This weekend the MIT Outing Club (MITOC) held its annual winter retreat at one of two cabins in and around the White Mountains. The day was spent training new leaders on how the club operates its trips including logistics, required gear, and general trip planning advice. Fiona, Evan, Christina, and I decided the weather was perfect to head up into the Northern Presidential Range to get some early-season practice on some of the larger mountains The Whites have to offer. After going over many different trip options, we opted to start the day with an easier plan on doing Mt. Madison, and extend the trip to Mt. Adams if we found ourselves with extra time. The weather proved to be perfect and we spent a relaxing day hiking, enjoying the summit, and eventually heading back to civilization. Full trip report below.
We arrived at the trailhead at almost exactly 8:00am after a quick detour to Gorham for some last minute donuts and a heated bathroom. We passed the parking lot on the way there and would have managed to be the first car of the day, but had to settle for donuts and the honor of being the third group to start up the mountain on Sunday. The parking lot temperature matched the expected summit high of 20ºF so we wasted no time getting our packs on and getting moving to generate a bit of heat.
The Valley Way Trail is a relatively easy trail for the White Mountains and not much changes in the Winter. The lower sections of the trail were mostly ice without much snow on them to add traction. We bare-booted until we found a minimum amount of reliable snow or ice cover and decided to put on spikes for convenience. This early in the season the trail would still have been passable without the aid of extra traction, but since we were carrying it anyway we decided we might as well use them. I switched from true Microspikes to Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras two years ago after breaking three pairs of Microspikes in a single season. So far the Hillsounds have held up fantastic and I recommend them highly.
We continued up Valley Way until we reached the intersection with the Wastson Path. We had originally planned to continue up Valley Way all the way to Madison Hut, but since the day was easy and the weather was fantastic, we made a last minute decision to head up Watson instead. I had previously descended Watson during the summer months and found it to be not much harder than Valley Way, although it is steeper for much of its length.
Climbing up Watson
Almost there …
We made our way up the Watson Path eventually entering snow-crusted trees at 4200′ before finally breaking treeline to find the day clear and calm. At this point we were greeted with fantastic views of John Quincy Adams and Mt. Adams proper. We opted to remove traction as there was less snow covering the rocks above treeline than there had been below treeline. We made our way carefully over the sometimes loose rocks as we continued to ascend Madison. The day was so nice that we didn’t worry much about time, often stopping to enjoy the view or try to get a nice picture.
The trail seemed to go on longer than expected, but eventually we met up with The Pink Link trail which cuts from Watson over to Madison Hut. From here it was just a short climb to finish our ascent to the summit of Madison. We found one other person on the summit, which was surprising given how calm the winds were that day. I would estimate the winds were no stronger than 5mph at their worst, with long periods of being completely still. We dropped our packs and took the first round of summit photos as Adams moved in and out of the clouds.
After a hearty snack to re-fuel us we explored the summit for a short time, continuing to enjoy the nice weather. We took another round of summit photos as Adams came fully out of the clouds, and generally just relaxed. I have had so few days where one could truly relax on the summit as long as you want. I believe we spent over an hour there, which is nearly unheard of in December.
Sun’s Out -> Guns Out
Sky’s Out -> Thighs Out
After our final photos we began the descent to Madison Hut which has fantastic views of John Quincy Adams, Mt. Adams, and the Hut itself. The Hut has been boarded up long ago, but I took a few minutes to find the emergency shelter underneath the hut, incase it ever proves necessary to know. The valley way trail here was covered in thick ice, and we had some fun sliding the few feet down it.
We began our descent back to the trailhead without any traction, but as the way grew icier some of us decided it was time to put spikes back on. We made good time down the mountain without any notable events, reaching the cars just as the sun was setting. Overall this was an absolutely incredible day to be above treeline in the Presidential Range.
Sunday I finally got a chance to try a trip that I’ve been dreaming about and planning for a little over a year. After doing Franconia Ridge near countless times, I decided to link up a few different trip reports I’ve found to make a novel path to Owl’s Head. The trip involves going up an off-trail slide to Franconia Ridge, down the off-trail Lincoln Slide into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and finally up the Owl’s Head Slide to the summit. The way is no shorter than going in and out through Lincoln Woods, but does add an incredible amount of adventure. Katherine, Fiona, and I led this hike as part of MITOC’s October Circus.
