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Secrets of the Montalban Ridge – Cave Mountain and a Mt Parker Attempt

Snowshoeing through deep snow and breaking trail below Mt Parker

The Montalban Ridge is one of three ridges south of Mt Washington, running from Boot Spur Mountain to the Saco River outside of Bartlett, NH, and includes Mts Isolation, Davis, Stairs, Resolution, Parker, Langdon, Pickering, and Stanton, from north to south. The peaks from Mt Langdon north, including Mt Parker, lie within the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness Area, which is one the most rugged and less frequented Wilderness Areas in the White Mountain National Forest.

Obstructed view of Mt Parker from Oak Ridge
Obstructed view of Mt Parker from Oak Ridge (south side of the peak)

My main objective on this hike was to climb Mt Parker and to visit, conditions and time permitting, Cave Mountain and the Mt Langdon Shelter, on side trails off my route. At 3004 feet, Mt Parker is the second to last highest 3000-footer on the unofficial NH 3000 footer list (all the list variants are considered unofficial) and the NH 52-with-a-View list. By all accounts, it’s an seldom visited mountain with an open ledgy summit and unobstructed views of Mt Washington. Just 3.9 miles from Bartlett, it’s a healthy climb, gaining 2550 feet of elevation.

The only real unknown for this hike was what the trail conditions would be like and whether the trail would be packed out, require snowshoes, or whether I’d have to break trail solo. While trip reports of people hiking the 4000 footers are commonplace in the Whites, there aren’t many hikers who post trip reports about trail conditions to the lower peaks, and the trails to them are often impassable until later in the spring.

Mt Langdon Trailhead slightly before sunrise
Mt Langdon Trailhead shortly before sunrise

I also had a secondary objective, which was to hike at least 2.5 miles up the Mt Langdon Trail to the trail junction with the Mt Stanton Trail, to keep hiking my way through the White Mountain Guide. The goal is to hike all 1400 miles of the 529 trails listed in the AMC White Mountain Guide, so I always try to hike a few new miles of trail on every trip north I take.

I got a real early start, hitting the trail by 6:30 am, just as the sun was lighting up the hills above Bartlett. It was five below zero. The trail was packed at the base, so I put on microspikes and hoped for the best.

Cave Mountain Trail Junction
Cave Mountain Trail Junction

I soon came to the Cave Mountain Trail Junction and decided to hike it earlier rather than later. This is a great hike, past a big cave, up to a ledge with a great view, followed by a short bushwhack to the true summit.

The Cave on Cave Mountain
The Cave on Cave Mountain

The hike up to the cave is short but devilishly steep. Once at the cave, the trail loops to the right and climbs past some steep ledges to a great viewpoint. I had to switch to snowshoes for extra flotation to keep from postholing in the deepening snow.

The Viewpoint Ledge on Cave Mountain
The Viewpoint Ledge on Cave Mountain

The White Mountain Guide says that this ledge is at the summit of Cave Mountain, but that is clearly not true because the mountain continues to climb to higher ground in the trees behind it. I decided to bushwhack to the top and then down again to the east to link back up with the Mt Langdon Trail, rather than backtracking the way I’d come.

Taking a bearing back to the Mt Langdon Trail
Taking a bearing back to the Mt Langdon Trail

The woods on top of Cave Mountain are quite open and there are multiple logging roads the criss-cross the summit and down the east side of the peak. I snowshoed down a few as I worked my way east, and eventually saw the Mt Langdon Trail on the other side of a stream. I crossed over at a shallow point and continued toward Parker.

Someone had snowshoed up the trail a few weeks prior and broken it out, but it was just one person and their tracks had mostly filled in with new and drifting snow. Still hiking in their footsteps saved me some energy and I continued up the trail, past beautiful birch glades in the warm sun.

I’d had to cancel a previous trip to Parker earlier in the winter due to even deeper snow, but we didn’t even leave the parking lot on that hike because we didn’t have enough people to break trail and because driving was so hazardous that no one would have been able get to the trailhead anyway. Attempting to hike it solo was a stretch, but I knew it would be a good 5-6 hour adventure and work out even if I didn’t summit.

Note: There is only space for 2 cars at the Mt Langdon Trail head pull-off. 

Hardwoods on Mt Langdon Trail
Hardwoods on Mt Langdon Trail

When snowshoeing in deep snow, I like to hike a slow and steady rhythm because I find that it helps regulate my breathing and minimize sweating. Step, one one thousand. Step, two one thousand. Step, three one thousand. I literally count out the steps to keep this pace. There’s a step, a hover when I pick up my other snowshoe, and then a plant. This is also a good pace for the front hiker in a group when climbing a peak on packed trails.

