Met up with Jake again to knock down another off his list. We set out at 5:00 to make the long journey to the Rocky Branch Trail head. I made this trek previously to help Kevin complete(Link) his 48 4000ft NH summits, but I hadn’t done it in winter. In winter, one can be make use of the Engine Hill Bushwhack through some birch glades and shave off a couple potentially serious river crossings.
On the drive up, I watched the temp reading on my car vary as we road through the notches(Franconia and Crawford). It bottomed out at -7F and as high as 4F. When we reached the lot just before setting out, it was 2F at 7:45. Getting our boots on and layering up, my hands froze. It was tough to keep warm before putting on layers. Luckily the winds were non-existent. We suited up and set out. It was too cold to snap any photos from the trail head.
We were only about a tenth of a mile before I needed to put Hot Hands hand warmers in my mittens. My hands were stinging and needed to be addressed. The hand warmers worked quickly and made the rest of the hike possible. I pushed a quick pace from the start to keep warm. I think I pushed pace a bit too hard selfishly, when I turned to check on Jake he was sweating a bit. He has been struggling with a head cold and the quick pace was a bit much for his lungs. We backed off a bit to keep from overheating. It wasn’t long before the trail leveled off and we began searching for the bushwhack entrance.
I realized I didn’t put the bushwhack in my GPS so we were hoping to find prior obvious tracks. There was a set of snowshoe tracks that broke off trail to the right before Engine Hill. It felt a bit early and it wasn’t packed out, only a couple tracks. We decided to remain on the trail to ensure we were heading the right way. It was another mile or so we caught up to a couple guys resting, at the junction to the bushwhack. They pointed out the ‘T’ carved into the tree signifying the Engine Hill Bushwhack.
Turning onto the bushwhack, it wasn’t long before it opened up to some amazing birch glades. They were scattered across open areas. They were broken up into large sections separated by evergreen bushwhacks. We darted in and out of the evergreens and out into open glades. From what I’ve read these glades can be wet and boggy outside of winter. The packed out trail led us through some wet run off. On one of them, Jake stepped into a depression and his snowshoe sunk in several inches and the slush flooded over. It trapped his snowshoe and he tripped forward. Luckily he popped out of the snowshoe or his upper body might have fell in too. As it was, his boot got wet. We had to literally dig his snowshoe out prying it from the freezing slush. We assessed the situation to make sure the moisture hadn’t saturated his leg and boot. His gaiters saved him from much of it running over his boot. He felt comfortable continuing and we pressed on.
We marched on, in and out of the beautiful glades eventually meeting back up with the trail. We had separated from the folks catching up behind us and the gentlemen were cruising ahead. The remoteness of the trail became apparent. Occasionally I could hear ‘Kahtoola Claus’ ahead of me. The snow covered boughs would flick Jake’s microspikes hanging on the outside of his pack, ringing like jingle bells. Made me chuckle each time.
We reached one of the camp site markers along the trail. It was nearly buried in snow. I dug up a photo of the same sign to compare the snow depth. Looks like we were walking on 24+ inches of snow base. Not long after we reached the junction of the Davis Path. There were no visible tracks from the Davis Path route. I suspect that is infrequently traveled in winter as the route is quite exposed to the elements. In the home stretch we pushed along as the trees seem to shrink smaller and a couple views became visible. We reached the summit spur trail. Again, the tracks do not continue beyond the spur trail on another less frequently traveled trail in winter. We bounced up the short, but steep, spur trail to pop out onto the lower summit.
We made it and were able to snap a few pics and enjoy a brief snack. It was about 10F at the summit at 12:30. We layered up with down jackets and swapped out for dry mittens. Chatted with the gentlemen ahead of us, who were kind enough to snap a couple summit pics for us and off they went. We bounced over to the official summit and returned. We began our descent down the steep spur trail. I tried to take a few steps, but found it easier to sit on my snowshoe tails and slowly ski down.
When I reached the junction, Jake was struggling with cold hands, stinging. We made the decision to get him some hand warmers. We quickly pulled them out of my pack and got them in his mittens. I suspect switching out for the dry, yet cold, mittens at the summit triggered them to cool off too quickly. It took him nearly 30 minutes, with the hot packs, to get his hands to recover. I have found it is very difficult to recover from cold hands/toes than to try to stay ahead of them reaching that point. The heat packs, though heavy, have become a staple in my winter, and shoulder season, pack.
Between the cold hands and summit success, Jake was rejuvenated and we cruised the descent to the Isolation Trail back to the bushwhack. Returning to the glades was a treat. You just don’t see it like this too often. We continued through the glades, making certain not to fall prey to the wet gully that tried to eat his snowshoe. Soon we were off the bushwhack back to the Rocky Branch Trail. We continued a fairly quick pace here as there isn’t much elevation change through this stretch. We reached the last couple miles, the majority of the descent. I think we were each drained and looking to retreat back to the warm car. With the snow packed track it was quick steps, a couple of zombies marching out pushing through tired legs and lungs.
We reached the car, there were far fewer cars in the lot. I glanced over and saw someone had ‘Not Without Peril’ in their back window. We chuckled and wondered if that was a good or bad book to reach before a hike in the Whites.
We quickly changed clothes and jumped in the warming car. The first order of business was finding a Dunkin Donuts for coffee, over in Bartlet. Then we made the long journey home. Unfortunately it was slowed by snow falling, starting in the Tilton area at the time. We past a few accidents, one fairly severe, a roll over, emergency crews already attending. We made it back to my house about 7:30pm, Jake still had another 45 minutes to his house(on a good day). Got confirmation from him that he made safely.
Another great day.
Video slide show available