Mount Moosilauke (4802′) was windy. It’s often like that. It was really cold too, registering -1*F at the trailhead at the start of our hike, with a -30*F windchill forecast at the mountain’s bald summit. That meant we’d probably need full-face protection to prevent frostbite on the final above-treeline portion of the ascent.
Bucking convention, we climbed to the summit on the Beaver Brook Trail which is the least popular winter route because it is so steep, climbing 1900 feet in the first 1.5 miles, and 3050′ over 3.8 miles to the summit. Most people climb Moosilauke via the Glencliff Trail in winter or the up the Carriage Road, or the Gorge Brook Trail, because they’re much more moderate.Moosilauke – Beaver Brook Trail
Make no mistake, that initial climb was hard, with fresh snow covering hard ice. We all wore crampons on the ascent, but it was still tough getting a good grip with them because they floated on the snow. I’m also prone to cold weather asthma, which made the climb doubly difficult since I’d forgotten my inhaler on the kitchen table that morning. But my friends were patient with me as I pulled myself up the first big ascent.
This wasn’t my first time climbing up the Beaver Brook Trail. In fact, the Beaver Brook Trail was the first trail I ever hiked in the White Mountain National Forest 22 years ago. Don’t ask me how I picked that trail to summit Moosilauke, but they both left a lasting impression on me. I’ve since climbed Moosilauke many many times in all seasons and from all directions.
Once we got the big initial ascent out of the way, we hiked past Mt Blue, the subpeak that we’d bushwhack after summiting the main peak. Mt Blue has become a popular destination in recent years and is on the Trailwrights 72 peakbagging list. We stopped at the Benton Trail junction for a snack and to don our above-treeline gear and some extra insulation.
From there, it was a short distance to treeline and full exposure. The summit of Moosilauke is a bald, ice-covered dome with no wind protection. There was no snow on the final approach because it had been blown off, but we kept on our snowshoes rather than stop. The mist was down, but the trail is marked by large rock cairns that lead the way to the summit sign.
This wasn’t any of my hiking partners’ first rodeo with Moosilauke, so we didn’t linger in the wind and headed off the summit after a few group photos around the sign. Two hikers came up behind us just as we were dipping below treeline. We’d seen them approaching from the Carriage Road, so we asked if they were doing a traverse. This startled them and they asked whether they were on the Gorge Brook Trail. Three major trails meet at the Moosilauke Summit and they’d walked right by the turn they wanted because the sign was probably covered in ice and the peak was shrouded in mist.
I told them to hike back to the summit sign and turn left, but it just goes to show how disorienting winter peaks can be if the normal visual and directional references are missing. A compass or GPS can be a good thing to carry in such circumstances so you can check that you’re headed in the right direction once you pass a trail junction.
We hiked back down the Beaver Brook trail the way we’d come, making much better time on the way back because we were headed downhill and the trail had been broken out previously by our passage. There’s a herd path off the main trail to Mt Blue (4529′), but it was completely buried and we never saw it. But we knew where the subpeak was and set off through open woods following the contour to the high point where the summit was located.
Bushwacking in winter is very dangerous to do by yourself in winter. The chief danger is falling into what’s known as a spruce trap, which is a void in the snowpack, usually created by a bush that’s been covered with snow. If you fall through the surface and into the open space surrounding the bush, it can be very very difficult to extricate yourself without assistance. If you can’t get out, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually freeze to death.
My friend Ken charged ahead into the woods and I followed close behind ready to offer assistance in case he got trapped. He found one such void but was able to extract himself without much difficulty. We snaked our way through the woods finding open alleys that we could follow through the trees to the open summit. There wasn’t a canister at the summit (a waterproof jar holding a logbook so you can sign your name) so we confirmed the true summit by GPS. When I last bushwhacked Blue in 2012, I found a glass jar and logbook, but those quaint gestures tend to disappear when a spot gets popular.
From Blue, it was downhill all the way. We retraced our steps back to the steep portion of the Beaver Brook Trail and gingerly made our way downhill. Some of us stayed in snowshoes and others switched to crampons for the descent. But we all made it down in one piece and headed for a snack at a pub in Lincoln.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 30th ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine