Owls Head
February 19, 2005

After much deliberation over the best choice of mountains and routs for our planned two day trip it was finally clear that our best chance to get our last two mountains this winter would be had by getting Owls head out of the way on this trip and leaving West Bond for our Zealand trip in March. We seriously considered many different strategies that involved everything from bushwhacking to adding one or even two days to our trip in an effort to try and get both mountains, but decided against it.

Given that I was still recovering from a pretty severe case of bronchitis and the flu, the more enthusiastic extended day versions seemed out of the question. We soon set our sights on just summiting Owls Head and to do it in two days, camping at the base of Owls Head on Saturday night.

I picked Gordon up at around 7:00 Saturday morning, loaded his gear and we headed north. As always, the customary stop for coffee and last minute snakes would delay our start accordingly. Also, we realized that we left Gordon’s ski wax at his house; we planned on Skiing in the first leg of the trip. It just wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t forget something. Rather than going back and getting it we decided to purchase some new wax in Lincoln on the way to the trail (we would regret this decision later).

Wouldn’t you know it; it took three stops at three different ski shops in Lincoln to find the right kind of wax, and another 20-minute delay in getting to the trailhead. Non-the less, we were now well-equipped and just minutes from the start of our journey.

We arrived at the very busy parking lot at the head of the Wilderness Trail (also known as the Lincoln Woods trail) sometime around 8:30 am. As we began unloading our gear, we once again started feeling that terrible sinking feeling we are becoming so familiar with, when we realized we have left important gear behind. Remember I mentioned regretting not going back for the wax? Well, had we gone back for the wax, not only would we have avoided having to waste time buying it, we would have realized that Gordon’s skis were sitting in the snow back on the side of his driveway.

Having only one set of skis, we were now faced with hiking the 2.6 miles to the head of the Black Pond trail. For those of you who are familiar with this segment of the trail, you know how disappointed we were at this point. This portion of the wilderness trial is one of the most hiked trials in the White’s; it is very flat, very wide and very straight. It was formally a railroad bed. It is almost always well tracked out with excellent ski trails the whole length. To be quite blunt, it is a very boring section of trail that would be easily traversed in much less than an hour with skis. Hiking it meant we would be on this trail for at least and hour and half, not to mention the return home.

Fortunately, this was the only gear we left behind this on this trip. Unfortunately, having the right gear and having it work are two different things, as you will see later.

We were off. It was around 9:30 am before we finally hit the trail. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and relatively warm temperatures of around 10 to 15 degrees, and predicted to stay nice through the weekend. Once again, we lucked out with good weather for our journey.

We covered the very busy and relatively flat Wilderness trail in better time than we expected. Good conversations and the good feeling of heading off on another adventure proved to be a good recipe for making good time. Before we knew it we were at the head of the Black Pond trail.

Again, we made quick work of the short (1 mile) Black Pond trial, which brought us to the very picturesque Black Pond with a glorious backdrop of the Bonds off in the distance; we would be heading there soon enough. We paused briefly on Black Pond to review our map (yes, we had a map on this trip), and get our bearings. This is where the Black Pond trail ends and we would begin our bushwhack to the Lincoln Brook Trail. Gordon had very thoughtfully worked out our compass bearing the night before our trip and new the exact degree of departure from the pond to reach the Lincoln Brook Trail, 355 degrees north.

For those of you who are not familiar with orienteering and the use of a map and compass to locate yourself in the woods, here is a brief explanation of the method by which we would get to our destination. As I said, Gordon worked out our desired direction the previous night by drawing a straight line from the Pond to the location we wished to intersect the Lincoln Brook trial. He then used a compass to work out the exact degree of travel we would have to follow to stay on the line he drew. Given the compass is divided into 360 degrees starting at due north, we would be heading in a 355 degree direction, 5 degrees west of due north.

In order to ensure that we are able to maintain a straight path through the woods, which is filled with obstacles preventing us from walking in a straight line, we needed to take frequent compass bearings all along the way. From the pond we would site a landmark, a tree or rock, off in the distance along our 355-degree path. We could then walk to that point, walking around any obstacle that might be in our path and ensure we were staying on the proper orientation. Once at the new location we would take another reading on another distant object and continue in this manner until we reached our destination.

So, off we went, leaving the pond in a 355-degree northerly direction, sighting distant obstacles to maintain our intended direction. To our surprise, someone else had already headed off in a similar direction from the pond in the not too distant past. From the look of the tracks in front of us, it appeared as though the other party had chosen the same compass bearing. Given the tracks seemed to drift a little off our intended direction, we decided not to risk following someone else’s tracks and to continue to take bearings and follow our own path. You never know if the people in front of you know were there going and since we were not on a marked trail, did not want to chance it.

