Mt. Moosilauke
January 15th, 2012

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Two years ago Will and I made a winter ascent of Mt. Cube, and last year a winter ascent of Smarts. During one of these, when the wind was howling and the snow falling horizontally, he told me that he was taking a class on the romantic poets who loved to use the term `Sublime', "and I will be the only one in the class who has really experienced it." The sublime is an overwhelming sense of grandeur and awe from nature. And maybe that really is the reason we are going to seek out another mountaintop again this winter.

Mt. Cube is 2,890 feet and Smarts rises to 3,238 feet. This winter we are looking for a greater challenge and so have turned to Mt. Moosilauke. At 4,802 feet it is in a different league. It is a 4,000 footer, tenth tallest in the state and sometimes called the western gateway to the whites.

It was a cold a clear morning, and when we left the house it was -10oF. The heater in my car is not working, so it was a good thing we are already bundled up to be on top of the mountain, in long-johns, and a whole sheep's worth of wool pants and sweaters. We planned to go up the Gorge Trail from the Ravine Lodge. I didn't realize that the gate to the lodge would be locked, so as to add a mile even before the trail head.

Mt. Moosilauke
We left the car at 11:00 walking back in to the Ravine Lodge. I have been here only once and that was in the dark. The Ravine Lodge is the biggest building operated by the Dartmouth Outing Club, and all freshmen trips end here at a DOC banquet. A neighbor of mine had been asked to speak as a representative of the faculty, and I tagged along as his guest. But that was a warm evening in September. In fact I couldn't see the mountain at all that inky night.

Today the mountain raises before us as we walk over a mile to the trailhead. Its summit is shrouded in a wisp of snow -- a forewarning that the peak has its own weather. The mountain itself reaches towards us with two ridges, northeast and south, like arms which engulfs and protects the land of the Ravine Lodge.

We are not the first up here today, and the crusty snow on the roadway is marked with boots and skis. We are caring our snowshoes at this point. The treadway is well packed and in half an hour we are at the summertime trail head. It is 3.6 miles from this point. We dropped into a ravine here, next to the lodge, and cross the Baker River on a bridge of two logs. The headwaters of the river are two or three miles north of us and it this point it is just a noisy mountain stream five meters wide. And now we start to climb.

At the one hour point we stop for a five minute break. One of the things I have always enjoyed about hiking with Will is that we have a similar attitude toward pace and rest period, and so are well matched.

The trail now follows Gorge Brook, and takes its name from the stream. The trail head was at 2,500 ft and we climb steadily. At one point it looks like the banks of the brook have collapsed and the trail with them. A sign warns us that it is "dangerous", but I don't think the temporary trail has any real problems. We cross the landslide without breaking stride.

Will & Tim
A Break on Trail
Finally our trail leaves the brook and climbs steeply to the north. I have been anxious because we had a late start and I don't want to be on the mountain after dark. We have two headlamps and a small lantern, but I'd rather not use them. As we progress I keep recalculating a turn around time. In part because I know where we are at landmarks like leaving Gorge Brook, and also because I can see that the trail here is well used and it would be simple to walk out from here even in the dark. Sundown is at about 4:30 and dark at 5:00.

A half mile beyond the brook we stop again (1:00). It has been almost two hours since we started. Also the snow is getting deeper and the pitch steeper so we decide to strap on our snowshoes. We also meet a group coming down. They say that they had left the peak and hour ago, and are going down twice as fast as up. That pace would get us up to the top at 3:00 and back to about Gorge Brook at sundown. But we both agree that the trail is clear and obvious and so pushed forward.

Most of the trail is embedded in a forest, maples along the roadway and white pines along Gorge Brook, and later a transition to fir. Here, however, there was a gap in the trees which offered a view. It has been cut out of the forest by the trail crew. Some people decry the creation of an artificial overlooks, but I enjoy them. The trimming out of a small patch in the forest seems like a small price to let us see where we are. To the east we see ridgelines and distant mountains clad in frosted forest.

