Crouching over a map in my living room, I circled the remaining 4,000 footers.
“Crap,” I thought to myself, as I looked at multiple solitary peaks scattered throughout the White Mountains.
I had knocked off 35 4kers so far, but unlike the long traverses I completed at the beginning of the trip that summited 10 peaks in 2 days, there was no way to connect many of the 13 summits that remained. Among those mountains were Cabot and Waumbek, the northern-most peaks on the 4ker list. Located 3 hours north of my home in Dover, NH, they were the target for March 1st.
Around 9am, three hours after leaving my house in the cover of darkness, I passed through the Berlin fish hatchery gates heading towards the Mt. Cabot trailhead. Arriving to a parking lot coated in ice, I hoped it was not an indication of the day that lay ahead of me. I quickly assembled my gear, shouldered my pack, and headed for the Bunnell Notch Trail. I had learned my lesson from Isolation; two snowshoes were strapped to my pack this time.
Except for a few steep uphill sections, the trail was overall fairly mild and I was able to make quick work of the gradual ascent. The temperatures were hovering in the teens, but thanks to my exertion and the direct sunshine, I was soon down to just a t-shirt.
Within about an hour, I reached the intersection of the Kilkenney Ridge trail, which marked the beginning of the steeper ascent. Most of the trail was covered in a layer of slippery ice, so I sidestepped the frozen sections whenever possible. The trail was beat-in and clearly had not received any massive amount of new snow in the previous week.
After a couple switchbacks, the trail leveled out and opened up into a sparse forest complete with an outhouse and the Cabot Cabin. The Cabin, maintained by a local Boy Scout chapter, sleeps eight and even has a wood-burning stove and kitchen utensils. After stopping for a quick shot on the porch, I headed up the .4 mile incline to the summit of Cabot.
The trail leveled out once again as I reached the top and was greeted with a summit sign. It’s always a mystery what kind of marker you’ll find at the top of a 4000 footer. Some summits have 10-foot tall cairns, some have 3 rocks clumsily stacked, and others have carved wooden signs. It’s one of my favorite parts about climbing many of these mountains for the first time.
Met with a burst of energy after crossing another summit off my list, I turned around and started running downhill. The decline was steep enough and smooth enough that I could let gravity do the work and carry me with each long stride.
As the trail leveled out again, I glanced at my watch for a time check and noticed that it had taken me 2 hours to ascend Cabot, but only about 45 minutes had passed since I left the summit. I sped up, running as fast as I could along the flat ground, determined to make it back to my car before three hours had passed. With 2 hours and 58 minutes on my watch, I ran out of the woods and stopped the timer as I stepped back onto the icy parking lot.
As I stood panting in front of my car, I had an idea: In addition to Cabot and Waumbek, I should also hike Carrigain.
Five minutes later, as I drove past the Berlin Hatchery gates again, I was already convinced it was a good idea. The temperatures were perfect, the day was clear, and I felt strong. If I could maintain the same pace I had climbed Cabot with, I could finish the triple header by 10PM.
I stopped for some food in Gorham and was soon headed towards Waumbek. 45 minutes after leaving Cabot I pulled up to the trailhead, ready for my second mountain of the day. As I stepped out of the car I felt my tight muscles complaining. I stretched them out for a few minutes, took the unused snowshoes off my bag, and headed upwards once again.
The first mile of the Starr King Trail towards Waumbek was a confusing combination of dirt, rock, and ice under a light dusting of snow. I continued as far as I safely could without microspikes before I lost interest in rock-hopping over slick ice patches. I slipped on the spikes and continued.
With my earbuds in, I rocked out to my ski playlist. The music helped to drown out my panting as I kept going upwards as fast as my legs and lungs could go. As I reached the western side of Starr King, the trail once again turned to ice. I stepped cautiously and firmly planted my spikes into the hard slippery surface as I made my way across section after section of frozen trail. Eventually I turned east and headed directly up the mountain and away from the ice.
I soon reached the top of Starr King and was met with a beautiful view of the Presidential Range. I stopped quickly for a few shots then continued onwards; I was on a mission.
A mile after topping Starr King, I stood at the anti-climatic summit cairn atop Waumbek. After taking a few minutes to eat some food and get some water, I shouldered my pack once again, and started the descent.
Exhilarated from checking off yet another mountain and singing along to Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk as I ran (don’t judge), I sped downhill, my movement no longer restricted by awkward snowshoes strapped to the sides of my pack.
Much like Cabot, I was standing at my car again before I knew it. It had taken me an hour and a half to reach the summit, but less than 45 minutes to make it down. It was 4 o’clock and I was tired but still on track for my triple-header.
