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Backpacking and Bushwhacking Southwest Twin Mountain

Southwest Twin Mountain
Southwest Twin Mountain – A Trail-less Peak

I am feeling sore all over today. I’m surprised because our bushwhack over to Southwest Twin Mountain turned out to be easier than we expected. Still bushwhacking is much more strenuous than regular trail hiking and we had a long hike out which must explain it.

Southwest Twin Mountain
Southwest Twin Mountain (center bump)

We’d been planning to return to Southwest Twin for over a year. Not to be confused with South Twin Mountain (4902′), Southwest Twin is a 4357′ trail-less peak at the end of the southern ridge off South Twin. If you’ve ever stood in front of the Galehead hut, Southwest Twin is easily visible as the last peak on the right before the ridge drops down toward the 13 Falls campsite.

Southwest Twin from Galehead Hut
Southwest Twin from Galehead Hut

The last time we tried to bushwhack Southwest Twin in 2012, we were stopped in our tracks by incredibly thick spruce and had to turn around before nightfall. But that trip wasn’t a wasted reconnoiter because we found a fairly open track on the way out which suggested that a more westerly ingress would be better on our next attempt. That turned out to be true.

Michael and Hannah on South Twin
Michael and Hannah on South Twin (4902′) – a Foggy Day

To further improve our chances on our second attempt, we hiked up to the Twinway the day before and stealth camped in the woods so we could get an early start the next morning. The section of the Twinway between South Twin Mountain and Guyot Mountain is dry, so this required backpacking to our campsite with enough water to last us the rest of the day, through dinner, and for most of the following day. I ended up carrying 6 liters of water up South Twin in addition to the red wine I brought along for my tortellini diner that night. I felt it on the 1100 foot climb between Galehead Hut and the South Twin summit!

The Southwest Twin Summit
The Southwest Twin Summit

I was joined on this hike by my AMC co-leader Michael, Alan, and Barbara who had been on our previous attempt in 2012. Barbara’s daughter Hannah also joined us in addition to Bill, a very strong hiker who I did a lot of hikes with last winter.

Barbara, Michael and myself are all working on the Trailwrights 72 list and Southwest Twin is considered the hardest bushwhack on it. Barbara and I are both very close to finishing the list. This peak was her 71st climb and my 70th.

Backpacking and Bushwhacking
Backpacking and Bushwhacking – A Richer Wilderness Experience

In addition to the bushwhack, I’d been looking forward to this hike because I’ve been meaning to do more trips that combine bushwhacking and backpacking. Most of the people who bushwhack in the White Mountains only do day hikes, which is cool, but I think they miss out on a more immersive wilderness experience by not staying out longer. It’s something I’ve been seeking more of recently and have started to schedule into the hikes I lead for the Appalachian Mountain Club.

After a convivial dinner and restful sleep, we were all apprehensive the next morning about our second peak attempt. None of us are into bushwhacking with a GPS, so we didn’t know exactly where we were on the Twinway and we couldn’t see any landmarks because the forest is so dense. That meant taking a bearing from where we though we were, hiking onto the ridge, and then trying to figure out of where we were based on the topographic contours.

Bushwhacking through Open Woods
Bushwhacking through Open Woods

Maps Lie

Micro-terrain-association is a difficult skill to learn (or learn to ignore) because a lot of topographic features that you see in the world are too small to make it onto a map. Alternatively, you may be using a map based on very old base data which is incorrect and has never been updated. This is surprisingly more common than you might think.

None of this matters much when you’re hiking on a maintained or blazed trail because you simply need to follow it to get to your destination. But when you step off trail and into an environment where you can’t see through the trees more than about 25 yards, at best, only then do you realize that maps are really only good for predicting trends instead of details, unless you can orient yourself by finding a major feature like a cliff, a slide, a viewpoint, or in some cases a body of water. The problem is compounded when you don’t know where you are to begin with.

Welcome to bushwhacking in the White Mountains!

Barbara leads over moss-covered groundBarbara leads over moss-covered ground
Barbara leads over moss-covered ground

Our Route

Barbara and I switched the lead back and forth at the beginning of our hike, staying in the open woods as far onto the ridge as possible while skirting the dense up-slope thicket of spruce that bogged us down last year. This stretch of woods is about as open as White Mountain forest gets on a bushwhack, with moss-covered ground and dry tree limbs which tore at our clothes as we pushed a path through the forest.

We could see the east side of the ridge sloping down to our left so we suspected we were above the deep drop off shown on our maps, but who knows, it could have also been local terrain variation. Still that assumption worked very well for about an hour until the contour started to drop steeply and  the woods much get thicker. We started climbing to find more open woods, when things got a bit screwy.

We knew we were looking for a col, or descent, between the high ground where we were standing and the summit of Southwest Twin. But our compass bearing had gotten turned around in the process of avoiding dense bush and were headed in the wrong direction. This is easy to do since you can’t walk a straight line through the woods and have to zip and zag around obstacles to preserve your energy.

Barbara climbed a tree to verify this…it’s amazing how hard it is to trust your compass sometimes…and the mountains we could identify were on the wrong side of the ridge from where we thought they should be. Even then we weren’t entirely sure what we peaks we were looking at because they were smothered in low cloud which made them harder to identify.

Reason won out however and we got back on the right bearing to Southwest Twin. The ground started to slope down toward the col as expected and we regained some of our lost confidence.

Traversing the base of the col on the way to SW Twin
Traversing the base of the col on the way to SW Twin

Michael took over lead at this point and brought us down the eastern side of the ridge, through some fairly dense brush. Michael is one of those mis-guided souls who insists on bushwhacking in the White Mountains in short pants, but he’s good to have on bushwhacks because he takes care of the blood sacrifice that the mountains we hike demand. He had 37 deep scratches after the hike including bleeding wounds to the face and legs. He says his co-workers are unfazed by the visible damage after his weekend hiking trips.

When we reached the bottom of the col there was a big patch of spruce and blowdowns between us and the Southwest Twin summit. I wasn’t interested in tackling this head on, so I looked for signs of taller trees and headed in their direction because they can be indicative of more open forest. This turned out to be true and we continued in the open almost all the way to the summit, only hitting a narrow band of guard spruce, which we pushed through before reaching the canister.

Bill at the Canister
Bill at the Canister

Amazingly, the hike to the peak only took 2 hours and 30 minutes, which must be some kind of record. We had friends who’d bushwhacked this peak 6 weeks ago and it took them 5 hours to reach the summit. We all signed the register and I noted a few names of other friends that had climbed SW Twin earlier in the year, but we were the first visitors to arrive since mid-August.

Back at Galehead Hut for a hot bowl of soup
Back at Galehead Hut for a hot bowl of soup

It was chilly at the summit, despite tree cover, so we left expeditiously and hiked back the way we came, getting turned around once again close to the same spot as before. We caught it earlier though and hiked back out to the Twinway in close to 2 hours, collected some gear we had stashed in the woods, and hiked back down to the Galehead hut for a hot bowl of soup. From there it was a five-mile walk back to our cars, the last mile which we hiked in the cold autumn rain.

This was a great hike with good friends and a fun and different backpacking adventure.

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  1. Sounds like a lot of fun! Your skills pulled you through, and I supposed it entails much more adventure puzzling it out, but at what point might you have pulled out the GPS? Personally, I would have gotten at least my starting point if I didn’t know where I was.

  2. I’d rather Bushwhack than trail hike any day. People are always worried about snakes and crawly things but I find more snakes around the trails than while Bushwhacking but I do take precautions in that I generally wear a pair of Snake and Briar Proof Chaps I bought at Cabelas at least 20 years ago to protect my legs and pants from damage from mostly the Briars, especially in the Southern part of California in that Chaparral which will tear you up in no time. The knee high Snake leggings just do not work for me.

    I also found that the NEW USGS Maps are devoid of a lot of information, and that I was told by a Geologist at a State Museum was bieng done on purpose for alleged Security Reasons. Everything from Old Fire Towers, Caves, Mine’s, and Natural Springs are being deleted from the Maps. Also with the advent of Satelite Photography most of the Maps are computerized digitalized and printed from those Photographs and often Trees and such hide features from the photo so they do not show up on the map.

    I have some old maps from the 50’s of certain area’s in the Southwest that are amazing as to the amount of information they carry when compared to maps created in the last ten years, so much so the new maps may as well as be blank..So seek out Old maps, the older the better, those back to the 1950’s-60’s are the best. They were physcially checked by a Survey Team. With the New Maps, I understand, that every once in awhile a team goes out but they rely on Satelite photos now for the most part..

    Glad you mentioned Soup..I love a good bowl of unsalty soup better than any freezed dried meal. Sometimes, like with a Chicken and Rice Freezed dried I purposely add an extra cup of water to make a Soup. I think it digests easier… I buy all my pre-cooked dried ingredients from an on-line source and then make the soup right there in camp. In a pot, In a Steel Canteen Cup from my time in the USMC, in a Cowboy, or Teflon Coated, or Titanium frying pan, in a Coffee or Tea pot, doesn’t matter as long as the utensil boils water.. I currently am testing out a 3 Cup Stainless Steel Perculator made by GSI I purchased from Campmor to replace all my pots and just use it for everything. Frying is not working out to well though…The dry ingredients do not weigh more than the average Freeze dried meal and I can Doctor the taste in any way that appeals to me as well as adding fresh ingredients I find along the way or Protein I might have harvested that day. Or if I want, I can prepare the receipe at home and bag it at home, but I like to mess with the assorted ingredents which fit into a gallon sized Freezer bag. Rarely am I bored in it’s preparation or get that feeling that “gee I wish I had brought something different feeling in my stomahc that many Thru-hikers get after trying to survive on Top Ramen, or Mac&Cheese, or that Salt poisoned Dressing in a box stuff..Oh Yuck!

  3. Just found/read your trip report. I had “scouted” it partway in the fall and felt “confused” about 2/3 thru the whack, as you mentioned, and retreated. I was very fortunate to joing a group of 3 others to tackle this peak January 2nd. We barebooted w/microspikes as needed. The whack took us 3 hours in/1:30 out. Total time from Beaver Brook Ski Area was 13 hours and I was totally whipped! We had started about 5:30 and done about 6:30. Bruce completed his winter TW that day and leaves me Guyot to complete mine + 68 hours of trailwork :) I agree it is by far the toughest one on the list! Thanks for your report and pictures and Congrat’s!

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