It took 7 weeks for my Digital SLR to be repaired after I smashed it on a hike and I was ready with my new point and shoot camera for the next excursion - a hike along the Wildcat ridge in New Hampshire.
Wildcat is opposite the Pinkham Notch visitors’ center and is a very popular skiing destination for New Englanders.
There are a few variations to consider for doing the Wildcat range and after some discussion at our regular breakfast at Einstein Bros in Concord we settled on the “there-and-back” rather than taking two cars all the way to the trailhead.
Our regular companion and trail veteran, John, was stuck in the office for the day so the hard decisions about routes and other important choices were on Bruce’s shoulders - these peaks were to be his 46th and 47th of the 48 4000ft peaks in New Hampshire.
We decided to forgo the most direct start to the route which crosses the Ellis river near the Glen Ellis falls - described in at least one of the trail descriptions as “a difficult and often dangerous crossing”. This decision was one I was happy to weigh in on given that starting a long hike wet and cold was not a big plus for me. So we walked from the Pinkham Notch parking lot along a 0.9mi trail around the back of the Lost Pond and then up the beginning of the steep ascent.
The trail guides warn that this is not a hike to attempt in the rain and it became obvious after the initial steep and somewhat rocky section what this meant.
The trail exits onto a large round rock which offers a spectacular view of the valley, road and Mnt Washington after not too great a distance. After that the trail has some slabby sections which were a little gnarly going up. In at least two of these sections there are large blocks of wood bolted onto the slab to give hikers a little better purchase on the rock.
We were to find these sections even more gnarly on the way down.
What astonished me was how good I felt going up. I think I have mentioned before that I usually lead the way because I am slower than my two hiking companions but for this hike I really felt fairly comfortable going up the steep ascent. I was still huffing and panting and knew that my pace could not be faster without some dire consequence, but I wasn’t experiencing that long painful process of wondering when the top was going to come or whether I could keep going for much longer.
Indeed when we did top out on the first peak I was feeling pretty good.
The 4000ft rulebook says that in order for 4000ft peaks to count you have to have a certain minimum elevation loss and gain between the peaks, so although the Wilcat range has 5 distinct peaks in it, only the outer two count towards the 48. This first one, coming from the Ellis River side is just over 4000ft and as you top out you hear the sound of a ski-lift in the small valley below the peak.
We were met by the sight of several tourists who had paid the $13 to get a ride up to this spaceship-like lift with enclosed cable cars. They were happily taking photos of each other with Mnt Washington in the background.
Not long after we stopped, one of the cars emptied out 3 people with hiking packs on them - two of whom had the long beards of through-hikers (the third was a woman so no beard). Bruce said to them as they stepped off “Hey, I didn’t see that trail in the trail guide.” to which one of them responded (glancing back at the signs advertising the ski-trails), ”Wait, you mean “Top Cat” isn’t in there?”
The Appalachian Trail through-hikers often look pretty shell shocked when they come through the White Mountains. They are almost done on the 2186mile trail from Georgia to Mnt Kathadin in Maine but the White Mountains and Maine are the most strenuous of the trail. In New Hampshire the AT and covers 17 of the 48 4000ft peaks in its 161 mi stretch.
I didn’t realize until I read it in the Wikipedia article that there are names given for hikers who mix some hitch-hiking and side trips to make the trip easier and I suppose these were from this camp. They had left Georgia in March and have another two months to get to the end. After October 15th Mnt Kathadin is a lot more likely to be closed for bad weather.
We met all told, about 6 through-hikers on this trip, some less communicative (though all were friendly) than others.
It took about an hour to walk along the ridge to the far end of the 5th peak (Wildcat “A”), which is at 4422ft and I found the first ascent after the break at the ski-lift a little more tiring than I was willing to admit at the time.
The descent was strangely difficult. Part of this was to do with the steep rock slabs which, though not as long and potentially as dangerous as the Tripyramids slide, were challenging and clearly would be treacherous in rain.
The other thing about the descent that seemed strange was how long it took. Though in actual measured minutes the hike down was the same time as the hike up had been (a good rule of thumb to use in any case), it felt like three times the length of the uphill by the time we were near the bottom.
The total hike covered 8.95mi and took us 9 hours to complete.
You can view a slideshow of all the photos from this trip here.
As John will say after completing a hike: ”We cheated death once again!”
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