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.

kearsarge-forest

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.

kearsarge-summit

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.

kearsarge-washington

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.

kearsarge-long-island

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

Stats:
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

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

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Winter Hike: Potash Mountain

Hike Date: 17 February 2014, Presidents Day

I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The forecast for noon, when I expected to be on the summit of Potash, was 12 degrees, 10mph winds from the northeast and absolutely clear.

Knowing it would be clear and sunny I stopped at the EMS in North Conway and picked up some sunglasses. I typically don’t own sunglasses because I have one of those weird heads that no pair of glasses seem to fit. I don’t know, one ear is higher than the other or the bridge of my nose is crooked. Probably a result of inbreeding or something. Miracleously I found a pair that fit my face and I walked out of EMS with a smile while glancing up at the white shoulder of Mount Washington.

I got to the logging road just past Passaconaway Campground on the Kancamangus and saw that the entrance was not plowed enough to safely park there. It’s suggested that you hike from the logging road to bypass the Downes Brook crossing, which can be dangerous certain times of the year. I pulled over anyway, much to the relief of the car that was following me and probably wondering why I was going so slow, and saw that there was no broken path through the several feet of snow up the logging road. I hoped for a stable snowbridge across the Downes and drove back to the Downes Brook Trail parking area.

Thankfully the parking area was nicely plowed, but there were two cars already parked there. I had mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I would love to have the mountain to myself. On the other, I would be glad to have a nice broken and packed trail ahead if me. It turned out that I got my way. While I was strapping on my snowshoes a group showed up at the parking area with a dog and cross-country skis. As I headed across the parking lot to the trail they started their cars and prepared to leave. I passed the iron ranger, the self-service pay station found at most of the National Forest parking lots, and noted the sign over the pay slot. It said that no fees were required for the day in honor of Presidents Day. That was most likely why I would have the mountain to myself, most businesses do not observe Presidents Day.

potash-downes

Ice Bridge over Downes Brook

The trail to Downes Brook was easy going and well packed, it meandered through a sparse forest and didn’t gain much elevation. I came to Downes Brook and found it to be bridged over with ice and snow, something that I had read about but had never experienced. I crossed easily and snapped a photo of my first icebridge crossing. The trail gained a little elevation and crossed the logging road where the wind picked up, but I was soon into deeper forest which protected me from the wind. Through the leafless trees I caught glimpses of the view I would have at the summit, I was especially excited to see Carrigain standing proudly on the horizon.

The trail came to a switchback and then started to climb more moderately. I had more than enough time for this hike so I took it easy and only took a single break for water (and Nuun, which I also picked up at EMS). When I typically hike on the weekend I can’t get off the island until 8:25am, which gets me to Portland at 9:00am, an hour and a half drive from the White Mountains. Since it was a Monday I could get off the island almost two hours earlier, which gave me plenty of time for a day hike.

potash-passaconaway

Passaconaway and Whitehead

The trail abruptly broke out of the forest and onto a ledge with an amazing view to the southeast of Mount Chocorua and a more spectacular view to the south of two 4000-footers I hadn’t yet climbed, Mount Passaconaway and Mount Whiteface. Passaconaway was especially beautiful with its great cone towering over the smaller Mount Potash. When the wind gusted, snow would curl off the summit into the indigo sky. I had plans to hike these mountains along with the Tripyramids and Mount Chocorua with some friends this summer, so I had to take a photo to whet their appetites.

After the vista the trail continued up to the summit, moderately steep at times but easy for the most part. Since the trail climbed up the south side of the mountain after leaving the trees the path was unhampered by the wind and remained nicely packed all the way to the summit.

potash-panorama

Potash Summit View

I reached the summit, dropped my gear and unstrapped my snowshoes. The view was absolutely breath-taking. From left to right I could see Passaconaway, Whiteface, The Sleepers, Tripyramids, The Fool Killer, Kancamangus, The Osceolas, Franconia Ridge, The Hancocks, Carrigain, The Willey Range and The Presidentials. There was not a cloud in the sky, the sun was high and warm and I had not seen a single sign of humanity for hours (though I could then see the Kancamangus Highway snaking through the valley below). The only thing that wasn’t perfect was the cold wind from the northeast, but that was bearable considering the rest.

potash-carrigain

The Mighty Mount Carrigain

I was especially taken by the view of Mount Carrigain which was not only one of my favorite hikes but is probably my favorite mountain to look at from a distance. After eating a wasabi hummus and vegetable sandwich I packed up and headed down the mountain. The hike down was easier than hiking down South Moat Mountain the previous week where I had a hard time navigating the rocky slopes with my snowshoes. I made great time even though I was not hurrying; making it to the parking lot in less than an hour. There were a couple different cars in the parking lot, but there was still nobody in sight.

I learned something the previous weekend from hiking South Moat Mountain, it is not fun driving for an hour and a half while wearing a sweaty shirt and socks. I changed into a dry sweatshirt and socks and then began the trek back to Maine. I cranked the music and enjoyed the lulling switchbacks of the Kancamangus Highway. It wasn’t until I got a decent distance back in Maine that I realized I had left my hat, gloves and brand new sunglasses on top of my car while changing clothes. I pulled over and checked the hood, but they were long gone. It was too late to drive back and look for them, but at least I still have this nifty photo of them on Potash Summit.

potash-summit

Sunglasses

We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on “good” rather than on “time”
―Robert M. Pirsig

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 2680′
Elevation Gain: 1430′
Distance: 4.4 miles
Book Time: 2:40
Actual Time: 2:40
Temperature: 12° F
Wind: 10mph NE
Weather: clear

Reference:
Appalachian Mountain Club. White Mountain Guide: 28th Edition. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2007. Print.

