My friend Barbara said, “the reason bushwhacking is so challenging, is that there’s no guarantee that you’ll reach the peak. We’re so used to getting anything we want in this world that there are few things like that anymore.” She was right, but it would have still been sweet if we’d made it to the summit of Southwest Twin before we hit our turnaround time and had to hike out. Even then we ended up hiking for 3 hours in the dark on a fairly icy trail in sub-freezing weather.
Our objective had been Southwest Twin Mountain, one of the Trailwright’s 72 bushwhacks on a remote ridge in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of the White Mountains. Located off the Twinway Trail, it requires a 6 mile hike to get to the beginning of the bushwhack, including an ascent of South Twin Mountain (4902′), the 8th highest 4,000 footer in the White Mountains, for a total round trip distance of 13.5 miles.
It is mid-November and sunset was at 4:18 pm, so we knew that we’d be walking out in the dark. What we couldn’t predict were the trail conditions or the difficulty of the bushwhack itself. This is not a popular destination and there’s not a lot of information available about the density of the forest, the presence of an existing herd path, or the best place to start the bushwhack. While we know that now, we didn’t before we started.
Planning the Bushwhack
Southwest Twinn Mountain (4357′) is a trail-less peak is at the end of a ridge that starts almost due south of the South Twin summit and runs in a southwesterly direction. To get to it, you need to hike down the center of the ridge and bypass the unnamed peaklet at 4723, just south of the South Twin summit. There’s also a second peak on the ridge at about 4620′, shown at the intersection of the red and blue lines above which has awesome views of the the Pemigewasset. I’d been warned to look for it by my friend Andrew, who told me it has one of the best views in the White Mountains but it was of secondary interest compared to the Southwest Twin summit which we were after.
In planning this bushwhack, I figured we’d hike down the east side of the Twinway to 4560′ of elevation and then take a 218 degree true bearing to the Southwest Twin summit at 4357′. I have a GPS with an altimeter and I figured I’d calibrate it in the SouthTwin summit at 4902′, so we had an accurate barometric reading as we descended to the point where we’d start the whack. I sent out my plan to my other four comrades, all experienced hikers: Alan, Michael, Barbara, and Dan, who double-checked my navigational plan and even brought their own maps, bearings, and what little route information they could gather to the hike.
When planning bushwhack routes, I like to find obvious topographic boundaries or handrails that we can follow once we enter the woods and visibility drops to zero. Since there are very steep grades on either side of the ridge, I figured we’d stay close to the northern side of the ridge, keeping it to our right up until the final sag before the Southwest Twin summit. A reasonable plan without the benefit of local knowledge.
We followed that route but encountered very dense spruce almost immediately. Then to compound our difficulties, we continued forward in the hope that the woods would thin out as we continued down the ridge. That never happened and it ended up taking us 90 minutes to make about 1/4 of a mile of headway through very dense forest. We knew fairly quickly that we weren’t going to make the Southwest summit before out turnaround time, but we kept on hoping to at least reach the viewpoint that my friend Andrew had mentioned.
This peaklet turned out to be quite a nice spot with spectacular views of the Bonds, Owls Head Mountain, Franconia Ridge, Garfield, and Mount Guyot.
Rather than hike out the way we’d come, we took a different back bearing to hike back to the Twinway in order to start our hike out, aiming further south and hiking along the blue route shown in the topo map above. To our surprise and dismay, it took just 20 minutes to hike back to the trail, through very open woods! If we had only hiked down the Twinway another 150 yards before starting the bushwhack, we might have had a very different hike.
I am not an expert bushwhacker although I want to become one so I like to reflect on the reasons why certain hikes have successful outcomes and others don’t. I think everyone in our group would agree that we should have walked further along the Twinway before we started the whack to find an area with more open woods than where we started. We are all chagrined that a difference of 100-200 yards more would have resulted in a much easier and probably faster pace down the ridge.
If there are lesson to be learned from this hike it’s to walk the perimeter of a bushwhack to look for the most open entry point before committing to a route, or to be willing to restart from another entry point if you run into dense spruce very early on.
On the flip side, we did a lot of things right on this hike. Chief among these was choosing a conservative turnaround time of 2:30 pm, based on the trail conditions we encountered between Galehead Hut and the summit of South Twin Mountain, which had very dense ice in places and was quite hazardous. Turning around when we did made it possible for us to descend safely in daylight before sunset, as climbing down with headlamps would have been nasty.
Disappointing as it was that we didn’t reach the summit of Southwest Twin, all of us were pretty pumped by this hike on a glorious day in fine weather. We’d discovered a fine viewpoint seldom visited by others, and successfully reconnoitered a very remote bushwhack so we’ll have a better chance of bagging the peak when we return next time. And we will be back, you can count on it.