“We should have brought our crampons” said Kris, my frequent bushwhacking partner. “Even without snow,” I replied, as we clawed and scrambled our way up an incredibly steep slope below rocky cliffs.
It was unseasonably warm, this first week of November, on what we had assumed would be an easy bushwhack up Greens Cliff (2926′), a New Hampshire 200 Highest Peak near Mt Tremont. We’d climbed Sable and Chandler, two other trail-less mountains the day before, and this was supposed to be an easy day.
But Greens Cliff turned out to be the hardest hike of our trip up north, scratching the crap out of my hands and arms, and ripping open the scabs on my shins gained from other recent bushwhacks. Kris, who wore short sleeves fared even worse, including rips in his Railrider pants. Autumn is prime bushwhacking season in the White Mountains because they’re no bugs, the weather is cool, and you can see your destination when the leaves come down from the trees.
You can plan a bushwhack as much as you want, but you never know what kind of vegetation you’re going to encounter until you get into the thick of it. Will you find your path blocked by huge downed trees trunks that you need to scramble over? Will you encounter a high elevation bog that you need to skirt to avoid the quicksand like mud? Will you need to wade through a patch of spruce trees, so densely packed that you can’t see your feet as you push through them? Such are the many challenges and torments of hiking off trail.
Kris and I had started our hike at the Sawyer River Trail Head on the Kancamagus Highway, crossing the Swift River, before heading down a snowmobile trail into the warren of unmapped logging roads, ski trails, and gravel roads that run havoc near the Sawyer Pond Scenic Area. It’s very easy to lose your way in this densely forested region with poor signage and few distinct geographic features to orient yourself by.
Kris and I had different ideas about the best route to the summit. Based on an old trip report, he wanted to climb to the top of the mountain by skirting the cliffs, while I preferred approaching from the west and hitting the contours perpendicularly. This was supposed to be an easy hike, so I agreed to follow his plan, but I hoped to demonstrate the logic behind my route on the hike out.
Stepping off-trail at about 1660′, we entered open woods covered with a dense layer of fallen leaves and scattered boulders, climbing steadily up the southeastern ridge toward the summit. However, the woods grew denser and more congested with fallen trees the higher we climbed, making forward progress slow.
When were arrived at the small set of cliffs to the south of the summit, we managed to find a gap between them that we could scramble up, laying down on the forest floor atop the cliff afterward, to rest and rehydrate. It was then that I realized I’d put my collared hiking shirt on inside out that morning. A fashion fopah.
We plowed through a level area and hit a second set of cliffs, working our way around the base until we could see a way uphill. This set was far steeper than the last, but the summit was in reach so we scrambled upwards, finding gaps in the rocks until we got to the top. After bashing through pencil woods, packed so tight you can barely squeeze through them, we came to the hiker’s canister, hanging from the tree at the summit.
The canister is actually a glass bottle hanging from a string that contains notes and names of the people who’d climbed the peak before us, at about a rate of 5 people per year, on the busy years. There were some years where no one bothered to leave their name or perhaps climb this knob of granite to see the view. Bushwhacking isn’t a mainstream form of peakbagging in the Whites, but that’s ok with me.
By reading the entries we discovered that there is a second summit on Greens Cliff that’s 5 feet higher than the one we arrived at, so we packed up and walked over to it, only to find a second canister that we also left our names in.
We decided to take the western route down the peak to see if it was any easier. It was surprisingly wide open, all the way down to about 1800 feet. The biggest obstacle we encountered was having to wade through the foot and a half of dried leaves at our feet. Then we hit spruce. Nothing too terrible, but forward visibility dropped to about 6 inches while we waded through bands of the stuff. We knew we were close to the Sawyer River Trail and the route back to our cars, but there was just more spruce.
Until we popped out of the woods along Meadow Brook, with a huge beaver dam situated between us and the trail. Kris bravely walked across the dam…there are many White Mountain Trails that run over them, but it was still a sketchy tactic. I was a bit more conservative and bushwhacked downstream before fording the river at a shallow point.
We were wiped when we got back to the cars: 6 miles of hiking including 4.5 miles off-trail in 6 hours. A tough day, but I have all next week to heal before I tackle the feared Middle and East Scar bushwhack.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 31st ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine