March 28, 2015.
I've had my eyes on this loop for quite some time. Seeing reports in the last month that most of the trails I was going to take today had seen some traffic why not give it a shot instead of waiting for the snow to disappear. This approach to Mt Willey is supposed to be quite steep and has ladders much like Osseo Trail has so doing it with plenty of snow might be less difficult. Besides I figured once reaching the summit of Willey everything would be downhill from there. The plan is to head up Ethan Pond Trail from Route 302 then Willey Range Trail over Mt Willey and Mt Field down to the A-Z Trail. I'll then take the A-Z Trail down to Zealand Trail hooking back up with the other end of Ethan Pond Trail and then back to Route 302. I had also seen a report from a while ago that Kendron Flume Trail had been broken out so if it still is in decent shape I'll take that down and then road walk back to the car.
With my very ambitious plans in place I was off with an early start out of the house to maximize the day. Only problem is I forgot my maps and there was no way I was turning around. Guess I am committed now and there is no backup plan. Going through Franconia Notch and the flurries were already beginning and as I reached Crawford Notch there was a slight coating on the road. Not sure of which spot was the Ethan Pond Trail head I stop at the first place and I was unsure if this was it. I take off down the road and the next place is plowed all the way up the hill and I figured this was it from what I remembered when I was here last summer. Driving up the hill slowly there was something in the road and as I got closer I kicked myself in the butt for not being more prepared. Someone had put some scraps of bread in the road and it was a fox feeding on it. When I finally realized what it was it had scampered over the snowbank back into the woods. Parking up on top of the hill I was trying to figure out if I was in the right spot when I spied the fox come back down below. Just as I was trying to zoom in and get a shot he took off again and all I got was this blurred picture.
Figuring I was in the wrong spot and a quick drive back to the other spot where the AT crosses the road. Not sure how I missed those trail signs and in the end it did cost me an hour as I did not start up the unplowed road until 7:40. Putting on the snowshoes and they stay on for the duration. I reach the top where the parking lot is during non-winter and the trail begins right before crossing the Conway Scenic Railroad.
Crossing the tracks and Ethan Pond Trail immediately starts climbing although mildly as it flanks the side of the mountain instead of a full frontal assault. Reaching a junction for Ripley Falls, which I forgot was here as I didn't bring my maps, and I figure what the heck. Wasn't part of the plan but a quick out and back to knock off another trail couldn't hurt. About a tenth of a mile up and it dawns on me that this isn't a good idea and I return to Ethan Pond Trail. Good thing because when I got home and looked at the map the trail is a big loop back to where I parked down the road and saw the fox. The trail continues it's mild climb passing the junction with Kendron Flume Trail. There has been traffic on it at some point so looks like I'll be taking that trail down to Route 302 on the return.
Not much farther up and I am at the junction with the southern end of Willey Range Trail. The trail continues the mild climb although further up the trail soon begins to close in with snow laden trees.
Ten minutes later and the steep relentless climb begins. Pictures just don't do it justice as to the steepness of the trail but this is probably one of the steepest and longest sections of trail I have been on to date.
Even changing the rotation of the camera downplays the steepness. But I did find a shot of this exact same spot without the snow showing the ladders buried underneath. Notice the height of the knot hole on the tree on the right for snow depth.
Over an hour from starting the steep section and I arrive at the outlook just below the summit. On a normal day this would be a great spot but today all I got was this!
Up to the summit and someone stole the summit cairn as I can't see it anywhere. Or maybe it is beneath all this snow!
Heading down the trail and a stop at the spot where the views into the Pemi Wilderness are normally visible.
Well you just can't have bluebird days all the time. Moving along as I still have a long ways to go heading north along the Willey Range Trail. Down in the sag between Willey and Field I run into the first person of the day heading in the opposite direction. I pass by a blazed tree where the painted blaze is just barely showing meaning there is at least five feet of snow still. Going to be a long spring in the mountains this year. Skirting Mt Field and where there is a fir wave there are typically views from here also but not today.
