As the last weeks of winter rolled around I considered a winter ascent of Mount Washington. Unfortunately, there were a lot of icy trail reports that dissuaded me from attempting Washington. Instead, I decided to return to Mount Chocorua as I really enjoyed the summit and I was hoping that the lower elevation would mean less ice. Plus, in a few months the weather would be nice and undoubtedly the crowds would return to the mountains and I wouldn’t be hiking Chocorua then.
I chose Piper Trail as the starting point of the hike and would go up Nickerson Ledge Trail, Carter Ledge Trail and Middle Sister Trail to make the hike into a lollipop loop. I got to the parking lot at 8:00 am, and there were no cars in the lot. It was pretty windy (the final icing on the no-go-Washington cake) and partly cloudy. The forecast was calling for a significant drop in wind speed and a clearing of the clouds.
The Piper Trail started easy and dry but became icy before long. I put on my microspikes and kept them on until about the same point coming down. Less than a mile in, the Nickerson Ledge Trail verged off to the right. The trail started steep but then switchbacked and became level. There were intermittent clearings in the tree which afford views toward Mount Chocorua and to the southwest.
The Nickerson Ledge Trail continued levelly and met up with the Carter Ledge Trail. At this point the trail was deep in evergreen forest and the ice was thick in many places making the going slow. I had read that Carter Ledge Trail had some Jack Pines along it, some of the only ones in New Hampshire. Jack Pines are unique because their cones are sealed with pitch and stay closed until exposed to extremely high temperatures. They actually evolved to reseed after forest fires. My guess was that because of human intervention there are fewer forest fires and therefor Jack Pines are becoming rare, at least in the northeast.
Soon after joining it, the Carter Ledge Trail became steeper in order to reach the ledges above. At one point the trail was ensconced in a blanket of thick blue ice. I attempted the climb but soon retreated to bushwhack around as my microspikes were too micro and not enough spike for the hard ice. As I slowly turned around using baby-steps my traction gave out and I did a slow motion fall to the ice. I ended up sideways on the trail, head slightly downhill from my feet and quickly sliding toward the edge of trail. And a sharp drop of 50 feet below. I quickly orientated myself and caught a tree trunk that I careened into jsut before plunging down the slope.
Being an avid hiker I follow the news on hikers being injured or lost in the mountains and often share them on my Maine Wanderlust Facebook page. Every spring there are numerous reports of people slipping on ice and falling off a slide, a waterfall or into Tuckerman Ravine. I always think that they were being sloppy or careless or had no clue what they were doing. My perspective has changed, a little. I took every precaution and still had a fall that would have resulted in an injury. If the trail was over a cliff rather than in the forest it would have been worse. I’ll be getting a little more aggressive traction before next winter, like some Hillsound Trail Crampon.
Once the trail topped the ledges it flattened out and weaved in and out of the trees, providing spectacular views to the south. During one of these spells from the trees I took a break in the sun and out of the wind. It felt like late spring.
By 11:15 am I made it to the top of Carter Ledge and to the peak of Middle Sister. The bald crown of Middle Sister was adorned with an old foundation, radio tower and great views. The foundation was from a fire tower built in 1921 and was in use until 1948. It was later used for radio repeater equipment, which now stand separate from the foundation. All that was left was an old door and a staircase that led to a 10-foot drop into the foundation. It was a little surprising that the foundation was left open with stairs accessing it, as it would be difficult for a fallen person or dog to get out of.
On the way down from Middle Sister heading toward the last Sister (first Sister?) I bumped into two ladies hiking up from Champney Falls Trail to Middle Sister. They were the first two people that I saw that day. They were unsure if they were going to go over to Mount Chocorua as their goal was Middle Sister, a mountain they hadn’t hiked in a long time.
Once I got above treeline on the shoulder of Mount Chocorua my progress was slowed by ice. My microspikes were enough to make the climb as the ice was a little soft from being exposed to the sun. Ducking out of the wind after the first rocky knob on the climb, I stopped to watch two crows soar like kites in the gusts around the summit.
I got to the summit at 12:15 pm, but after taking some photos and videos I took shelter from the wind on the southern end of the rocky peak.
I had lunch out of the wind at a distance from three guys in jeans and sweatpants. As they gathered their things to depart they asked about best route down. Aside from wearing cotton, they also had no traction and were worried about the ice. They had hiked up Liberty Trail and I had to tell them that I was not familiar with the trails on that side of the mountain. Before departing they climbed up to the summit and one of them threw a piece of trash into the wind to see how far it would fly. Not cool.
At 12:45 pm I got ready to head back toward Piper Trail and took one last stop on the summit to admire the views.
At the treeline there were a couple of people I had spotted from the summit inspecting the ice. As I got down to them they were preparing to turn around. They didn’t like the look of the ice and decided not to summit. These were obviously more logical humans than the three specimens on the summit.
Piper Trail afforded views of Chocorua on the way down and was a pleasant hike. When I got to it I didn’t hike up to Camp Penacook Shelter, which I now regret because the spur trail is listed for AMC White Mountains Red-lining.
I got back to the parking lot at 3:00 pm and it was no longer empty but half full. Getting into a pickup next to my ride were the two ladies that I saw on Middle Sister. They had climbed as high as the treeline on Mount Chocorua and decided not to try climbing up the ice as well.
With the lack of snow this year it seems that ice is much more of a hindrance than typical. I learned on this hike that no matter how cautious you are when hiking on ice (unless you have aggressive crampons) that you can’t trust your footing. It’s much better to turn back than to take risks on icy trails. Later, the mountain will be there and the ice will be gone.
Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.
Return to Mount Chocorua video
Music from Free Music Archive: “Just a Blip” by Andy G. Cohen
Date Hiked: 13 March 2016
Trail Conditions: blue ice
Weather: mostly sunny
Wind: NW 30mph
Highest Elevation: 3500′
Elevation Gain: 2900′
Distance: 9.1 miles
Book Time: 6:00
Actual Time: 7:00
Completed Red-Lining Trails:
Nickerson Ledge Trail
Winter Hike: Mount Chocorua Sunrise – 17 January 2016
“Camp Penacook Shelter.” fs.usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture. Web. 12 May 2016.
“Hillsound Trail Crampon.” hillsound.com. Hillsound. Web. 11 May 2016.
“Jack Pine.” plants.usda.gov. United States Department of Agriculture. Web. 09 May 2016.
“Middle Sister Fire Tower.” firelookout.org. Fire Lookout. Web. 11 May 2016.