By GORDON DUBOIS
Last week I emailed my hiking comrades inviting them to join Reuben and me on a hike to the summit of Cannon Mountain. This was really Reuben's hike, as he is working on his "Winter-48" list, which means hiking in the winter months to all the mountain summits in New Hampshire with elevations over 4,000 feet. One my friends responded, "I'm not going, it's supposed to snow that day." My response, "Isn't that what winter is all about, snow?"
The weatherman predicted several inches of snow, so perhaps winter had finally arrived, hallelujah! What could be better than a winter hike in fresh falling snow to the summit of a classic New England mountain. Five friends did decide to join me and Reuben. We met at the Cannon Tramway parking lot, adjacent to the trail head for the Kinsman Ridge Trail. As we were getting geared up, skiers were unloading their cars, preparing to ski on fresh powder.
Cannon Mountain, 4,100 feet, formally known as Profile Mountain, is at the northern end of a high ridge of mountains and forms the western wall of Franconia Notch. It is well known for the cliffs that tower above Route 93. Cannon cliffs once held the famous rock formation, Old Man of the Mountain, which fell in 2003 due to natural forces of weathering and erosion. The iconic stone profile captured the imagination of the American public with Daniel Webster's words, "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men." Sadly, the Old Stone Face now lies in a pile of stone rubble at the bottom of the cliffs.
Cannon is also widely recognized as a rock climbing mecca. Routes were established in the early 1920s, and climbers can still be seen today scaling the rock face. At roughly 1,000 feet high and more than 1 mile long, Cannon Cliff is the largest vertical rock face in the Northeast. There are more than 50 climbing routes. The mountain is also the home to one of the first ski areas in North America, having trails cut in 1933 and the Aerial Tramway, built in 1938, was the first lift of its kind in North America.
So, here we were, climbing a mountain legend, with light snow falling. What could be better? The hike began with a moderate climb on hard crusty snow, but soon the trail began to wind steeply to the summit. We needed light traction aids to gain footholds as heavy rains the week before turned parts of the trail into sheets of ice. The trail wove in and out of recently cut back country ski trails. The snow was beginning to lessen as we approached the section of trail that runs along the ledges above the cliffs. Since I have made this climb many times in the past, I knew we were missing out on really spectacular views because of the low cloud cover. From the ledges, we began the final accent to the peak. Within a quarter mile, we reached Cannon summit and the observation tower, which can be climbed in summer, but not recommended in winter.
Here we paused for a few moments, but having no views to keep us we headed to the Tramway Summit Station for lunch. This was the highlight of our climb: eating our lunch in a warm sheltered pub with hot food and drinks available from the posted menu. The staff at the station were very welcoming, even to Reuben, though he had to stay in the waiting room while we downed our lunch and chatted with skiers. We had the option of taking the Tram down the mountain for a modest fee of $13, but decided to make the hike back down the Kinsman Ridge Trail. The Tram runs on a regular basis, daily from 9 to 3. Interested riders should call the Cannon Office at 823-8800 to ensure that the Tram is in operation that day. The Tram serves as a great alternative for hikers who don't want to make the hike back down the mountain or if the weather turns bad and you want to make a safe return to the base station. When the ski area is not operating, one can always descend on the open slopes of the ski trails.
The descent back down the mountain became difficult with the new snow covering the expanses of ice that covered the trail, and we switched to crampons. We were back safely to the parking lot in less than two hours. We had some time to kill before heading home, so we paid a visit to the New England Ski Museum. This was certainly a great way to finish the day. The museum is free and open daily to the public. It offers fascinating displays on the history of skiing, with a wonderful exhibit on the development of skiing, from its prehistoric roots, up until the advent of the shaped ski in the 1990s. The exhibit even includes a display of the Olympic medals and world cup trophies won by Bode Miller, who first started skiing on Cannon as a small boy. The museum is a New Hampshire treasure that should not be missed.
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