I climbed until I came to Oak Ridge, which is the high point on the trail before it dips down into a saddle at the Mt Parker Trail and Mt Stanton Trail Junction. The guy who’d broken trail before me had turned back before descending into the saddle and obviously given up. I debated carrying on, weighing the likelihood that trail-breaking would get any easier, and how long it would take rescuers to get to me if I encountered a situation where I needed help.

Turnaround point on Mt Parker
Turnaround point on Mt Parker

I decided to carry on to the Mt Stanton Trail Junction to see if anyone had hiked into the Mt Parker Trail from that direction and broken out the Mt Parker Trail to the summit. I knew I was fairly close to the junction based on my altimeter reading and I could re-evaluate the state of the snow pack on the south side of the mountain before making a go-no-go decision to go forward.

Despite the remoteness of my location and the infrequency of travel in the area, I knew I was reachable by snow machine in an emergency, and that help would come fairly quickly since I was right outside Bartlett, NH, which is a fairly large snowmobiler rallying point. I’d left a trip plan with my emergency contact, so someone knew where I was and would call the state police if I didn’t call in that evening.

I'd sink 1-2 feet for each step, while still wearing snowshoes
I’d sink 1-2 feet for each step, while still wearing snowshoes

I headed down into the saddle, sinking up to my knees in powder despite wearing snowshoes. It wasn’t that bad breaking trail while going downhill because I had gravity with me. Still I knew that the reverse trip would be a slog, so I kept my footprints close together, taking small strides to break out a wider swath of trail, to make it easier to traverse on the return trip.

A potentially confusing sign - the Mt Langdon Shelter is not actually on the Mt Langdon Trail, but the Mt Statnton Trail
A potentially confusing sign – the Mt Langdon Shelter is not actually on the Mt Langdon Trail, but the Mt Stanton Trail

I crossed the signed Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness Boundary and came to the 3-way junction between the Mt Langdon, Mt Parker, and Mt Stanton Trails. Unfortunately, the Mt Stanton Trail hadn’t been broken out. There’s a shelter about a half mile east down that trail that I’d hoped to visit it if conditions permitted, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen today. It also meant that no one had broken the Mt Parker Trail, which continues another 1.4 miles north to the mountain summit.

I continued up the Mt Parker Trail a way to see if conditions would improve as I gained elevation, but the snow depth increased up to my waist between steps, even though I was wearing snowshoes. As the trail ascended, I was forced to kick steps up the hill, but I was still sliding backwards on each step on the granular snow under the hard top crust.

There was no way, I was going to be able to climb another 1.4 miles through this by myself and still maintain a decent safety margin, or have enough “gas” left to hike out. I threw in the towel and turned around. Mt Parker would have to wait until another day.

Deep snow on Mt Parker Trail
Deep snow on Mt Parker Trail

Breaking off early really wasn’t that big a deal for me, since I know I’ll be coming back to backpack some adjacent trails in the area later in the year. I had successfully hiked a few more miles of the White Mountain Trail System and discovered Cave Mountain, which is really worth a visit if you’re ever in the Bartlett area.

Total round trip distance: 5.4 miles with 2000 feet of elevation gain.

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  1. It’s only an adventure if you aren’t sure it can be done! I enjoyed the suspense great write up Philip.

  2. We had a few inches of snow last week and at 2 AM, I stoically broke trail to the park at the end of the street to take pictures. There was a snow covered metal slide that I bravely slid down, pushing a big pile of white stuff ahead of me, which gave additional padding for the whomp at the end. I piled more snow in the landing zone and splatted into the pile a second time. I’m sure I was the only 62 year old grandfather engaging in such shenanigans at that hour. The next day, when I told my 8 year old granddaughter what I’d done, she sternly exclaimed, “And you didn’t invite me!” The last time I slid down that slide a few years ago, she was in my lap and her brother was on my shoulders and I cracked my tailbone at the bottom. I too had a solo snow adventure last week, having to confront and conquer my fears on that imposing metal slide.

  3. What is the grey pack with the yellow beaver tail ?
    What do you think of it ?

  4. I love the insight into your thought processes before and throughout the hike. I think it’s a great model for “assess” and “reassess” in the context of a plan and alternate plans!

  5. That Paradox Packs Unaweep 4800 looks like a different pack than the one pictured in “Taking a Bearing”. Is it, and if so, what is the other pack? How did you get that picture of you from behind?

  6. Winter is the best time to camp along that “dry” ridge.

  7. Glad you finally had the opportunity to get to Parker. You’re getting closer to the summit. I’ll keep my eyes open for future hikes that you lead. MC

  8. Kind of glad to read that you sink deep into the powder too. I am not a veteran snowshoer at all and worried that perhaps I had the wrong shoes or technique.

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