Mount Kearsarge, 2012

I'd signed on to a multi day trekking trip taking place in February, and wanted to test out some new winter camping gear that I'd recently purchased. I'd seen an article about snow shoe overnights and was fascinated by the thought of camping overnight in a fire tower (bonus: slightly less cold than just a tent, and I only have a 3 season tent anyway). I convinced Cris to go with me, and we settled on driving up on Saturday morning then home Sunday afternoon. I found a topo map online and printed that out as supplemental information to the large scale hiking map I had for the region.

Saturday December 1, 2012

Our departure time got pushed a bit earlier to make sure that we'd have time to get to camp, set up and get supper going before dark, which seemed to be hitting around 4pm in Boston. Cris picked me up at 7:15am and we were soon on the interstate heading north. Route 16 which leads up into the White Mountains had been expanded and turned into a toll road, but that meant a fairly quick and easy drive north. Snow started appearing in the woods to either side of the road soon after we left Boston, and I started to get a tiny bit nervous about what I was getting myself into. We made a previously agreed upon stop at the Eastern Mountain Sports store in North Conway so that I could pick up a pair of microspikes (mini crampons) since I had a gift card that I could only use in December. They ended up having some wool long underwear in my size and I was able to take advantage of a member discount on that, and Cris picked up some sunglasses and a spork. I verified with a staff member that Hurricane Mountain Road was open up to the trail head, we made one last use of the facilities, and then we went through the drive-through of a coffee shop next door to stock up on hot liquid.

The trail head was easy to spot, we grabbed the last open space in the parking area (it was only maybe 6 cars long). A truck pulled up and parked parallel to the road, and a hiker got out with his dog, hitting the trail before we were unloaded. I'd weighed my pack the night before at just over 30lbs, but ended up switching to the 70L pack at the last minute so that I had some spare room for the microspikes and trail food. I had brought my three season tent in case of emergencies (the fire tower being locked, not making it there before sunset, etc) and that pretty much demands the long weekender pack rather than the 40L one. I was bringing pots and Cris packed his stove, and we each had our own food and sleeping bags/pads. We started hiking at around 11am.

The trail started off fairly flat, but once it started to climb toward the summit (2575 feet of climbing) it was rare that we encountered a flat stretch. There were a couple of very steep sections that had me quailing in the last hour (amazing how much heavier my pack becomes as I get tired...), but I made it up them. I had to stop and take off a layer (had on a wool undershirt, wool hoodie, down sweater/jacket, rain jacket) once I warmed up. We passed a section that had huge boulders scattered through the forest, evidence of glaciation I think, and some spots where the rocks overhanged to make small caves. We met maybe 5 groups coming down the trail, having done the out and back in a day, and pretty much all of them expressed jealousy at our plan to stay overnight - I love hikers. :) The hiker with a dog that had started when we did came down at about the halfway point, he didn't have crampons. The temperature was fairly steady while the sun was up, maybe -5C or so and the wind was non-existent in the trees as we climbed. One group warned us that the top was windy, but compared to some of the places I've been, it was just a bit breezy. ;) We put the crampons on (and noticed the same brand on a lot of hikers coming down) right before some exposed granite sheets and they made a huge difference. It took me a while to get used to my feet not sliding when I wanted to edge over things (more when descending), but overall I *loved* them. Cris and I both got the Kahtoola Microspikes, and they fit the bill perfectly for my India packing list item of "short crampons". We probably wouldn't have made it to the top without them, though one trio came down and said that they'd just barely done it unencumbered and uncramponed. With the packs and following a stream bed near the top, the crampons were necessary for us. The trees got a bit stunted about an hour from the top and I started looking for the fire tower at that point, but it was just a shoulder of the mountain. We went through more forest with mostly conifers (lower down it was mostly deciduous, with tonnes of oak leaves littering the ground), and the trail got narrower and rockier, though there were still places were trail work had been done (chain sawed tree trunks). I was asking for rest/stretch stops fairly regularly when we came to the final push, seeing clear sky above the trees ahead of us. I'd have bounced when I saw the fire tower if I hadn't had a pack on. :)