Winter Hike: South Moat Mountain

south-moat

South Moat Mountain Trailhead

Hike Date: 9 February 2014

Ever since winter broke my hiking habit back in November, I had been waiting for a decent weekend to try out hiking with snowshoes. I’ve had a pair of 27″ PowerRidge Crests for quite a few years and dug them out of the garage once or twice a winter. For whatever reason I never thought of combining them with my love for hiking and the White Mountains in particular. When a weekend with a nice forecast where I didn’t actually have other plans came up, I was all over it.

One of my great loves in life is driving out of the city and into the mountains on a sunny day with the windows down and some music blasting. As the congestion and distraction of the city fades away and the first mountains loom over the distant tree tops I feel a physical pressure lift off my chest. I can breath and smile and wonder again, it’s akin to a heaping pile of gifts under the Christmas tree. Granted, it was the beginning of February in Maine, so my windows weren’t down, but I was still able to relish this moment of release. A cure for the Winter Blahs if there ever was one.

As I drove through Conway I snatched glances at the Moat Mountains when they were visible. I found myself making my way slowly down Passaconaway Road making sure I didn’t miss the trailhead. I found the parking area well-plowed and containing only one other car. After quickly organizing my gear I strapped my snowshoes on and I hit the trail. The trail wound through some young trees and dipped down to cross a small brook and again at a small bridge over Dry Brook. This early portion of the trail was packed by a snowmobile so the going was easy and I quickly shed a few layers.

Soon after the Dry Brook crossing the trail began to climb and I found myself stopping to catch my breath and let my pulse slow. Ascending with the weight of snowshoes on my feet and less than perfect traction was definitely more tiring than hiking in the other three seasons. The trail continued to be decently packed but soon hit a steep and rocky ascent. It was difficult to navigate the rocks with bulky snowshoes but I was thankful for the traction that their crampons gave me. I stepped off the trail as two ladies made their way down and assured me the view was well worth it. I watched them hike easily down and thought (not for the last time) that I would need to buy some crampons.

south-moat-break

Vista with Mount Chocorua

Just as I was starting to feel as if the mountain had me beat, I ascended to an amazing vista of Mount Chocorua. I stopped to have a burrito break and marvel at the view in front of me. It was just what I needed: time to cool down and energy from the carb-rich burrito. The trail to the summit changed again at this point, it became less steep and the trees spread out. From posts I had read it sounded like it was easy to loose the trail at this point, but it was no problem to follow when the trail was already broken. There seemed to be several alternative ways to navigate the trees and slopes, so the paths I chose were less packed than the lower trail and therefore more slippery. Again I wish I had crampons.

The climb to the summit was not as intense as the prior climb to the vista of Mount Chocorua. There was a false summit a quarter of a mile from the summit and the trail was fairly level at that point. I was welcomed to the summit with 360° views with Conway valley to the east, Lake Winnipesaukee to the south, Mount Chocorua to the south west and the Moat range pointing to the Presidentials to the north.

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Mount Chocorua from South Moat Summit

south-moat-presidentials

North Moat and the Presidentials

I stayed on the summit for twenty minutes just taking in the view. In the summer it is hard to find a summit in the White Mountains that you don’t have to share with others. For those twenty minutes I had the peak (and seemingly the whole mountain range) to myself. Even with roads and houses lining the valley below it felt as if there was no presence of man to be found. I turned slowly in a circle and climbed the scattered boulders to appreciate the view from different perspectives. Eventually the cold got to me from standing still on the gusty peak and I packed up and headed down the way I came.

On the way down I passed a group of three young men with a dog, all of whom where happily chugging up the mountain to the summit. Soon after the Mount Chocorua vista I came across a lady sitting in the trail with a first-aid kit sitting beside her. Seeing her first-aid kit reminded me that I had made the dumb mistake of leaving my own kit under the driver’s seat in my car. I stopped to ask her if she was okay. She was just doing some blister maintenance, pointing out that it was a lot easier to do in the summer when you didn’t have to sit on snow. I mentioned how my snowshoes were blistering the tops of my toes where the straps crossed. Something my feet were not accustomed to from just three-season hiking.

The rest of the hike to the parking lot was uneventful. I fell down a few times when the front of my snowshoe crampons lost their traction and I slid on the tail end of them. When I got back to the parking lot I fired up my JetBoil, cooked a cup of soup and heated some coffee for the drive back to Maine.

I had approached hiking South Moat Mountain with some skepticism. I love hiking, I love getting away from the grind of daily life, but I was unsure how difficult a winter hike would be and I was not confident in my knowledge, gear or skill when it came to winter hiking. I found the ascent to be more difficult and slower than normal hiking, but the descent was quicker and much easier on my knees. Pulling out of the parking lot I knew that I would be doing more hikes this winter.

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
―Nelson Mandela

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Elevation: 2770′
Elevation Gain: 2300′
Distance: 5.4 miles
Book Time: 3:45
Actual Time: 3:05
Temperature: 20° F
Wind: 2mph SE
Weather: mostly sunny

References:
Appalachian Mountain Club. White Mountain Guide: 28th Edition. Boston: Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2007. Print.
South Moat Mtn. from Dugway Road.” Hike-NewEngland.com. Web. 24 February 2014.