My friend David and I went on a very tough bushwhack yesterday, climbing West Field Mountain (3,617ft) on the western side of Mount Field. This didn’t look like a difficult bushwhack on paper, quite the opposite, but the brush was so dense that it slowed our pace down to half a mile (or less) per hour. It was really tough going and definitely one of the hardest day hikes I’ve ever been on.
It was pretty unnerving too because we were out 5 hours past sunset and had to bushwhack out in the dark. I don’t want to do that again, although I suppose it’s probably inevitable for winter bushwhacking.
Still, we kept our cool and trusted our compass bearing, eventually finding the trail we’d hiked to get to the bushwhack area. In the worst case, we were both equipped to spend an unplanned night out with a stove, extra insulation, and shelter, although it would have been a bit dicey with a major storm predicted in the evening.
If you’re thinking about hiking West Field, which is on the New Hampshire Hundred Highest, be forewarned. There is a lot of dense forest on the northern side of the peak, approaching from the A-Z trail. This was exacerbated by pine traps, blow downs, and heavy snow on upper branches, which rained down on us are be rammed our way through the growth. I feel like I played ice hockey all day yesterday. Those trees fight back!
We did find the canister at the summit by 2:30 pm, but there was no way were going to retrace our steps to get back to the A-Z trail, especially if it got dark in the process. Instead, we headed northeast off the peak, hoping to find the A-Z trail east of where we’d initially stepped off of it.
At first the going was pretty easy and we avoided the dense forest that we had had to plow through to get to the summit. But we eventually hit some pretty thick growth and had to slow down to muscle our way through it. On top of that, we had some problems staying on a northeasterly bearing as we detoured around obstacles in our path. This ultimately resulted in us walking in circles, a fact we discovered about 30 minutes before sunset at 4:30 pm.
From that point on, we became militant about staying on the northerly bearing. Both of us had our compasses tied to lanyards around our necks and we started checking our bearings constantly, We figured we’d cross the A-Z trail eventually, which thankfully we did, at 7:05 pm. From there, it was a two hour walkout back to the AMC Highland Center where we managed to beg cappuccinos even though the kitchen was closed. I figure they were pretty surprised when 2 hikers walking int the main lobby at 9:15pm in January.
David and I are not experienced bushwhackers, but I’m confident we will be eventually. We both have very good compass and map skills, which were invaluable for finding the canister and bushwhacking after sunset on this trip. Still there are a few lessons to be learned from this trip:
- Bring an altimeter for bushwhacks. David had a map-less GPS with an altimeter and it was invaluable for figuring out where we were.
- Don’t wear your favorite shell or waterproof pants. Between my crampons and the trees, I shredded an old pair of Marmot Precip full zip pants.
- Plan, in advance, the escape route as thoroughly as the hike to the summit.
- Look at your compass frequently to stay on a bearing. Much more frequently than you would otherwise.
- Allow a lot more time for the bushwhack than you expect. There’s no telling what conditions will be like when you appear in person.
- Teamwork is essential. Double-check your partner’s bearings and decisions, constantly.
- Get down low to see if you can detect elevation changes under densely packed small trees.
- Bring a few extra pairs of fleece gloves (for winter bushwhacking.) You’ll sweat them out.
- Be prepared for an unexpected night out.
If you are a bushwhacker, and have some best practices or advice you’d like to impart, please leave a comment.