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.