The route up Mt Carrigan (4681′) in winter is one of the longest, but most rewarding, scenic hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Fourteen miles in length with 3800′ of elevation gain, the winter climb up Carrigan is one of those hikes where more often that not, you’re likely to hike out after dark by headlamp. That doesn’t make it less appealing to climb, but you need to have the stamina for a long day and a potentially grueling snowshoe, since the trail is often covered in deep snow.
That was my experience on Saturday, when I climbed Carrigan for the second time in winter, leading an Appalachian Mountain Club hike to the summit with my friends Michael and Katie. We had seven hikers in total on this hike, which is a bit on the low side for an expedition of this magnitude (I prefer at least 10), since we expected to have to break trail to the summit. (We had several last-minute cancellations due to illness.)
While snowshoes were necessary over unconsolidated powder for 10 miles of our hike, the trail had already been broken out. If it hadn’t been, I doubt we would have made it all the way to the summit before running out of gas to reach the top. Each of us carried full winter packs including extra layers and survival gear, including three liters of water and food, which is a chore to haul up a mountain of this magnitude on snowshoes.
The reason that the route up Carrigan is longer in winter than the rest of the year, is because Sawyer River Road, the route to the 3 season trailhead, is closed to cans and trucks. This add 4 miles to the hike, 2 miles at the beginning of the day for the road walk in, and 2 miles at the end back down to RT 302. Peakbagging rules require that you begin and end the hike on open roads, so the extra distance must be walked for the climb to count on the winter 4000 footer list.
When we started our hike at 7:30 am, it was a balmy negative (-11) at the parking lot at the bottom of Sawyer River Road, although the temperature was supposed to rise to 20 degrees later in the day. The wind chill however was forecast for -24, a potential issue because part of this hike passes over a highly exposed section of Signal Ridge, without any tree cover.
Running in the open for about 100 yards, it’s a narrow ridge with a steep eastern drop into Carrigan Notch with a wall of krummholz to the west. Hikers attempting the summit need to cross this open stretch to get to the main top of the mountain, which is then fairly well protected by trees until just below the observation tower.
The views from Signal Ridge into Carrigan Notch are actually more impressive in my opinion that those from the observation tower, if only because bad weather often obscures them. On Saturday, I was able to see the cliffs of Mt Lowell on the other side of Carrigan Notch, as well as Vose Spur, a sub-peak of Carrigan. Having climbed Carrigan a half-dozen times previously, this was the first time I had clear enough weather to see both of these magnificent sub-peaks from Signal Ridge.
We summitted the main peak after an arduous 6:30 climb, and promptly left the summit shortly before snow squalls descended on the mountain. From there, we flew down the peak, hiking back to the three-season trail head and back down Sawyer River Road in exactly 4 hours, barely avoiding having the take out our headlamps to follow the road out. I’d like to say that we left the trail broken out, but with the wind and the 8 inches of fresh powder that fell that afternoon and overnight, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Signal Ridge Trail needs to be broken out again.
In addition to our group, we only saw five other people on Carrigan last Saturday, three solo hikers and a couple. While hiking Carrigan solo is possible if the trail is broken out, you can improve your chances of summitting if you hike with a larger group that can share the labor of breaking trail, not to mention the additional safety benefits that hiking in a larger group provides.