December 10, 2011. Time for another Saturday adventure in the White Mountains tackling two 4000 footers this weekend. This is going to be a long one starting off at the upper end (or lower if your looking at elevation) of the Kancamagus Highway. The hike starts on the Oliverian Brook Trail up to Passaconaway then over to Whiteface and finishing up with the Downes Brook Trail with the finale being a "road walk" back to the car.
Another 3:30 am wakeup and off and out the door by 4:30. I make it to the trailhead at 6:15 and on the trail using the trusty old headlamp by 6:25. The good old chilly in the morning dusk beginning of the hike. Never hike in winter or the cold, that keeps ringing in my head every time I go out now but it is growing on me and I am beginning to like this cold weather hiking. Granted the true start of winter is a few weeks away and there isn't a lot of snow on the ground but I actually like the cooler weather and the views are much better than in the summer with no smog or haze. The trail is another gradual climb just like last week going up Garfield. About an hour into the hike and just after reaching the Passaconaway Cutoff I reach the ever peculiar snow line on the trail.
Not long after reaching the magical snow line I see tracks on the trail of a moose and my first bear tracks that were probably only a day old (so much for the winter hibernation theory). The climb up the Passaconaway Cutoff is a steady climb increasing in steepness once I make it to the Square Ledge Trail. Just before this trail intersects with the Walden Trail I lose the trail for a few minutes due to some massive blow downs blocking a good portion of the trail. After finding my way back to the trail the real steep climb begins over the last 0.6 miles to the summit. The views are in and out due to the fog as I start heading down to a lookout on the north face of Passaconaway. I get almost all the way there and figure between the time limits for the day and the clouds it is not worth it to keep going. I turn around and head back towards the summit and when I get back the clouds begin to open for a few minutes. From one spot there is a great view east towards the three Tripyramids, Waterville Valley and the Osceolas on the left.
I head down from Passaconaway on Dicey's Mill Trail which is just as steep as the climb up Walden Trail, icy and steep. At the junction of Dicey's Mill and Rollins Trail I accidentally stumbled upon the old site where Camp Rich was located. There is nothing left here but open space as the Forest Service has removed all structures within the Sandwich Range Wilderness to maintain its purity. On the way over to Whiteface the clouds are in and out all day and every once in a while I get a few glimpses of "The Bowl" and surrounding area.
It is about here that while I was stopped to take pictures that I decided to have a snack. So taking off my backpack I reached inside one of the compartments to get my banana and felt nothing but mush. Somewhere I must have bumped into a tree and smashed my banana and now there was quite the mess in one of the side pockets. A couple of scoops and then taking the snow and trying to clean it out the best I could my hands were now freezing. This would be the end of packing a banana in my backpack going forward. If I had a biscuit and some whipped cream I could have had a banana shortcake a la Uncle Richard. Back on track and a mere 40 minutes after the banana stew incident I reach the small cairn marking the true wooded summit of Mt Whiteface at 12:20 pm.
A few minutes later I'm at the junction with Kate Sleeper Trail which is the way down from Whiteface but there is a lookout on he ledges on the south "summit" that I wanted to visit so ten minutes later I reach this spot and what a spot this is. Scrambling up to the high point of the ledges and I can see south towards Lake Winnepesaukee, back towards Passaconaway, east towards Chocorua and the Moats, and west towards Waterville Valley and the Osceolas. It is a great spot, especially since the sun broke thru while I was on the ledges. A long ten minutes later and it was time to head down at 12:45 pm.
Since the sun sets a little after 4 and there is 6.1 miles to go to on the trails and another 1.2 miles of a road walk back to the car I am going to be hard pressed to make it back before dark. So back to the junction of Kate Sleeper and the first mile goes by quickly and I reach the junction with the Downes Brook Trail. Now let me tell you that I will never, and I mean never ever probably hike this trail again. I knew going in that this trail crosses the Downes Brook ten times between Kate Sleeper and the parking lot. The only thing is when you see the word "brook" one thinks of a stream a foot or two wide. Understand one thing, it is more of a river, the banks are at least twenty feet apart with the water flowing high and fast and the trail is piss poorly marked so when and where to cross is a guess at best. With time at a premium and darkness just a few hours away I knew after the first few crossings I was not going to make it out in the daylight. I just could only hope that I made the last crossing by dark otherwise I do not know how else I was going to make it out safely. I also had a bad feeling that the better half might be getting nervous as I am usually not out this late and there was no way of contacting her being stuck down in a ravine between two mountain ranges.
Onward I pressed slowly counting off the number of times I had crossed and getting quite frustrated with them because each one is a challenge. Every crossing is a search for the best spot to balance and rock hop across the "brook". At some point I got completely fed up with the crossings and lost count. A couple of the crossings I swore at and decided not to cross and instead bushwhack along the banking following the "brook". Neither option was easy as the banks were steep and grown in with scrubby trees that grabbed at you the whole way. The only thing that was cool about the whole trek down was about at the halfway point when I came across another set of bear tracks on the trail. So I got to see bear tracks on both sides of Passaconaway and hibernation season must have been postponed this year.
I do not remember how many crossings later but I do make it to the last crossing just before it starts getting dark. Then not long after the sun goes down I reach the trailhead and start the 1.2 mile long dark road walk back to the car. Back at the car finally at 4:45 pm and to make matters worse there is no place to make a call. I'm just hoping that she is not panicking enough to not make the search and rescue call. Into the car and back up the Kancamagus with a quick stop to take a picture of the full moon. When I get into Lincoln I can finally make the call to let her know I am all right. SPOT communicator is now on the wish list.
Lessons learned from this hike: not only to leave a map of where and what trails I am taking but to also leave a mileage and time estimate. Back home for the traditional Chinese dinner and hold the water, had enough for one day.
Final numbers: 15.8 miles, 10 hours and 20 minutes, 2 peaks, # of peaks to date - 19.