Alternative Descent Methods (Cannon, Tecumseh, Owl's Head)

The list of rules for the 48 in 1 winter game is pretty short:

       All 48 peaks must be summited during the same winter season.

       The first hike of the season cannot begin before the Winter Solstice

       The last hike of the season cannot end after the Spring Equinox

       Each hiker must get to each peak (and back) under his or her own power.

       Skis are allowed.

The 5th rule is the most interesting.

When I sat down to plan this winter out, I paid special attention to the 4kers that could be fun to ski. I scoured the internet for trip reports, asked around in hiking groups, and finally decided on the peaks that would make for a fun outing. Then I sat back and waited for the fresh snow to pile up.

I’m still waiting.

To say that this winter has been underwhelming is an understatement. The whole backcountry skiing community kept hoping for a couple big storms that would provide a good base then a sufficient layer of new snow. However, there comes a point where you just have to cut your losses and change your plans. On president’s day, I decided that the time had come. It was time to stop waiting for an epic powder dump and just ski the crusty snow and ice where I could.

I pulled into Cannon Mountain’s parking lot at 9am on February 15th, met my friend Spencer, grabbed my ski gear, and headed to the ticket window amidst the holiday ski crowds. Cannon offers a $9 skinning pass that allows you to travel uphill on the mountain, utilizing the ski trails all the way to the summit. It would surely be the most populated 4ker I would do all season. We applied our skins, packed our bags full of additional layers, and headed uphill.

We skinned along the flat ground at the bottom of Lower Ravine, turned uphill, and headed onto middle ravine. There was barely a cloud in the sky, the temperature was perfect, and the sun was just starting to peak over the trees as we continued up the specific route that Cannon has laid out for uphill travel.

While skinning has definitely increased in popularity, the alpine skiers adorning the slopes of Cannon’s trails were skill perplexed by our uphill travel, and we were met with strange looks along the way.

Cannon is one of the shortest ascents on the list of 4kers, and we were making quick work of it. We reached the Cannonball Quad ski lift, turned right, and continued onto Upper Ravine, getting closer and closer to the summit.

About halfway up Upper Ravine the skinning route cuts over to the Taft Slalom trail. Due to the low snowpack this year, Taft Slalom was closed and we had full reign over the trail as we zig-zagged back and forth to avoid the rocks and dirt.

photo by Spencer Nowak

Ducking the orange “closed trail” rope at the top of the trail, we slid past the top of the Cannonball Quad and towards the summit tower. We removed our skis, took the steps up to the top of the tower, and were greeted with a fantastic view of the Franconia Ridge across the notch. 

After a minute or two of battling the wind and cold temperatures on the summit tower, we cautiously descended the icy steps, popped into our bindings, and headed downhill.

Surprisingly, the snow was playful and easy to cut an edge into. The crisp air cut at our faces as we sped downhill, but it didn’t stop us from appreciating the incredible view as well as the astonishing conditions.

“I wish every descent was that quick,” Spencer said ten minutes later as we stood back at the lodge. We had made it up and down in less than two hours, and had a blast while doing it. We both ached to go up one more time, but our remaining plans for the rest of the day said otherwise. We packed up our gear, I said goodbye to Spencer, and I headed towards Tecumseh, the second goal for the day.

While the Tecumseh hiking trail runs parallel to Waterville Valley and even has a cross-over path, Waterville has very strict rules regarding use of their ski trails. Unlike Cannon which offers their cheap uphill travel ticket, Waterville requires one to purchase a $77 day pass to use any of their trails. Needless to say, paying $77 for one run was out of the question. It was sledding time.

The approach up the Mt. Tecumseh trail started out slowly as my legs loosened up from the half-hour drive. Tecumseh is one of the mildest ascents of the 4kers and the snow was packed firm, making for an even easier approach. The icy sections were so infrequent that I made it 2/3 of the way up the trail before putting my microspikes on.

I hustled along the packed snow, pausing only to drink water, snap some photos, and eat some food. After ascending the more technical sections near the summit and pushing through the 4-foot snowdrifts, I stood atop Tecumseh. A bit of cloud cover had rolled in throughout the day, but the view of the Tripyramids was still incredible. Spending only a couple minutes at the top, I turned and headed back down, eager to start my sledding adventure.

Sledding with any plastic sled is a lesson in futility. Controlling its movement and direction is almost impossible, and often your only option is to bail then run to collect your sled as it flies downhill without a passenger. Luckily the Mt. Tecumseh Trail was packed in well enough to impersonate a luge track.

I couldn’t contain my excitement as I flew down the trail on my sled. I was taken back to the winter days of sledding with my sister and parents on the hill behind my house, long before the days of jobs, mortgages, and other adult responsibilities. I sped along, bumping over rocks in the trail and laughing out-loud the whole time.

