Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mt. Hedgehog (2532'), January 15, 2012

Mt. Hedgehog via the UNH Trail, January 15, 2012.

Total mileage: 4.9 miles RT (we backtracked a few times)

Elevation gain: 1368'

Trailhead: Trailhead is located off the Kangamagus Highway about 13.5 miles west of the Conway intersection (across from the Passaconaway Campground).

Lesson learned:  1. A three hour hike takes much longer when breaking trail. 2. Blaze or no blaze, untouched snowscapes can be disorienting!

Because I hike peaks on my lists in the summer (NE 4Ks, NE HH and NE 115), I consider winter my off season, perfect for smaller hikes. Truth be told I do not like winter hiking enough to drag myself up the bigger peaks with full winter gear and clothing. 

I'll also admit that I tend to choose popular winter hikes; the trail tends to be broken out and I like meeting others hiking up to and above a snowy tree line.

This winter Mt. Hedgehog was on my list, along with a few others.  The original plan was to hike Mt. Crawford this weekend (another on my list) but a deep freeze was predicted so I sought a destination in a lower latitude and with less elevation. Hedgehog it is!

The US Forest Service describes this hike as appropriate for "beginners or those short on time," estimating the hike to take approximately three hours.   Hedgehog is a very popular hike (on the "52 with a View" list) so I expected to see others on the trail.  And, the recent snowfall would allow us to use our snowshoes (finally, first snow of the season). 

Our schedules dictated we hike on Sunday so I fully expected the trail to be broken out. It wasn't.  Fortunately the four of us had fresh legs so we didn't mind breaking trail for the next group of hikers.

We took turns breaking trail.
I hiked with Rich, Sandy and Joe.  The forecast gave today a high of 7° and the wind chill warning had expired, all was calm.  The UNH trail heads up toward the summit passing a few ledges along the way, then swings back toward the parking lot, forming a complete circle.   Sandy had hiked Hedgehog a few winters ago which proved quite helpful, particularly on the ledges.  We decided to hike the loop clockwise to better view the Presidentials and other peaks.

Breaking trail is work but the grade was moderate and we were looking for a workout after weeks of blah bare ground. The footing was good and trail wide enough making for easy navigation. Frequent blazes helped. 
Keep an eye out for the blazes, particulary on the East Ledges.
A few minutes up the trail we noticed a large clearing cut with fallen trees and debris.  UNH is conducting logging operations and the result looked like a wasteland of litter. 

As the trail became steeper and conditions more varied, we started having difficulty with our footing in snowshoes. Small things really: catching a stump, a bush, roots - the snow was still fluffy here due to the cold, and no serious packed accumulation had occurred. What we were walking on was essentially a first snow which proved unstable, not packed enough to cushion our feet from the hazards of the trail that we could not see (but they still managed to jump out and bite us). We stumbled a few times, readjusted our snowshoes and it was then I decided I hated hiking in snowshoes.

When we reached the East Ledges we were rewarded with spectacular views.   We had trouble finding the last few blazes to the ledges and I had scouted ahead.  I waited for the others here.

Beyond the scrub is the edge of the cliff.
The place was both beautiful and hauntingly isolated.  The ground was shiny as the snow had formed a slippery top layer - hard crust.  It was difficult to tell where to go from here and even more difficult to see where the edge of the cliff was. I read where the trail ducks back into the woods after the ledges and it took about fifteen minutes for us to find the next blaze.  Checking our map, it was clear the East Ledges were not as near the summit as we had hoped (in fact we were still about a mile away). 

We were careful to stay away from the cliff edge as the drifts were deceiving.  We could see the summit of Hedgehog in the distance.  Looking away from the ledges toward the summit,we poked around for that next blaze only to find it back over on the ledges, very close to the edge. Skittish of getting too close, we cut through some scrub to get back on the trail. 

Then the trail went down.  And continued to go down which started discussion - did we miss a turn?  If so, where?  We were definitely on trail, but descending at a good clip. 

We might think about turning back, Rich said.  It was 1:00 and we had been on the trail for over two hours.  Joe had planned to watch the Giants game and wanted to be back in North Conway by 4:00 p.m.  Rich's GPS was useless; it showed the East Ledges as the summit of Mt. Hedgehog (that area is known as Little Hedgehog). 

Just at that moment we spotted a small arrow on a tree: turn right.  The map indicated a right turn before the final ascent to the summit.  This was it!

And up we went.  Icy rocks and roots were under the snow as we climbed.  The snow instantly fell away, providing nothing to dig into. The claws on our snowshoes were no help and the ice was not thick on the rocks so crampons would not have helped either.  The snowshoe's traction rails were helpful however  - and we placed our snowshoe and weight horizontally against the icy slabs to brake our sliding back as we grabbed tree trunks and exposed roots.  It was then I decided snowshoeing was fun!

At one point the trail turns left up a big boulder. I bushwhacked on the side to get up the rock only to find myself with nowhere to go.  Did I take a wrong turn?  We checked the blaze, this was the right way.  Joe scouted around to find the path and as he stepped on another boulder, the snow gave way to a huge blaze sprayed on the surface of the bare rock. Thanks, Joe!  We headed a few hundred yards up and got to the summit. Finally.

A beautiful summit shot. I think their faces froze that way!
Since it was now 2:00 and our "three hour hike" had already taken over three hours just to get to the summit, we had a quick snack and set our sights on continuing on the loop toward Allen's Ledges and the parking lot.  To the delight of our tired legs, we found the rest of the trail already broken out.   

The setting sun made for a hazy photo of Mt. Passaconaway. Dropping the camera in the snow may have helped!
With our toes and fingers numb, we briskly headed down the remainder of path, nowhere near as steep as the ascent.  We passed a trail junction for Allen's Ledge and "1.1 Kancamagus Hwy."  We tabled the ledges for another day and continued to sail down the trail.

Notice this photo is partially black and white. Camera was cold!
The distance to the parking lot from the summit is much shorter; we made great time getting back to the parking lot.  It was 3:37 when we got back to our cars, plenty of time for Joe to get home for the Giants game (they won over Green Bay 37-20, which made Joe's day!),
Close to the parking lot you will cross a logging road. Go straight across.
Today, this hike took longer than we expected. It was more challenging than anticipated, particularly with the snow over ice conditions. It was a beautiful hike on a well blazed, well defined trail and we will definitely revisit this peak again!