Smarts Mountain - North Side - Feb 22, 2009
So why this hike? Well I have hiked from Hanover north to rout 25A, except this four mile section. That might explain why this section - but why today? I guess just because I need to get out. It is late February and the winter can be long and crushing if you choose to just hunker down and try to wait it out. However, a New Hampshire winter can also be thrilling and exhilarating if you engage it, and you grab hold of it with both hand and charge into the snow. So here I am, going up.
I start at Qunittown in Orford, the same place as last week, and for the first two kilometers it is the same rout up the snowmobile trail which is on top of the old pike, next to Jacob's Brook. Last summer this section was mysterious, and when Will did his solo hike we didn't know if it would connect to the Appalachian Trail. Now it all seems so familiar.
When I got to the AT trail junction I strapped on my snowshoes. I don't think anyone has been up this trail for a few weeks for there are no tracks, and I didn't see any tracks in this direction last week either. One hundred and fifty meters up the trail and I crossed Jacob's Brook on an ice bridge about 40 centimeters thick, then up out of the brook's ravine and off through the open hardwood forest.
I am breaking trail all the way. With each step I sink 15-20 centimeters - and this is with snowshoes on! When I look at my tracks behind me I find it curious that I step up and over the snow with every stride, instead of dragging my feet through the powder. I cross a snowmobile trail and continue to rise, it is getting a bit steeper now. That will be the last sign that anyone has been here this winter until I reach the top. I am not wearing a coat, just a base layer and a sweater, even thought it is about 18 deg F. I am gasping like a steam engine and gushing sweat as I break trail and climb.
At the one hour point I stop for a rest. It is hard to estimate how far I have come. I know that I walked the first 2 kilometers in 25 minutes - but that was on the snowmobile trail. This is much harder and much slower. I want to be off the mountain by 5:30 when it gets dark, and so I start performing estimates and calculating in my head. If I can travel at 1 mile an hour ... if I can walk a mile in 45 minutes. What about where am I? I am traveling southeast, but the trail is slowly curving more to the south, as on the map. But the curve is slow and it is hard to place myself with certainty.
Now it is time to continue.
My steps are about two feet long. I know this because that is the length of my snowshoes and I can look behind me.
Much of the time I am thinking about the Venture Scouts going up Mt. Moosilauke next weekend. That climb has more elevation, but slightly less horizontal distance then today. So how can we do it better then I am doing today - how can we avoid racing against darkness like I am now? Well, first, the scouts may be in better shape then me. They are all athletes. However I am much more use to pushing myself. We will also have the advantage of being able to share the trail breaking task. But most important - we just need to start a lot earlier.
When I look down the trail behind me I am reminded of a zipper, the way my foot prints interlock.
At the two hour mark I again stop for a break. I stomped out an area in the snow at the base of a hemlock and then sit with my back up against the tree - looking back down the slope. I really do think I am making good progress, but how do I know? There was a level spot just back there a bit, and that might be the same as the level spot which the map shows on the ridge. Or maybe it was just less-steep. I have left the hardwood forest behind, but that transition is not on my map. But the sun, like time and tide, waits for no hiker and on up I go.
I almost missed it. On a tree on the edge of the trail, a hand's width above the snow is a splash of yellow paint. This marks the boundary of the AT corridor. Some of the land which the AT is on is still private, but a great deal of it is public land administered by the national forest, and here I have crossed into that corridor. And that boundary is clearly marked upon my map. I know exactly where I am. I'm 3/4 of the way up and I should be able to make the top and return in daylight. It is a relief to know that with certainty. Otherwise I had set a turnaround time, and it would be frustrating to get close to the top but then have to turn back.
The trees are starting to be stunted as I continue - a sign that I am approaching a more exposed high ridge. The snow, which have been falling since I started, is coming down harder now. My sweater is encrusted with snow, but I am still very warm and so reluctant to put on my coat. I sometimes worry about losing the trail, the trail blazes are hard to see and when I do see one it is just above the snow. That means I am walking on top of 4-5 feet of snow. But the forest is so thick and tangled that generally there is only one clear way to go. Upwards - Excelsior! The trail now turns to the west as I approach the summit. Essentially I've finished the climbing and I pass a sign telling me that I am within a quarter-mile of a shelter - which means the rules for camping are different here. The Clark's Pond Trail branches off to the left, and a short trail to the shelter to the right. I am over the top and finding myself on the descent!
Someone else was up here today on back country skies. I couldn't have been more then an hour or two ago, since the snow is quickly filling in their tracks.
I was looking for the fire tower, but then remembered that it is on a short side trail. But it is snowing so hard that I can only see about thirty meters so climbing the tower would be pointless and looking for it difficult. Also I am very tired. So I have reached the top and that is enough and I turn back.
I had originally planned on coming down a different tail, going west off the ridge. But breaking trail really is very hard, and the trail I came up is now broken, so I turn and retrace my steps. About half and hour after leaving the top I stop in a nest of hemlock trees, sheltered from the wind, and have a long tea break. Since the summit I have been wearing my coat, for I am not working nearly as hard as when I was climbing.
Occasionally, for short sections near the top, my tracks have been filled in by drifting snow, but in generally my trail is clear and easy. I always make my plans to come down a mountain in the same time as I went up, but coming down is faster and gives me a margin. Also I want to be off trail by dark, but the trail is easy to follow and I am carrying my head lamp, just in case. Despite the cold, the blowing snow, the approaching end of the day I feel confident and comfortable.
Coming down is fast and easy - in fact maybe even easier then in the summer, for I am striding along a meter above the ground on the snow, a meter above all the rock and roots that in the summer you might trip on or pick your way slowly over. The snow feels like silk beneath my snowshoes.
I am moving fast, yet I am much cooler then during my climb. I pass the yellow paint splash and the two hour rest spot. On without want or need of a break, past the one hour rest spot, across the snowmobile trail and to Jacob's Brook. Once again I negotiate the ice bridge and a few minutes later I'm on the old turn-pike. It is just 5:00 now.
Coming down this last snowmobile trail to where I have left the car is like strolling on an old and familiar sidewalk.
It is snowing hard when I easy the car out onto the road, and then take the highway down into Orford. The only apprehension I have had all day is when I am faced with icy-snowy roads and traffic. But there are not many people out on this snowy Sunday evening. There are not many people in Orford who could be out.
And now it is time to go home - home where the light are on! Well, until we lost power later on that evening.