After, traveling along in this manner for 20 or 30 minutes we realized that the other parties path continued to intersect ours and that the odds were improving vastly that they were heading in the same directions as we wanted to go. We decided to follow the pre made path, reducing our effort of making our own path through unbroken snow, and committed to continue to pay close attention to the compass bearing the tracks followed.

Good plan, shortly after taking to the pre made trail we ran into another hiker on their return from Owls head. Sure enough, this hiker and his party were the ones to have made the trail we were following. We learned that we were clearly on the right path and would shortly reach the Lincoln Brook trail. The hiker was alone and returning without his party, who continued on to the summit of Owls head. He complained of having suffered a minor degree of frostbite in his fingers and chose to return home alone. We wished him the best of luck and parted ways.

We traveled the remaining distance to the Lincoln Brook trail much more confidently now that we knew for sure where this path ended up. After about a mile of bushwhacking, we arrived at the Lincoln Brook trail by around 1:00 and took the opportunity to take a much-needed break for lunch. We found a sunny spot along the banks of the Lincoln Brook, a rather large river running through the valley between Owls head and the Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette mountains, the valley were we were about to head up into.

We began the final leg of our day’s journey by heading northwest on the Lincoln Brook trail, which follows directly along the banks of the Lincoln Brook. We would be on this trail for about 3 miles to the head of the Owls Head Trail.

The majority of our way thus far went very smoothly and without much gain of elevation. It would be about an eight mile trip to the base of Owls Head were we would make camp. In the whole 8 miles we would only gain about 1100 feet of Elevation, putting us at 2,560’ at the base of Owls Head, and leaving the last 1,500’ to the summit for the one mile long Owls Head Path. We’ll leave that for the next day.

We continued to make good time along the gradual rise of the Lincoln Brook trail, soon coming to the site of the previous parties Camp. It appeared as thought this party must still be on the trail to the summit of Owls Head as there was no sign of anyone around. We figured we would pass them soon enough as we approached the base of the mountain.

Given the way the trail zigged and zagged upon leaving the camp, it looked as though the previous party was a little lost in looking for the trail. We wondered around a bit trying to find the correct direction to continue on, finding our way soon enough. We were close and it would not be long now before we would be setting up camp.

Shortly after leaving the other parties camp we ran into another group of three that had hiked up and summated Owls head that day and was on their way back, intending the Owls head trip to be a single days hike, doable, but very ambitious. Given it was 4:00; they would be arriving back at the parking lot well after dark. A long day given their reported 7:00 am start.

We soon found out that doing Owls Head in a day was no great feet for a party of the considerable experience of this group. One member of the group had just that day completed their goal of hiking the New England 100 Highest Mountains in the winter, and it was the oldest of the three who had done it. He must have been in his late 50’s or early 60’s. I only hope I am in as good of conditions as this man and my own hiking partner, Gordon, when I am their age.

After a brief and friendly conversation with the passing group we moved on, only to meet up with the next party coming down form the summit, whose camp we passed. A busy day for such a distant mountain. Again, we had a friendly chat with the next group and moved on.

We arrived at the base of Owls head at around 4:30, and set quickly to work setting up our camp. We found a nice clearing right near the head of the trail that was clearly marked (no camping) and promptly set up our tent. I know, I know, not very good trail ethics. We looked all around for a better site and there just were none to be found. The trees were to close together and the strip of land between the river and the steep side of Owls head just did not offer many options. Given the deep snow, the impact of our camp would be very minor and any evidence of it would be gone with the next snowfall.

By 5:00 pm we had a very nice camp, compete with a snow toilet and cooking table to cook our diner on. Given the workout we had in store for us the next day we would need to be early to bed to get the necessary rest.

We began preparations for dinner. We had planned a nice Italian sausage and pasta dinner with wine and French bread. Pretty good for a backcountry camp out, eh. Well, pretty good if we could have eaten it. Remember my mention earlier about not only having the right gear, but also having the gear that works. As we began setting up the stove to prepare our gourmet dinner we soon began to recollect the struggles we had on our Cabot trip getting the stove to work. Sure enough, we were quickly coming to the realization that a hot meal was not in store for us this fine evening. Whatever problem we were having with the stove on the Cabot trip was now preventing us from starting the stove at all. We tried everything with no success.

Thankfully there was open water in the stream and we would not need to melt snow to get our water. Had we needed to melt snow for our water, this might very well have been the end of this trip. We had enough food, as we always bring extra, it would not be a gourmet and hot meal but it would give us the nourishment we badly needed. Worst case, we could eat our pasta and sausage cold if we needed more food for some reason.

A little wine and getting some nourishment into us quickly worked to lighten the now somber mood and further ensured an early night with lots of sleep. We got to bed around 8:00 pm and Gordon read me to sleep with a few excerpts form the book he brought along for his reading pleasure (and mine now).

We woke at a leisurely hour and began the always-painful task of going from our warm and somewhat comfortable sleeping bags to the cold morning that greeted us outside the tent. It didn’t help that we could hear a wild wind blowing around the tops the trees as the it whipped down the valley from the summits above.

We ate our breakfast and were soon dressed and ready for our assent. We would leave our camp set up and most of our gear behind as the summit was only a mile away and could be achieved relatively safely without all our gear. Given the steep climb, the lighter the load the better. We brought along what we thought would be prudent and began our assent.

The trail began right away to ascend almost straight up. The first three quarters of a mile went up an old slide, which made for a very vigorous and strenuous climb. Thankfully we had the tracks of the last two parties to follow up, as it would have made it even more difficult without them.

As we rose above the trees we were treated with spectacular vistas of the ridge along the Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette range. The views were a welcome treat for the frequent breaks necessary to continue up the very steep trail that was before us. The top seemed like it would never come, but as always, it soon did and the trail began to level off as we got closer to the summit.

I arrived at the summit ahead of Gordon and an hour and a half from the start of our climb. Needless to say, I was disappointed to find the summit completely shrouded in by trees. I was warned that this would be the case but it didn’t help, you always hope for views after working that hard to get to the top. Well, I was not to be deprived. I promptly dropped my gear and began climbing what seemed like the highest tree on the summit. I was soon swaying among the tree tops with views in every direction and swaying I was, the wind had been whipping all morning and was only intensified at the tops of the trees. A little nerve racking to say the least, but all worth it.

I shot dozens of pictures of the surrounding mountains, many of which we had climbed in pursuit of our goal. As I was taking in the sites I noticed Gordon arriving at the summit and was now at the base of the tree I was in. You can only imagine his bewilderment when he arrived to find my gear, and snowshoes sitting at the end of my tracks and no me. I enjoyed a few moments watching him perplex over my disappearance before revealing my location high above his head.

After climbing down and snapping a few summit shots we were quickly on our way, we had a long way to go to get back before dark and we had yet to break our camp down. Not to mention, it was dam cold on top of that mountain with the wind blowing as it was.

As you might have guessed, the trip down the slide was quite a different experience form the trip up. Most of it was done on our but as we glissaded down with all the joy of 10 year olds on the playground slide. We must have been quite a site to the poor sole whom we ran into working his way up the slide from the other direction. I reluctantly stopped my glorious and reckless slide down the mountain for a brief and courteous chat with the weary hiker before careening the rest of the way down the mountain.

After collecting myself at the bottom of the slide and purging myself of all the snow that found its way into every opening in my cloths, I began the dreary task of breaking camp and packing up for our walk out. Gordon arrived shortly behind me with equally as much snow pouring out of him.

We made quick work of tearing down the camp and were soon on our way. Again, it was a glorious day and now that we were off the summit the wind began to subside and the warmth of the mid day sun began to bring the temperature up. Before long we were shedding our outer layers and arriving back at the many milestones of our trip up the day before.

It was an uneventful walk out. Given the easy downhill grade and well packed trail we moved quickly and made very good time. However, the miles were beginning to wear on us and we were feeling the cumulative effects of our two-day journey creep us on us as we progressed along the trail.

When we arrived back at Black Pond, we laid down in the snow for a quick rest and to soak up a few of the suns warm rays and the terrific views of the distant mountains. We still had three and a half miles to go and we were growing very tired. We were, however, quite pleased with the good time we had been making and new it would all be over soon.

We continued on. The Black Pond trail seemed to go by pretty quickly and we were soon turning onto the final leg of our journey, the 2.6 miles of the Wilderness trail that lay between us and our car. As was the case at the start of our hike, the trail was buzzing with hikers and skiers. We wished more than ever that we had our skis as numerous skiers passed us and would soon be arriving at their cars while we trudged on.

Non the less, we did trudge on, and as painful and difficult as that last 2.6 miles was, it was soon over, as was our journey and another of our 48 summits in the bag. With only a single summit left between us and the completion of our goal we were feeling a mixed bag of gratification and anticipation as we looked forward to our next and last journey. Could we really complete the 48 over 4000’ White Mountain summits this winter?

 

 

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