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Hiking the Whitehorse Ledge Trail

White Horse Ledge acorss frozen Echo Lake
Whitehorse Ledge across frozen Echo Lake

“This is really sketchy,” I thought, sliding on my butt at the top of a cliff covered with ice. I wished I’d brought heavier traction other than microspikes.

I was hiking all of the trails in Echo State Park, home of Whitehorse Ledge and Cathedral Ledge, two famous rock climbers’ cliffs in the White Mountains. I’d hiked up to Cathedral Ledge the prior week and had been able to bare boot that hike, so I was surprised to find so much ice on Whitehorse Ledge. Known for its crack and slab climbing, Whitehorse Ledge and the adjacent Cathedral Ledge are considered the epicenter of trad climbing in the Northeast.

Hiking below Whitehorse Ledge
Hiking below Whitehorse Ledge

The Whitehorse Ledge Trail is not a terribly hard hike. but it was still a decent workout given that I carried a full winter day pack, minus my snowshoes. There were about 6 inches of snow on the ground, borderline snowshoe conditions, but I was able to bare boot most of the hike, only switching to microspikes when I needed more traction.

The trail isn’t a complete loop, but it is well signed and well blazed, so I didn’t have any issues following it in the snow. I’d decided to hike below the ledges first, counter-clockwise, before climbing to the top, and descending. This proved to be quite scenic since the forest at the foot of Whitehorse Ledge is littered with bus-size boulders that have fallen off the cliffs.

The Red Ridge Trail descends over open ledges shown in the distance, making for an epic descent from the Moat Mountain Range
The Red Ridge Trail descends over open ledges shown in the distance, making for an epic descent from the Moat Mountain Range

Before reaching the summit of Whitehorse, I took a short detour down the Red Ridge Link Trail which joins up with the Red Ledge Trail about 0.5 miles away. The Red Ledge Trail climbs up to an unnamed peak between Middle and North Moat Mountains over, you guessed it, open ledge. I hiked down this trail in 2009 on a spectacular spring day and have been thinking about hiking it again lately. It’s very exposed, so you need good weather to hike it and to appreciate the views.

It was so quiet at the base of the Link Trail. Just pretty open forest and lots of animal tracks.

I hoofed it back up to the top of Whitehorse Ledge, checked out the views, and starting picking my way gingerly downhill, sometimes hiking off trail to get around steep icy spots. Staying well back from the cliff face seemed prudent and I proceeded slowly and methodically, until butt sliding seemed to the best way to descend.

Cathedral Cliff across frozen Echo Lake
Cathedral Ledge

In the end, fancy footwork and some brute force bushwhacking got me around the dicey spots and back down to the shores of frozen Echo Lake. Later that evening, I related my experience to my friend Ken who told me that the ice is always thick on Whitehorse Ledge. I’ve been carrying heavier crampons for my winter hikes ever since.

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8 comments

  1. Is that icy spot right at the top of the trail on the Cathedral side? That gets a lot of ice. I’m surprised you got down that way.

    • Just above the ladders. I had microspikes but I didn’t really trust the spike penetration. I took it slow, kicked steps where I could, and down climbed a lot of it, before glissading the very bottom on my butt. Not exactly the proudest moment of my hiking career. Real crampons would have been much much better.

      • You bring up an excellent point that I have been wondering about for awhile, now that winter hiking is upon us. How do you decided whether to stick with microspikes or switch to crampons? What conditions warrant only crampons?

        I took the AMC above treeline course a couple of winter ago, but if they told us in the course I cannot remember now.

      • I decided not to bring them on this hike because I hadn’t needed them on Cathedral Ledge (next door) which I’d hiked the previous weekend. On hindsight, that was the wrong call. I should have probably brought heavier traction, simply because I knew there were “ledges”. That’s probably a good heuristic to keep in mind. Of course, I hiked another ledge hike last weekend (Pine Mountain) and brought crampons, but ended up not using them. :-)

        You want crampons on higher angle ice or thick/hard ice where microspikes don’t give enough purchase. Those little points are dull and don’t bite. Add in some angle and you slide. Ledges, by definition mean cliffs, so you want more assurance by bringing a toothier and sharper point. Make sense?

      • You know about the ledges of course, because you read the White Mountain Guide and planned the hike…

      • Yes, of course, I always read the Guide before a hike, unless it’s a hike I’ve done before. :-) Thanks for the advice on crampons vs. microspikes. Seems like common sense, which is what I suspected might be the case.

  2. Very nice photos of lake and ledges, must have been a pleasure to hike.

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