After stopping at the gas station for some high calorie sugary foods and caffeine, I was on the road again, this time for a 40-minute drive towards Carrigain.
Mt Carrigain is no slouch at 4,700 feet. The out-and-back on Signal Ridge Trail is a 10-mile trek in the summer, but in the winter the access road is closed, adding four total miles onto the journey. I had texted my dad saying “if Sawyer River Road is skiable, I’m going for it.” As I neared the trailhead, part of me wished I would arrive to a dirt-covered road, completely un-skiable.
I pulled into the parking lot off Rt. 302 and glanced up at the closed road beyond the gate. It had coverage. It was icy coverage, but it was coverage nonetheless. I was going up.
I stepped out of my car and almost fell flat on my face. Just like Cabot, the entire lot had turned into a skating rink. A few hikers who were just finishing their hike had seen me slip.
“Get used to that,” they said. “It’s ice pretty much the whole way to the summit.”
I applied my skins to my skis, strapped my boots on, and mustered all the energy I could to start the third and longest hike of the day.
The light faded as I skied uphill to the rhythmic clicking of my touring bindings, avoiding numerous sticks and rocks in the thin ice covering. I switched my headlamp on and kept going.
45 minutes after leaving the car, I reached the trailhead for the Signal Ridge Trail, illuminated by my headlight in the complete darkness. I took my ski gear off, stored it in the woods, and donned my hiking boots and spikes.
Less than a half-mile into the trail, I came upon an enormous section of ice. Jabbing my poles into the ice below and above me, I created sturdy balance points then slammed my microspikes hard into the ice just as I had done for on Waumbek and Cabot. I took a step forwards, reset my footing, and began to move forwards again when I lost my traction.
I landed hard on my side and started sliding towards the edge of the trail that dropped into the stream. Without a good method of self-arresting, I flipped onto my butt and tried directing myself towards a couple small trees in an attempt to brace myself with my feet.
I hit the side of the trees with my leg as I dropped off the ledge, falling six feet straight down onto the rocks and logs along the side of the stream. I hit the ground hard and didn’t move for a few seconds, shaken up from the fall. I struggled and finally righted myself, then checked my body over. Nothing was broken or sprained, but my hip and elbow would certainly hurt the next morning.
“I can continue, but should I?” I asked myself. My lapse in judgment had possibly come from my exhaustion. I weighed the decision for a minute, then decided to continue upward while making an effort to slow down at decision points.
Less than a mile later, I encountered the first water crossing. I navigated my way across a downed log using my poles as stabilizers, and soon I was at the next crossing. I repeated the procedure and made it to the other side still dry.
The pitch increased, and I started upwards. Unlike the previous hikes of the day, I opted to travel without music. All I could hear was my labored breath as I pushed my body forwards.
I wish I could say that the miles went quickly like they had done in so many other hikes. They didn’t.
I labored with each step under the light of my headlamp. I could hardly believe that the trail could continue at such a steady incline for such a long period. Whenever I thought I was nearing the top of Signal Ridge, the trail would do another switchback and the grade would seem to increase yet again.
I put all my energy into placing one foot in front of the other, again and again. I stopped and refueled with Gatorade and water, then continued again. Another stop to eat a CLIF bar. I continued again. Yet another break, this time to tear open my bag of Sour Patch Watermelon candies. I continued again.
Eventually I looked to my right and realized I was nearing the top of Signal Ridge. The trail led to an open rock-face at the top of the Ridge, and I found myself looking down on a dark world, only lit by town lights in the distance. The wind calmly blew past as I glanced up to see stars. I stood there in awe of the dark landscape surrounding me for as long as I could, then begrudgingly continued upwards towards the fire tower.
With a new burst of energy, it wasn’t long before I was standing atop Carrigain, yelling in excitement over the howling wind. The survey plaque was obscured by snow, so I made my own sugary summit marker. And for the last time for the day, I turned around and headed down from the summit.
The descent was quick. The benefit of the continual steady uphill was that it provided a continual steady downhill for running. I let my momentum carry me again as I ran, the hard snow crunching with each step. Eventually the trail flattened out again, and I reached the river crossings. Engaging the same technique as before, I made quick work of them and continued running.
I reached the big patch of ice that had sent me flying onto the riverbank before, and climbed around it through the woods. I knew my skis were close.
A half-mile later I popped out of the Signal Ridge Trail onto Sawyer River Road. I grabbed my skis from their hiding place in the woods, strapped my boots on, stepped into my bindings, and headed down the road, exhausted.
No French Fries for this guy. I pizza’d the hell out of that icy downhill.