I am really good at finding summit signs and canisters on trail-less bushwhack peaks. I have an uncanny ability to find herd paths, clear water sources, and even parking spaces in Harvard Square. I’m not sure if it’s attitude or karmic alignment or maybe my magnetic enthusiasm. Whatever, luck comes my way and I’m a good person to have on an expedition.
And we were very lucky yesterday on a long hike yesterday in the Sandwich Range of the White Mountains that included two White Mountain 4,000 footers and two trail-less bushwhacking peaks on the New Hampshire Hundred Highest list. There was very little ice and monorail left on the summits of North (4180′) and Middle (4140′) Tripyramid Mountains, we found an easy herd path on Scaur (pronounced like scower) Peak (3605′), and the woods were open and easy to walk while climbing The Fool Killer (3548′). Total hike time was 10 hours with 12 miles and 4,200′ of elevation gain/loss. Those were the lucky bits.
The weather was a little challenging though with temperatures just above freezing, low cloud cover, drizzle, freezing rain, sopping wet vegetation and about 2 dozen stream and brook crossings. In other words perfect hypothermia weather.
We were well prepared though. There were four hikers in my group, all Appalachian Mountain Club Hiking and Backpacking leaders, with tons of 4 season hiking and backpacking experience. We’re all in great hiking shape and know how to deal with these types of conditions very well: eat, drink, stay covered, and keep moving. We also smelled horrible at the end of the hike and were wet to the bone. No bother though, we were having a blast.
We started our hike on Pine Bend Brook Trail which I’ve hiked once before in winter. It was pleasant stroll through the woods, past gurgling streams and early string plant grown. We saw trillium, wild rose, and blooming hobble bush. The trail was wet from the start, the clouds were low and we wondered whether we’d get any views later in the day.
While the Pine Bend Trail starts easy, it starts to climb after a while until you feel like you’re scrambling up a stairway made for a giant. Although I remembered that there were a few steep bits, the trail looked much different than I remembered without three additional feet of snow cloaking it. I’d rate this one strenuous.
Our original plan for this hike was to climb Pine Bend Trail to 3600 feet, bushwhack to Scaur Peak, return to the trail and climb North and Middle Tripyramid. From Middle, we’d backtrack to the Sabbaday Brook Trail, descend steeply to about 3,000 feet, bushwhack abut 1/2 mile up to The Fool Killer (3548′), and then reverse our route to get back to the van. We did all that except we hiked out Sabbaday Brook Trail instead, with a 1 mile road walk at the end to get back to our vehicle.
I’d originally been hesitant to commit to a Sabbaday Brook Trail exit for this hike because it has 8 major stream crossings and I’d been concerned that the water might be too high. There’s also the fact that many people are not comfortable with stream crossings at all. I can understand being afraid of a knee deep crossing, but peoples’ fears are often somewhat out of proportion to reality until they learn (through experience) how to scout a route and cross it. There are perfectly good reasons to avoid getting wet feet, but sometimes it’s unavoidable and not the end of the world as long as you know how to mitigate the hypothermia risks. It also feels great when it’s 80 degrees outside.
The hike over to Scaur Peak proved very easy. We found a herd path at 3600 feet on the bearing I’d planned (320 degrees) and followed it directly to the summit. There’s a sign at the summit but no canister. One down. From there, we turned around and reacquired the Pine Bend Trail, which intersected with the Mt Tripyramid Loop, shortly thereafter.
We followed that trail over the North and Middle Peaks, which were mostly clear of ice and monorail: we’d brought traction but didn’t need to put it on. There’s no snow in the surrounding woods at all. Unfortunately we were in cloud the entire time, so no views.
From Middle, we backtracked to the Sabbaday Book Trail Junction and descended very steeply to about 3,000 feet. There is some very wet and slippery slab on this slope and you need to be very cautious down-climbing it. Next came the Fool Killer bushwhack. Everything up to this point had been an appetizer: we were all on this hike to bag this peak and experience the meaning of it’s strange name.
The name is not that odd if you think about the history of the White Mountains before it was ‘colonized’ by hiking trails. Back in those days, people had to bushwhack to get to Middle Tripyramid, but often found themselves short of their destination on top of The Fool Killer. The phrase “The Fool Killer” was originally used to describe a monumental piece of foolishness – such as climbing the wrong peak – and first appeared in print at the turn of the 20th century in a short story called The Fool Killer by Olivier Henry.
When we got to the base of The Fool Killer, I shot a bearing of 320 degrees and started climbing steeply up hill, my calves burning. They was a ton of decayed leaves and hummus on the hill and I found myself actually trying to kick steps (something you do in snow with mountaineering boots) in order to get a stable foothold on the slope. There was also ample evidence of widespread avalanche debris on the slope which we had to pick our way around. But on the whole, the trees and vegetation on the peak are fairly open and it was possible to walk between them without the normal tearing of clothes and scratches that accompany denser vegetation.
It only took us 30 minute to climb the 600 off-feet to the summit ridge, which we then followed as it sloped up gently to the summit sign and canister. There is a faint herd path along the summit ridge although it’s covered with a substantial number of blown downs and debris.
We started out descent of the Fool Killer by 3:30 pm and were well on our way down the Sabbaday Brook trail by 4 pm, finishing the last 5 miles of our hike by 6:00. The water crossings weren’t that bad; my feed got wet because I was in trail runners but those of my compatriot’s, who were all wearing Gore-tex boots, stayed dry.
Needless to say, we were zonked by this hike and by the cold, wet weather; some of us, including myself, had been working long hours recently with little sleep, but I slept well after this hike. Very well.