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Breaking Triail to Mount Carrigan

Signal Ridge Trail, Mount Carrigan
Signal Ridge Trail, Mount Carrigan

Climbing Mount Carrigan (4700′)  in winter is an ambitious quest requiring 14 miles of hiking or snowshoeing and 3900 feet of elevation gain. Route finding and bushwhacking skills are also useful, as the trail reroutes resulting from Hurricane Irene washouts are poorly blazed (yellow blazes) and the treadway may be covered in snow.

Despite these challenges, eleven is us succeeded in reaching Carrigan’s summit fire tower this past Saturday, but it was a touch and go hike, and turning back was definitely a consideration. With a foot of fresh powder, we had to break trail for nearly 5 miles, a daunting task while wearing full winter packs. As luck would have it, we picked up another 10 hikers along the way so we could coordinate our trail breaking efforts together, but it was still a herculean slog.

Route to Mount Carrigan

What does it mean to break trail?

Snowshoeing in deep snow is a physically challenging task. If there’s only fresh snow in front of you and no established track to walk in, you will sink about 75% of the way to ground level with each step you take.  It’s very similar to post-holing, except the larger surface area of your snowshoe gives provides flotation. To prevent exhaustion, it helps to bring other hikers with you so you can switch off the point position when the leader gets tired, and the people following behind him can pack down his  footsteps.

Even with their assistance, we were switching the lead after only 50 steps. That meant the leader would break trail in snowshoes for 50 paces up the slope, step aside to let the entire line behind him pass, and then fall in at the end, so everyone could get a chance to break and then rest.

This was a particularly difficult hike for me because I was carrying about 85% of a full winter backpacking load to get acclimated to packing and carrying the extra gear I need for a upcoming backpacking trip. Although, I typically carry enough gear on winter hikes to stay out all night if need be, the weight of my full winter pack including stove, fuel, 4 season sleeping bag and tent easily tops 40 pounds.

Carrying that much weight up Carrigan for 12 hours, 14 miles, and 3900 feet of elevation was extremely tiring. Still, the fact that I could do it increased my level of confidence for my next trip, which will require less distance on day 1, but over 5000 feet of elevation gain.

Philip at Carrigan Summit - Don't try Walking Backwards Wearing Snowshoes
Philip at Carrigan Summit – Don’t try Walking Backwards Wearing Snowshoes

There are 4 stages to a hike up Carrigan in winter. The first is a 2 mile walk up Sawyer Pond Road, which is gated in winter.  This was broken out by snowmobile traffic and only takes an hour to walk.

The next stage is 1.7 miles of gradual ascent up the Signal Ridge Trail to its junction with the Carrigan Notch Trail. We had to break trail and route find for most of this stretch, but it was still pretty easy going. There was an easy stream crossing along the way, but the water was very low and we could snowshoe right over the rocks in the stream without difficulty.

The hardest (3rd) stage of the hike, even when the trail is broken out, is the 3 mile climb to treeline which rises about 2800 feet. The route ascents via switchbacks up a very narrow pathway, bordered on one side by a steep slope and by dense spruce on the other. There are limited views from the path, but we were able to see Vose Spur, the slides at the base of Mt Lowell and Carrigan Notch through the trees as we climbed. I’m planning an in-depth exploration of this area in early summer with the potential for multiple backpacks+bushwhacks, so I was taking notes.

The 4th and final stage of the ascent is above treeline as you hike along Signal Ridge to the Carrigan summit. Blasted by wind and fog, this ridge drops precipitously to Carrigan Pond to the west and Carrigan Notch to the east, although every time I’ve been on Carrigan the mountain has been completely socked in by fog and this time was no exception.

Fire Tower, Mount Carrigan
Fire Tower, Mount Carrigan

Still, views or not, making it to the summit of Carrigan was cause for celebration, especially since it was my friend Stephen’s 48th winter 4000 footer. Summit cookies were passed out and then we got out of the wind and fog for the long walk out. And it was a long walk out, with 2 hours of hiking and snowshoeing after dark by headlamp. All in all, a fine day in the mountains, and a difficult but successful hike to be proud of.

Total Distance/time: 14 miles, 12 hours, 3900 feet of elevation gain.

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  1. Most commendable!!! And a great report!

  2. It was a little more of an adventure than we were expecting, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well everyone held up.

  3. Great teamwork by all. None of us could have done the hike on our own. Thanks to Steve and Kevin for their leadership.

    • I had that same thought climbing up this peak. There is no substitute for a group on a hike like this – and you never know what to expect when you venture as deep into the Pemi in winter as we did.

  4. A quick trick I learned from a friend this winter. If you want to go backwards in snow shoes take a trekking pole and push down on the the front. I usually put my tip between the front of my boot and snowshoe using the pole’s basket to hold the snow shoe tip down. This keeps the back up for easier backing up. It is super useful when backing up through brush while bushwhacking as the heel don’t get caught under sticks and logs.

  5. Brian from the other group

    Thanks for putting this writeup together, Philip. Looking at the GPS track, it seems that it was only for that last 100′ vertical or so that we were off trail. But man, that was a tough 100′ vertical, I’m amazed that we kept the trail that long, and I’m glad we didn’t have to ‘shwack any longer than that. Hope you all are recovered; we hung out cooking and sipping rum-infused apple cider in our pyramid shelter until quite late in the evening, laughing over the hiss of our Whisperlites. Another great weekend in the Whites.

    Congrats to Stephen, and see you on the trail!

    • I was envious when we passed your track into the woods on the hike out. Would have been nice camping there instead of the long drive home. Great to meet you on that hike finally and glad your group was able to lend us a hand.

  6. Wow. The fire tower looks incredible!

  7. I now know the value of multiple hiking partners during the winter. This past weekend I broke trail in snowshoes for 8 miles in 4 1/2 hours between myself and one other person. Saying my thighs were burning the next day is an understatement! We were really haulin it! Luckily it was a beautiful day at about 30 degrees F, we couldn’t ask for better weather.

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