Sandwich Range Traverse (North and Middle Tripyramid, Whiteface, and Passaconaway)

“I am so looking forward to not having to do any more of these hikes with you!” Jason yelled as I ran out of earshot, heading back to the car. We had walked about a half-mile of our Sandwich Range Traverse before I realized that I had forgotten the keys for our car spot at the end of the traverse. And that wasn’t even the start of the issues I had already faced so far that morning.

We had agreed on an early start for our traverse, settling on an 8am start-time at the Pine Bend Brook trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway. There were only 3 days left in winter, and I had 5 mountains to cover. Luckily, the day’s plan would check off 4 of them. After ascending the Pine Bend Brook trail, we would knock off North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, White Face, and Passaconaway in that order, before descending to my car a couple miles down the road from the starting trailhead.

The itinerary and the dwindling winter season had been on my mind all morning, so I was distracted enough that I didn’t notice my insoles laying on the floor as I walked out the door.

An hour into the drive, I suddenly realized what I had done. Profanity ensued. I leaned over and double-checked to be sure. More profanity.

I had left the house early, so as I passed the turn-off for the Kancamagus highway headed for North Conway and a new pair of insoles, I thought I might have enough spare time to make it to the trailhead in time. Arriving in the EMS parking lot, I saw no sign of life. Apparently not enough people forget their insoles on winter hikes at 6:30am for EMS to warrant opening at that time.

I drove to Wal-Mart, ran in the door and headed to the insole section where I was greeted with a plethora of gel and memory foam insole options. After paying for the insoles I sent a text to Jason that I was going to be about 20 minutes late and headed south again to the Kanc.

I pulled up at 8:20am to Jason patiently waiting in his car.

“This isn’t a good start to the day I said,” as I stepped outside. Jason had also gotten an early start to the day and was photographing on the side of the road when I drove by without noticing him. Not wanting to be late, he hopped in his car and headed to the trailhead, only to arrive and have to wait another 30 minutes for me to pull up. Since the Kanc is a dead zone, he had also never received my text message.

We loaded up our light packs, climbed into his car, and headed to the trailhead as I fumbled with my insoles.

“I’ve got more bad news” I said, when we pulled his car up to the trailhead a few minutes later. “These insoles don’t fit my boots. Do you have any scissors?”

Jason found his Swiss Army Knife in his center console and I spent the next five minutes snipping small pieces of foam off the toe-end of the insoles. Eventually the soles fit, I donned my memory-foam-cushioned boots, we shouldered our packs, and headed out into the warm air and crusty snow.

Half a mile up the trail I paused.

“Hold up, I left my keys in your car,” I said.

“Of course you did,” Jason said, with an exasperated look on his face. He handed me his keys.

“Be right back!” I said. I turned, and ran back to the car as Jason exclaimed how excited he was to not have to hike with me anymore. What an amazing friend.

10 minutes later, I was back at Jason, with both sets of keys in hand.

“Great start to the day!” I exclaimed, and Jason laughed. We turned and headed up the mountain.

Similar to our previous hike, a good portion of the trail below elevation was a mix of crusty snow, dirt, and mud. We tramped our way through the wet portions, but as we made our way farther up the steep ravine the snow started getting deeper. We started struggling with our footing. The warm weather had created a crusty layer over loose snow, and as we stepped we would constantly find ourselves breaking through the crust and sliding backwards. The difficult ascent combined with the above-average temperatures had us down to our base layers in no time.

We crested the top of the ridge, the sun peeked through, and the frozen snow and ice on the trees began to melt. As we continued to gain elevation we started noticing the unique ice chunks at our feet. I could only assume the chunks were formed by the ice breaking off the tree branches in a wind storm and collecting on the ground. The pieces of ice were unlike anything I had seen on a hike, and it produced a feeling similar to walking on a pile of ice cubes.

