I’d been wanting to do a snowshoe of the Willey Range for quite some time. It seemed like the perfect place for a day-long snowshoe: it’s on the eastern side of the range (the weather infamously comes from the northwest in the winter), it’s almost entirely protected by forest, it includes three 4000 Footers and it affords some great views of the Presidential Range and down into Crawford Notch. Two friends and I attempted the Willey Traverse back in March but when one of us became sick we bailed after Mount Tom.
So on the morning of Christmas Eve I headed up to the mountains. My plan was to get an early start so that I could be back home in early afternoon to spend Christmas Eve with the family. I got up at 4:00 am, brewed some coffee and packed up the car. I’ve done the drive from Gorham, Maine to North Conway, New Hampshire about a hundred times, so it didn’t matter that it was pitch dark. I could have driven it with my eyes closed.
I arrived at the parking lot at Crawford Notch Station at 6:50 am just as the sky was starting to lighten. I threw on my gear and started my hike at 7:00am. The weather was foggy and windy, but it was in the 40s and felt mild. I caught a glimpse of Venus in the morning sky as I crossed the train tracks to start up the trail.
I passed the Mount Willard Trail and headed up Avalon Trail. Just beyond the Mount Willard Trail the Creek was swollen. I bushwhacked 50 feet downstream to cross using large boulder and a slightly submerged rock.
When I reached the side path for the Beecher and Pearl Cascades I took it. Both cascades were running pretty good due to the wet and warm weather. Soon after the cascades I came to a second water crossing which was running hard. I carefully crossed the brook using a couple of blow-downs and was on my way.
The Avalon Trail became steep as it climbed toward the junction with the A-Z Trail. When I got to the junction I headed toward Mount Avalon, opting to hike the peaks in clockwise order. During the rocky scramble up toward Mount Avalon I crossed paths with two guys. They had started their hike two days earlier at 7:00 pm. They had hiked Mount Carrigain at sunrise the day before and said that it was amazing, it had been clear and undercast. The night before they camped at Ethan Pond and were just finishing their hike as I came upon them. They said they were extremely exhausted and looked it. Luckily they were only a couple miles from their destination.
At 8:00 am I made it to the side path for Mount Avalon. I quickly climbed the rocky knob and had a fine view of the backside of clouds. Then I hurried along up the Avalon trail toward Mount Field.
I started to encounter some ice in the trail on the approach to Mount Field. By taking my time and bushwhacking around particularly icy spots I was able to avoid putting on traction.
I hit the unimpressive peak of Mount Field at 8:40 am. I quickly checked out the partial view created by the chopping of trees (more clouds) and started south down the Willey Range Trail.
The conditions continued to be icy along the ridge to Mount Willey, but I was excited about this section of trail as once I hit Mount Willey I would have completed red-lining the Willey Range Trail. Nearing the summit there was water standing on the ice but I continued without traction,slowly climbing up the ice.
At 9:25 am I reached Mount Willey. Out of habit I checked the vista, which typically has a phenomenal view of Crawford Notch and Webster Cliffs, but I only saw a mediocre view of more clouds. After a Clif bar I backtracked to Mount Field.
About five feet after Willey summit I fell on slick ice. Finally, I broke down and put on my microspikes. I instantly regretted not putting them on sooner as my pace just about doubled. The trail between Field and Tom was a river with submerged ice, but the weather was mild enough to just trudge through it without being concerned about wet feet.
Once I hit the A-Z Trail again, I headed east and soon found the Mount Tom Spur Trail. I dropped pack, removed traction and bum-rushed Mount Tom. Part way up I had to step over a blowdown, it looked like it had fallen very recently.
I made Mount Tom at 10:50 am and moved to the western side of the summit where I would normally have had a view of Mount Hale, Zealand and the peaks of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. But, need I say it, I only saw clouds.
Back at my pack I had a snack before heading down the A-Z Trail toward my car. The hike down from Mount Tom started steeply and at one point I took a misstep, and rolled off the trail onto my back and headfirst down a water drainage. I laid for a moment turtle-shelled on my pack and laughed. I thought I would have to do a back-roll to get to my feet but was able to spin myself around and stand up. I moved down the trail as if nothing had happened and wished someone had caught my blunder on video.
The A-Z Trail had a couple of water crossing that were swollen but were easy to cross. Once I hit the junction with Avalon Trail I followed it back the way I had come, but bypassed the cascades side trail. I emerged from the forest just as the clouds were starting to break up and show blue sky.
I got back to my car at 12:15 pm. A part of me wished I had started later to potentially enjoy some sunny weather, but it was Christmas Eve and I wanted to get back to my family. We were planning on driving into Portland when I got back to Maine to enjoy the festive spirits of the city. Little did we know that normal people don’t merrily tramp through Portland on Christmas Eve; it was a ghost town.
Despite the lack of views it was still a great hike. The weather was mild and besides the two guys I saw on the Avalon Trail I seemed to have to Willey Range to myself. Ironically, this was my biggest haul of winter 4000 footer peaks and I spent more time on dirt than snow or ice.
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
Video of Willey Traverse hike
Music from Free Music Archive: “942 Miles” by Broke for Free
Date Hiked: 24 December 2015
Trail Conditions: deep mud, running water, black ice, blue ice
Weather: cloudy, rain
Wind: NW 20-30 mph
Highest Elevation: 4340′
Elevation Gain: 3400′
Distance: 10 miles
Book Time: 6:40
Actual Time: 5:15
Completed Red-Lining Trails:
Willey Range Trail
Willey Range in other blogs:
Tim Bouwer – 12 August 2013
Peak Pursuits – 18 February 2013
Hiking the White Mountains & Adirondacks – 26 January 2013
Matt’s Hikes – 21 October 2013
White Mountain Explorer