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Wintry Wildcat Traverse

Wildcat Ridge from Carter Notch
Wildcat Ridge from Carter Notch

I hiked a tough traverse of the Wildcats over the weekend with a half dozen other hikers in wintery conditions. The Wildcats are a series of 4000 footers in the White Mountains that run parallel to Mt Washington on the other side of Pinkam Notch. While technically not a full traverse – there is a fifth peak called Wildcat E, we bagged four of the peaks including D and A which are on the AMC 4000 footer list and C which is also on the Trailwright’s 72 list I’m working on. Here are their respective heights:

  • Wildcat D – 4,062 ft
  • Wildcat C – 4,290 ft
  • Wildcat B – 4,305 ft
  • Wildcat A – 4,422 ft

Hiking these peaks is a difficult and rocky hike in 3 season conditions, but this time around I was carrying full winter gear and supplies (about 50 pounds.) The weather was warm, peaking into the 50’s and my friend Brian kept repeating the mantra “we couldn’t have asked for better weather.” He must have been doing it for the rest of the group, because I knew it was probably the worst possible weather for me, hiking in heavy, plastic mountaineering boots and snowshoes in hot weather for the first time of the season! Three season ultralight backpacking and hiking has made me soft…literally.

Mt Washington
Mt Washington

We started by snowshoeing up Wildcat D, climbing 2000 ft up along the Polecat Ski Trail, which starts at the base of the Wildcat Ski Resort.The resort doesn’t open for another week or so, but we had a half-dozen AT skiers skinning up the slopes with us and swooshing back down.

We quickly stripped down to our base layers and broke trail to the summit through a foot of wet snow. It was tough work and I kept pace about 50 yards and 30 years behind the rest of the pack up front. I broke trail later in the day, but I’m not as fast a climber as I used to be.

We took a short food and water break at the top of the ski run, out of the wind behind the gondola building (Wildcat was the first ski resort in the US to build enclosed gondala lifts) and then clawed our way up to the Wildcat D summit and viewpoint, overlooking Mount Washington. The view was exceptionally grand and we could see the summit clearly, as well as Tuckerman Ravine (above left) and Huntington Ravine (above right), including the Great Gulf, Mt Adams and Mt Madison (not shown).

The trail was not broken out between D and A, heading north, and we had to continue breaking trail up and down between the knobby summits. This is difficult in the Wildcats because the trail (which coincides with the Appalachian Trail) is very rough, requiring good 3 season scrambling skills when there isn’t any snow on the ground. Doing it with snowshoes, later in the winter, would probably be smoother with a 4 foot snow base, but we didn’t have that and the snow was too deep to bareboot it.

We kept going, scraping, wrenching, plunging, jumping, and stumbling until we arrived at Wildcat A and the beautiful overlook, above Carter Notch, 12oo feet below .It had taken us about 6 hours to go 4 miles, with a total of about 2500 feet of elevation change. Traveling in winter is always much, much slower than the rest of the year.

Looking Down into Carter Notch from Wildcat A
Wildcat A vista above Carter Notch

From the summit, we descended  into Carter Notch, a glacier-cut mountain pass at the foot of Wildcat A and Carter Dome (4,832 ft.) The notch itself has two small lakes, nestled in a caldera of sorts, and is home of the Carter Notch AMC hut. It’s a pretty wild location on the southwest border of the Wild River Wilderness and the Baldface Royce Mountain Range.

Climbing down Wildcat A to Carter Notch is a very steep descent of nearly 1,100 ft in 0.7 miles. We had arrived at Wildcat A only at 3:45 pm (sundown was at 4:09 pm), and the rapidly fading daylight made it difficult to see the shadows and rocks on the path. Given the snow depth, we still had to wear snow shoes on the descent to avoid post-holing, but it was slow going and we were all stumbling and falling, encumbered by our heavy packs.

At one point, I did a complete header and landed on my shoulder with my head facing downhill, unable to move because I was still attached to my pack. I lay there wondering if I’d hurt myself and when my partners would show up to help me, my cheek resting against the snowy ground in the growing darkness. I didn’t know where they were, so I undid my sternum strap and then reached down and unfastened my hip belt with some difficulty. I managed to roll up and was a little surprised that I hadn’t done major damage, when my pals showed up.

Breakfast at Sunrise, Carter Notch Hut
Carter Notch Hut

It took us a hot sweaty hour to get down to the notch and I was zonked when we stumbled into the hut. We still planned to camp out that night but the hut is open to anyone passing by and they have potable water, which saved us a lot of time that evening. We hung out for a few hours to cook dinner and then hiked down a side trail to a good campsite about a 1/4 mile away from the hut.