A few minutes later and I have reached Mt Field where the cairn is also buried and again there are no views to be seen today. Just beyond the summit there is an opening that normally you could see Mt Washington but today it is white pea soup.
Going down the Willey Range Trail and past the junction with Avalon Trail and no one has been up this part of Willey Range Trail in at least a week. Not a big deal as there is a packed out trough with the newest snow filling it in. About half way down towards the A-Z Trail and I cross paths with three hikers heading up, the last three hikers I would see for the day. It's funny that I don't remember the trail descending as much as it does. When I was last out here back in November of 2011 the Whites had just gotten there first significant snow and I went out and bought snowshoes. I came up this trail and I thought it was much more milder. I guess the mind was more excited that I was still hiking in winter rather than stopping for the season. It only takes thirty minutes to reach the end of the trail and the junction with A-Z Trail where I stop for a good break to refuel.
Looks like the info I read was correct and the trail is definitely broken out beyond this spot where it heads down towards Zealand Trail. So the hike continues as this would have been the bail out option if it wasn't. The trail is packed out and again hasn't seen any traffic in at least a week. Another good thing is it is all downhill from here. The only annoying part is the upper half where the trees are bent over laden with snow. It is slow through these areas as I always stop to knock off the snow with my hiking poles.
The trail passes through some great birch glades at the northern base of Whitewall Mt and looks like a good place to attack the trailless peak sometime. It only takes an hour and a half to reach Zealand Trail where I turn left onto Zealand Trail for a few minutes trip to the northern end of Ethan Pond Trail. Right by Zealand Pond the cloud base is trying to lift and I get peeks at Zeacliff and Zealand Mt.
At the beginning of Ethan Pond Trail the only tracks on it are a set of cross country ski prints. Too committed now I have to make the attempt to get across. I know the other end is very well packed at the junction with Willey Range Trail. I'm assuming that part of the trail is packed out to at least the shelter spur. Between here and the spur is going to be a crapshoot and hopefully these ski tracks give me enough flotation with my snowshoes.
It is "only" 4.6 miles to the spur for Ethan Pond Shelter but this could be a disaster if this trail does not hold up the whole way. I have read reports that it was at least broken out to Thoreau Falls Trail but beyond that who knows. With no other options I set out and the base is holding up for the most part. A few instances of sliding off the monorail created by the skier but I make pretty good time. This trail used to be part of the old logging railroad that use to come through Zealand Notch. So for the most part it is flat as I break out of the trees and reach the base and talus field of Whitewall Mt. Up ahead I notice a perilous looking boulder sitting up top and that is going to make a mess when it comes down someday. I'll have to remember that when I make it up there someday and go and see it up close.
This is just one of those awe inspiring spots where this whole side of the mountain has broken away and sits at your feet and below. Just before the junction with Zeacliff Trail is the base of a slide track that some people use to reach the top of Whitewall Mt. It's in the back of my mind to do some day but supposedly quite a challenge getting up it.
Between Zeacliff Trail and the next junction, Thoreau Falls Trail, is new territory for me. I had plans two falls ago to get this section when I did a big overnight Pemi Loop. By the time I reached Thoreau Falls Trail it was getting late and I needed to find a spot to sleep for the night and skipped doing this part of the trail. Before the trail re-enters the woods the view south towards Shoal Pond Peak with more talus fields and a look north up through Zealand Notch.
A relatively uneventful forty-five minutes later and I reach the Thoreau Falls Trail and thankfully the ski tracks continue. The track holds me up for the majority of the time with only a few spots here and there where I sink in. Being respectful to the trail I try as best as I can to fill in the holes so as not to ruin the track. Along this section I come across a large boulder beside the trail that is cracked into several pieces.
