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Mount Kancamagus Bushwhacking Instructional Trip

Mount Kancamagus, White Mountains
Mount Kancamagus, White Mountains

Last Saturday, I co-led another AMC Boston instructional trip, a winter bushwhack up Mount Kancamagus, a New Hampshire 100 highest peak with an elevation of 3,763 feet. The point of this trip was to provide a gentle introduction to bushwhacking and expose winter hikers who normally hike on trails to the challenge of tromping through the woods, guided  only by a compass bearing and your wits. Some instruction was provided for people who had brought compasses, but the majority of the trip focused on how to find the best route through dense forest, blow downs and around spruce traps, while staying on a bearing.

We had a big turn out with 21 attendees including leaders, so we broke into 2 separate groups, green and purple,  and bushwhacked to the summit along different routes.

Mount Kancamagus Bushwhack
Mount Kancamagus Bushwhack

The green group started from the overlook parking lot just below Kancamagus Pass on the Kancamagus Highway, while the purple group got dropped off a bit farther down on the road to start their hike.

I was part of the green group, which had quite a few ringers in it – very experienced bushwhackers who were along to knab another hundred highest peak – but who also helped explain the ropes to the hikers who were being exposed to bushwhacking for the first time.

Bushwhacking is almost incomprehensible to people who’ve never done it, which is why we wanted to demonstrate it by example. There’s no trail or blazes, you need to really know how to use a map and compass, you need to keep track of left or right drift off of your original bearing, and of course, you need a sense of humor about postholing in the the snow and all of the trees and shrubs that are trying to tear your clothes off!

Anne takes a Compass Bearing
Anne takes a Compass Bearing

I am relatively new to bushwhacking myself, but I really like it. It opens up vast areas of the forest and mountains that people don’t go to often and really pushes you to be self sufficient to a degree that you just can’t experience on a trail. But it’s definitely not for everyone.

The green group did pretty well considering that we kept rotating the lead through the group so everyone got a chance to break trail and follow the bearing. We didn’t hit the peak straight on, but we were close enough to the east that we could follow the ridge west to the summit, once we’d climbed up to it.

Campfire atop Mount Kancamagus
Campfire atop Mount Kancamagus

Unfortunately, the purple group beat us to the top by nearly an hour, but of course, they had a much shorter, if steeper hike. They got bored and cold, so they lit a fire while they waited for us to show up. When we arrived, it was an incredible spectacle to see a fire burning in a pit of snow, next to the canister. Actually, the purple group had built the fire on top of the snow, but it melted down into it’s own little pit.

Mount Kancamagus Canister
Mount Kancamagus Canister

What’s a canister?

Many of the peaks in New England and New York that can only be reached by bushwhacking, and are on peakbagging lists like the New Hampshire Hundred Highest, the Catskill 3500’s, or the Adirondack 46ers, have canisters at their summits. These canisters look like PVC pipes and are attached to trees at the peak’s summit. They contain log books that people write their names in or leave messages for other hikers. They’re neat little time capsules, a lot like the trail registers you find in Appalachian Trail shelters.

Porkchop is Out of Gas
Porkchop is Out of Gas

We were all a bit tired and cold after our hike to the summit, so after refueling with food and drink, we retraced the route broken out by the green group back to our cars. This was a nice group and I met a lot of enthusiastic, if not expert, people who want to do more bushwhacks this winter. Fun, fun!

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

2 comments

  1. Kudos for breaking into two groups.

    A base of green wood under a winter fire goes a long way towards preventing the snow from extinguishing it and from damaging the ground soil.

    In a high snowfall year, after multiple days of the temps around freezing the snow will consolidate to the point you can walk on the top [like an elf]. This is when winter bushwhacks are amazing, especially in birch glades like Engine Hill and Whitewall.

    That one hour wait was a teachable moment. Did they need to build the fire or was it just backcountry TV? Regardless the ability to establish a fire in the winter is an essential skill.

    Weekend trip plan is Carrigain from Zealand Road. 1 summit and 2 bag nights.

    Great posts, thanks for the hard work.

    • Looks like you’ll have great weather on Saturday. I’ve only climbed Carrigan in fog so I am jealous. On the other hand, I’m co-leading a Franconia Ridge trip on Saturday…yippee!

      I think they were bored, more than cold. Temps were in the 20’s, still building a fire in winter is worth practicing. One of the participants – a ringer bushwhacker – had a cube of wax melted in a egg carton, so it was easy to light. They reportedly build a platform of wood and then a tipi over that before setting it on fire.

      We didn’t have a hard crust. We did find a few spruce traps however. One minute the guy in front of your is there, and the next, whumpf!, he’s gone.

      Be safe this weekend and enjoy,

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