I, with just six more 4000’ summits, and Gordon with only three, our new friend and hiking partner, Xiao (or as he wished to be called, Shaw), and my trusty dog Noah (Outward Hound Pack and all), set off on what promised to be a glorious day in the mountains. With the sun shinning, not a cloud in the sky, or a wisp of wind, and temperatures pushing into the upper 20’s, our only complaint was, believe it or not, its going to be too hot today!
Starting at 9:20 am from the Ferncroft Parking area in Wonalancet (just north of North Sandwich) at an elevation of approximately 1150 feet, we began our day in a post card. The trail begins in the stonewall-lined fields of a local farmhouse nestled between the high peaks of the Sandwich Range. Noah running wildly back and forth between us as he put his new-found freedom to the test. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Upon entering the forest on the Dicey Mill Trail, we began at first to climb steady, then steeply, early in the day. I had not remembered it as quite this steep on our return from our adventure to Whiteface several years back, but as Gordon reminded me, we were going down then.
As predicted, we were all warming up quickly and soon broke into a pretty good sweat under the bright morning sun. Before long we were all down to just one layer with our packs bulging with all the un-needed (now anyway) clothes we had to shed.
At about a mile the steep climb began to subside for a bit, giving us some time to catch our breath and get to know our new hiking partner as we walked along. Although Gordon and I had both met Shaw at the local gym, we would not have had the pleasure of his joining us had it not been for our mutual friend Ken. Ken made the hiking connection and hooked us up. We had lots to talk about.
We crossed a beautiful stream at the base of the long valley between Whiteface and Passaconaway, which we were beginning to ascend. The trail once again started to climb pretty steadily and quickly, bringing back the beads of sweat on our foreheads.
Although the sun was still shinning, we could see small puffy clouds begin to blow in from the east. As the sun, low in the sky, swung around to the south, shading our path behind Whiteface, the temperature began to moderate. As the hike was fairly vigorous, more layers were not necessary, but when we stopped to chat, or to snack, the chill quickly seeped in through our single layer of clothing. Had to keep moving.
At about 3.3 miles we reached the saddle between Passaconaway and Whiteface and the trail junction where the turn off to Whiteface was located. Only four years ago Gordon and I came this same way in our decent from Whiteface. It was nice to be back and to be so close to yet another 4000’ peak.
We took the trail to the right leading to the Passaconaway summit with plans to stop at Camp Rich, a popular camping area on the side of the mountain, for lunch. We had less than a mile to the summit, it was 12:30 and we were all starving. Unfortunately, we missed the cut off to the comforts of the camp and had to settle for a flat spot in the middle of the trail; no problem, we were hungry.
It was a good lunch with hot soup thanks to Noah, who carried it up for us in his Outward Hound pack (along with his food and water). Gordon managed to successfully fend off his lunch from Noah, who is ever ready to pounce on a lose sandwich or cookie. We ate heartily, with sandwiches, jerky, cheese and crackers and Gordon’s home made brownies (which he stayed up late making for us).
From here it was a little over a half-mile to the summit, a steep half-mile, but it went quickly. The forest along the ridge and up to the summit was breathtaking, and the birds were singing among the trees accompanying us all the way. It was, however, getting ever cloudier as we climbed. Just prior to the summit was a small clearing that looked north, but by the time we got there, a cloud had settled over the Passaconaway summit and was sliding down the other side obstructing whatever view might have greeted us. No problem, it was all good.
After a few obligatory summit (or almost summit) pictures we quickly made the short trip on a little spur that takes you to the official and very anticlimactic summit of Passaconaway. The summit, which is unmarked, consists of a small clearing of about 15’, which is surrounded by trees just tall enough to ensure that you cannot see anything in any direction. No matter, the cloud that we were now in, ensured we would not see anything anyway.
The Summit sits at 4043 feet, it was 2:00 and we had just climbed almost 3,000 feet. No wonder we where working up such a sweat getting there. We decided to head north on the trail a little further to discover a view that Gordon had seen on his last trip to Passaconaway. We came to a sign that pointed down a trail that was not on the map but said view, so we followed it. After descending rapidly and putting together the fact that not only were we surrounded by a cloud, we were going to have to climb back up to get out. Well that didn’t take long to figure out, we aborted and climbed back up to the trail.
At this point we had about 2.5 hours of daylight left. We had three options. One, the original plan, head out over whiteface. Bad idea - this would have been a rugged climb to the summit and then a steep, 4 mile descent ensuring that we would not get out till well after dark and would possibly be negotiating the whiteface cliffs in the dark. Two, go back the way we came, short, down hill and, well, boring. None of us were excited about going out the way we came. Three, take the northern route, The Walden Trail, a more rugged route but what we thought was no longer than going back the way we came (if only that was true) and far more interesting.
You guessed it - we chose the latter. Gordon had some experience on the route and it was well tracked out by a party that had been making tracks just in front of us all day - piece of cake. Right out of the shoot, we began dropping furiously. We must have covered the first half mile on our butts, weeeeeeeeee, ouch, weeeeeeee. If only I had a video camera for this adventure. Three grown men sliding down a mountain, bouncing off trees on their butts. Fortunately there was more weeeee than ouch and we made it to the bottom of the cliff in one piece. Noah was far more graceful in his decent (except for when I nearly took him out as I engulfed him in my uncontrolled fall). For the most part he sat patiently as we rolled on by. If only Noah could talk, I am sure his account of our decent would have been far more amusing.
No sooner did we get to the bottom of the cliff, we immediately began climbing again. The trail crosses over Nanamocomuck Peak (said to be the sun of Chief Passaconaway), and again offers us an E ticket ride down the other side. Not as long as the first, but just as harrowing.
We now crossed the Mt Washington Col just 50 yards or so, and began climbing again. Did we really choose this route as the best way out? We were on a true roller coaster and as a result, moving very slowly. The climb was very steep, but fortunately not that long. We were ascending the side of Mt. Hedgehog. Fortunately, we did not have to go all the way to the summit. We came to a trail junction and turned off the Walden trail onto the Wonalancet Range Trail. Mostly down hill from here.
As we had dropped significantly in elevation by this time, we were under the clouds enough to get a few nice views along the way; the sun even showed is face once or twice. Although it was still daylight, with the cloud cover, it was getting dark fast. We were starting to realize that we were going to be hiking out at night. No problem, the weather was good, there was no wind, and we had moderate temperatures. We all had the gear to spend the night in a lot worse conditions, extra food and good lights, so we were not to concerned about hiking a few miles after dark.
We pulled our headlamps out before it was too dark to find them and started down. At least we knew that there would be no more climbing from here on out. Much to our displeasure though, there were a few more good slides to greet us along the say. Now we had three grown men and a dog tumbling down the side of a mountain, only now it was dark. Ok, a little scary at this point. Fortunately the slides were short and most of the hike out was uneventful. It was a beautiful night and had we not been so tired, or anxious to get home, it would have been a more enjoyable experience.
We ended up completing the last two hours of our journey in the dark, finishing up at 6:30 in the evening. And as always, it was a real joy to take those snowshoes off and climb into the soft comfortable dry car seats, ahhhhh.
Another great journey, new friends, and yet another 4000’ peak in the bag!