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Climbing The Captain

The Captain
The Captain

The Captain is a remote 3540 foot mountain named for its resemblance to El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Located between South Hancock Mountain and Mount Carrigan in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, it’s a rugged off-trail bushwhack on the New Hampshire Hundred Highest peakbagging list. 

Climbing the Captain is a long hike because there are only two, possibly three viable approaches to the peak, all requiring long walks to get into position for an attempt. One approach is to follow logging roads up from Sawyer River Road into the valley between South Hancock and Mt Carrigan – which is the route we chose (Sawyer River road is gated closed in winter). Another approach is to climb Mt Carrigan first and descend from the summit to The Captain through a mile of krummholz, and a third possible approach is from the north past Carrigan Pond, which is a long bushwhack. A western approach from South Hancock runs into steep cliffs and would be very difficult, though I suspect people have done it.

Approximate Route to The Captain
Approximate Route to The Captain

I’ve been wanting to hike The Captain for close to a year, but it’s a difficult enough bushwhack that I wanted to go with other people in case I ran into trouble. Some off-trail hikes are relatively low risk and I feel confident enough that I can safely hike them alone, but this is definitely not one of them. The woods are very thick in places, the slope angle up to The Captain-Carrigan Col is very steep, and there are some big cliff faces that you need to thread around depending on the route you take.

This was an AMC hike, one of many I’m running this autumn (see my trip listings page) to build up a bullpen of off-trail hikers in the Boston Chapter. My strategy appears to be working…and I’ve gotten a few people hooked on bushwhacking already.

While similar to trail hiking, bushwhacking is a much more strenuous full-body workout, it requires more teamwork with the other people you hike with (including the opportunity to make new friends), and makes you a much more self-sufficient hiker if you ever want to hike more challenging terrain, including winter hiking. It’s well-known that off-trail hiking and winter hiking/backpacking complement each other, especially when all the blazes on the trees are buried under snow and the trail in front of you is buried and not discernible.

Hiking up FR86 - a logging road
Hiking up FR86 – a logging road

We started this hike at the upper Sawyer River Road trailhead, a long dirt road, that leaves Rt 302 in Crawford Notch, and provides access to the Sawyer Pond Campsite. We headed up FR86, a logging road that branches off the Sawyer River Trail shortly after the gate and headed up into the valley between Mt Carrigan and the Hancocks. Very few people head up this way, except in winter when snowmobilers use the road, so we were surprised to find the it mowed and easy to walk on. I’d anticipated a wet hike through high grass so I was relieved that walking conditions were so good.

We followed this road almost all the way to its end (at about 2200′ of elevation) before heading off trail, aiming for the mid-point in the col between Mt Carrigan and The Captain. I was leading for much of this section of the hike, and rather than side-hilling the route, I made the judgement to gain elevation when we could through more open woods instead of trying to stay lower down and hike over a lot of blowdowns.

Near the end of the logging road - The Captain in the distance
Near the end of the logging road – The Captain in the distance

As a consequence, we drifted a bit east off our bearing,  hitting cliffs on the eastern side of the col at 3000′ below Mt Carrigan. Carrigan is a steep mountain and there were a lot of blow down debris along the base of these cliffs, so we made the decision to lose about 250 feet of elevation to avoid this trash and get on a better trajectory for the col.

We still drifted a bit east because we had to avoid more ledge to the west, but we clawed our way up the slope slowly through dense spruce. Still, when we hit 3300 feet, I knew we were in the col between the peaks and it was time to reset our bearing for The Captain’s summit. Altimeters rock!

Trey celebrates at The Captain canister
Trey celebrates at The Captain canister

My buddy Trey took over the lead at this point, and led us up to The Captain. The vegetation was still dense, but mainly pencil woods, with many fewer blow downs. Trey still had his work cut out for him, trying to find a decent line up The Captain’s eastern ledges, but we quickly found the canister when we got to the summit. There we found several bottles of Captain Morgans and eye patches in the canister, which Trey proudly demonstrates here!

West face of Mt Carrigan from The Captain
West face of Mt Carrigan from The Captain

After a 30 minutes rest, we turned back and hiked out taking a more direct route than we’d hiked it. On the way down we found what is known as “the climbers camp”, where rock climbers sometimes camp below the summit. From there we picked up an intermittent herd path which led us back to the road eventually, for the long hike out.

Rick, on the descent
Rick, on the descent

The total time for this hike was exactly 10 hours: 2 for the logging road walk in, 3.5 hours for bushwhacking to The Captain, a 30 minute rest at the summit, a 2.5 hour bushwhacking descent, and a 1.5 hours to hike the logging road out. An exhausting day really, but a very fun and fulling hike up The Captain.

The Captain
The Captain

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2 comments

  1. The severity of the cliffs we found on our approach is not very well captured by the contour map. The map makes it look like we could have kept ascending from 3200ft despite the fact it was impossible.

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