We started up the Falling Waters Trail just before 6:00am on Sunday, aiming to reach the turn-off for Dry Brook Ravine at Sunrise. The drainage didn’t look too difficult from the previous trip reports we found, but we decided that trying to pick our way through the rocks and blowdowns would be no fun in the dark. We made good time up the easy first part of the trail, reaching the turn-off in under an hour. We had excellent weather for the hike, with no rain for the previous week. We made good time up the drainage, having to work our way over many downed trees, but without much worry of getting our feet wet. We encountered many small falls, and it was great to think about how few people have experienced this part of The Whites.
We continued up the drainage, eventually finding a spot that appeared to be recently devastated. The exposed rocks and roots were much fresher than the other parts of the drainage, with large boulders and beautiful exposed rock. Here we also encountered our first good views of the day.
After climbing to the top of the damage, we initially thought that we were about to begin the true bushwhacking portion of the trip. After pushing through only 20 or 30 feet of forest we found that the drainage actually continued slightly left of where we had climbed up the earthen mound. It always pays to spend an extra minute looking before diving into the forest! Eventually we came to a point in the drainage where we faced a larger-than-average waterfall in front of us with loose and slippery rocks galore. Right at the same location a small slide met the drainage of the left, which we (in hindsight) miss-took for the beginning of the Gargoyle Slide. After attempting to climb the waterfall and deciding it was more difficult than we wanted, we instead climbed up the slide assuming we were on our way to the main gargoyle slide.
Small Slide to the Left
This small slide proved to be one of the more dangerous sections of the day despite its length. The rocks were eager to come loose, and it was short and narrow enough to make dodging and incoming rocks difficult. To mitigate the risk we ended up climbing the slide one-by-one. We soon found ourselves at the top, but in thick forest around 4000′, which made traveling slow. In hindsight (and GPS tracks), it appears we left the drainage too early. Instead it would have been better to continue up the drainage which appears to naturally come to the base of the slide with no real bushwhacking required.
The base of the Slide is one of the most difficult sections with large amounts of a surprisingly slick black moss growing on much of the rock. The slide is very steep and even after 7 days of no rain was quite wet in places. It should be avoided at all costs when wet. After a while the slabs opened up and provided many hand and foot holds, with only a few sections that really required any aid. The Gargoyle’s were also in view from the very bottom of the slide, and always appeared to be just out of reach.
The going began to get steeper and more committed as we moved up the slide, with sections starting to appear that I would classify as difficult Class 2 or even easy Class 3.
After more scrambling we finally made it up to the Scree Field portion of the slide, which only really exists in the last few hundred feet. The rocks here were loose but not treacherous, and with some careful footing we didn’t dislodge any rocks of notable size.
The last challenge of the slide was of course at the very top. The ridge trail is guarded by a short section of real climbing. After making our way up nearly 1000′ of wet slab, this short section proved easy and quite fun!
In total, the Gargoyle Slide took us almost exactly 4 hours, and we topped out on Franconia Ridge just before 10:00am. If I were to do it again, I would stay in the drainage longer which would cut this time significantly. We spent an unknown long amount of time trying to determine if we had missed the slide or not.
After a quick all-safe text and selfie to close out the first portion of our adventure, we made our way to the summit of Lincoln for an early Lunch and a view of Lincoln Slide, the second half of our journey. We were also treated to our first view of Owl’s Head, our eventual destination for the day.
The Lincoln Slide is a large V-Shaped slide that sits on the eastern side of the ridge between Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. The slide is easiest to access from the summit of Mt. Truman, sometimes also referred to as “Unnamed peak between Lincoln and Lafayette”. It is the highest point between the two and there is a worn herd-path that leads away from the summit cairn and can be followed to gain access to the slide with minimal trampling of alpine vegetation. The Lincoln Slide can be followed down to nearly 3800′ in the true slide, with a small stream and drainage that continues all the way to the Lincoln Brook which flows next to the Owl’s Head Path.
We entered the slide and found it to be just as the trip reports said: full of sand and loose rocks the size of a fist to fridge. We zig-zagged on the upper portion of the slide to prevent knocking any rocks down on each other. Although the rocks were very loose we never had a problem with dislodging them. We made good time down the slide, reaching the bottom section where it became a stream in approximately an hour.