It took about 45 minutes to descend the entire way, but as I walked back into the parking lot I was sad to be done. Cannon and Tecumseh had provided so much enjoyment. The fast, furious, and hilariously entertaining descents of both mountains were on my mind the entire drive home.

About one week later, I stepped out of my car at the Lincoln Woods parking lot and clipped into my rental cross-country skis, unaware that Owl’s Head would prove to be almost as entertaining of an experience, but so much more embarrassing.

With a gentle approach for the first two miles on the Lincoln Woods trail, I figured cross-country skiing would provide a great opportunity to conserve some energy at the beginning and end of the day.

This plan would have been flawless if not for one minor detail; I had forgotten how to cross-country ski.

I figured it would be like riding a bike; once you learn how, you never forget. However, due to the conditions of the trail, it was more like not riding a bike for three years then taking your bike on a frozen pond.

After flailing my legs and arms hopelessly in an attempt overcome the 3% grade, the technique started to come back. I began to slow my movements and glide more with each step. I was getting a hang of it, so naturally I decided it was time to try my skate-skiing technique.

Less than ten strides later, I was lying on my back, a mess of arms, legs, poles, and skis pointing in every direction, my butt and ego both bruised. I struggled back to my feet and started again on the classic ski tracks, having learned my lesson.

Each minute felt like eons, but I finally made it to the intersection of the Black Pond trail, removed my skis, and stashed them in the woods. Donning my hiking boots and microspikes, I headed up the trail, happy to finally have traction underfoot.

Owl’s Head is one of the most remote peaks that exist on the 4ker list. Sitting directly in the center of the Pemi Loop, the only established trail to the summit follows an 18.2 mile out-and-back route that features two potentially treacherous river crossings. Luckily, two frequently followed bushwhacks exist that cut a couple miles off the hike and avoid the water crossings.

As I reached the end of the Black Pond trail, I continued onto the first of the bush-whacks. A few parties had taken this heading before, and the navigation was made easy by following the tracks in front of me. The bushwhack soon connected back to the established Lincoln Brook trail, and I followed the brook for a couple miles to the bottom of the rockslide.

A steep and rocky ascent in the summer, the rockslide becomes an extended section of ice and snow in the winter. I pulled my ice axe out, and headed uphill, throwing my pick into the frozen sections time and time again for leverage and support.  

Once I reached the top of the slide, the snow became much deeper. I trudged along through the fresh snow, following the tracks from previous hikers and catching glimpses of the Pemi Loop around me through the evergreens.

Suddenly the tracks stopped at an area of thick branches. I retraced my steps, followed another set of tracks, and found myself at a dead end once again. It looked like the terrain descended in every direction around me, yet I couldn’t find the summit cairn.

I pulled out my map and confirmed my location. After searching around for a few more minutes, I discovered the top of the 4-foot cairn barely peeking out of the snow.

I brushed off the top of the summit pile for the next hiker, grabbed some food and water, and started downwards.

The second bushwhack, the Brutus bushwhack, allows you to bypass the rock slide and simply traverse the southern side of Owl’s Head before arriving back at the Lincoln Brook trail. I had missed the bushwhack on the way up, but opted to take it on the way back. Spacing out and following the tracks as before, I soon realized I was in the middle of a true bushwhack. The hiker before me had veered off trail and ended up in the scrub. It was too much of a struggle to fight my way back uphill through the heavy tree branches and snow cover, so I pushed downwards through the brush.

After about ten minutes of cursing and sweating, I found myself standing atop the slide once again.

“So much for that plan,” I thought to myself. `I un-holstered my ice axe and started downwards.

Descending the icy slide was much easier than I had anticipated, and with the combination of my microspikes and ice axe, I was able to safely descend most of the steep sections backwards. Before long I was back on flat ground at the bottom of the slide. I put in my earbuds, turned up my music and started motoring along. After a couple miles I turned onto the Black Pond bushwhack once again and made my way back through the trees. Singing along to my music, the miles fell away quickly. I was soon back on an established trail, looking out at the frozen Black Pond. After a quick mile dowhill, I was back at my ski cache. I swapped out footwear and took off, determined to stay upright this time.

While the ascent on skis had been a mess of flailing limbs, the descent felt natural. Instead of hindering my travel on the uphill, the ice actually helped to retain speed on the downhill, and I was soon feeling the cold wind on my face as I sped along the trail.

2.5 miles later I skidded to a stop at the trailhead. I was amazed how much energy I had left. My body and ego were slightly bruised from the unplanned bushwhack and xc ski adventure, but the longest single peak on the 4ker list was done.