Sunday, August 1, 2010

In the Shadow of the Cat

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way. - Mark Twain
Mark and me finally ready to head for the Cat.

May 7, 2010. Nineteen Mile Brook Trail trailhead. Mark and I were gearing up for a hike up to Carter Notch Hut and then to climb Wildcat Mountain. Something was missing however, Mark had forgotten his gaiters. You have to have gaiters if you are going to hike in the snow, and even though it was May we were going to be hiking in snow. Gaiters wrap around your lower leg and boot to stop snow from getting into your boots. If you get snow in your boots, your feet get wet. Wet feet in the cold can be very bad for your comfort and potentially your life. More likely however is your wet foot getting rubbed raw by your boot, and if you have never hiked mountain terrain with your feet blistering, consider yourself fortunate. So we went back to the AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to buy gaiters for Mark. It happens. I once went birding and forgot my binoculars. Okay, more than once, hard to believe but there it is. I guess I'll also add that I forgot to bring Nuttah MD with us this time. Well she was with us in spirit at least, providing inspiration.

Nineteen Mile Brook Trail

We would be hiking up Nineteen Mile Brook Trail and staying at the AMC's Carter Notch hut for the night. The original weather forecast of fine weather for days had gone sour and our plan to climb Wildcat Mountain the next day had to be modified to doing it today. So we would hike our gear to the hut, sign in with the caretaker, dump gear there to lighten our load, and climb to the summits in the afternoon. Wildcat Mountain has two summits that count as 4,000 footers, Wildcat A and Wildcat D. It also has a well known ski area. So off we went with Nineteen Mile Brook roaring and pounding with snow melt water.

Nineteen Mile Brook was more an angry river with the recent snow melt.

We were hiking during that awkward time of year in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, when Spring is happening down low but Winter has not yet surrendered up high. So we were a bit over dressed on the low section and started sweating with the effort and weight of our packs. We had over night gear as well as snow hiking gear such as snowshoes. At the trailhead we heard a few returning warblers singing, such as Northern Parula, but on top the snow would still be 3 to 5 feet deep. These little feathered marvels had traveled all the way from the tropics to be here, and we drove up from Connecticut to briefly share the trailhead with them by the side of NH Routte 16. On the other side of Route 16, Mt. Washington and the northern Presidentials rose above us, but today we headed east, into the shadow of the Cat.

Crossing the brook

 Nineteen Mile Brook Trail is an easy hike as far as White Mountain trails go. Still it was pretty warm, and we were overdressed, so we worked up a good sweat anyway. I had last walked this trail more than twenty years earlier, with my friends Mike and Cindy. Then we were headed out from hiking the Carter Range, which was now on our left hand as Mark and I climbed. On that hike down with Mike and Cindy I managed to stumble and do a complete somersault with a full pack. I had gotten a bit scraped up and almost slid into the brook, but I came up laughing. I still have to laugh when I think about it now.

We reach the junction with Wildcat Ridge Trail

I need to explain about "monorail," rotten monorail more to the point. Okay, so it snows in the mountains, you probably aren't surprised to hear that. It snows a lot. That snow gets pretty deep right? Winter hikers walk over that deep fresh snow, usually wearing snowshoes. When they do this they compact the snow on the trail, resulting in a sunken but hardened path. Now this compacted snow is still pretty deep, 3 feet or often more. So hikers keep traveling over this compacted trail all winter and it gets a harder and harder crust. Then Spring comes and snow starts to melt. But the compacted snow on the trail melts more slowly. So as the snow on the sides of the trail sinks and disappears, the hardened trail snow does so much more slowly. This results in the trail turning from a sunken path to a raised path above the surrounding snow. Hikers now have to walk this elevated snow hump, and we call it "monorail", like the elevated track of an actual monorail. So good so far, but all snow melts eventually, and it also melts from underneath. Melt water running underneath the monorail attacks it and the warmth of the earth also eats away at the monorail's underbelly. So the monorail gets weak, and then we refer to it as "rotten." When a hiker is walking along rotten monorail he will break through on some strides and his leg can fall in right to the hip. This sudden unwelcome "how-do-you-do" obviously stops you dead and sucks energy and the joie de vive right out of you. This event is called "post-holing", for obvious reasons. Hikers don't enjoy rotten monorail or post-holing. On the upper stretches of Nineteen Mile Brook Trail we ran into rotten monorail and Mark and I post-holed again and again. New experience for Mark, old one for me. There would be more to come later on the ridge climb.

The Carter Lakes lie in Carter Notch in the shadow of the Cat.

So we slogged and post-holed our way to the junction with Wildcat Ridge Trail. We would be taking Wildcat Ridge Trail upwards to the peaks, but first we needed to go to Carter Notch Hut and sign in and drop our extra gear. We dropped down towards the Carter Lakes of Carter Notch and the hut. The hut was on the far side of the lakes from where we were. The Carter Lakes are gorgeous crystal clear mountain pools. Wildcat Mountain rises nearly vertically for 1,000 feet on the south side of the lakes and the impressive Carter Dome rises on the north. Bounding the lakes on the east is an amazing wall of huge boulders, appropriately called the "Rampart." It looks just like a massive fortress wall right out of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." The Rampart was formed by massive rock avalanches from both Carter Dome and Wildcat Mountain. It is an imposing and memorable sight that reminds us mere humans of the power and forces our world unleashes from time to time. It must have sounded like the apocalypse when that slide happened.

