I was grumpy at the end of our bushwhack up Middle and East Scar. I was soaking wet, my hands were cold, and my rain pants were shredded. We’d fallen off our line descending from the East peak and I was covered in snow from bushwhacking down the steep south face. I just wanted to find a trail and hike back to my warm car before the sun set.
It’d been a hard bushwhack but we’d pretty much nailed the route except for this final leg. I’d completely underestimated the weather though and hadn’t brought waterproof gloves. I was surprised to find so much snow on the west side of the Whites, having hiked above treeline without any on the east side of the mountains the day before. Winter has arrived.
Scar Ridge is one of the toughest off-trail hikes in the White Mountains. Comprising three peaks: West, Middle, and East, some people hike the entire ridge in one day, an arduous undertaking in the best of circumstances. Having hiked the West peak in the past, I didn’t feel the need to do it again. Instead we set our sites on the Middle and East peaks, about half the total distance, but still a tough slog, perhaps tougher because you have to climb the Middle peak through dense brush and not up a wide open ski slope like you can for the West Scar summit.
We started our off-trail ascent at Little East Pond (elevation 2600′) and headed toward Middle Scar, aiming for the col between it and a small sub-peak to the southeast. The going was tough, with pencil woods around the pond and lots of blow downs until about 3200′. Middle Scar has southward facing rock ledges, but we were able to find a route through them and then climb the summit cone. Popping out at the summit canister, we were all amazed that we’d nailed the route with such accuracy.
I’ve been hiking many off-trail routes during the past two years with a small group of close friends who call themselves the bushwhackos. You can probably guess why. In addition to Middle and East Scar, we’ve climbed Mounts Bemis, Deception, Kineo, The Captain, Black, Wolf Cub, and Blue Ridge together, along with many trips to peaks with trails. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but I count them all as good friends and would hike anywhere with them.
From the Middle peak we needed to hike along the ridge to the East peak before making our exit. I’d been given a tip by another bushwhacker named Damselfly, to drop down the north side of the ridge, rather than continue on top, since it would be faster going. We hiked along the top until we hit “thick sh*it”, in other words dense brush and a carpet of downed trees, and headed down the north side of the ridge where the going was marginally better.
The problem with dropping down below the crest of the ridge is that you don’t know exactly where you are and when to climb back up. We didn’t use a GPS to figure this out (it’s not sporting), relying instead on our ability to read the land forms along the ridge.
For example, there are three bumps or peaklets between the Middle and East peaks (on the dashed black line above) and we paid attention to how the land around them sloped up and then down to tell us where we were along the ridge. Being able to track your location by “reading the land” is one of the skills that’s left out of many map and compass classes, a shame because it’s used more than a compass for off-trail navigation. That’s why we practice doing it so much, because it’s a subtle skill to master.
We headed up when we thought we’d reached the East peak, Kyle leading the way. When he got to the summit he stopped short, surrounded by dense spruce and blow downs covered with snow. The summit of the East peak is quite flat and we had trouble finding the canister. We looked for a while and finally gave up, declaring the peak summited. That’s the way it is somehow. Disappointing, but the placement of the canister can be somewhat arbitrary on peaks with a plateau on top. We knew we were on the right peak because several of us carry altimeters and we were at the correct elevation, with no other higher points on this side of the ridge.
Now the hard part, the descent back down to the trail. This is when bushwhacks have a tendency to go awry, when people are tired and feel like they’ve achieved their goal. It’s the worst time to let down your guard.
We started our descent, but quickly got forced off our intended bearing because there were to many fallen trees, debris, and dense spruce in the way. I was leading and I couldn’t side hill through the crap. A major course correction was required off our intended route. I was exhausted. The group rallied and we dropped elevation, hiking south to the East Pond Loop Trail.
We were all greatly relieved when we hit the trail. Darkness was rapidly approaching and I dread being off-trail in it. We tramped over to East Pond, pausing to look at East Scar in the twilight, before hightailing it back to our cars.
The thing that I relish the most about these hikes is the teamwork and camaraderie of the people I hike with. The ripped clothing, scabs and sore muscles are all soon forgotten, but the smiles and glow of a successful off-trail summit are enduring and difficult to forget.