The next section of trail takes less than twenty minutes for the half mile section as I did this piece back on that overnighter trip. This would be where I see the last person as I come across the skier heading back to Zealand Falls Hut. We exchange pleasantries and he tells me he has been out to the shelter and is coming back. Hallelujah! This makes my day as I still have over two miles to go to the spur trail. Passing the Shoal Pond Trail junction and it is just two miles to the shelter spur now. Plus new trail for me as I have not done this section either. The plan was to get this last summer when I hiked the AT as Ethan Pond Trail is part of the trail. It does not bother me as much as it used to, not finishing the AT, but I still have my moments when it eats away at me. Today thankfully is not one of those days. I still have a ways to go to finish this hike and must stay focused. This section of trail is not as consolidated as before and turns into a test of mental will. I break through the snow more often and it is just a never ending flat trail or so it seems.
Less than an hour from passing Shoal Pond Trail and I get a peek at Mt Willey and the sun has come out for the day finally. The shelter is getting closer but the mind plays terrible tricks in regards to time when you are getting tired and mentally exhausted. The trail condition takes it toll on me and I just want to make it to the spur trail where I hope the trail is as packed as it was this morning.
After what seems like hours, in reality only 75 minutes from the Shoal Pond Trail junction, I reach the spur for Ethan Pond Shelter. A quick trip on the spur trail to Ethan Pond and the trail peters out leading right to the ponds edge. The wind is blowing across the pond from the west and it is cold as I take a few pictures.
OK, so where is the shelter? I know there is supposed to be one here but standing at the edge of the pond I scan in all directions looking for it. Backtracking up a bit and for some unknown reason I head over towards my right as I face the pond. There are no tracks through here or if there was they have been windswept away. I kept heading in that direction and then off in the woods I see it. I was beginning to wonder if I misread something and it had been taken down. But being on the AT I was fairly certain it existed and it does. It is just tucked away in an obscure spot although I am sure when there is no snow the path is probably quite obvious.
A quick retreat back to Ethan Pond Trail and I was right that the remainder of the trail between here and where I turned onto Willey Range Trail is well packed out. A welcome relief but I still have 2.6 miles of trails and a mile roadwalk left. The last couple of miles were a slog and even though the trail is in better shape I am feeling the effects of this long day. The first mile back to Willey Range Trail actually doesn't take too long as I make it in thirty-five minutes.
Even the three tenths to Kendron Flume Trail only takes ten minutes but when you are tired and the body says enough time seems to slow down to a crawl. The trail is not in great shape as it is postholed making the travel down cumbersome. Add in the steepness of the trail and it takes some time to get down safely. Across the way is Mt Webster and it's sheer exposed cliff face. The view I should of had on top of Mt Willey earlier this morning. One section of the trail is a direct drop down the face and it is steep. I have visions of the snowshoes losing their grip and sliding into the trees at the bottom. I use my poles and s-l-o-w-l-y make my way down.
The trail heads down in the opposite direction from where I am parked and I begin to wonder if my mile roadwalk is going to turn out to be longer. I reach the frozen Kendron Flume and cannot imagine what it looks like underneath the snow. I cross over it and make a mental note that I'll have to return someday to see what the attraction is.
This trail is only supposed to be 1.3 miles down but it sure seems like it is never ending as I eventually reach the train tracks. Crossing them I know it can't be much further and after five minutes short of an hour I have reached the old Willey House site.
Relief from finishing the trails and getting out of the snowshoes and it is time to make my way down Route 302 but first a few more pics of Mt Webster since I didn't get the views I was hoping for.
The sun has disappeared behind the mountains and the walk is cold but I push to get back to the car in twenty minutes right at 7:00 PM. What an amazing and tiring day. The only thing that could make it any better is the drive back home and as I approach the pullout across from the Mt Washington Hotel I see the red glow of the sun setting behind me. A beautiful alpenglow on the Presi's, what a fantastic way to finish this day.
Final numbers: 16.7 miles, 11 hours and 20 minutes.
Redline Miles: 10, Total to Date: 739.7