“I think we’re headed the wrong way,” said Trey. Yep, we’d turned south instead of north when we got to the top of the Polecat Ski Trail on Wildcat Mountain, an ignominious start to our Wildcat Traverse, and further proof that ski resorts are placed on mountain tops to confuse hikers. We’d just climbed 2000 feet of elevation up a series of ski slopes, with skiers flying past us yelling, “you’re going the wrong way,” as in down, not up. That and the general lack of signage at Wildcat Mountain is enough to confuse any hiker on the winter slopes.
Luckily, our mistake became apparent after only 5 minutes of hiking, so we turned around and got back on track, arriving quickly at the wooden platform that marks the top of Wildcat D. For future reference, turn left when you get to the top of the Polecat Trail and hike up the knob behind the Ski Patrol hut. That trail (heading northeast) will quickly bring you to the viewing platform on Wildcat ‘D’. If you continue to hike east from ‘D’, you’ll climb the Wildcat ‘C’, ‘B’, and ‘A’ peaks, all 4,000 footers in their own right, although only “D’ and ‘A’ count for the White Mountain 4,000 footer list.
Our plan for this hike was to climb all four peaks, hike down to Carter Notch and back out the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail, basically the reverse of the route we’d attempted the previous Friday, when we were forced to turn around on Wildcat ‘A’ due to deep snow. This is a moderately strenuous hike in any season, 8.5 miles in length with 3,650 feet of elevation gain, with lots of ups and downs between the peaks. But the Wildcats always get a lot more snow in winter than other parts of the White Mountains because they are so close to the Gulf of Maine, making winter hikes all that more challenging.
When we set foot on the Wildcat ‘D’ viewing platform, it was -10 degrees outside which is about 20 degrees colder than most of the winter hikes I go on. It was even colder across the valley on the summit of Mt Washington where it was -15 below zero with 40 mile an hour winds. Washington and the surrounding peaks were smothered in fog and cloud and it clearly wasn’t a summit day.
The winds were much calmer on Wildcat ‘D’ and we had nice sunny skies even though we were really only about 5 miles away from the Washington summit. We were still bundled up with extra layers and wore balaclavas all day to prevent frostbite on our faces.
The distance from the summit of Wildcat ‘D’ to Wildcat ‘A’ is only 2.8 miles, which only took us 2 hours to snowshoe. But it is challenging trail with many steep ups and downs between the peaks, and would have been far more difficult if our snowshoes didn’t have telvators. These are a piece of wire that flips up under the heel of your boots and elevates your calves, making it much easier to hike up steep hills while wearing snowshoes, than without. I’ve had snowshoes without them before (never again) and find televators indispensable for winter hiking in the White Mountains.
This hike was significant for me because I hoped to complete the 47th and 48th peaks on my Winter White Mountain 4000 footers list, which requires climbing each of the White Mountain 4000 footers during calendar winter. This is a challenging list to complete and I’d been chipping away at it for over three years. The chief obstacle is not climbing the peaks themselves, which most people in reasonable shape and disposition can do, although about 10 of the require some specialized winter training and gear. The main obstacle is the winter weather in New Hampshire, which can be absolutely horrendous, forcing many hikes to be cancelled before they’re even attempted.
This current winter is an excellent example. I’ve had to cancel two backpacking trips and two day-hikes because driving and hiking conditions were too unsafe (freezing rain and high wind) and I’ve had to turn around twice due to deep snow. With only 12 weekends in calendar winter, it can be tough to get the weather windows required to climb the peaks you need to finish the list, especially if they’re above treeline.
When we arrived at Wildcat A, we paused and took in the grand view of Carter Dome with its massive rock slide, on the other side of Carter Notch. There’s actually a trail that climbs from Carter Notch to the summit of Carter Dome next to the rock slide if you want a closer look called the Carter Moriah Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve hiked down it once, which is challenging too.
After climbing Wildcat A, Trey and I were interested to see if we’d be able to make it down from the summit to Carter Notch and get past the spot where we’d had to turn around the week before when we tried to climb this trail in deep snow. We did this without much difficulty. The trail had since been broken out and was much easier to snowshoe down, although it’s still very steep in places with sketchy footing. We were quite happy to make it down this section of trail, because we didn’t want to hike back over the Wildcats and back down Polecat on the same day.
We picked up the Nineteen Mile Brook trail and snowshoed back down to Rt 16, where we’d spotted a car and that was that: my Winter 4ks were done, since climbs only count when you hike from a peak back down to a maintained road.
Finishing my winter 4ks was a bit anticlimactic to be honest, but I’m glad I’ve finished this list, because it’s made me an accomplished winter hiker and forced me to pick up the winter-specific skills required to hike in the White Mountains. Now that it’s done, I will continue to hike the same peaks with friends who are working on their lists, mainly to keep in hiking shape during the winter, and because so many friends helped me finish my list.
Given my preference, I’d like to try to throw in more peaks and bushwhacks not on the winter 4ks, but that will be difficult since the only trails that are regularly broken out in winter are the ones leading to 4k summits. ‘Off the grid’ hikes get much more difficult when you hike in smaller numbers and have to break your own trails, on or off trail. My biggest challenge, particularly this winter, has been in finding other hikers with the same goals. If you’re looking for another winter hiker to add to your crew of non 4k hikers, give me a shout. I’m ready to hike non-48 peaks, trails, and bushwhacks in winter.