My boots hadn’t frozen overnight, which meant that my Sawyer water filter was probably still good (they’re wrecked if frozen.) Freezing rain had fallen overnight and I knew I’d probably get soaked, brushing up against wet spruce on the side of the trail. With bright sunshine and temperatures in the low 60’s, I wasn’t that worried about hypothermia or the fact that my insulated boots were soaked from a stream crossing gone bad the previous day. My biggest concern was the softening snow conditions and whether I’d be postholing despite wearing snowshoes.
I’d set out the day before on an 13 mile loop through Carrigan Notch deep into the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, to the headwaters of the East Branch Pemigewasset River near Stillwater Junction. It being late April, I expected some lingering snow, but not quite as much as I experienced. I’d brought snowshoes, of course, but hadn’t expected to need them for 13 continuous miles. It’s difficult to predict what the snowpack is going to be like in the more remote regions of the White Mountains in spring without eyewitness reports. I guess it’d been optimistic to think that three weeks of 60 degree days would have made much of a dent in the snowpack.
The area I hiked into is historically called Livermore, an unincorporated civil township and ghost town, bordered in part by Sawyer River Road, Mt Carrigan, Mt Lowell, the East Branch of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and Mt Bemis. The Livermore Wikipedia page is quite informative.
I’d parked my car the previous morning at the bottom of the Nancy Pond Trail on Rt 302 and hiked a mile south to Sawyer River Road, which was still gated for winter. I then hiked two miles up icy Sawyer River Road in microspikes to the Signal Ridge Trail and snowshoed to the Carrigan Notch Trail, another 1.7 miles farther along.
Conditions were sloppy. The snow was soft and saturated with water, but it still held my weight as long as I stayed on the monorail. Monorail is a layer of snow and ice that looks like a balance beam in the middle of a trail. It forms when thousands of hikers hike a trail in winter and pack it down. In spring, the sides melt off first leaving the center firm. If you fall off the center and there’s still snow on the sides of the monorail, you invariably posthole in the softer snow, which gets exhausting fast.
The stream crossings were running a bit high, but I sloshed through wearing my snowshoes and my waterproof insulated winter boots. Following the trail was another matter and I lost it a few times before finally coming to the Carrigan Notch Trail junction. This trail travels along a steep mountain pass between Mt Carrigan and Mt Lowell. I’d hiked about half of it before when I bushwhacked a subpeak of Carrigan known as Vose Spur, but never beyond it. This time, I’d hike to height of land and back down the other side.
The Carrigan Notch Trail was a mix of mud and wet snow, deep enough to require snowshoes. I kept on my snowshoes across the muddy spots so I wouldn’t have to keep taking them off and putting them on. Someone had recently hiked up the trail, also in snowshoes, and I wondered if I’d run into them. I still hadn’t seen a soul and wouldn’t during this entire trip.
It started to rain as I approached the Pemigewasset Wilderness Boundary which starts at height of land, the high point of the pass, that marks the boundary between two watersheds. The snow deepened significantly there, but I was headed downhill and made great time. Route-finding was surprisingly easy, despite the fact that the blazes cease when you step into many White Mountain National Forest Area Wilderness Areas and the snow cover occludes most evidence of a trail.
I knew from past experience that the trail would be very difficult to follow in snow near its junction with the Nancy Pond Trail. This area is a virtual archipelago of streams and bogs with virtually no trail blazes and I’d gotten lost here before on another similar backpacking trip in spring 2014, necessitating an early exit. I’d come better prepared this time for extreme route finding, bringing Guthook’s NE Hiker GPS App on my iPhone, which has all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide for this region. I figured this would be the ultimate test of its value, in the hardest area of the White Mountains to find the trail. It proved to be invaluable. Stay tuned for a complete product review in the next week or two.
I turned onto the Nancy Pond Trail, about halfway through my hike. It was close to 3:00 pm and I’d started to think about where I’d camp for the night. It looked like I’d be sleeping on the snow pack, but I was prepared for that.
Following the Nancy Pond Trail was a breeze compared to that bottom section of the Carrigan Notch Trail, even without much blazing. The snow was getting progressively deeper however and the stream crossings wider. In the end, I decided to camp near the last stream crossing before the 1.7 mile climb up to Norcross Pond since it was near water and in a relatively flat area where I could find a good place to camp. I could have continued to a spot I’ve camped at before at Norcross, but I wasn’t psyched about the climb and doubted that there would be any good campsites along the way. That was indeed true, as I found out the next morning.
I set up the luxurious Hilleberg Niak tent I was carrying on this backpacking trip, one of the tents I’m thinking about using on the Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland in May 2018. It’s virtually freestanding, so very easy to pitch on snow.
I filtered some water, made dinner, hung my Ursack, and read for a while before going to sleep. The forecast had called for nighttime temperatures in the high 30’s and I was geared up appropriately with my XTherm sleeping pad and a 20 degree quit.
The next morning, I had a cold breakfast, just walnuts and raisins washed down by a liter of cold water. I wanted to get on the trail and figured I’d take a break at Norcross Pond and cook up a proper breakfast there. The snow was soft enough that I postholed in my snowshoes as I climbed up to Norcross Pond. The trees were also sopping wet from the freezing rain overnight, so I put on a raincoat to keep as much cold water off me as possible. My pants got soaked, but my legs were generating a lot of heat climbing uphill. I knew my pants would dry quickly as soon as I got to the open area around the pond and sunshine.
Norcross Pond is a high-elevation alpine pond that can be considered the headwaters of the mighty East Branch Pemigewasset River by my reckoning. It is still mostly frozen over but obviously soft, so I didn’t venture out onto the surface. Instead, I plunked down on a dry rock at the outlook overlooking The Bonds and cooked up a hot meal, while drying off in the sun. Ah. Little did I know that the hardest part of this hike was about to begin.
I had 4.3 miles to go to get back to Rt 302 from Norcross Pond. Route finding again proved difficult because this area is cross-hatched with herd paths and not well-blazed. While bushwhacking was an option, I prefer to stay on trails, even when they’re buried under several feet of snow, because they’re less of a chance of falling into a spruce trap. Spruce traps are voids around bushes buried in snow that can trap you when snowshoeing solo.
As it was, I was postholing in the soft snow despite wearing snowshoes. There wasn’t any monorail here because this area is not hiked in winter (they aren’t any 4000 footers in the vicinity.) There are bog bridges though in abundance and I could detect slight bumps on the surface of the snow where they were, despite the fact that they were buried in 2+ feet of snow.
I postholed repeatedly but kept on going, making slightly less than a mile per hour. My pace picked up as the elevation started dropping near Nancy Cascades, a series of rapids followed by a huge waterfall that drops beside the trail. Getting down that section of trail which switchbacks steeply proved very difficult, again because the snow was so soft and my snowshoe crampons had so little solid snow or ice to grip onto.
I ended up descending this section by snowshoeing backward, a footwork trick I know, where you put most of your weight on the forward crampon under your toes to prevent an uncontrolled slide. That took a while but I made it down in one piece. One slip and I would have plunged downhill into thick brush and trees and probably hurt myself badly.
After the falls, the rest of the hike out the Nancy Brook trail was fairly routine and more manageable. The streams were running high but crossable without incident. I was pretty zonked after this hike, but still glad I’d taken it on. It was a calculated risk in these conditions, but I felt that the warm weather helped offset the issue of doing this loop solo.