As we reached the base of the slide, we got what might have been our biggest surprise of the day. There was actually someone camping at the very base of the slide, where the first trickles of water came out of the ground. The tent was cleverly placed behind a large rock which I suppose would provide some shelter in the event of an small and unexpected rockslide. You definitely couldn’t get me to camp there!
At this point the slide began to level off and the rocks took on a much older and worn quality. There were bright shades of blue hiding in the rock and the slide became much more of a stream than a rockslide. With the advice of the hiker camping at the base of the slide, we made our way into the brush to the left of the river once the drainage narrowed to the point of making forward progress difficult without getting our feet wet. We entered the brush slightly too high and could have progressed further down waiting for it to thin further. Once the trees thinned it was very easy to maneuver and we made it from the base of the slide to the Owl’s Head Path in an hour. After a 15-minute break where we joined the Owl’s Head Path we started off down the trail looking for the Owl’s Head Slide.
The slide isn’t an official trail it is well worn but I’ve heard the markers at it’s start are sometimes taken apart by Forest Rangers. The cairns we saw at the base were well established, and looked very similar to the ones I saw last year.
As we made our way up the slide to the summit of Owl’s Head, we were treated with a surprisingly wonderful view of Franconia Ridge. The view isn’t usually considered a great view for The Whites, but today it proved to have special value. We all stopped on the slide to admire how far we had come, with The Gargoyle’s visible on the southern portion of the ridge and Lincoln Slide on the northern side.
We made our way to the summit of Owl’s Head, marking off a repeat for Katherine and I and number 36 for Fiona. Blox and Katherine aren’t exactly tracking their 4000 footers, but after this hike they should probably start!
With Halloween so close we decided to carry animal masks up to the summit. Two animals that rarely meet in the wild got into quite the tussle.
With the summit behind us all that remained was an 8-mile slog back out to the Lincoln Woods trailhead. We had thought going up and over Franconia Ridge might be technically the shorter milage way to do Owl’s Head, but it turns out it was exactly the same 8 miles as it takes to get there from Lincoln Woods. It is much more interesting though, and everyone agreed this hike was one of the best we’ve done yet. After a 3 hour slog we made it back to Lincoln Woods at 7:30pm, just under 13.5 hours after we started. All-in-all we managed to see the Milky Way Twice, Sunrise, Sunset, and we explore parts of The Whites seen by many but experienced by few. This trip won’t soon be forgotten.
Notes and Do It Yourself:
6:00am – Start Hike
7:00am – Turn off into Dry Brook Ravine
9:00am – Base of First Slide
10:15am – Franconia Ridge
11:00am – Top of Lincoln Slide
12:00pm – Base of Lincoln Slide, top of Drainage
1:30pm – Owl’s Head Path
2:15pm – Base of Owl’s Head Slide
3:30pm – Summit Owl’s Head
4:30pm – Base of Owl’s Head Slide
7:30pm – Parking Lot
The small slide that we encountered on the way up to Franconia Ridge starts at ~3800′ where the drainage suddenly hits a cascade. Stay in the drainage here, the real slide starts at ~4100′, saving you 300′ of bushwhacking.
The Gargoyle Slide is very steep and even after 7 days of no rain was quite wet in places. It should be avoided at all costs when wet.
The drainage of Lincoln Slide is narrower and harder to stay dry that the other parts of the trip. We moved out of the drainage and into the woods to the north at approximately 3700′, but found them to be very dense. It would be easier to stay in the drainage until 3400′ – 3500′ and move into the woods then.
Elevation: 4,180′ (North Tripyramid), 4,140′ (Middle Tripyramid)
Elevation Gain: 3,000 ft.
Hike Type: Out and Back / Lollipop
View: Good on Slides, Poor (North Tripyramid), Poor (Middle Tripyramid)
This weekend Fiona and I decided to lead our first MITOC hike together and take a group up the notoriously difficult Tripyramid Slides. The North slide is the more challenging of the two with the bottom half comprised mostly of granite slabs that can be extremely slippery when wet. We found this out the hard way as it had rained the day before, leading us to a false sense of security on the cloudy but otherwise dry morning. While I sometimes feel that the difficulty of trails is overstated in the guidebook, this one is not to be underestimated. The slide is quite committing, and quickly makes a retreat to the bottom an unfavorable option with hundreds of feet left for the summit. Below details the full trip from start to finish.