We now enter a series of switch-backs and the trees are becoming noticeably shorter. Only a hundred meters overhead the clouds whip by.

Mountains sometime develop "banners", wisps of white clouds which seem to be attacked to the peak. Wind blowing up one side cools as it rises, and the moisture condense out as the pressures change when it trips over the peak. Moosilauke has a banner today, made of snow and ice crystals. It forms at the peak and then streams down the leeward side, today the eastside, where we are.

The trees are becoming completely encased in ice and snow. It has got to be a tightly knit tree to hold up under these parkas of snow (neve?). We pass a sign which reminds us that we are entering a fragile alpine region. It is one of those great ironies that a plant which can withstand these winds and icy blast is so susceptible to being crushed underfoot.

We stop here in the krumholz to protect our faces. Already the wind is growing and we can hear it howling on the open top of the mountain. We wrap our fleece scarves up over our noses, then add ski goggles which fill the gap between hat, hood and scarf.

Leaving the trees behind
We emerge from the last of the trees into the open for a hundred meters and find ourselves almost pushed back to the trees. Beyond this open ledge the trail drops into a protected hollow for another fifty meters. Here the trees have all merged into one, with there ice and snow cloaks. The trail forms a channel, a mini-canyon through them. Then we finally emerge on the true bare top of Moosilauke.

Now we face the full fury of the wind and I find myself pushing into the blast. I think the peak may only be another one or two hundred meters. But I can only see thirty or forty meters in front of me. We are in the heart of the mountain banner. There are cairns making the way, although since they are cone shapes and encrusted in snow they look a lot like the stunted trees just down the slope. Still there are faint tracks in the crusted snow -- and at this point we know that we need only to go up.

Will and I can not talk, the wind is too loud. So we point and gesture. For a brief moment there is a rent in the banner and we can see what might be the summit, with a sign on top. We point and nod, and then push into the gale and up a slope. Another twenty meters, and all of a sudden there we are (2:35). 4,802 feet up, in the heart of an alpine blizzard! The moment is Sublime!(?)

Will sheltered from the
wind on the peak

Will on open ledge

Canyon of ice clad trees

A fairy land of
Dr. Seuss trees

Full face protection

Tim on the descent
There is the remains of the foundation of a summit house which burned down 70 years ago, but the stones of the foundation are still there and afford a shelter from the blast. Will and I throw ourselves into this little hollow, refuge from the gale. I'm able to take one photograph of Will here, but then my camera refused to recharge - the batteries are too cold.

We spend no more then five minutes at the top. There is no view and I feel like I am holding on with fingers and toes, less I get blown away. So we soon head back down to shelter among the krumholz. Here I pull the battery out of my camera and slip it into my glove, and my glove into my mitten for a few minutes. Soon my camera is again working. At one place, I took half a minute to move the battery into the camera, and so removed my gloves. My hand ached for the next fifteen minutes and I feared frostbite.

But what a beautiful place! Away from the summit the sky is blue and the snow dazzles! Whiter then white! The krumholz is a fairy land of Dr. Seuss trees with blue, glacier blue, shadows.

The descent is quick. What in summertime may be a rocky and rough trail is smooth when covered with a foot or more of snow. Any remaining bumps are averaged out by our snowshoes. I feel like I have pillows on my feet and with three to four foot strides (you can get a little bit of glide on a snow shoe) we make good time.

In forty minutes we are to the spot where we took our two hour break. We stop for tea and to eat our cheese sandwiches. The sandwiches are frozen and it is a challenge to gnaw at them. But it is good to have something in the stomach and perks us both up again.

The descent is -- anticlimactic? Uneventful? We continue swiftly and without further pause. We fly down the mountain side to Gorge Brook, down the brook to the Ravine Lodge and are on the roadway walking out when the sun touches the horizon and to the car before dark. The temperature is still below -10, but there is a stillness on the world down here at the foot of the mountain.