The southwestern region of the White Mountains is one of the most remote and least visited portions of the White Mountain National Forest. While people frequently hike Mount Moosilauke, the rest of the trail system and woods is in the area seldom visited by hikers, giving the entire region a distinctly wilderness feel. Mount Clough is the second highest mountain in the region after Mount Moosilauke, but is trail-less so it can only be climbed using off trail compass and navigation techniques which surprising few hikers are really good at.
I have a personal interest in growing the off-trail hiking community because I want to hike these trail-less peaks with other like-minded individuals who enjoy the wilderness experience they offer and the challenge and trade-craft associated with off-trail hiking and compass navigation. I’ve started leading some intermediate hiking trips for the Appalachian Mountain Club targeted at people who have taken a compass navigation course previously, but haven’t had the chance to apply and practice those skills on a off-trail hike where they need to do all the upfront planning and hands-on navigation during a trip.
I held the first of these trips last Sunday and it went really well. We had a great bunch of people and successfully summited Mount Clough after a three and a half hour climb. Rather than navigating for the participants myself, I let them do the route planning for this hike and work together as a team to determine a good route to the summit and back. My role was really to help structure their pre-trip planning activities and facilitate group interactions during the trip itself, occasionally pointing out some best practices in off-trail and compass navigation that they can build on for future hikes. I had a blast on this trip and it was one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve ever led for the AMC. If you missed this one, there will be others!
Planning and Preparation
Participants were given an optional planning homework assignment before the trip. Most of them submitted their plans to me in advance, giving me the opportunity the comment and coach them offline. The “homework assignment” also prepared them for a trail head discussion where they compared the merits of two possible routes and decided amongst themselves which route they wanted to try climbing. I helped broker this discussion but tried to stay out of the group decision-making process because I wanted to empower participants. I’ve been on bushwhacks where the leader takes over and does all the route planning, figures out all the compass bearings, and leads the group up the mountain. My goal was to provide a context for participants to do this themselves and only help or coach when a teachable moment presented itself that all could benefit from.
Here are the planning questions I sent out and answers from one participant which will give you a feel for the type of planning required for an off-trail hike. We didn’t ascend Clough by this route, deciding to descend by it instead, because it was steeper and would be harder to climb. (We subsequently hiked down the same route because a participant had an old injury that was acting up and I decided to descend by the shorter route.)
Q: What declination angle should we use?
15 degrees West
Q: What is the best direction to climb up Mount Clough?
I think the best approach is from the west near the height of land on Long Pond Rd.
Q: What is the best approach to get to the point where we go off trail?
Question is when Long Pond Rd opens. For now it’s closed, so we’d park down on High St near Glencliff and the cemetery. From there it’s about 3 miles up Long Pond Rd to the height of land. If the road is open then we can drive up. One reason that I’d chose this route is because the road is more likely to have a better hiking surface than Tunnel Brook Trail (monorails)
Q: Where should we leave the trail and start bushwhacking? Why?
Near the height of land there is an old logging road that splits off to the left (west) at 2273 feet. It’s a clear landmark at the base of the ridge that we’d want to ascend.
Q: What is the compass bearing we will follow when we step off the trail? How will we know when we’ve arrived at this point?
About 100 degrees. Again the logging road is a clear landmark from where to start. We’d follow this bearing to the main summit ridge, aiming for the sag between the main summit and a minor bump to the north.
Q: Where if any, will we need to make compass bearing changes along our ascent? Include an elevation for each point.
When we reach the ridge at 3380 feet we will adjust the compass bearing to 154 degrees and follow the ridge to the summit.
Q: Write a few sentences that describe the terrain features we should expect to see or experience along our route that you can use to verify that we’re where we want to be.
For the first half mile or so we will be in wide-open birch woods (I photographed the west slope from Jeffers/Hogsback back in December). After that it will transition into medium spruce woods. To the south there is a drainage/ravine so if we drift too far in that direction then the slope would drop off to the south more and more steep. Terrain to the north is similar to our path but we’d still reach the ridge. At 3080 ft contour there is a “prow-like” feature that we should find. The terrain should clearly level off at the point where we gain the ridge and change bearing.
Q: How long should it take for us to cover the off-trail distance on your planned route between the time we step off-trail and we reach the summit of Clough?
The total bushwhack distance is approx 1.2 miles with around 1300 ft of elevation gain. On trail this would translate to about 1 hour 15-20 minutes. Bushwhacking, I’d estimate double this so 2.5 hours (one-way).
Q: If there are views during our ascent, what should we expect to see and on what compass bearings?
There should be views through the trees at the start of the bushwhack, leaves may start to come out at this point but it should be clear enough to see Jeffers, Hogsback, Blueberry Mtn to the west and Long Pond to the NW. There are a few large patches of what appear to be blowdowns (satellite imagery) to the south of the summit. These may offer views to the south, but it’s hard to say.
