While most people slept-in on New Year’s morning, recovering from the prior evening’s festivities, Fran, Karen and I were beginning a bushwhack to the Northeast Peak of Paugus Mountain (2,724 ft.), number 240 of the 500 highest mountains in New Hampshire. Why would we be trekking to an obscure peak in winter? It’s because we are attempting to summit the 500 highest mountains in New Hampshire. Sound crazy? Yes it is, but the list takes us to some of the most spectacular wilderness in the northeast, where few others have tramped.
The Northeast Peak of Paugus Mountain lies in the Sandwich Range, just west of Mount Chocorua (3,475 ft.), and east of its loftier brother, Paugus Mountain (3,200 ft.). Paugus Mountain was once called Old Shag, due to the many ledges surrounding its peak. It was named by Lucy Larcom, a teacher, author and poet who spent summers in the Tamworth and Ossipee Areas. Larcom named the mountain in honor of the great Indian chief of the Sokosis Tribe, who was killed in 1725 during a raid by Capt. John Lovewell. Her poetry caught the attention of John Greenleaf Whittier, who was also a summer traveler in central New Hampshire. Larcom and Little Larcom Mountains, located in the Ossipee Mountain Range, are named in her honor.
Mount Whittier situated east of Larcom Mountain is named in honor of J.G. Whittier. Our hike began as the sun was making its slow ascent in the southeastern sky. A foot of fresh snow had fallen the day before and was spread like a white blanket across the landscape. Tree boughs were hidden under piles of snow. It was a perfect day for a winter snowshoe ramble.
When we pulled into the parking lot off the Kancamagus Highway, we found a few other hardy souls, like ourselves, strapping on snowshoes and lifting heavy winter packs onto their backs before beginning their trek on the Champney Falls Trail to summit Mount Chocorua. Our plan differed; we would be hiking the untracked Bolles Trail for about two miles, leaving the trail and heading west, bushwhacking to the summit of Paugus, Northeast Peak.
The Bolles Trail was named for Frank Bolles (1856-94), secretary of Harvard University and an enthusiastic tramper and naturalist of the Sandwich Mountain Range. He wrote a wonderful book, At the North of Bearcamp Water, (1896, Houghton, Mifflin and Co.) which chronicles his foot travel in the New Hampshire mountains. The Bolles Trail was later widened and improved to provide a route for loggers hauling timber to sawmills in the area.
The rarely hiked Bolles Trail was not broken out and that would mean the three of us would have to break trail in about a foot of heavy snow. The trail was defined only by a narrow
clearing through the snow covered trees and it seemed to disappear into a maze of white. For many trekkers the Bolles Trail would be off-limits; it would look threatening as it disappeared into a wall of snow. For us it was inviting. We felt the pull of nature’s beauty as we plowed through the fresh fallen snow.
When we reached the height of land we checked our map, GPS, compass bearing and began bushwhacking toward our destination. Within a few hundred yards we came to rock ledges.
There was no way around the wall of rock slabs that the Paugus ridge is famous for, so we began a challenging climb, attempting to find firm footing for our mountaineering snowshoes.
As I reached the top of the ledge I heard Fran yell the dreaded words, “I broke my snowshoe”. The coupling holding the foot binding to the snowshoe had broken. There was no way he could continue, so he calmly pulled out the repair kit from his pack: wire, plastic ties, Swiss Army knife and bungie cords. Within a few minutes he had repaired the break and we continued on the quest. A lesson to all winter hikers: always carry a repair kit for your snowshoes. Snowshoes are not fullproof and you do not want to be stranded in the backcountry with a useless pair of snowshoes. You can create your own repair kit as Fran did or order one from the manufacturer of your snowshoes. MSR has a complete kit for under $20.00.
After Fran was back on the trail we quickly moved through open woods until we approached the summit cone, which was surrounded with blowdowns and spruce bands. Karen, Fran and I pushed our way through the thick underbrush, picking and choosing the best approach. After much moaning and groaning, pushing and pulling, climbing over and under blowdowns we checked our GPS coordinates and realized the summit was about 300 feet south of our current location. How could we go wrong especially after exhausting ourselves trying to find the true summit? Our mistake: we assumed we were near the true summit, instead of continually checking the GPS coordinates. We put our heads together and promptly headed to the true summit. Many of our hikes to obscure mountains pose a similar issue: no clearly marked summit as with most other well- trodden summits.
We found the true summit, ate our lunch hurriedly, as we realized the sun would be setting in two hours. The bushwhack had taken longer than we expected due to delays so Fran’s could fix his broken snowshoe and our roaming around on the false summit for about 45 minutes.
After a quick lunch we made an about face and followed our snowshoe tracks down the mountain, avoiding our aimless wandering earlier in the day. We made it back to the Bolles Trail just as the sun was setting. We considered donning our headlamps, but the trail was clearly defined by the residual light of sunset reflecting off the snow. We made it back to the parking lot and our car was the only one left. All the other hikers had “beat feet home.” It was a long, arduous day in the forest, but we accomplished our goal and looked forward to climbing another obscure mountain on the NH 500 highest list (except perhaps Karen).
Some hikers aren’t as fortunate as us and get off a mountain safely. Mountain climbing can be risky business and sometimes downright dangerous, especially if you are hiking alone. On January 3, the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game posted the following:
“A two-day search ended successfully Thursday morning when a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter located and then extracted a lost hiker from the west side of Mt. Lincoln in the Walker Brook drainage, commonly referred to as Lincoln’s Throat”.
“The hiker, identified as Matthew G., 36, of Meredith, NH, had been attempting to make it to the summit of Mt. Lafayette on Wednesday when high winds and blowing snow forced him to turn back between Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln. In the white out conditions near Mt. Lincoln, Matthew lost the trail and fell down a steep and rocky incline into Walker Brook drainage, suffering an upper body injury. Unable to make his way back up to the Franconia Ridge trail due to his injury, Matthew called 911 for help”.
“New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Conservation Officers and volunteers from Mountain Rescue Services responded to the call and searched throughout the night and into the early morning hours for Matthew. The initial GPS coordinates from the 911 call placed Matthew in the Dry Brook drainage. However, this GPS coordinate was not accurate and the search became futile, as Matthew’s whereabouts remained unknown. The search was temporarily suspended at 3:00 a.m.”
“At daybreak, Conservation Officers and members of Pemigewasset Search and Rescue prepared to again search for the lost hiker, unaware of what his condition would be after a long night exposed to the elements. Matthew was able to survive the night and managed to make another call to 911 in the morning, which provided a more accurate GPS coordinate of his location. Due to the remote, steep location of this coordinate, and his weakened physical state due to overnight exposure to winter conditions, a call was made to the National Guard requesting their Blackhawk helicopter”.
“The Blackhawk responded from Concord and was on station at 10:00 a.m. At 10:11 a.m., the helicopter crew had located Matthew and 15 minutes later had safely hoisted him into the helicopter and out of danger. The helicopter landed at the Cannon Mountain parking lot where Matthew was then transferred to the Franconia Fast Squad ambulance. Matthew was ultimately transported to Littleton Regional Hospital for treatment of his injuries”.
A few lessons can be learned from our hike and the accident report above: Plan your hike carefully allowing enough time; check the mountain weather forecast before leaving home, the weather can change quickly in the mountains; pack enough clothing, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, bivy sack and food for an overnight stay in the woods; be prepared to abandon your route if darkness is approaching or weather turns foul; carry extra batteries for your GPS and headlamp; carry hand warmers which can be purchased in most hardware stores; plan your route carefully; don’t hike alone in winter, especially in unfamiliar territory and leave your itinerary with your spouse, friend or relative.
For comments or questions contact Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org