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Stopped in Our Tracks on Wildcat Mountain

Trey on the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail
Trey on the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail

Trey and I attempted to climb Wildcat A, B, C, and D on Friday but we were stopped in our tracks by chest high snow drifts and such deep powder that we were postholing up to our waist, even though we were wearing snowshoes. Forward progress became so difficult that we were forced to ask ourselves whether our personal ambitions were more important than soldering on in deteriorating weather, with freezing rain and sleet falling on us and fog rolling in from the northeast, often a bad sign in the White Mountains.

I’ve written about the mental tug of war that goes on when deciding to abort a hike in winter before reaching your goal and walking out. In an age where we can accomplish so much in our professional lives by sheer force of will, it’s always humbling to run into a uncaring adversary such as winter weather, where you are forced to back down in the name of self-preservation.

Carter Notch to Wildcat A
Carter Notch to Wildcat A

Trey and I were climbing up the northeastern face of Wildcat A (also called Wildcat Mountain) along the Appalachian Trail, a very steep climb which passes through an avalanche zone. The ‘A” peak is the first of five peaks along the Wildcat Ridge, that are named ‘B’, ‘C’, D’, and ‘E’. After the ‘A’ peak, our destination for the day was Wildcat ‘D’, 2.8 more miles south, where we planned to hook up with the Polecat Trail to hike back to our cars. The Polecat Trail runs down a ski slope on the Wildcat Mountain Ski Resort, the first ski resort to build a gondola.

Wildcat ‘A’ and ‘D’ are the only two peaks left on my Winter White Mountain 4000 footer list, a list of 48 mountains that have to be climbed during calendar winter. It’s a challenging list to complete because winter weather in the White Mountains can be so uncooperative, and only slightly more than 500 hikers have finished it, compared to the 10,000+ hikers who’ve climbed the peaks in any season of the year (see the AMC 4000 Footer Club for more details.)

After barebooting and snowshoeing four miles up the Nineteen Mile Brook trail, Trey and I stopped at Carter Notch Hut for a short food and water break before hiking back to the Wildcat Ridge Trail to begin our ascent. Making the turn south, we passed a white blaze painted on a tree, although it was just visible above the surface of the snow, which must have been 5 or 6 feet deep at that spot.

Snow-Covered Nineteen Mile Brook
Snow-Covered Nineteen Mile Brook – Normally a large open stream bed

I started the climb uphill, breaking trail in the deep powder, and trying to navigate a course that would help us avoid the chest high snow drifts we encountered. We were quickly forced off trail, bushwhacking through dense woods on the steep slope. Trey overtook me when I plunged into a spruce trap, with the snow up to my waist.

Spruce traps are voids underneath the surface of the snow that hikers can fall into. They’re formed when snow piles up around the base of a spruce tree, but not under its branches, leaving an open pocket in the snow pack. When unsuspecting hikers and snowshoers who step on these snow-covered voids, they plunge into them and can have great difficulty digging themselves out. Spruce traps of one of many fatal dangers in the winter woods, and a great example of how dangerous it can be to hike alone in winter.

With one leg trapped, I chopped away at the snow surrounding my leg with one of my trekking poles until the snow was loose enough that I could pull my snowshoe back out. I followed Trey, who was also having great difficulty breaking trail because the snow was so dry and powdery. This was compounded by the fact that we were hiking along the side of a slope and the snow would give way, sliding downhill with each step we took. While the snow retained enough “body” to hold the man in front, the upper layer would slide when a second person tried to walk on it. I figured out a way to stop the sliding by plunging my trekking pole deep into the snow downslope from my snowshoe but it wasn’t foolproof and I found myself periodically sliding off trail and into the trees.

After 2 hours of glacial progress in which we covered a mere 0.3 miles, we finally came to the Wildcat Avalanche Slide. This is an open section of hillside, devoid of any trees with a long run out down slope. It’s a nasty place to have an uncontrolled slide and I was feeling especially vulnerable since I’d forgotten my ice axe at home for this hike.

Retreating across the Wildcat Avalanche Slide
Retreating across the Wildcat Avalanche Slide

It was at this point, that Trey and I started talking about giving up and hiking out. He and I had been thinking about it and came to the conclusion that this just wasn’t our day. We had no idea what conditions would be like past the slide or further down the trail between the summit of Wildcat A and Wildcat D, whether we’d hit more deep snow drifts, and how long it would take before we got to the Polecat trail and could hike out. Before embarking on this hike, I’d heard that this section of trail had been broken out, but it had obviously drifted over in a few days and all indications were that conditions would not improve further down trail.

While I’ve aborted a few hikes part way through in winter, this was the first time Trey had ever bailed on a hike, and I think it was a bit of a surprise for him although he’s very self-conscious about the risks involved in winter hiking.

We turned around and hiked down the way we’d come, still struggling because the snow was sliding underneath us. We quickly gave up trying to stay standing and slid down the elevation we’d gained by sliding down on our butts. It took us about 10 minutes to slide down the distance that had taken 2 hours for us to climb.

Once we’d gotten back into the trees and out of the wind, we took stock and had a long food break. Neither is us had any doubt that we’d made the right call and left the peaks for another day. Next time though, we’re climbing the Polecat Trail and hiking from Wildcat ‘D’ to WildCat ‘A’ and back. This wasn’t my first brush with that route up Wildcat A in winter conditions and I’d just as soon avoid it next week when we try to climb the Wildcats again.

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12 comments

  1. Yeah, “failure to turn back” is probably the biggest judgement call in the AAC “Accidents in North American Mountaineering” (http://www.americanalpineclub.org/p/anam). It is a sobering read.

  2. ‘Ya gotta know when to quit.

  3. Considering the conditions you mentioned of snow giving way, once you crossed the slide there was a substantial risk that your way back would perilous. This puts you in the bad spot between being compelled to ascend because you don’t want to/can’t get back down. Definitely made the right call.

  4. That is mind boggling, the time to get up and the time to get back down. I did a hike a few weeks ago and it took 6 hours to get up, and 2 to get down. Probably would have been faster if I hadn’t been too afraid to slide down the steep parts. I guess the trudging through all the snow will make us stronger come summer.

  5. I was at the Mountain Wanderer bookstore on Sat and Steve mentioned this hike. 2 hours to go .3 miles? That is some slow going!

  6. Smart move on your part to abandon the attempt. The Wildcats will still be there another day. Chalk it up to an intense conditioning hike. .

  7. What! You forgot your ice axe? Good thing it wasn’t an AMC hike or the leader would have kicked you off the hike! ;-)

  8. I feel your pain, bro. This morning, it was drizzling as I headed to my truck and I had to turn back to get my shell. You gotta’ know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em!

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