The "Rampart" on the far side of the Carter Lakes.
Looking south in Carter Notch. The base of Carter Dome. The large bowl right of center is where the stone that now forms the "Rampart" split and fell. The top the northern end of the "Rampart" is visible above the tree tops.

After Mark and I took a few moments to drink in the magnificence of our surroundings, we followed the trail that circled the lake to get to Carter Notch Hut. In winter, some of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts are open on a caretaker basis. Winter hikers can stay at these huts but they must supply their own food and cook stove. They also should bring a sleeping bag and pad even though there are bunks available. Carter Notch hut is one of these huts, and the caretaker in residence during our visit was Heidi. I know, I know, Heidi in the mountains, how ironic. I didn't bring it up. I figured I wouldn't be the first to do so and spared her another comment about it.

Carter Notch Hut
Mark and I introduced ourselves to Heidi and we chatted for a few minutes. We told her we were going up Wildcat Ridge Trail and were going to try for both Wildcat A and Wildcat D peaks that afternoon. It's good to let the caretaker know your plans in case something goes amiss, it never hurts to have more people aware for safety's sake. I should explain what a caretaker is I suppose. During the summer season all the AMC huts are fully crewed (hut crew call themselves "croo"), usually with young men and women. They run the hut, generally entertain a bit, and cook wonderful back country breakfasts and dinners for guests. They also partake in mountain rescues from time to time, these are not just any kids but are fine examples of young adults. During the off season, the caretaker huts have a single individual who watches over the hut and any winter hikers who wish to stay. This can be a lonely thing as you can imagine. Many nights see no one stay. It is not for the faint of heart, who need to be near civilization and other humans. Many nights are spent with no other company than the dark and the winter wind. And of course, your imagination. It reminds my of that line from "The Hobbit," when Beorn says to the dwarfs, "Heed no nightly noises." Ya, good luck with that! The "nightly noises" Beorn was warning about outside his house at night would have killed the dwarfs by the way.

Mark on bunk house porch

After our brief chat with Heidi, Mark and I headed over to the newly rebuilt bunk houses to drop gear before the hike up. We were very impressed with the lovely new bunk houses and bunks at Carter Notch. Being both teenagers at heart, Mark literally and me virtually, we both chose top bunks for night. We ridded ourselves of all the gear from our packs except for the things we would take onto the Cat.

Brand new bunk house and bunks.
There is no easy way to re-provision the AMC huts. So heavy loads are brought in by helicopter. At Carter Notch Hut there is no where to land a helicopter. So a helipad has been built on the top of the bunk house. The helipad is only inches wider than the helicopter's landing runners. The chopper pilot has to be good, has to be very good indeed!
  Once ready, we headed back around the lake to the junction with Wildcat Ridge Trail. It was getting on in the afternoon and we would have to make good time to get both peaks. As we headed up the trail however it didn't take long to realize we would not be making good time. Very early in the ascent we hit rotten monorail. Worse yet, the top of the monorail was eaten away at an angle. So the footing was treacherous and crumbly. Finding good footing as we climbed took time, too much time, and post-holing was not an infrequent event.

Spectacular view above the Carter Lakes
Mark post-holes right up to the hip. Not fun, and not making for fast hiking.
The monorail was very slippery in some areas as well. At one point I was standing still and talking over my shoulder to Mark when both feet shot out from under me. I fell off the monorail and landed hard on my side with my poles underneath. The poles were bent and so was my pride. Still I had to laugh, and moan a little too. Mark was concerned and quickly asked if I was okay. Certainly I had new bruises and pains I didn't have a few moments ago, but I was materially unhurt. I bent my poles back as best I could and kept going. The depth of the snow on this north facing slope was still 3 to 4 feet, making finding the trail more difficult. As we climbed higher, the snow bed was still intact and the monorail disappeared into a deep sheet of steeply angled hard snow across the Cats northern slope. No one had been on this trail recently, so there were no tracks to follow, and the height of the snow above the trail bed put our heads into the lower branches of the spruces that would normally have been over our heads. A few times we headed off the wrong way and had to backtrack to find the right way. Another danger in the mountains in winter is "spruce traps." A spruce trap is formed around the base of a tree or boulder in deep snow. The spruce or boulder will often warm the deep snow around it and melt it below the snows surface. This can lead to a large void around the tree or bolder that is invisible to anyone passing by until they step on the void's thin crust. The hiker (or skier) then breaks through and often is tumbled in head first, trapping them with their arms at their side. People die in spruce traps every winter somewhere in the US. I warned Mark about these traps and we found a few that were already opening up in the warming weather. We post-holed constantly but steered clear of any potential spruce traps.

A spruce trap open up in the warming weather

Mark inspects a spruce trap.

The angled snow cover we were hiking on had been softening and refreezing in the Spring thaw and was very slick. I was concerned for my young friend's safety, it would be easy to slip and shoot off into the broken and jagged spruce branches that adorn every trunk in the dark forest. So I started to kick foot holds in the snow's crust to reduce the chance of either of us slipping off and falling down slope into spruce "punjis". This further slowed our pace and tired me out considerably. Despite this precaution we both managed a few falls between frequent post-holes before we finally crested the ridge top.

A pose all too often taken. Mark after a fall.
Much later than I had planned, we reached the top of Wildcat Ridge. Below us lay the Notch and the AMC hut nestled along the Carter Lakes. The Rampart was even more impressive seen from a thousand feet above. The mass of it was striking from on high. To our north lay the peak called Carter Dome. We took time to enjoy the views that unfolded before us, and to soak in the accomplishment of what had been the most difficult snow/monorail/post-holing I had ever encountered in the Whites. I was thoroughly beaten up and tired out. We would get the Cat's A peak today but I had no desire to slog the ridge all the way to the D peak this late in the afternoon and have to head down this slippery slope in the dark. So after hanging out for awhile and gazing at the beauty of Carter Notch and surroundings, during which Mark called his parents on my cell phone, we headed back down the ridge trail to the hut. Going down is always faster than going up, but you still have to be careful. Even more so since falling on the descent is usually worse than falling on the ascent.

In the shadow of the Cat. Carter Notch Hut and Carter Lakes seen from Wildcat Ridge. The Rampart is the broad mass of boulders to the right of the lakes.
Carter Dome lies across the notch.
Looking down Carter Notch towards Nineteen Mile Brook
Mark and me on Wildcat Ridge
Looking eastward. Maine lies in the distance.
Tired and bruised, we finally found our way back to the hut at dusk. We first went to the bunkhouse and dropped our packs. Then we gathered up our stove and food and headed over to the hut to make dinner. If you have ever eaten freeze dried trail dinners, you know they are not high cuisine. Their quality is immensely improved after a long hard hike however. Mark's mom had given me a new JetBoil stove for my birthday, so we christened it making dinner that night. The juxtaposition of my little backpacking stove next to the massive cast iron stove of the hut was comical. By the way, that hut stove came all the way up the notch in pieces on the back of superhuman porters who carried it all the way up from the trailhead on Route 16 many years ago. A mind boggling accomplishment that was beyond my mere mortal strength to perform!

The hut's stove. This massive cast iron beast came up the notch on the back of men. Supermen surely.

My JetBoil on the counter (with the little orange legs) is dwarfed by the hut's stove. The white bins below the counter are for food. This keeps food out of the bunk house. This is a black bear precaution.

Mark eats a found treasure, a Poptart left at the hut by a Boy Scout Troop while he waits for dinner.
After dinner we talked for some time with Heidi. It turned out she grew up just a few miles from our homes in Connecticut. It's a small world indeed. Mark clearly enjoyed the chance to learn from Heidi and to share his experiences with her. I was very happy he was enjoying himself so much. That is why I bring him on these hikes, and of course because he's fun to have around too. A bit later I told Mark he needed to make an entry in the huts journal. These books have been around for pretty much as long as the huts have and hikers have been recording comments and observations in them for decades. I knew Mark's mom would want Mark to add his voice to the hut's history.
Mark and I add comments to the huts journal. A shelf in the hut holds dozens of filled journals from the past.
 After dinner we called it a night and headed back to the bunkhouse. We stopped at the huts "facilities" on the way. You may have wondered about the "facilities." They consist of a rather large outhouse that actually has running water in the sinks in summer and toilets over composting pits. In the mountains, this amounts to luxury.

The outhouse is above the bunk house.
We settled in for the night in our respective top bunks. When we turned our headlamps off we experienced the total darkness of the mountains. I love it. So heeding no nightly noises, we slept the night away. Morning found fog and rain pounding the bunk house. The temp outside was 34 degrees. The decision to climb the ridge yesterday afternoon was a good one clearly. We headed over to the hut to make breakfast and hang out till a break in the heavy rain hopefully occurred. We found Heidi getting ready to hike out to meet  a  friend who would be hiking back in with her later in the day. We said our goodbyes and Mark and I had the hut to ourselves for a leisurely breakfast.

The breakfast table.
  Eventually the rain lessened. So in fog and moderate rain, Mark and I said goodbye to Carter Notch and headed down. The hike out was unremarkable but wet and muddy once below the remaining monorail. Hiking in the rain and mud made for a seemingly long trip out but we finally reached the trailhead and gratefully climbed into the shelter of my truck. Off we went for quick showers at the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitors Center and then do the long drive home to Connecticut. Mark had another peak on his resume and he had his first hut experience. Once again I had enjoyed his company and his hiking toughness. It had been a fun couple of days in the shadow of the Cat.

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