The First Death March (Moriah, Carters, and Wildcats)

That damn alarm. It was beeping again. 5:30am for the second day in a row. 

Rolling over, I hit my phone to stop the noise. I checked the weather report and noticed that the forecast had changed; it looked like we would be rain-free for our first day of the traverse. I got out of bed and felt a bit of soreness, a nice reminder of our two 4,000 footers we had summited the day before. After a quick shower, I arranged the final pieces to my kit for the next couple days, finished off a slice of leftover pizza, and hit the road towards Pinkham Notch and our car-drop point at Glen Ellis Falls. I texted Jason to say I was running a few minutes late, and he responded, “so are we.” It was going to be a slow start. 

As I drove up to the Glen Ellis Falls lot, my headlights shined on a closed gate. A moment later Jason pulled in behind me, his lights further illuminating the blocked road. “It looks like we won’t be parking in the lot,” I said. He pulled off the road in front of the gates, parked his car, and they started gathering their gear. We piled into my car and drove to the Stony Brook Trailhead, all the while appreciating the irony of hiking for 2 days to cover the ground it took 10 minutes to drive. 

After drinking the last drops of Dunkin’ coffee and stuffing the last of our supplies into our packs, we were ready to go. We hit the trail under the light of our headlamps, and began our ascent to the ridge. 

photo by Jason Leach

It was about 3.7 miles up the Stony Brook Trail, and despite the previous day’s efforts we still found ourselves comfortably moving very quickly, even on the mossy rock scrambles and the water crossings as we grew closer and closer to the junction with the Carter-Moriah Trail.

A little under 2 hours after we left the trailhead we arrived at the ridge junction.  To our right was the Carter range, but at the moment the task was to climb Moriah then return back to this point. We grabbed a bite to eat, dropped our packs, and then turned left to head towards Mt. Moriah while enjoying some spectacular undercast views in the valleys surrounding us along the way.

photo by Brendan Leach

A couple of false summits and a steep icy scramble later, we were standing on the top of Mt. Moriah and looking over the ridgeline we would be traversing for the next 4 hours. We tapped the geological survey marker and headed back to retrieve our packs and continue onwards towards the Carters and the AMC Carter Notch Hut, our resting place for the evening.

Most people hiking in the whites during the shoulder seasons are aware of the constant struggle of deciding whether you should be wearing microspikes or not. The ridgeline traverse was no different. Most of the time we would be plodding along at our average 2mph pace on solid ground only to come across a completely iced-up slope that would require spikes to ascend safely. Every time we stopped to affix or remove our spikes the pause would zap our momentum and delay us. After a couple stops we decided to keep the spikes on and deal with the consequences of occasionally grinding the metal on rocks.

photo by Jason Leach

One by one, the miles fell by the wayside. We tagged North Carter (not an official 4000 footer) Middle Carter, and South Carter in quick succession. As we crossed the open ridgeline near South Carter we were greeted with a spectacular glowing view of the Presidentials, something we were definitely not expecting with the weather forecast we had read in the morning. We stopped for a moment to snap a few images and appreciate the beauty of the mountains surrounding us before continuing on our way.

As we neared Carter Dome, the highest mountain of the traverse, the clouds began to roll in and the wind picked up. Since we had been checking our watches fastidiously all day, we knew it would be near-dark during our descent of the more technical Western face of Carter Dome. The overcast skies would surely bring darkness even sooner so we kept moving as quickly as we could. We reached the summit of Carter Dome, paused quickly for a photo op, and started the descent to Carter Notch Hut. To dwindling light, a slight drizzle, and the sounds of “Walk Like an Egyptian” coming from my iPhone, we navigated the tricky Carter Dome descent and checked in at the AMC Carter Notch Hut with Nate, our host.

We spent the remainder of the evening drying our boots, dining on some excellent Good To-Go Thai Curry, and playing Exploding Kittens with Nate and Mike, another overnighter who had trekked up via Nineteen Mile Brook. When 8:30pm rolled around, it was time to head to the bunks and our sleeping bags.  

The night brought with it a restless sleep and a fierce rainstorm. By the time we walked out of our door at 7am the next morning, the steps leading up to the bunkhouse had been transformed into a raging river. We meandered down to the hut to grab some breakfast and chat with Nate and Mike about the day. Nate warned us that we had some rain coming in the morning so we lined our packs, put our pack covers on, and donned our full rain gear, including pants.  We weren’t going to repeat our mistake from the Hancocks. Mike was planning on a similar itinerary to ours; he was going to hike the Wildcat Ridge Trail to knock off number 41 and 42 of his NH 4kers list. We decided to all travel together and hike the ridge as a group.

Despite the previous night’s rain and the record-high temperatures, we still encountered a fair amount of ice ascending the trail to Wildcat A. We slowly made our way up in our spikes, tapped the rock pile on top of Wildcat A, and powered on quickly through Wildcat B and C (also not official 4kers). We soon found ourselves standing atop the look-out on Wildcat D, staring into the fog and listening to the sounds of skiers unloading the lift about 200 feet below us in 55 degree weather. This was Mike’s 42nd 4,000 footer, our final peak of the traverse, and our 8th 4,000 footer in 3 days.

The Wildcat Ridge Trail descending into Pinkham Notch is on the Terrifying 25 list and drops 1000 feet of elevation in a half mile between the Wildcat E summit and Rt. 16. In dry conditions the many rock staircases make for a very steep but surefooted ascent or descent, but with wet rocks underfoot our pace slowed to a crawl. Talking quickly ceased as Jason, Mike, Brendan and I all focused on pole and foot placement to ensure that our next steps wouldn’t send us tumbling down 60-degree inclines or directly off 100-foot cliffs. And while challenging, the Wildcat Ridge Trail provides a great opportunity to look directly across the notch to Mt. Washington and the Southern Presidentials.

A couple hours later, after some minor slips, beautiful overlooks, and nervous downward scrambles, we found the trail leveling out and gave a cheer. We had made it to the bottom of the trail and the end of our traverse, and without a single drop of rain to boot! Excited to be past any potential danger, we started discussing where dinner would be that evening in good spirits. Then we came upon the Ellis River, gorged from all the rain the night before.

We looked at the deep, fast moving water flowing past slippery rocks and scratched our heads. Brendan and Mike explored possible options down-river as Jason and I walked up-river to see if there were any viable crossing points. After meeting back at the trail, we finally said “screw it, let's just go straight through.” I threw my cell phone in the highest pocket of my pack, and walked straight through the thigh-deep cold river. So much for staying dry.

Brendan and Jason followed suit a little ways up-river and when we reached the other side we cheered. We were all so consumed with safely making it across without falling that we had lost sight of Mike, and when we walked up-river we couldn’t spot him. We knew he hadn’t been swept away, but he had been discussing walking the .9 miles to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center rather than attempting to cross the river. After waiting around for about 5 minutes we dumped the water out of our boots, threw our packs into the back of Jason’s car, and piled in. Brendan hopped out at the visitor center to wait for Mike, then Jason and I drove the 10 minutes back to my car at the Stony Brook Trailhead.

Upon returning to Pinkham Notch we found Brendan and Mike smiling and chatting at the entrance. We dropped Mike at his car and then we all headed into North Conway for the celebratory post-hike feast on Christmas Eve.

photo by Jason Leach