As we neared the summit of North Tripyramid, the ascent turned into a technical and icy 40% grade. We grabbed roots and rocks as we climbed, slowly pulling ourselves up the trail and putting our trust in our microspikes for traction.

After a struggle, the trail flattened out and we were atop North Tripyramid, greeted with a nice view of Tecumseh and Waterville Valley to the West. Looking southeast, we saw Passaconaway and Whiteface, the targets for the latter half of the day.

A Clif Bar later, we started down the small col between North and Middle Tripyramid. After a mile and another quick scramble, we were atop Middle Tripyramid. “Onwards!” I cheered as we continued over the summit and down. We soon popped out into an opening and looked at the steep collection of rocks strewn in front of us.

A common approach to the Tripyramids is to ascend from Waterville Valley and brave the rockslide on the west face of the mountains. This slide is generally described as “dangerous in even the best conditions,” and we were standing right at the top of it. Based upon the map and the trip reports, I figured the trail leading off the left of the slide would be easy to spot, but I didn’t see it anywhere.

I pulled out my map and simultaneously started consulting my phone.

“I guess we just have to follow this down a bit until the trail cuts off to the left,” I told Jason, unsurely. I was slipping my phone back into my pocket when I lost my grip on it. I watched it tumble away, bouncing as it made its way down the rocks. How fitting for the day. Twenty feet later it stopped. I slowly made my way down to it and surveyed the damage. I breathed a sigh of relief to only see a few scratches on the face. We continued down the slide and turned left onto The Sleepers Trail, headed towards our next summit of the day.

Up and down we went for a few miles, crossing over The Sleepers, until the trail flattened out into a section of wind-blown trees. Fresh Moose tracks were all over, and we followed the moose tracks on-trail for about ¼ mile before they wandered off into the woods.

After connecting with the Kate Sleeper Trail we were headed back uphill again, but a gear malfunction soon brought our movement to a halt. One of the support wires on Jason’s microspikes had ripped through the rubber and the spikes wouldn’t stay on his feet any longer. Nothing some p-cord and pink duct tape couldn’t fix.

Moving again, we suddenly we found ourselves standing on a ridgeline and looking out at the bowl to the east of Mt Whiteface. Turning left, we joined up with the Rollins Trail and scrambled up the final hundred yards of the ascent. As we summited Whiteface I reached down to touch the cairn and tripped over my own feet. I hit the ground.

photo by Jason Leach

After Jason had a good laugh, I picked myself up and we continued towards Passaconaway. The ridge walk provided a spectacular sight to our right, and we gazed out as we split our time between jogging and walking the ups and downs once again. It didn’t take long for Jason’s second microspike to break. After another stellar cord and tape job, we kept trodding along as the clouds finally rolled in.

Soon we were standing at the bottom of the final ascent to Passaconaway. Gaining about 700 feet of elevation in 2/3 of a mile, the steep icy trail made for slow progress. Groaning with exhaustion, we grabbed roots and jammed our spikes into the wet ice. One steep section after another, we pushed up and over the rocks until the trail leveled out and the trees thinned. We took a few moments to admire the view to the west, then ascended the remaining 100 feet to the viewless summit and checked Passaconaway off the list.

Descending on Walden Trail proved to be even sketchier than the trip up, so we took our time and used our hands and feet to brace ourselves once again. The sun had turned most of the off-trail sections into dirt and mud, but the whole trail was covered with slick ice. Moving slowly, we descended until we hit the Passaconway Cutoff Trail intersection, where we turned east and began the five-mile descent to our car.

As we jogged down the gradual decline we passed multiple rock-slides and the forest’s white snow slowly changed to green moss. Soon situated besides the Oliverian Brook, we followed the brook trail as it crossed rocky banks, waterfalls, and small ponds, discussing our plans for our post-hike meal and the last hike of the winter.

We made quick work of the flat trail, and 8 hours after we started our traverse, we popped open the trunk of my car and threw our packs in. 47 down, 1 to go; 3 days of winter remained.