South Carter Mountain (4430′) is a White Mountain 4000 footer located in the Carter Moriah Range, almost due east from Mount Washington. It’s one of the more moderate 4000 footers to climb and a good peak to start the winter hiking season with. I was joined on this hike by Keith and Hilde, who’s trying to finish her Winter 4000 footers this year. She’d hiked up Mt Tom the day prior but still enough energy for the hike up South Carter. This was our first time hiking with Keith, who is a very strong hiker and proved to be an excellent companion.
We had a major wind and rain event in the White Mountains last October, that caused major flooding and downed many trees. While I’d seen a trip report on New England Trail Conditions that mentioned blow-downs (trees) on the Carter Moriah Trail between Zeta Pass and South Carter Mountain, I was surprised by what we found. Many trees still blocked the trail, though some had obviously been cleared. Given the snow depth and rugged terrain along the Carter Ridge, we couldn’t walk around these obstructions and had to tunnel under them instead on our bellies. It was exhausting work, weighed down by snowshoes and full winter gear. Type II fun. Most definitely.
We got an early start at 7:30 am. Light snow was forecast that afternoon with a winter storm forecast for the evening. The temperature at the trailhead was 6 degrees but was forecast to go up to 16 later in the day. The wind was blowing about 20 mph, but we’d be protected by trees for the majority of our route.
There was about 1 foot of snow on the ground and the 19 Mile Brook Trail was packed down well enough that we could hike up it in microspikes. After 1.9 miles, we turned up the Carter Dome Trail and continued in microspikes. There were a few inches of unconsolidated powder on top of a packed down layer, but it became increasingly soft as we climbed. I switched to snowshoes at 2800′ and my friends soon followed my example.
It’d been a long time since, at least 3 years, since I’d hiked any of these trails. I’d burned out on them when I finished hiking my Winter 4000 footers in 2014 and stayed away, hiking other trails I’d never been on before. So this hike was a reunion of sorts and a chance to discover the changes to the trails that have been wrought in the interim. The trails in the White Mountains are surprisingly dynamic and subject to change by maintainers, erosion, and the wind. Local maps seldom reflect the changes, which is why you can’t put all of your faith in your GPS if you download trail routes and plan to follow them literally on hikes.
We encountered the first set of the blowdowns on the Carter Dome Trail as we approached Zeta Pass. The trail in this section is a series of switchbacks that zigzag up the mountain. Being on a slope, there was no way around these blowdowns except to crawl under them. Luckily the snow was very powdery and dry, so we didn’t get wet in the process.
We took a short break when we got to Zeta Pass which is more of a trail junction than a pass. You can hike up it, but once you get to the top there’s no way down except to hike back the way you came (real passes have trails down both sides of a saddle.)
We planned to head north from the junction to South Carter, while heading south leads toward Mt Hight and Carter Dome. That’s when the fun started. The route from Zeta Pass to South Carter is 0.8 miles, but it took us an hour to hike it because so many blowdowns blocked the trail. This required more belly crawling. Quite a lot of it. I’d thought about bringing a big saw on this hike, but the trees blocking the trail were too large for it to do much good. I’m afraid this is a job for axes and chainsaws.
We finally made it to South Carter at 12:30 pm. It was snowing in earnest by then and the wind was picking up. Rather than attempt a second peak, Middle Carter, we opted to turn around and hike out. The trail to it wasn’t broken out and we had no idea what we’d encounter in terms of trail conditions beyond that point. Better to hike out the route you came in on then to chance going forward into the unknown with such a small group. There was a winter storm warning forecast for that evening and it was just prudent to turn around at the point and hike out, or crawl out again, which we did.
We made it back down to the trailhead, another 4.6 miles (9.2 total), at a brisk pace, but then gravity is your friend in winter. For all the obstacles, we’d all been challenged and enjoyed the beautiful winter scenery. The winter hiking season is off to a great start with all this snow and I hope to get out to do more winter 4000 footers after the holidays, in January.