We soon were circling around the base of Chocorua to get the trail head we were aiming to start from, on the other side of the mountain from where we'd climbed up to Jim Liberty Cabin - we'd end up doing all new trails this trip. There were some closed off parking lots at other trail heads and river overlooks, but the one for Champney Falls was open and half full. We chatted a bit with a pair of trail runners to try and get some beta on the route up, but as with almost everyone we talked to they hadn't even heard of or noticed a shelter at Camp Penacook where we were planning to over night. There was a $3/day usage fee, honor system, and Cris threw the money in the pot for that, finding the hidden pen after he'd thrown it in so we just crossed our fingers that they'd match up the empty envelope form with the empty dashboard one... spoiler alert: the car was still there when we came back out. There was no sign of snow, so we closed the snow shoes into the back of the car, hefted our packs on (with some load lifter adjustment on mine so it wasn't swaying side to side quite so much) and hit the trail at about 10:15am. The first thing we noticed on the trail head info board was a sign explaining that the bridge had been washed out by tropical storm Irene and they had no plans to replace it. The river crossing was fine, stepping from rock to rock, not much ice, and John was definitely glad that he'd picked up the hiking poles I'd said were strongly recommended but not required.
We followed the river up along the trail, hitting some icy patches that weren't long enough to warrant breaking out the microspikes or yaxtracks. It was a fairly constant gradual climb for the first mile or so, mirroring the approach on the other side, and we were soon passed by the trail runners. We climbed up a ridge to follow it for a while when the river lost a bank wide enough to hike on, and then descended again. When we hit the sign for the spur or loop off to see the falls, we decided to go look. It was worth it, only adding a tenth of a mile to our route when we found the loop up along the side of the falls and connecting back to the trail. There were two falls, one broader and lower, one falling high from a black cliff with a spray of yellow leaves fallen between the cliffs. We spent some time taking pictures, the guys had dropped their packs but I kept mine on. Soon it was time to push on, even though this was about half way to the junction with the trail to the shelter. The going was slower as there were longer icy patches that we had to edge around. We heard a loud deep bark echoing down the mountain and a few minutes later a huge dog and his owner made their way down to us. The dog refused to pass us until he got some loud barks in, but I wasn't too startled since I was expecting it. At one point we ran into a pair who suggested cutting the corner off of a switchback since the trail there was pretty much ice. One woman stopped and put her microspikes on though her hiking partner just went with bare boots and both were able to navigate it. We didn't really see anyone low on the mountain with overnight packs so we were being a bit more cautious as falling with a pack can be much worse.
There was some more traffic at the junciton with the peak trail and the one that went down the mountain to route 16, some very focussed hikers blowing past us and heading down the mountain, others were heading up to the peak or down the trail we'd come up. We paused there for a snack and to verify which trail we needed to take, having a short debate about if there was a connecting trail from the shelter to the peak trail. After checking the three maps we had, we decided it was a no, there was just a spur trail off of the Piper trail, so we'd have to go down 0.8 miles on it and then up the spur. And down it was, it was a pretty steep descent, but at least there was less ice on this side of the mountain. We were passed by a group with two daschund / hound mixes that were super jazzed to be on the trail. It took a while to get to the junction with the shelter spur, and we were pretty much socked in by a cloud that had descended around us, or we'd climbed up into. We could just make out a valley below us at one bare part of the trail, but mostly we just saw misty trees. At the spur junction we passed a huge vertical rock face and then climbed steeply up the broken section next to it. I was completely ready to take my pack off and stop climbing by this point, I was at the "cursing the trail" stage of the day. Finally a glimpse of the shelter roof came into view and we powered through the last of the climb to the structure perched on the side of the mountain, open to a drop in front of us, with a large boulder sheltering a fire pit.
We made it there at 2:40 and by the time we got our stuff unpacked and tents set up (we were anticipating a cold night and any extra insulation would be good, plus all three tents just fit inside the three sided shelter) it was time to start making dinner to try and get done before the sun set at just past 4pm. Cris got water boiling and we had a hot drink while we set up and changed our base layers (we'd pretty much sweated through everything on the climb up), the temperature was dropping and the humidity was making the cold penetrate. I went to follow the signs to the pit toilet and once I found my way there and back again (the trail was in no way clear), I encouraged the guys to check it out before dark made it even harder. The shelter was solid, a metal roof not letting any leaks through, though the floor was a bit bouncy and you could feel anyone walking on it when you were laying down in your tent. The outhouse was solid and non-stinky, though the cold weather probably helped. We just finished up dinner, after sorting out a miscommunication where Cris thought I'd be making food for everyone again (luckily I always pack at least one full extra meal, so I was able to feed him anyway), we chowed down as the sun set, the enclosing clouds not giving us any leeway twilight. Forest kept a fire going while he was actively tending it, but it would go out at the drop of a hat. We stood around it talking for a bit after dark, headlamps reflecting off the fog droplets, and I took a frustrating trip back to the toilet - my headlamp worked a bit better in fog light mode, held in my hand, but I still got turned around on the way there and the way back because I couldn't see enough context to find the trail. John and I were also starting to shiver a bit (I'd been a bit lazy and not dug out my heavier gloves, still wearing the wool liners that I'd hiked in for part of the day and one finger was blown out). I'd even put on my down jacket over a wool baselayer and a wool hoodie with my rain jacket over all, but standing around wasn't doing my any favours (I'd also found that my camp shoe choice of trail runners wasn't keeping my feet warm at all despite a change of socks when we got to camp). We started being able to see the lights of the town in the valley and some stars as the clouds retreated, but we also heard some pops from below that John said were gun shots. :-/ It was into the tent and my nice down sleeping bag to warm up at around 7pm. I had an alarm set on my fitbit to take a pill at 9pm, that woke me up from a doze. I kept waking up, even with earplugs in, whenever anyone would go out to pee since the shelter bounced a bit. So, my usual broken first night of camping sleep.
Getting down the spur trail to the junction went much faster than climbing up it, but we hit some icy sections on this side of the mountain - it was hovering around zero and going a bit below. We saw a neat spot where the top had frozen on a stream over smooth rock and runnels of snakey water were pouring down between the rock and ice. We stopped often to appreciate the clear views that we'd missed yesterday, it was sunny and clear now and I was glad that I'd brought my sun glasses and sun block after all. Up to the trail junction and we stopped to snack a bit there, then pushed on along the Mt. Chocorua trail to get to the summit, 0.6 miles away. More people today, especially on the summit trail. Two guys and a dog were just below the peak and the men directed us around a bit to avoid a steep scramble, but it was steep whichever way we went. The whole top was a big bare jumble of rocks, though smoother than some of the other White Mountain peaks, so we had some precarious rock slab climbs as well as big tumbled boulders to get over. Forest ended up going around while the rest of us went straight up the last bit, but we met at the top and all enjoyed the cold, windy sunny views. Lots of lakes spread out below us, as well as other lower peaks marching around us as well as a few higher ones deeper into the Whites. It was chilly up there, and the very top (with a geological survey brass round) was small enough to make me a bit vertigo-y, so I was on my butt up there to take pictures. We came down a couple of boulders to just below where another hiker was hanging out and broke out our portable lunch foods. John and I shared some chipotle cheddar and pita and jerkey and I offered them around, Forest took me up on it after letting me use his knife to cut the cheese when mine proved to not have been cleaned (I also grabbed the swiss army knife without the pen that one would have been useful in the parking lot). We didn't last long up there, despite the great view and the lurking fear of how the trip down would go, soon shouldering our packs to make our way down.
It wasn't as bad as I'd feared, though I did scootch down on my butt a few times when the drops looked too long for my legs. It didn't feel like it was warming up all that much as we dropped, I kept myself zipped up and only took my hood down when the lack of visibility was becoming an issue. It didn't take as long as I feared to get down off the bare rocks, though route finding was also a bit challenging, a lot of the yellow blazes had been worn down and could be mistaken for lichen. We finally made it back down into the trees and back to the junction to the trail that would take us back to the car, 3.2 miles away. We stopped there for another quick snack and were suprised by a very quiet dog bounding in front of a lady to greet us. I definitely yelled a bit, then again when I thought it had moved on and it jumped up on me instead. O.o The lady gave us some feedback on the state of the trail we had ahead of us, and we wished her a good hike.
We managed to get past all the icy sections with only a few slips and bruises, no microspikes required, though John and I cut the switchback again while Cris and Forest tried it. We also ran into a few groups at that point again. Progress was marked in unwinding past the points we'd come past on the way up, the falls loop point was bypassed and we did the new icy section of the main trail instead, passing up the opportunity for more pictures with the sunlight. Down along the river, up the ridge and down again, across the river and hooray there were cars visible going past on the road. My quads and calves were screaming by this time, but my knee was only twinging every so often, I didn't even bruise myself that badly when I'd fallen on some ice. We piled the packs back into the car, after I grabbed a leftover trail bar to keep in the passenger compartment with me, and we hit the road.
We stopped at the Almost There pub to get a late lunch, having come off
the trail at about 2:30 and starving. The guys got burgers but I had the
fish sandwich, though I took the bun off of the friend fish. I also went
with the sweet potato substitution, a good call as I inhaled them all. I
also had a small hot tea and that helped reset my body temperature. Taking
off my sweat soaked knee braces helped a lot too! Forest ran across the
street to the Dunkin Donuts to get a coffee for the road, and then we
stopped at the same gas station as on the way up so that I could grab a
tin of tea. I wanted to get a cup of tea hot as well, but the coffee was
out and Cris distracted the proprietor into brewing some up fresh, so I
didn't push it and delay us. From there, we turned off the avoid toll
roads option on the GPS and went back the usual way, passing the happy pig
on fire bbq joint again on 16. Traffic wasn't too bad, we made it home
around 7 or 8pm I think. We dropped off Forest first, I jumped out and
shifted my pack so that he could get his pack and snowshoes out, then got
back into the back with my snowshoes and gaitors. Cris helped out by
carrying the snow shoes and poles up to my apartment where I ran to get
his pack and sleeping bag that John hadn't ended up needing. First thing,
I unpacked my tent and sleeping bag to dry out the condensation / frozen
and thawed water, and then remembered that I'd had a minor camelbak
malfunction (the reservoir screw lid hadn't been quite seated right and I
had a slow leak) and had to unpack everthing to dry out my damp stuff. I'd
have been fine one more night, my backup clean clothes hadn't gotten wet
in the stuff sack. I made the mistake of lying down after a hot shower and
hot tea and my pill alarm woke me up again. I was pretty sore and achy,
and used my foam roller to much groaning and cursing, then stretched out a
bit more. That seemed to help, I was able to walk down stairs okay the