About a decade ago, I moved to New Hampshire and started skiing the Granite State's mountains in earnest. Using the equipment I had on hand -- my grandfather's cross-country skis (and when their scales wore off, my grandmother's) and an alpine setup, I went out day after day into the mountains, skiing many of the same hiking trails I climbed in the dry seasons. Several years ago, my father asked me how many mountains I had skied. I thought about it for a while, got out a list of the 48 listed peaks in NH over 4000', and started crossing them off. Ultimately, I found I had skied almost all of them, many of them several times or by different routes. My motivation was adventure, not peakbagging. My adventures were subject to no rules other than the following:
1. Have fun.
2. Ski as much as possible.
3. Have fun.
(Note that "Be safe." was not on my original list. It should have been, and is now even higher-ranked than "Have fun.")
Not being particularly motivated by lists, and given last year's meager backcountry skiing conditions, I stalled for a while, choosing to re-ski favorites rather than complete the list.
On New Year's Eve, Mrs. and I skied Mount Waumbek, my #47. This 4006' summit (highest in the Pliny Range) rises 2356' above its trailhead north of Route 2 (i.e. north of the Presidential Range). Being north of Route 2, the Pliny Range gets much less hiker traffic than New Hampshire's other high peaks and is consequently wilder. Forested to the top, the Pliny Range offers travelers quiet and solitude, but essentially no long views. Waumbek isn't particularly challenging on paper; in my informal skiing, I had never visited it before. It is about 2.5 hours from my home in Portland, and over 2 hours from where I lived in NH -- there have always been closer mountains with better views and better-known skiing. Still, being on "the list", it was time to give it a whirl.
We left the trailhead outside the village of Jefferson, NH, around 11 am. A subalpine start for a subalpine peak. Driving west through Gorham in a mild drizzling rain, we saw the snow decrease from 6" to trace snow on the brown fields of the Jefferson intervale. We set off on foot, walking alongside three sets of huge turkey tracks in the slush.
The trail climbs steadily but moderately. Less than a mile in, I decided it was time to start skiing. The first 1.5 miles of trail climb through open hardwoods. The trail's footbed is narrow, but the open woods make for easier travel.
Climbing higher, the trail makes a sharp left turn and runs relatively straight along a subsidiary ridge through denser spruce and fir. Roughly concurrent with the change in vegetation, we noticed more snow. It was finally starting to look like winter.
We climbed on through the rain. Snow coverage was decent; few rocks poked through. Snow conditions were acceptable: rain-softened loose granular over a solid base. As we climbed higher, we reached the freezing level, though the refrozen crust was easily punched through.
We reached the summit of Mount Starr King, just shy of 4000', and took a lunch break. The snow was faster up here, and I rewaxed. (Is it wrong that I actually like klister, or does it just show that I live in northern New England?)
From Starr King, the trail runs just over a mile along a rolling ridgeline -- at first generally down to a col, then generally up to the summit of Mount Waumbek, with an overall gain in elevation. Here, the skiing was the best along the whole trip.
Just shy of where we knew the summit of Waumbek must be, we spotted a large male moose directly the trail just 50 feet ahead. He wasn't the largest moose we'd ever seen -- in fact, his footprints were about 2/3 the size of other fresh moose tracks we saw on the trail -- but he was still as big as a decent-sized horse. The moose stood squarely in the trail, facing down at us. We talked loudly, making sure he knew we were there. The moose casually sauntered down the trail at us. We quickly retreated. The moose did not show any aggression (unlike other ungulate encounters we've had), but all the same we did not want to get too close. Every time we went off-trail and quieted down, the moose approached. We started singing to the moose, urging him to browse elsewhere. The standoff lasted about twenty minutes. Finally, the moose turned around and moseyed off toward the summit. Here, the trail winds around snow-laden spruce, so to make sure we didn't stumble on the moose and surprise him, we continued our songs entreating the moose to keep moving. Based on the fresh piles the moose left for us, our song must have had some salutary effect on his digestion.
After a short steep pitch, we soon summited Mount Waumbek. The moose had continued on beyond the summit along the Kilkenny Ridge, and we could see him through the firs about a hundred feet away. Relieved, we stopped singing and snapped a few quick pictures.
We shouldn't have stopped singing. Just as Mrs took my picture, the moose began approaching once again. Without any further ado, we did quick kick-turns and set off down the mountain.
Quickly finishing the traverse back to Starr King, we set off on the major down-mountain portion of the trip. The trail was so narrow that neither hockey stops nor snowplowing was really feasible, and skiing offtrail was generally not possble. It was on this section that both of my boot soles delaminated and my wife lost both pole baskets. (This tells you something about the quality of skiing on the lower half of this expedition -- not art, but adventure.)
Exiting the thick softwood section just as the sun set, we found that the day's rains had decimated the snowpack. The temperature had also fallen, leaving the trail a frozen rivulet. Fortunately, the trailway was wider here than above, and we were able to ski and ultimately hike down several feet to the side of the trail.
Soaked but successful, we reached the trailhead just after 4:30. Back in the comfort of the car, we reflected on the trip. Conditions were very similar to my ski trip on Mounts Webster and Jackson in 1997. Effort expended per mile was similar -- but that was the one and only time I skidded my car off the highway at speed. We concluded that Mount Waumbek -- despite rain, large animal encounters, and equipment failure -- had been relatively kind.
One more mountain to go: Mount Isolation. Adventure and TR to follow...