We left Boston around 6:30am and arrived in the parking lot by 9:00am with a quick stop at Dunkin Donuts to go over logistics and get delicious trail snacks. We were hiking by 9:15am along the well maintained dirt road that comprises Livermore Trail for the first few miles of the hike. We made good time enjoying the fall foliage and easy warm-up before the real climbing started.
We reached the turnoff for the North Slide Trail and made a decision as to whether or not it was dry enough to attempt the slide. With the dry leaves around us and the sun starting to poke through the clouds, we opted to attempt the slide figuring we could always turn around if it proved too slippery.
After 10-15 minutes of gradual but steady elevation gain we reached the base of the slide, marked by the sudden increase in slope and exposed rock. The rock here was covered in moss and slippery from the leaves and rain the previous day, but was still passable. There was a worn herd path / trail to the left of the slide, and it was difficult to tell which of the two was the “official” trail without any noticeable blazes or Cairns. We continued up the slide sticking to the rock as much as possible to minimize any additional wear on the herd path. Only a few sections of the slide proved to be too treacherous to force us off into the woods.
A few hundred feet higher, the slide opened up allowing us easier and obvious travel along the granite slabs. They still proved to be quite slick and moss-covered in places, but the entire team was moving quickly and efficiently so we opted to continue up the slide. It was approximately here that we began to feel committed to the slide, figuring that retreating down the granite slabs to the base would be treacherous.
Eventually we reached a sort of “book” in the rock with granite slabs on either side and no herd path in the woods. A wider section of slide existed to the right and for a moment we were unsure if we had stayed off the trail to the left. We noticed a blaze right in the middle of the book, clearly marking the way forward. The book proved to be the most interesting and challenging part of the hike, requiring a chimney-esk butt-shuffle to conquer.
The book also marked the end of the granite slabs, but not nearly the end of the slide. After a quick snack we found ourselves at the base of the large scree field that makes up the top of the North Slide. Scree is the small boulders and rocks left behind after a rockslide or glacier comes through an area.
The scree proved to be much easier to traverse than the slabs, and even maintaining a solid 10-15′ between each hiker (to limit danger from loosed rocks) we made good time to the top of the slide. A large cairn marked where it was time re-enter the trees and end our slide adventure. Minutes later we found ourselves on the summit of North Tripyramid, a first time visit for most of our group!
The slog from North Tripyramid to Middle and South Tripyramid proved uneventful, with no notable views or happenings. We decided to push past the Middle and Tyipyramid summits for lunch and instead stopped at the top of the South Slide. We had great views of the surrounding mountains and took turns trying to use the compass to name them.
Going down the South Slide was much easier than the North Slide, and we made good time down the slide and back to the main trail. After a quick 2.2 mile slog we were back in the cars and headed to Boston.
Elevation Gain / Loss: +/- 4,000′ without Mt. Carrigain.
Hike Type: Loop, Overnight
With the High Sierra Trailing coming up in a couple of weeks, Rachel and I decided we needed to make sure we could do the big 15+ mile days with full packs that would be required on the trail. We’ve already done the Pemi Loop twice, so we wanted something a little off the beaten path. After some research we found The Desolation Loop description on SectionHiker which fit the bill perfect. It’s a long ~33 mile loop on the less-traveled eastern side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. SectionHiker opted to do the trail in 3 days with a bit of added bushwhacking. We were mostly concerned with testing how many miles we could put under our boots in a day so we chose to do the trail in two instead. We were also interested in determining our pace over more even terrain similar to what we would find on the mule-train graded trails of the HST. The loop provided secluded travel through parts of the forest few choose to see due to its distance from most 4000 footers. Below details the whole trip.
Day 1: Hancock Trailhead to Shoal Pond
We arrived at the parking lot slightly later than usual, knowing that we’d be spending the night and therefore less worried about starting early enough to make it back to Boston at a reasonable hour. The Hancock Notch parking lot on the Kanc was already quite full, and we had to fight to get a spot in the lot. We started down the familiar trail that leads to Mt. Hancock. The trails leading to the split with Cedar Brook Trail are very well traveled, and although we found blueberry bushes they were entirely picked clean. The trail is also wide and easy to travel, something we wouldn’t find later on the hike.
We reached the split with Cedar Brook Trail and the nature of the trail changed immediately. We left the wide path of The Hancocks and immediately faced denser foliage, less erosion, and slippery rocks. It was quite easy to tell that this trail was significantly less traveled. After rising for a few minutes we reached the boarder with The Pemi Wilderness, where we would spend the next two days. This crossing point has an additional sign alerting the hiker to the artifacts that may be found (and left) on the trail. This part of the Wilderness contains many old logging camps that were used before the land was purchased from the Lumber Barons and turned into a National Forest and Wilderness areas. The Cedar Brook trail descended for a few miles to the Wilderness Trail, providing a nice view of Mt. Hitchcock to the South West.
After a short walk along the railroad graded Wilderness Trail we reached the Thoreau Falls Trail and one of the few remaining bridges that cross the Pemi. The bridge is really just a large tree spanning two concrete supports, with a path and handrails nailed to the top of it. There is an ominous “Weight Limit 1 Person at a Time” sign at both ends that I suspect should be unquestionably respected. The bridge offered a surprisingly close and unique view of Mt. Bond that I assume only gets better later in the year with less leaves on the trees.
Along our way to Thoreau Falls, we encountered many of the artifacts mentioned in the sign when we crossed into the Pemi Wilderness. Some had quite obvious functions, while other remain more or less a mystery. Perhaps if we had more knowledge of what the old logging camps were like we’d be able to guess more at their nature. There are also blueberries and even the occasional raspberry bush along these trails for a nice surprise snack.
Thoreau Falls was incredible and absolutely one of the must-see sites in The Whites that isn’t a mountain summit. The falls were enormous with many cascades, pools to wade or swim in, and rocks to sun yourself. Sadly when we made it to the falls it threatened to storm, and the prospect of dinner kept our stay short.
After approximately 15.5 miles we made it to Shoal Pond. A quick search revealed a path going away from the Pond up the hill (mentioned in the White Mountain Guidebook) that led to approximately four nice (and legal) dispersed camping sites. We talked for a few minutes with the one other hikers staying there (one of the only people we saw after leaving the main Hancock Trail) before making dinner and going to sleep.
Recently when backpacking we’ve moved away from buying the store-made meals and have instead opted to make our own, typically out of different blends of Cous Cous, Dehydrated Veggies, and Spices. These meals can be made simply be boiling water and putting it in a freezer bag with all of the ingredients. A homemade cozy bag keeps it warm while it cooks and the veggies rehydrate.
Day 2: Shoal Pond to The Kancamagus Highway
In the morning we woke up before dawn to a wonderfully still day. We packed up our campsite as the sun rose behind us and made our way down to Shoal Pond to enjoy breakfast. Unlike the night before, Mount Carrigain and Zeacliff were out in full force, and we enjoyed the silence and the mist of the lake.
After finishing breakfast we started back towards Mt. Carrigain, where we would take the long way around passing through Carrigain Notch between Vose Spure and Mt. Lowell. Avoiding all the major peaks in the area, this trip had a much different feel than our typical summit adventures. The trail leaving Shoal Pond was thin and overgrown, with many trees across the trail and sections of decaying bog bridges. The trails leading around Carrigain were also maintained, but had a thicker and wilder feel than often found on the main paths to the 4000 footers. We surprised three Spruce Grouse on the way back to the intersection with the Desolation Trail, and there was a copious amount of Moose and Bear Scat lining the trails.
We made it back to the main trails around Carrigain without much else happening, discovering a few questionably legal campsites along the way. Going through Carrigain Notch we met our first other hiker of the day, a runner going up The Desolation Trail to the summit of Mt. Carrigain. Sometime I’ll have to come back and give that trail a try. We ate lunch where the trail intersected the main Carrigain throughway, excited to soak our feet in the cold stream that runs beside the trail. Unfortunately this also meant a return to the crowds, ending the solitude of the previous night.
We were moving relatively slow, and with the long drive back to Boston we opted to cut the last four miles of the trip and instead take a detour to the Kancamagus Highway and attempt to hitchhike back to our car at the Hancock Notch Trailhead. The Kanc is a notoriously hard hitch, and we hoped to not wait too long. After approximately 15 minutes of trying, a small caravan of cars decided to stop. The driver of the first car didn’t speak any English, but with the help of the second driver translating they indeed offered us a ride to our cars. The caravan was a family from Guatemala visiting and traveling through The White Mountains, which we learned from their son Romeo who spoke enough English to give us their names and where they were from. You never know who is going to be the one to help you!