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Acteon Ridge Traverse

The Distant Knob of Jennings Peak from Sachem Peak
The Distant Knob of Jennings Peak from Sachem Peak

The Acteon Ridge is a sequence of trail-less peaks in the Sandwich Range Wilderness of the White Mountains. I climbed one of the peaks on the ridge, named Sachem Peak a few years ago, but have always wanted to go back and hike all of the peaks on the ridge including Bald Knob, Acteon Peak, Sachem, and Jennings Peak, one after another on a continuous traverse. It’s an epic route, about 9 miles long with 3200 feet of elevation gain.

I was joined on this hike by my friends Amal, Lynn, and Martin. Amal and Lynn are signed up for the off-trail hiking class I’m teaching this weekend with Beth Zimmer for the Appalachian Mountain Club, so this was a preview for them of the compass navigation and bushwhacking skills we’ll be covering. I’ve hiked with all of them previously and they’re quite skilled hikers, so this trip, while strenuous, was well within their wheelhouse.

We started the hike at the Smart Brook Trailhead off RT 49 across the highway from Welsh and Dickey, a pair of bald summits that are often hiked together in early spring. The elevation at the trailhead is about 880′. We hiked up the Smart Brook to start and admired the pretty stream and which was running high with snowmelt.

A bunch of Random Hikers - this was a Random Meetup Group Trip
A bunch of Random Hikers – this was a Random Hikers Meetup Group Trip

At 1660′ we came to the Wilderness Boundary sign, and then headed west toward Bald Knob the first summit on the ridge. It took us a while to find a good stream crossing, but once across, we started climbing. The trees hadn’t leafed out, so we could see our destination through the trees, but still followed a compass bearing. But we were climbing on a diagonal, often the cause of bearing drift, and ended up in the saddle between the first two peaks on the ridge: Bald Knob and Acteon Peak.

We were awful close, so we bushwhacked over the Bald Knob, where we sat on the open ledges and had a bite to eat. Bald Knob. The ledges on Bald Knob are a worth destination all their own, with a great view of the Welch and Dickey. For a discussion of possible off-trail route options, see my post about how to plan an off-trail hike with Caltopo. It’s one of the examples and we hiked one of the routes discussed. I’m still not convinced that it’s the best way to climb Bald Knob…but I was willing to try it to see.

Map showing planned (blue) and actual (red) track of Acteon Ridge Traverse
Map showing planned (blue) and actual (red) track of Acteon Ridge Traverse

From the summit, we picked up a herd path heading toward Acteon Peak, which made accelerated our progress through the saddle and up the ridge. When we arrived at the summit, Lynn saw a canister tied to a tree at the high point, which we all signed. The only name I recognized was Steve Smith, owner of the Mountain Wanderer Bookstore in Lincoln, NH, who climbed the peak a few weeks ago. From there we dropped into the next saddle and made our way to Sachem Peak.

Sachem has two open ledge summits, with very steep east-facing cliff faces that provide an expansive view of massive Sandwich Dome and Black Mountain. We approached the southern summit, pretty much head on, climbing up steep ledge at the end to get to the top. It was chilly at the summit, so we bundled up, and then it started to hail. Nothing large, and it was quickly over. Love those spring conditions in the Whites on what was predicted to be a sunny day. Not!

The Rocky Ledges of Sachem Peak seen from Jennings Peak
The Rocky Ledges of Sachem Peak seen from Jennings Peak

We dropped very steeply into the small saddle between the two Sachem summits and a branch bit my face. Figuratively speaking of course. I got a decent gash on my cheek, just below the glasses. It bled a lot, but my friends patched me up and we continued on. I only carry a minimal backpacking first aid kit with my on bushwhacks, but should probably add a few alcohol swabs and butterfly band-aids. It’s a gruesome looking gash this morning.

We descended steeply again, this time into the saddle between Sachem and Jennings Peak. Jennings has an elevation of about 3440′, so we had about 700′ of elevation to climb to its summit, all off trail. Jennings, which is a 52 with-a-view peak, has an unusual knob-like rock formation and ledges at its summit. The east face is mostly cliff, so we planned to come up the west side. That side of the peak was covered in dense blow downs and steep as all get out, but still a fun ascent. You use very different muscles climbing off trail than you do on trail and it’s a great full body workout.

Heading up Jennings Peak through blow-down hell
Heading up Jennings Peak through blow-down hell

We encountered some snow in the saddle, but the woods higher up were snow-free. The snow line is still about 3000 feet, even now on April 30th. We’d decided to punt on carrying snowshoes for this hike, mainly to avoid the extra 5 pounds of weight. That was a good call, although Martin who was carrying an extra 30 pounds of water on this hike to train for a hike in the Cascades, probably wouldn’t have noticed.

When we got to the top of Jennings, the summit was capped with rocky ledge and dense spruce. So we contoured around to the north side and climbed the last 30′ of elevation by walking up the hiking trail to the summit. We’d made it! A dream come true for me to hike that entire ridge end-to-end.

After hiking off-trail for 7 hours, the hardest part of the hike was hiking down from Jennings Peak and dropping over 2000 feet back to the trail head where are cars were parked. The Sandwich Mountain Trail, unlike the woods, was covered in monorail and slushy snow, which is not exactly fun to hike on. Back in their element, Lynn, Amal, and Martin sped down the trail (the Random Hikers are known for a fast pace) and I did my best to keep up with my knees protesting the steep and rocky descent.

Descending the Sandwich Brook Trail on Monorail
Descending the Sandwich Brook Trail on Monorail

The final stream crossing at the bottom of the Smarts Brook Trail was a doozy, with the water running high. Martin spied the highway bridge downstream which crosses Rt 49, so we bushwhacked to it instead. Nice call. The final segment of the hike was about 100 yards up Rt 49 and back to our cars. A great hike.

Approximately 9 miles with 3200 feet of elevation gain.

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