Winter Hike: Kearsarge Mountain North

Hike date: 23 February 2014

Each person has their own way of dealing with tragedies. Some collapse upon themselves, others lash out at those around them, some go on like nothing happened. While I’ve had the fortune of never experiencing a life-altering tragedy, I do know how I deal with small tragedies. I take a walk, often in nature, in order to process what happened and come to terms with the consequences.

When a tragedy struck my small community, I escaped to the White Mountains, found a mountain to climb and spent the entire hike processing what happened, remembering the person who was lost and tried (I’m sure with no success) to understand what the family members were going through.

Kearsarge Mountain North is a popular hike with its trailhead right in North Conway. Since its parking lot is small and the day was mild, I felt lucky to find a spot when I arrived. As I was checking over my pack a couple walked down the trail. I asked about the conditions, afraid the trail would be sloppy due to the warm temperature. They said the trail was fine as long as I had traction. As they got into their car to depart I looked at their bare-booted feet and wondered how far up the trail they actually went.

The first few hundred feet of trail went through private property. Since it was fairly flat and the trail was still stable in the cold shadow of the trees, I bare-booted the first quarter mile or so. As I came around a bend in the trail I was surprised by a skier coming down the trail directly toward me. I quickly hopped off the trail as he passed by with a muttered “thanks.” If I had been wearing my snowshoes, I probably wouldn’t have been agile enough to get out of the trail in time to prevent a collision. It made me think of a recent post for Cannon Mountain on New England Trail Conditions where someone was complaining about how the skiers should not follow the hiking trails down because it is dangerous and it messes up the trail for snowshoers (the same argument that cross-country skiers make about snowshoers). As I stopped to strap on my snowshoes I made a mental to keep an eye out for oncoming skiers, luckily I saw no others.


Forest and boulders

I have had asthma my entire life, but these days it only bothers me when I exercise in cold weather. Typically I run all winter long and my breathing is not an issue as it seems to condition to the cold weather. This year I have been very lackadaisical with my running, and my asthma has been an issue. I got about a mile into this hike and my breathing was really rough. I stopped to consider going back to the car, but I rested for a few breaths and looked around me. I was standing in a quiet forest with a ravine to my left and the mountain to my right. The sun had cut through the clouds and was lighting the snow all around me. Scattered through the trees were large glacial boulders and beyond the ravine I could see Bartlett Mountain with blue skies above it. The breather was just what I needed for my lungs to get acclimated. Shortly after starting up the trail again my lungs loosened and I had no further problems.

I continued up the mountain and said hello to a father and son hiking down from the summit with crampons on their feet. Soon after I broke out of the trees for a spell. It was nice to have a limited view of North Conway to the south but the exposure to the sun was making the trail soft and there were many spots where bare-booters had post-holed. The trail soon dove back into the trees to swing north of the summit before switching back toward it. A group of about 5 people and a dog stepped off the trail to let me pass. A few had crampons but most were just wearing boots. When they stepped off the trail they went up to their waists in snow.


Fire tower on the summit

I made short time of the last mile of the trail and broke out onto the summit. There was a thin layer of ice coating everything, so I made my way carefully up to the fire tower. The wind was gusting pretty hard, so I took off my snowshoes at the foot of the stairs and put them and my pack in the lee of the concrete footing at the base of the tower. A caution if you visit this summit (and probably any summit with a fire tower) in the winter, when the wind gusted it broke sheets of ice free of the tower and showered them down on anyone below.


Presidentials from the fire tower

I made my way to the top of the tower and walked around to the lee-side where I had a great view of the Presidentials and Carter Notch. At this time the group of people with the dog had made it to the summit and there was an older fellow taking advantage of the warmth inside the fire tower. I checked my cell service and found that I had a good connection. I always let my wife know my exact plans when I go on solo trips, including any emergency exit strategies. I also check in with her at the end of the drives to and from my destination and when I reach the summit and back to the trailhead (if I have connection). I received a text from my wife saying that she was at the memorial service and I suffered a few moments of guilt. Here I was enjoying a wonderful view of my favorite place in the world and she and the rest of our community was mourning a sudden loss.


Looking toward Long Island

I turned away from the view of the Presidentials and peered off to the southeast where I could just see (or pretend that I could see) the Maine coast. I again tried to understand the recent events and feel for those who were hurting the most. I was interrupted by the group’s dog, so I made my way into the fire tower to warm up.

I usually make some small talk with folks I meet on the trail and on summits, surprising I’m sure to those who know me personally. I’m not one for small talk, or to talk at all unless I’ve had a few beers. I feel kindred to those on the trail in a way that I’ve never felt to those who like to gossip at home or talk sports at work. But, this time I was feeling too introverted to ask the normal trail questions (“Where are you hiking from?”, “Have you hiked this mountain before?”, “How do you like those [insert gear product name]?”, etc.). I merely warmed up and then headed back down the fire tower, downed a Clif Bar and donned my snowshoes.

I left the summit at about the same time as the older fellow and caught up to him before the clearing a mile below the summit. I stopped and we talked a bit about winter hiking. He was a troupe leader and gave me some tips on a few local mountains which have much less traffic and great trails. After leaving him I did not see another person. The trail was much softer from the warm afternoon, but the hike down was quick and without event.

I later found out that the person our community lost had plans to explore Acadia National Park this summer and climb Cadillac Mountain, many times. I felt a sense of relief at hearing this as it made the trip to the mountains feel a proper send-off to him, in my own way. Also, when I got back to the island I had the opportunity to see air lanterns lit and released in memory of the person lost and spend a short time with the family and close friends. It was a time I will not soon forget as so many of our small community came together and lit a little happiness during a dark time. There was an amount of support and love that can only be found in a small, self-sufficient community. If I had stayed home that day, I probably would have missed out.

Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.
—John Muir

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Elevation: 3268′
Elevation Gain: 2588′
Distance: 6.2 miles
Book Time: 3:40
Actual Time: 3:05
Temperature: 45° F
Wind: 2mph WNW (10mph with gusts on the summit)
Weather: partly sunny

Appalachian Mountain Club. White Mountain Guide: 28th Edition. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2007. Print.
Mount Kearsarge North (Mount Washington Valley).” Web. 19 March 2014.
New Hampshire Hiking Trail Conditions.” Web. 20 March 2014.

2 thoughts on “Winter Hike: Kearsarge Mountain North

  1. Pingback: Hike: Pamola Peak | Maine Wanderlust

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