or Katahdin’s north peaks. When we returned to the cars at the end of the day, the trailhead register showed nobody had set foot on the trail aside from us.

There’s not much more I can say about this hike, other than it was absolute paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

West from North Brother toward the Nesowadnehunk valley, and the lakes west of Baxter.

West from North Brother toward the Nesowadnehunk valley, and the lakes west of Baxter.

Victory photo atop North Brother.

Victory photo atop North Brother.

Now on South Brother, with an impressive view of Katahdin and its Northwest Basin.

Now on South Brother, with an impressive view of Katahdin and its Northwest Basin.

From Mt Coe, looking back to North and South Brother, with fir waves like tiger stripes.

From Mt Coe, looking back to North and South Brother, with fir waves like tiger stripes.

Starting to descend the Mt Coe slide at the end of the day.

Starting to descend the Mt Coe slide at the end of the day.

Almost done, dropping into the forest and looking at the newly changing foliage above.

Almost done, dropping into the forest and looking at the newly changing foliage above.

A pleasant walk alongside a mountain brook to end the day.

A pleasant walk alongside a mountain brook to end the day.