We made it there at around 2:30pm, and carefully went up the narrow stairs (barely more than a ladder) to the balcony around the glassed in tower. There were drifts of snow at the base of some of the window panes, but it was out of the wind, so that was nice. It was a struggle to get the stove lit, we eventually lit it inside and then carried it out with a wind shield around it. We boiled up some water and I had some instant chicken noodle soup (I'd eaten a bagel with peanut butter, as well as half a Clif bar, on the trail up). I'd also sweat through my wool hoodie and took it off, being mostly okay in my undershirt, the replaced down sweater, and the rain jacket. The hoodie froze stiff pretty much immediately, oops. We still had some time before dark, and a trip down to the open air toilet just below the tree line didn't take too long, so we zipped into our sleeping bags and chatted to pass the time. The sweat wasn't drying so much as freezing on me, and soon Cris urged that we should put up the tent inside the tower so that we could work on warming up a smaller volume of air with our body heat. That made a huge difference, and we got it done just as the sun was heading down and we lost the light. We did another stove lighting dance and this time took turns sitting outside with it to make sure that the wind didn't blow it away. Interesting ice crystal formations on the balcony around the fire tower room, they grew into the wind as it deposited new snow on top of the old. It had been snowing very lightly the whole day, and visibility was poor on the peak. At one point I had the brain storm to be sure to refill the kettle from our ice slurry water bottles before they froze solid (not warming up plastic bottles over the stove!), and luckily the kettle never froze solid though it did take a long time to boil. We both had backpacker's pantry meals that took 13 minutes to rehydrate, that was a painfully hungry and cold wait. :) I braved the steep stairs, blowing snow and darkness with my trusty headlamp and went to the bathroom one more time before bed. It took me long enough to find the trail down to the pit toilet that Cris considered coming out to look for me, the snow in headlamp view was kinda disorienting and the tracks were starting to get filled in - I made one wrong turn before realising that the trail didn't go down that way and backtracked. I also saw lots of tiny animal tracks, and had to work a bit at not getting freaked out at the wind + forest + dark spookiness. Once back in the tower and in my sleeping bag, I convinced myself to take an outdoor store clerk's advice and took off my hiking pants and the rain jacket so that I was in one layer of wool (I'd swapped out to heavier socks once we got to the tower, but my feet were still a bit sweat damp and took a long time to warm up), and that seemed to help (kept the pants and jacket in the sleeping bag with me so that they wouldn't suck to put on in the morning). I was comfy as long as I was buried in my bag (rated to -5F) with the overbag pulled up to my shoulders, my sleeping pad kept me off the ground, but as soon as my face peeked out to get air, I'd get cold again. My sleep was a bit broken as I cycled between warm and breathing easily. :)

Sunday December 2, 2012

Once false dawn hit and I could see the outline of the tent above me, the feel of the fire tower swaying the tiniest bit in the wind kept me awake. I also pulled my wool hoodie into the sleeping bag with me to try and unfreeze it. I woke up all the way when Cris came back from the pit toilet, the blast of cold air from the open door (he'd dead bolted it to keep it from flying open in the night) and his cheery announcement that despite no visibility and high winds at the tower level (15 feet up), it wasn't bad on the ground got me moving. I'm not sure why, but my stomach was churning at the thought of oatmeal, so for breakfast, I just had a big mug of tea and my apple leftover from yesterday's lunch. I was feeling a bit sheepish about needing the tent, so made sure to break it down well before I expected any early morning hikers to reach the tower. :) Watching the kettle boil in the lee of the tower wasn't so bad, the ice was starting to melt as the sun got properly up (the forecast was for a hight of 11C that day). We were eventually breakfasted, cleaned up and packed and I hit the pit one more time before starting the 3 hour hike down at just after 9am (it always surprises me how long it takes to break camp).

The stairs were icy, so I kept the crampons on (the whole tower floor had tiny divots from spikes), and they were again life savers until we got below the level where the stream had left sheets of ice on the trail. I slipped (but didn't hit the ground with more than my hands) a couple of times on patches where snow wasn't quite melted over leaves, and I know Cris hit a couple of patches of ice, but walking on the bare rocks with the crampons would have been annoying for the benefit of the few places where there was dirt/snow enough to dig into (plus they tended to pick up stuff). We encountered one hiker plus dog at about the halfway point, and then a few more couples as we made our way back to the car. At one point Cris stopped me and pointed to some large tracks crossing the trail, apparently a bear had gone by not too long ago! We also saw hare tracks, following along our route for a while as well as crossing it. It was misty between the trees, and as the temperature continued to rise, we'd get splattered with melting bits of snow. Cris put on his pack cover, and I kept my hood up to keep the drops out of my face. Retracing the landmarks went fairly quickly for the first two hours, and then the last was approaching agony as my knee started to protest vociferously. Thank goodness for hiking poles. I think overall, the gear choices worked well for this trip, and I'm fairly confident in surviving the trip to India. :)

The parking lot was full again when we made it down to Hurricane Mt Rd, and a guy with a small pack (and no crampons!) asked us how it was on the trail. Lots of advice was traded between hikers as people asked about conditions ahead of them. We followed the track of the first hiker up and I'm sure he followed ours once we crossed. I was moving fairly slowly, getting my pack off and stuff settled in the car, also running low on calories. We drove down Kearsarge Rd past the inn we'd stayed in on a previous trip, and parked just before hitting 16. We basically went into the first restaurant we saw that looked casual enough not to kick out our unshowered selves (I kept my hat on for dinner!). Horsefeathers had generous portions, we shared (okay, I picked at) a platter of nachos, then I had a big cup of crab and asparagus bisque, and I could only have a few forkfuls of the pasta primavera that was supposed to be my main course. I got it wrapped up to go. A quick stop for gas and another turn through the drive through for tea/coffee and we were headed south at around 2pm.

It was a very misty drive along route 16 in NH, but it cleared up as soon as we hit the interstate heading south. We stopped at the NH liquor store for a bathroom break, and more gin for me (as well as a small bottle of limoncello since I'd been meaning to try it out), then fairly smooth sailing back to Somerville. The traffic got heavier as we got closer to Boston, as usual, but I think we mostly beat out the returning weekend traffic. A hot shower was my first order of business, then heating up my lunch leftovers and stretching a bit. I struggled to stay awake past 9pm, basically just cleaning out my pack to get everything set out to dry before crashing into bed around 10.

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