Millen Hill and Mt Dartmouth are two trailless peaks adjacent to Mt Jefferson in the White Mountains Presidential Range. Millen Hill is on the New Hampshire 200 highest list, while Mt Dartmouth is on the 100 highest list and the more difficult of the two peaks to climb. While I would have been comfortable solo bushwhacking to Millen Hill, I have been a little intimidated by Mt Dartmouth, which is a much more difficult peak to climb based on previous reports by other hikers. So I was glad to team up with two friends for the ascent of both peaks, Bill and Lynn, on the day of the Summer Solstice.
We met that morning at the Cap Ridge Trailhead on Mt Jefferson, which at 3000′, is the highest trailhead in the White Mountains and the shortest trail to summit Jefferson. Only we were headed west and off-trail instead of east and up the Caps Ridge Trail. Before setting out, we applied copious amounts of bug dope and made sure we had our head nets close at hand before heading into the forest and into the insect armageddon we were likely to encounter. In normal years, mosquito and black fly season tend to taper off by Father’s Day in the Whites, but this year has been anything but normal. The only skin I had showing on this hike were the tips of my fingers in my fingerless gloves, and only because I’d mislaid the thin Gorilla Grip Gloves I like to wear on buggy bushwhacks.
Bushwhacking out to Millen Hill was a fairly straightforward whack, although we ran into a lot of forest debris on the way out. While the contours on the map make it look like the route is a gradual slope, there was a multitude of small gullies and rocky outcrops to hike around and over en route. Bill had been out to Millen before and reported that his previous trip has been an easy one, but we had to work a lot harder on ours. On hindsight, I think we dropped too far south on the way to the peak and a more northerly route would have been much more open. Still, we made it to the summit in under an hour in good spirits, signed the log book, and rehydrated before setting off to climb Dartmouth, the big peak of the day.
Bill had some beta that suggested we follow the 3100′ contour along the east side of Dartmouth before climbing to the summit, so we set off toward the Millen-Dartmouth Col hoping to pass it on the southeast side. The woods here were pretty open and we made good time.
We were all wearing ABC watches, so staying on the 3100′ contour was pretty straightforward. ABC stands for Altitude-Barometer-Compass and the benefit of biggest benefit of wearing one, at least from my perspective, is that you can tell where you are on a topographic map based on your altitude and elevation.
But walking along a contour isn’t easy, particularly if it’s along a steep slope because one leg is higher than the other and it can get really tiring to walk this way. In addition, we had to constantly jog around blown-down trees and rocky outcrops that jutted out from the hillside, forcing us to gain or lose elevation to walk around them. Add in the heat and bugs and well, it’s a draining combination.
When we got far enough north to head to the summit, Bill led the way, picking his way through the rocky hillside and rotten vegetation underfoot. It wasn’t easy. The topo made it look like there was a plateau below the summit, but the reality was slightly different. There was a depression below the summit plateau full of blown-down trees that we had to clamber over to get to the other side. I hate this type of terrain and took a faceplant here, painfully stubbing the big toe of my left foot in the process. It hurt so much that I thought I’d broken the toe. But I decided to keep my shoe on to contain any swelling rather than taking it off to inspect the toe and risk not being able to put it back on. It finally feels pretty normal now, a few days later.
When we got through the blowdowns, Bill quickly found a faint herd path to the summit canister where we signed the logbook and wolfed down some food, being careful to eat with our head nets on. The insect pressure was simply insane, a fact that was also recorded in the logbook entries we scanned.
The hardest part of a bushwhack, in my experience, is not getting to a summit, but getting back out again reasonably close to where you started. That meant retracing our route by descending to the 3100′ contour and then side-hilling all the way back the way we’d come. It’s easy to lose your concentration though, so you need to be vigilant during this phase of the hike, checking your bearings and elevation lest you fall off course or into a terrain trap that requires an arduous climb back uphill.
We did fall off course briefly during this phase of the hike, but it’s something I know I do often so I’m on the lookout for it. We caught it soon enough and got back on course quickly, side-hilling back the way we’d come, only this time with the other leg higher than the other. But I’ll be the first to admit it, I was beat tired when we got back to the cars at the end of this bushwhack. It’d taken us close to 6 hours to hike 6 miles with only 1000′ of elevation gain, which just goes to show how much harder off-trail hiking is than when you’re on-trail and have a good tread to follow.
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