The first backpacking trip I ever took in New Hampshire’s White Mountains started at the Rattle River Trailhead on Rt 2 outside of Gorham. We met at the shelter that first evening, 2 miles up from the highway, and then climbed Mts Moriah, Middle Carter, South Carter, Hight, and Carter Dome, camping at the Imp Shelter along the way. I remember being intimidated by the White Mountains on that trip, which were far larger, steeper, and tougher than the peaks and trails I’d climbed previously.
It’s 10 years later and I’m still in awe of these mountains I thought, as I hiked up the Rattle River Trail, the last section of the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail before the Mahoosucs. I was heading southbound on this section, hiking down the Carter Moriah Range with the Wildcat Ridge tucked on at the end. A distance of 22 miles with about 8000 feet of elevation gain, I hoped to finish in 2 days, with enough daylight left on day two, so I could hitch back to my car.
It was cold and misty as I hiked up the Rattle River Trail, which follows the self-named stream up the back of Shelburne Moriah, a subpeak of the 4000 footer, Mt Moriah. I’d gotten an early start because I wanted to hike a big day. The trail starts easy and gets gradually steeper as it climbs. There are two long sections of large rock steps that I remembered with dread, before the trail tops out and follows slippery bog bridges to the Mt Moriah summit spur.
On the way down from Moriah, I met Flying J, who’s been section hiking the AT since 2008. He was up for a two-week hike with his buddies Inside-Out and Karem. They were looking forward to being “done” with the Whites, having been slowed to a 10 mile/day pace. People underestimate the place. They headed north and I continued south, meeting still more thru-hikers and section hikers, later in the day.
The mist cleared after I left Moriah and I hiked to the Imp Shelter in sunshine. Popped down the shelter spur to have a look at the lean-to and filter more water. I sat on the bench in front of the lean-to and ate a couple of bars before continuing on.
The climb up North Carter was tough, wet, and steep. But Middle Carter, and South Carter got progressively easier. Most of the blow downs that I encountered between South Carter and Zeta Pass over the winter when I climbed the peak, have been cleared. I only had to crawl on my belly once to get under one.
When I got to Zeta Pass, I was very low on water. When planning this trip, I’d been counting on finding a stream there, but it was dry. I sat on the old rotted bench at the pass, which I’d sat on 10 years earlier, and had a think. I could try to climb Carter Dome and then down into Carter Notch, about 3 miles with my remaining 1/4 liter or hike down the Carter Dome Trail and find water. Truth is, I was thirsty and know how hard hiking dry is. I went down on the blue blazed trails. It was the right call, but a let-down because I’d been anticipating Carter Dome and the adjacent Mt Hight all day. Hight has the best views in the Whites. Really.
I didn’t find water until I’d dropped 1000 feet. After that, I knew I couldn’t climb back up and then over Carter Dome. I’d been hiking close to 10 hours, had already hiked 13 miles, and was done for the day. I continued down the Carter Dome Trail and then turned onto the 19 Mile Trail, headed toward the Carter Notch Hut, another 3.5 miles. I wanted to get as close the Wildcat Ridge Trail as I could for the climb the next morning up to Wildcat ‘A’. I checked my topo map and found a place where there was flattish ground. I hiked there and found a nice pre-exiting campsite, way off trail. I set up camp, cooked dinner, and was asleep by 9:00 pm.
I broke camp the next morning by 7:00 am and started hiking again. Finished the climb to the Carter Lakes and hiked down to the Carter Moriah Trail Junction (at the bottom of the descent from carter Dome) to take a photo of the morning sun on the Lakes. Then back up to the Wildcat Ridge Trail for my biggest ascent of the day, the 0.7 mile/1000 ft slog up Wildcat ‘A’. There are five peaks on this ridge trail: A, B, C, D, and E and I’d bang them out in quick succession. If your headed northbound, E is definitely the hardest, and it was murder down-climbing it. For south bounders, the steepest is the A peak, but it is a short steep climb, and soon forgotten.
I met some old friends on the climb down E and had a snack with them on the open ledges overlooking Pinkham Notch. When I got down to the Notch, I hiked along the Lost Pond Trail, coming out on Rt 16 across the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. I positioned myself slightly above the PNVC driveway and started hitching back to my car. It only took me 25 minutes and two rides to travel the 14 miles. Now that’s a record!
Total distance: 22 miles w/8000 feet of elevation gain.
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
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