I am feeling sore all over today. I’m surprised because our bushwhack over to Southwest Twin Mountain turned out to be easier than we expected. Still bushwhacking is much more strenuous than regular trail hiking and we had a long hike out which must explain it.
We’d been planning to return to Southwest Twin for over a year. Not to be confused with South Twin Mountain (4902′), Southwest Twin is a 4357′ trail-less peak at the end of the southern ridge off South Twin. If you’ve ever stood in front of the Galehead hut, Southwest Twin is easily visible as the last peak on the right before the ridge drops down toward the 13 Falls campsite.
The last time we tried to bushwhack Southwest Twin in 2012, we were stopped in our tracks by incredibly thick spruce and had to turn around before nightfall. But that trip wasn’t a wasted reconnoiter because we found a fairly open track on the way out which suggested that a more westerly ingress would be better on our next attempt. That turned out to be true.
To further improve our chances on our second attempt, we hiked up to the Twinway the day before and stealth camped in the woods so we could get an early start the next morning. The section of the Twinway between South Twin Mountain and Guyot Mountain is dry, so this required backpacking to our campsite with enough water to last us the rest of the day, through dinner, and for most of the following day. I ended up carrying 6 liters of water up South Twin in addition to the red wine I brought along for my tortellini diner that night. I felt it on the 1100 foot climb between Galehead Hut and the South Twin summit!
I was joined on this hike by my AMC co-leader Michael, Alan, and Barbara who had been on our previous attempt in 2012. Barbara’s daughter Hannah also joined us in addition to Bill, a very strong hiker who I did a lot of hikes with last winter.
Barbara, Michael and myself are all working on the Trailwrights 72 list and Southwest Twin is considered the hardest bushwhack on it. Barbara and I are both very close to finishing the list. This peak was her 71st climb and my 70th.
In addition to the bushwhack, I’d been looking forward to this hike because I’ve been meaning to do more trips that combine bushwhacking and backpacking. Most of the people who bushwhack in the White Mountains only do day hikes, which is cool, but I think they miss out on a more immersive wilderness experience by not staying out longer. It’s something I’ve been seeking more of recently and have started to schedule into the hikes I lead for the Appalachian Mountain Club.
After a convivial dinner and restful sleep, we were all apprehensive the next morning about our second peak attempt. None of us are into bushwhacking with a GPS, so we didn’t know exactly where we were on the Twinway and we couldn’t see any landmarks because the forest is so dense. That meant taking a bearing from where we though we were, hiking onto the ridge, and then trying to figure out of where we were based on the topographic contours.
Micro-terrain-association is a difficult skill to learn (or learn to ignore) because a lot of topographic features that you see in the world are too small to make it onto a map. Alternatively, you may be using a map based on very old base data which is incorrect and has never been updated. This is surprisingly more common than you might think.
None of this matters much when you’re hiking on a maintained or blazed trail because you simply need to follow it to get to your destination. But when you step off trail and into an environment where you can’t see through the trees more than about 25 yards, at best, only then do you realize that maps are really only good for predicting trends instead of details, unless you can orient yourself by finding a major feature like a cliff, a slide, a viewpoint, or in some cases a body of water. The problem is compounded when you don’t know where you are to begin with.
Welcome to bushwhacking in the White Mountains!
Barbara and I switched the lead back and forth at the beginning of our hike, staying in the open woods as far onto the ridge as possible while skirting the dense up-slope thicket of spruce that bogged us down last year. This stretch of woods is about as open as White Mountain forest gets on a bushwhack, with moss-covered ground and dry tree limbs which tore at our clothes as we pushed a path through the forest.
We could see the east side of the ridge sloping down to our left so we suspected we were above the deep drop off shown on our maps, but who knows, it could have also been local terrain variation. Still that assumption worked very well for about an hour until the contour started to drop steeply and the woods much get thicker. We started climbing to find more open woods, when things got a bit screwy.
We knew we were looking for a col, or descent, between the high ground where we were standing and the summit of Southwest Twin. But our compass bearing had gotten turned around in the process of avoiding dense bush and were headed in the wrong direction. This is easy to do since you can’t walk a straight line through the woods and have to zip and zag around obstacles to preserve your energy.
Barbara climbed a tree to verify this…it’s amazing how hard it is to trust your compass sometimes…and the mountains we could identify were on the wrong side of the ridge from where we thought they should be. Even then we weren’t entirely sure what we peaks we were looking at because they were smothered in low cloud which made them harder to identify.
Reason won out however and we got back on the right bearing to Southwest Twin. The ground started to slope down toward the col as expected and we regained some of our lost confidence.
Michael took over lead at this point and brought us down the eastern side of the ridge, through some fairly dense brush. Michael is one of those mis-guided souls who insists on bushwhacking in the White Mountains in short pants, but he’s good to have on bushwhacks because he takes care of the blood sacrifice that the mountains we hike demand. He had 37 deep scratches after the hike including bleeding wounds to the face and legs. He says his co-workers are unfazed by the visible damage after his weekend hiking trips.
When we reached the bottom of the col there was a big patch of spruce and blowdowns between us and the Southwest Twin summit. I wasn’t interested in tackling this head on, so I looked for signs of taller trees and headed in their direction because they can be indicative of more open forest. This turned out to be true and we continued in the open almost all the way to the summit, only hitting a narrow band of guard spruce, which we pushed through before reaching the canister.
Amazingly, the hike to the peak only took 2 hours and 30 minutes, which must be some kind of record. We had friends who’d bushwhacked this peak 6 weeks ago and it took them 5 hours to reach the summit. We all signed the register and I noted a few names of other friends that had climbed SW Twin earlier in the year, but we were the first visitors to arrive since mid-August.
It was chilly at the summit, despite tree cover, so we left expeditiously and hiked back the way we came, getting turned around once again close to the same spot as before. We caught it earlier though and hiked back out to the Twinway in close to 2 hours, collected some gear we had stashed in the woods, and hiked back down to the Galehead hut for a hot bowl of soup. From there it was a five-mile walk back to our cars, the last mile which we hiked in the cold autumn rain.
This was a great hike with good friends and a fun and different backpacking adventure.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company
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