Q: What’s the best route off this peak?
I’d backtrack the way we come in, especially if the route is good and we can follow snowshoe track back. An alternate descent would be to head to the Tunnel Brook Trail along that SE ridge (assuming we park near Glencliff) to make a loop out of the hike.
Lessons Learned (For Leaders and Participants)
We had perfect weather for this off-trail hike, at least from an educator’s perspective. Low cloud cover obscured all of the nearby landmarks that we should have been able to see on a clear day, forcing participants to rely on their compasses even more than usual. If you think you always know where north is in the forests of the White Mountains, you are in for a big surprise. It is very easy to get turned around and you’ll want to get into the habit of always verifying your direction using a compass.
For this hike, I required that everyone bring a declination adjustable compass, so we could all use the same bearings based on true north. It’s incredibly confusing on group hikes when some people have to add or subtract declination values to share bearing angles and getting everyone onto true north bearings nipped that issue in the bud. I didn’t want this hike to be a “compass class” but an applied off-trail navigation practice hike.
Climbing Mt Clough is not a terribly difficult off-trail hike, but it presented a number of excellent teachable moments:
- Maps lie
- The USGS map for Clough shows a sub-peak with a higher elevation than the main peak, which is an error on the map. this is easy to figure out because the contour lines leading up to the sub-peak don’t match the printed elevation.
- The land features in front of you may be too small to register on a map with a 40′ map contour line so you can only really count on features large enough to show up on a map.
- Maps of the White Mountains are often significantly out of date so it’s best to not trust them completely and to use multiple data sources for route planning.
- Maps do not show whether forest roads are gated (closed), are impassable due to snow, or have been washed out by floods. You need to discover these things in advance or be willing to work around them when you arrive.
- You can’t rely on a compass alone for off-trail navigation
- While a compass will keep you on a bearing, it won’t keep you on a straight line from point A to point B. If you stray 50 yards to the right or left of your current bearing you’ll be walking parallel to your old route, and you might miss the end point you were aiming for.
- Walking straight is harder than it looks but techniques like leap-frogging with a partner, or sighting on distant landmarks on your bearing and walking to them. even if you have to walk around an obstacle, can keep you on a straight line. We discussed and practiced both of these techniques.
- Everybody at the rear of an off-trail hike should be constantly checking to make sure that the people up front are not straying to the left or right and are staying on the desired bearing.
- While a compass is good for navigating through featureless landscape, you can use other clues such as elevation (using an altimeter) or visual features such as elevation drop offs to your right and left on a ridge, to determine where you are. The same goes as you near the summit of a pointy mountain like Clough. You know that going uphill will eventually lead you to the summit, so all you need to do is keep going uphill until you get to the highest point. Once you arrive you’ll know where you are (hopefully).
- Knowing where you are (approximately)
- It’s good to start the off-trail section of your hike from an easy to identify start point. Trail junctions, forest road intersections, and altimeter readings along a hiking trail are all good ways to do this. For example, we started the off-trail section of our Mt Clough climb at 2200′ on the Tunnel Brook Trail. We had three altimeters in our group and synchronized them at the start of our hike at a known elevation.
- Once you leave a known point and start off-trail, you’ll never know exactly where you are unless you come across an obvious landmark. That’s ok as long as you know how to get back to one easily.
- One of the best types of landmarks is something called a handrail, like a stream, a road or trail which you can see or which is impossible to miss if you hike in the right direction. For the Clough hike, we knew that we could head due east at any time and run into the Tunnel Brook Trail, which would take us back to the trailhead where we’d started the hike.
- Always record the time you start an off-trail section because you can use time and pace to estimate where you are along a bearing. In general a pace of 0.5 miles per hour is a good baseline estimate for off-trail hiking in the White Mountains.
- Energy Conservation
- Off-trail hiking is significantly more physical than on-trail hiking. The climbs are steeper and you need to use your arms as much as your legs to pull yourself up steep grades.
- In order to conserve your energy, it’s good to get as close to your destination as possible on a road or trail before heading off-trail. This will save time and energy.
- It’s often difficult to hike uphill along a stream bed because the sides of the stream bed are heavily eroded or choked by blowdowns and other vegetation. Streams can make good navigational handrails, if they’re on your map, as long as you keep them in sight to your right or left when hiking uphill or down.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Off-trail hiking in the White Mountains can be a very humbling experience and even the most wizened bushwhackers will tell you that you need to practice, practice, practice to learn off-trail planning, hiking, and navigational skills. But if you crave a wilderness experience and want to sharpen your observational and reasoning skills. off trail hiking cannot be beat!
I’ll be leading more of the Off Trail Navigation and Compass Practice hikes for the Appalachian Mountain Club later this year and hope you’ll join me then.
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