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Bushwhacking East and West Russell Mtns

Bushwhacking East and West Russell Mtns

East and West Russell are two adjacent peaks on the New Hampshire 500 highest list that tower above Russell Pond and the Russell Pond Campground in the Waterville Valley Region of the White Mountains. They’re almost due south of the Loon Ski Resort, outside of Lincoln, on the southern side of Scar Ridge.

Russell Mtn East and West

While this wasn’t a terribly hard or long bushwhack, it was fun nonetheless, because it required navigating through a saddle which I’ve found to be a challenging navigation problem in the past and one I look forward to practicing when the opportunity arises.

The saddle was full of blow downs and debris
The saddle was full of blow downs and debris

A saddle is a flat area or low point between two areas of higher ground, in this case, the east and west peaks. It can be challenging to stay on your bearing when crossing one by dead reckoning alone if you’re in dense forest without any views, reference points, or a clear horizon line. The reason is that saddles are often full of debris, like blown-down trees, that you have to maneuver around or other obstacles like small cliffs, gulleys, or bogs, that will throw you off your compass bearing. People also tend to veer to the right or left off-trail, particularly in hilly terrain, without realizing it until they realize they’ve started heading downhill until it becomes obvious. It’s a tendency that you need to be aware of and counter by frequently checking your compass.

The Russell East Canister
The Russell East Canister

For this hike, I stepped into the woods at one of the empty campsites highest up the hill and headed toward the east peak first. The going was pretty steep and would have gotten steeper, so I veered to the left and aimed for the saddle where the gradient was more moderate. Once there, I aimed my compass to the summit of the East Peak and picked my way through vegetation and terrain until I reached the summit. There were a few false summits at the top so a scouted around until I could find the canister, a glass jar containing a log book to sign in. While we put a lot of faith into topographic maps, there’s a lot of terrain between the contour lines that isn’t reflected on the map. Learning how to pick an energy-conserving route through it is a skill.

From the summit, I started heading down to the saddle and almost immediately fell off my line. There were small cliffs to the west that I had to walk around that started leading me downhill to the south. I quickly realized this when the slope steepened more than I expected, so I course-corrected and angled back up toward saddle contouring just below 2400′. I wear an ABC watch and could use the altitude to tell me where I was on the topographic map.

Logbook entries - Not a lot of visitors
Logbook entries – Not a lot of visitors

When I got back to the ridge, I dropped down to the saddle, again checking my altimeter to tell me where I was, and then shot a compass bearing to cross the flat area. It was full of debris as expected so I compensated for the detours I needed to make to get around them and sighed in relief when I started to gain elevation again, up to the west peak.

This ascent was also a little tricky because I was slabbing up the side of an incline while following a compass bearing. My preference is to climb a slope perpendicular to the contour lines, but I was able to visualize what the terrain was supposed to look like on this ascent and found the canister after investigating a few more false summits.

From here, it was a matter of backtracking to the saddle and beginning my descent. At first, I tried following a stream in the saddle but that line quickly proved to be too wet, so I hiked above and alongside it, using it as a handrail instead.

Like I said, this wasn’t a super difficult bushwhack, but it was fun to practice some common off-trail navigation problems that have bit me in the past and get back in the game. Hopefully, it will stop raining in the coming weeks and I can get into bushwhacking more of the NH500 over the next few months.

Recommended Hiking Navigation Tools

I carry and use all of these navigation aids on hikes, both on-trail, and off-trail, in addition to a paper map. The most reliable tool is the compass, by far, because it only relies on the earth's magnetic field to operate. The others are also excellent, but they can generate false positives in the field and it's useful to have a compass along so you can verify the information they provide. 

  • Casio ProTrek Solar Powered Altimeter Watch - are you sick of changing or charging your watch's batteries? This multi-function watch is solar-powered and the watch band is replaceable. It never needs recharging and I never take it off. It has time, date, compass, temperature, altimeter, barometer, stopwatch, backlit display blah blah. I mainly use the time and the altimeter. 
  • Suunto M3 Declination Adjustable Compass - great compass.  Set the declination and forget it. True north eliminates ever having to add or subtract degrees when going back and forth with a map and compass. I have the M3-NH (Northern Hemisphere) model. They also have an SH model and a G-model, which means it's a global compass that can be used north or south of the equator.
  • GaiaGPS Navigation App - there are some things about Gaia that really annoy me, but they have a lot of different maps and map layers to help you figure out where you are in the field. I mainly use the Gaia Topo and TF Outdoors base maps with the Slope Angle and the US Roads layer, which has forest/park service roads, fire roads, some snowmobile trails, and unpaved roads.  You can't carry all these maps at once unless they're available in digitized form on your phone. 
  • Caltopo - Caltopo doesn't have the programming staff that GaiaGPS does, but I still like it much better than Gaia's route planning tool. This is what I use on my laptop to plan and document my hikes. It's also very convenient for big picture planning especially when you're trying to block out a number of alternative routes. Caltopo also has an app, but I like Gaia's much better.

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