Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mt. Chocorua and the Three Sisters, August 2012

The Three Sisters (Third Sister 3,320', Middle Sister 3,340', First Sister 3,354') and Mt. Chocorua (3,490') via Nickerson Ledge, Carter Ledge, Middle Sister and Piper Trails, August 2012.

Mileage:  9.45 miles loop

Elevation gain:  3,389'

Trailhead: Piper trailhead is located off Route 16 in Albany, NH.  Heading north it's just past Lake Chocorua on your left - well marked.  Bathrooms, too!

Lesson learned:  Good friends can talk you off a ledge.

Hiked with Sandy today. The last time I hiked Mt. Chocorua was in 2006 and I wanted to revisit the peak as a more experienced hiker. On that trip Rich and I gingerly negotiating a "hard left and up" rock scramble to the top. It was one of our first scrambles; we didn't know what to expect. I remember a drop off just behind the "up" and was eager to see just how scary that part of the hike really is.

The next four weeks are hike-free unfortunately and I wanted one last trek before the break. A combination of distance and elevation gain, the ledge trails to Chocorua was the perfect choice for a good workout.  

There were four cars in the parking lot when I arrived. I had no idea we were going to summit the three Sisters until I checked the map at the trailhead.  Chocorua and Middle Sister are on the 52 with a View list, and the Carter Ledge trail is listed on the Terrifying 25, lists I am working on (but you may be).

The Piper trail is well marked with signs and blazes but the Nickerson Ledge trail is not well blazed.

There's a ledge area on Nickerson (hence the name) where we got a bit off track. The trail was pretty easy to see but the route on my GPS didn't line up. We backtracked a bit and eventually just kept on the same path until we got to the Carter Ledge trail which is well blazed in yellow.  Here is where it got fun.

Immediately the trail steepened and soon we were at the base of a slide.

Trail steepens.
At the slide we were supposed to take a sharp right, which would skirt most of it.  It was steep on the slide and we advanced by grabbing at the nearby trees.  At the top of the slide we came to a rock scramble that was missing a blaze and wondered if we missed that sharp right. We did.

I had instructions printed from the White Mountain Guide online so I took off my pack, balanced it against a tree so it didn't tumble down the slide and read, "....the Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep, gravelly slope with poor footing. It turns sharp right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed."  Sandy, above me, moved right about 15 feet and sure enough, there was the trail!  We scurried out of our missteps and got back on track.

A beautiful pine forest lives just above the slide; we cruised through it and entered a series of rock slabs with dramatic views of Mt. Chocorua. 

In dry clear conditions the footing is great and view amazing!

One part of the Carter Ledge trail description discusses a particularly hairy scramble, "It passes through a sag, then works its way up the ledgy slope of Third Sister—steeply at times, with several outlooks and ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions, one of them a particularly tricky scramble on a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge."  Descriptions can be so subjective. The organizer of the GooseEye hike in June had described a "difficult scramble to the top" which wasn't hard at all.  However tough it was, I was pretty sure this "tricky scramble" was ahead of us and not one we'd already done.

Up and up into the woods and on ledges no problem, when we got to two ledges with a downward slope and no hand or footholds.  Sandy checked it out, hopped up onto the first ledge, threw her leg over and eased up to the next ledge. It was harder for me; my legs are shorter and it took some maneuvering to get onto the ledge.  Since we were doing a loop we wouldn't have to descend this ledge, a good thing! 

Tough pitch and a long way down!
This was one tricky ledge; to the left of Sandy is cliff - a long way down.
The second ledge was much like the first, but with a more downward pitch. I was perched on the only level spot on the first ledge which happened to be next to a small tree clinging to a patch of dirt on the edge.  I looked down; it was a long way to the ground.  Still no hand or footholds here.  Sandy took longer to get up this second section of ledge but again was able to swing her leg, get a good grip on the steep rock and walk (staying low) up to better footing.  

Ever find yourself between a long dropoff and steep hard place?  Try as I might I could not easily swing my leg up to a decent place on the rock where I could be assured the rest of my weight would be supported on one foot.  If my foot didn't hold to this cliff when body and pack were swinging around, I would be airborne headed for the ground below.

What to do, what to do. Turning around meant trying to negotiate down the ledge I'd just struggled to get up (and besides, that's giving up).  Why didn't I do more core work this summer?  I needed longer legs and a stronger upper body!  

Sandy came closer and described to me how she got up that ledge.  As I stared at the rock surface, I started to see the options.  I placed my foot where I thought it should go, kept repeating "believe, believe" and got my weight up and over.  (The mantra "believe, believe" also works quite well for rock hopping on tough water crossings.)

We continued scrambling up rocks (all subsequent scrambles were so easy compared to those two!), headed past the Middle Sister trail junction, up Third Sister (you won't even realize you've done that one) and up to the summit of Middle Sister.  We sat on the summit and had lunch.  A few raindrops later we were packed up and headed to First Sister and Chocorua.

The summit of Middle Sister.
The hike to First Sister presented us with beautiful views to the north, including Mt. Washington. 

On the slabs between Middle Sister and First Sister.
We ducked back into the woods for a bit, past the Champney Falls Cutoff and on to the Piper trail, starting our ascent up Chocorua.

There is one area (pictured above) where you think you are about to summit Mt. Chocorua only to get there and realize the real summit is yet to come.  The rock scrambling is fun and you feel both on top of the world and terribly exposed and vulnerable due to Chocorua's bare rock summit cone.  

The peak was pretty crowded on this beautiful day. We got someone to take our photo.

The scary "left and up" rock scramble just before the summit. Beyond is cliff; trail looks like it's been rerouted
The views were amazing; and we lingered at the summit, chatting with other hikers. We met Matt and Ron, two hikers from FL enjoying the day.  We hiked down to the Piper trail junction with them, chatting about their hikes in the Whites.

Two southern boys hanging in the Whites.
We took the Piper trail back down to the car.  Much of the first mile was above tree line and slabby, which allowed us to take in the views a bit longer. What a day!

Slabs and view.

Piper trail

The trail down started off rocky and rugged, then slabby and full of wonderful views. Soon, the pitch and floor calmed to a wide path with mellow footing.  The Piper trail is quite popular, with hikers in sneakers and jeans.  The mellow scene below is deceiving and folks ascending this route find themselves up above the trees and onto the rocks in no time!

Sweet trail leads from the parking lot to many rock scrambles.
We got to our cars and headed to Whittier House for a beer.  This was one fun and challenging day.  I would recommend the Carter Ledge trail only on dry days, for a fun and challenging experience.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

#79 and #80 North, Middle and South Weeks Mountains August 5, 2012

North (3,901’), Middle  &  South Weeks (3,885') via York Pond & Kilkenny Ridge Trails August 5, 2012

Mileage:  12 miles RT

Elevation gain: 4,192'

Trailhead: Berlin, N.H. (Route 16) then west on Rt. 110 for approximately seven miles towards Milan. Turn left at the Berlin Fish Hatchery sign onto York Pond Road. Follow paved road and pass through a gate marking the entrance to the Berlin Fish Hatchery. Pass a small pond on your left and several hatchery tents. Continue going straight onto an unpaved road and the trailhead parking lot will be on your left across from the "raceway." (Note: the fish hatchery is gated off hours with a locked gate - sometimes they close the gate but don't lock it. Hatchery hours are 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  It's best to call them to make sure they will leave the gate open, 603.449.3412.)

Lesson learned:  Some hikes are just more fun than others.

Today I hiked with Rich and Charlie.  The original plan was to hike Mt. Washington but unsettled weather was predicted (thunderstorms/high winds) so we chose instead to do one of my “back pocket*” hikes: the Weeks Mountains.  

That we opted for a lengthy, viewless walk in the woods just to reach three uninspiring peaks when we had planned to hike Mt. Washington on this beautiful summer day should in itself cause you to burst into tears for us.

The Weeks Mountains are part of the Pliny Range in northern New Hampshire, named to honor the Weeks family, a very prominent White Mountain family (Weeks Act of 1911).  North and South Weeks are on the New England Hundred Highest list and we needed to bag these peaks at some point anyway.  

I’d planned the Weeks trek several times before  - to check them off my list.  Each time I chose a prettier hike instead, figuring I'd get to them eventually.  There is no short and sweet way to summit them.  The shortest options are to traverse the Kilkenny Ridge trail from Jefferson to Berlin (Starr King, Waumbek, through to the Fish Hatchery), or as an up and back from York Pond trail (both about 12 miles).  We opted for the up and back. 

There's not a lot of information on these peaks.  They're farther north and less popular than most of the Whites.  But if you’ve hiked to Unknown Pond or Cabot or the Horn, you know how beautifully remote this wilderness is.

Parking area (fence of fish "raceway" on the right).
The trail starts on an old gated logging road.
One of the dam planks is missing so we hopped some very slippery rocks to the other side.
In no time we were at the trail junction.
We got to the parking area at 8:30 and immediately started down the old logging road. After two water crossings (which can be bushwhacked by going left), bog bridges, some muddy areas and a few miles of easy, soft trail, we arrived at the Kilkenny Ridge trail junction. It was hot, humid and buggy but so far so good.

Hiking the Weeks are like dropping in on a neighbor unannounced. Not inhospitable mind you, but the trails are messy and none of the summits have so much as a cairn or any type of distinguishing mark to welcome your arrival - like the mountains weren't expecting eager peakbaggers.   Moreover, one mile blended into the other without a view or a pond or any kind of change in terrain; we were going up, then down, then up and so on.  

Most of the forest was crusty and looked old but even the tallest trees' trunks were small (hairy though, like old goats watching us go by).   Moss is everywhere.  Bugs ruled most of the time – there was a gentle wind from time to time that lessened their assault.  

The summit of North Weeks. The sign is gone.
We could tell when we were nearing the peaks as the grade mellowed and we found ourselves wading through fields of ferns.  Then the peak rounded out and we were headed down again. It was too buggy to stay long on the summit of North Weeks so we snapped a few photos and started our descent toward Middle Weeks.  

On the flat between the mountains, just before starting our ascent up Middle Weeks we lost the trail.  A tree with an arrow carved in it lies across the path.

This tree lies in the path, hop over it.
We hopped over the tree and saw that the trail ahead had branches placed in front of it, indicating that was not the way to go. We couldn't see any other path so we hopped over the branches and headed up the path, which fizzled out after a few minutes.  

Branches in the path. Don't cross these branches, go hard right!
We backtracked and finally found the trail, which is a hard right up through some scrub.  The path between North and Middle is messy and unkempt - few travel this way.

These messy splinters of wood are actually on the trail. To the left is the overturned root system of a fallen tree.
Middle Weeks is nondescript with no indication of where the high point is. No matter. It was hot, we were bored and had another peak to hit.  

The trip down Middle and up South is riddled with old blowdowns but is quick and soon we hit a quick side path to the summit (at least the GPS thinks that's the summit, no sign, no nuthin!).

Ho hum summit of South Weeks.
We had lunch, took a few photos and headed back.  

On the way to Middle from South we saw two moose femur bones creatively placed on a tree stump. Interesting. 

We passed the spot where we got confused earlier without trouble, and headed back up North weeks.The trip was uneventful, we counted the descents and ascents til we got to the trail junction.

Bones are mossy. Other trip reports refer to them so they've been around a while.
From the trail junction it's smooth sailing and we could just taste that ice cold draught beer.  The wind was making noise in the trees. It's loud. No, wait that's rain, lots of it and we quickly put on our covers and jackets. We got to the car, took off (hatchery gate was still open) and headed for dinner and a beer.

The rain added a little spice to the hike. We needed it.
Okay, so this was not a really fun hike, particularly considering our original plans.  

But the day is not without its positive points:

1.      Any hiking day with fine weather is a good day.
2.      Trail grades are mellow to moderate (no steeps, no scrambling).
3.      Fern fields are beautiful
4.      The woods are devoid of crowds.
5.      Water crossings were low.
6.      We were able to get a glimpse of Middle Peak several times though the trees. We saw one fairly good through-the-trees view of Cabot, Bulge and Horn.
7.      We bagged two more on the NEHH list.
8.      Moose bones – very cool.

Although unexciting and monotonous, it was still an adventure to explore the Weeks and we can cross them off our NEHH “to do” list. 

*Back pocket hike: Hikes you can offer up as a “plan B” if bad weather interferes with your beautiful “plan A” hike.