Packing for an Alpine Start
Packing for an Alpine Start

We quickly pitched our 3 tents and got to sleep around 9 pm. It’s been a while since I’ve slept with wet mountaineering boot liners and I was chilled until my bag warmed up. They mostly dried out by morning, even though they’d been drenched with sweat the previous day.

The next morning, we woke at 5 am to get an early start (sunrise is at 7 am.) My friends continued on to hike the Carter Range, but I hiked out the 19 mile Trail back to Pinkam Notch and hitched back to my car. I was feeling pretty drained from the previous day’s exertions and didn’t feel up to climbing Carter Dome, the big climb on this trip, which is an 1,800 foot ascent in 1.2 miles.

This was a good hike, but I still need to train up for these muti-day winter treks. I’m not used to carrying so much weight and snowshoeing up mountains. Still, winter doesn’t officially start for another month in the Whites, so I’ve got some time to do more serious conditioning before the group trips start in earnest in the new year. I’d already started that process before this trip, but the conditions on this hike caught me a little unprepared.

It was nice to be out in the snow again though and I enjoyed hiking with the other people in our group. I love winter backpacking in the White Mountains. There’s nothing quite like it.

13 comments

  1. Looks grand, what a great way to kick off the winter season. Have you thought about VBL socks to solve your soggy boot liner problem?

    Winter beckons. Time to hit the gym in preparation.

  2. Whew. I hear you on that wet, slushy snow. I had a rough time going up Chocorua on Saturday because of that. I'm much more comfortable hiking in either complete winter conditions or total summer. The mushy and wet snow is incredibly difficult compared to even a good four-foot snowpack.

    Great pics, though. Sounds like a fine weekend to me.

  3. Good story, with all the high and low points. Has given me food for thought about how prepared we/I need to be for the joys of winter hiking. There are a whole new set of challenges associated, not the least, being pack fit.

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article and the pictures are great.

    Thanks

  4. Nice pics. What do ui do for conditioning off the trail?

  5. I've considered VBL socks, but I've never really tried them with plastic boots. Maybe I should, particularly since I am a foot sweater and because I hate sleeping with liners in my sleeping bag. I'll start training with them and give it a try. Good reminder. I have a pair from Integral Designs that I've owned for years.

    My fitness routine has slid a bit in the past year. I was doing 5 days of an athletic style of yoga for about a year, swimming 1000 yards twice a week, and day hikes/ backpacking trips on weekends. I quit yoga about a month ago and have reverted to my old workouts, but I'm afraid have a ways to catch up. It's harder as you get older. My new routine involves three day hikes of five miles with a 40 pound winter pack, swimming 1750 yards (a mile) twice a week, and 2 days of cardio/weight work in the gym. I've been doing this about a month now – I just think I need to keep doing it longer and do more elevation and mileage on the weekends.

  6. Steve – I've been screening beginner winter hikers for an AMC conditioning day hike. I am co-leading next week, and have been emphasizing the higher fitness level required for overnights, without quite realizing how much it pertained to me also. Chagrined. Well plenty of time to condition up, and there are plenty of different types of hikes one can do in winter that don't require a full out multi-day ridge traverse.

  7. Love that hike, was fun over the summer.

    How cold did it get up there this time of year?

  8. Not cold enough – high 50's during the day and overnight it warmed up from the 30's into the 40's by morning. I like my winter much much colder.

  9. haha, fair, i should have gone up this weekend, my kind of temperatures still! i won't be able to get out again till January though, so will probably need to be much further south.

  10. Very nice, and nice photos! It sure is a lot different now hiking with a heavier winter overnight backpack. My legs and whole body are surely feeling it today after hiking Isolation with more than double my normal pack weight from a few weeks ago. Snow shoeing also works different muscles than just hiking, so that contributes to the soreness.

    I agree with Guthook that the mushy conditions weren't fun, but this weekend they certainly put me right into winter mode by forcing me to step cautiously and strategically with my snowshoes. I can't wait for the dumping of snow, and to try some different peaks in the winter.

  11. Dan – isolation is on my bucket-list for this winter with an overnight, like you just did. I've heard that it's possible to bushwhack in from Rocky Branch and I want to check out the shelters there.

  12. It's nice to hear others are enjoying the first significant (November) snowfall in NE. On Friday I did an easy approach hike on the Beaver Meadow trail leading to the back side of Smuggler's Notch in about 8 inches of snow. Even with little elevation gain, it was still a good workout. And similarly, my boots (20 degree Baffins) got soaked…at first I thought they were leaking, but then I realized it was all sweat as the temps rose into the mid 40's.

  13. Sawyer Pond Shelter, Black Pond, and Perkins Notch from Jackson are all moderate elevation hikes that make great beginner overnights. Zealand Hut is good too.

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