Weekend Retrospective: Northern Presis, Mt. Cabot

As most people know, White Mountain weather can change quickly. Especially up above treeline, it’s not uncommon to start your day with sunny skies and a gentle breeze and find yourself under stormy skies and stiff winds by lunchtime. Even knowing how volatile the weather here can be, it’s always somewhat of an eye-opener to experience such a variety of conditions in a short period of time. This past weekend I hiked Friday and Sunday, under drastically different conditions both days. On Friday I climbed Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Madison on an in-and-out hike via the Caps Ridge, Gulfside and Osgood trails. Warm temperatures during the week burned off most of the early-season snowpack in the mountains and provided me with a beautiful summer-like day to traverse the Northern Presidentials: temps up into the 40s and 50s, low wind, and a cloudless sky. After sitting out Saturday, I again returned to the Whites with Alyssa Baldino to climb Mt. Cabot on Sunday. A low-pressure system rolled into our neck of the woods on Saturday night, and the beautiful warm weather gave way to cold, clouds and rain. Our reward for trekking through the mud on the way up Mt. Cabot was a wonderful taste of winter, as the rain turned to snow near the summit.

I wish I could say that Friday was a day like anything I’d ever experienced, but that simply wouldn’t be true. I’ve been lucky enough to have not one but two warm, windless, and cloudless days in the Presidentials this fall, hiking Washington and the southerns down to Jackson on October 11 with Alyssa as well as Tyler Neville (of Livin’ Deliberately) and Colleen Geaumont.

Headed down Washington towards Mt. Monroe and the rest of the Southern Presis on Oct. 11. Photo by Tyler Neville.
Headed down Washington towards Mt. Monroe and the rest of the Southern Presis on Oct. 11. Photo by Tyler Neville.

So, I can’t build up Friday as a once-in-a-lifetime hike, but it was probably the nicest weather I’ve ever seen on a Mid-November day in New Hampshire, and I was lucky enough to be out and climbing some of the state’s highest peaks. Being able to tackle steep climbs, rocky descents, and everything else that the alpine zone has to offer — for hours on end, and largely uninterrupted by other people — is something I don’t think I could ever take for granted. Unobstructed views of nearly every major mountain range in the state, the breathtaking magnificence of the Presidentials’ landscapes, and the ever-intriguing geological formations in the mountains are more than enough to make a 12-mile with over 4,700-feet of gain feel like nothing. I’ve done hikes of shorter distance and less climbing than this one that have felt much more strenuous, simply because when there’s nothing exciting to look at it can be easy to focus on nothing except how heavy your legs and tired your lungs are.

I knew I was working with about 9 1/2 hours of sunlight on Friday, so I was up early and on the road for Randolph just after 4:30am. Working my way through the long, dark, and winding back roads of western Maine doesn’t ever get any easier, but a strong cup of coffee before leaving home helps a little. After the traditional pit stop at McDonald’s on Route 2 in Gorham, I made my way through town and up Jefferson Notch Road — which is, naturally, even narrower, steeper, and windier than the Maine roads — to the Caps Ridge Trailhead. As the sun rose while I drove, I could tell that the sky was blanketed with thick clouds. My forecast called for clear skies and warm temps, so I was a little disappointed. I started off on Caps Ridge at almost exactly 7am, just after sunrise. The walk started off flat and foggy, with a slight chill in the air. Before long, however, I could see the sky opening up above me and taking on a lovely shade of blue. When I came to the first lookout on the trail — a large boulder outcropping not far below treeline — I turned around and saw why the skies looked cloudy this morning. The valley just below me was completely undercast, penetrated only by the ridge I had come up from.

Undercast valley from Caps Ridge.
Undercast valley from Caps Ridge.

Treeline is broken quickly on Caps Ridge, as the trail starts just a hair above 3,000 feet above sea level. Once above treeline, the ridge rises steeply up to Jefferson’s summit, and a series of large rocky “caps” must be navigated (easier than it sounds!) on the way. As I climbed I had great views of the Mt. Washington rockpile and even got to watch the sun rise above the mountains right next to the MW Observatory. I made great time up Jefferson, navigating my way up through a sea of boulders dripping with melting rime ice and reaching the summit at 8:30am. I spent a minute looking around, took a video (below) and a few photos — making sure to size up my next peak, Mt. Adams — and set off down to meet the Gulfside trail which would take me over to the Adams summit loop.

The descent down Jefferson’s summit cone into Edmands Col was a little tricky, as some patches of snow had outlasted the heat wave and were iced over, forcing me to put on my traction for multiple 20-yard stretches, which was a little tedious. Despite that, I got down and met the Gulfside trail after not too long,  and began the climb up to Mt. Adams. The going was easy enough at the start, but soon the trail began to get quite snowy, and I was quite stubborn about putting my spikes on, often opting instead to just shuffle over the icy snow for twenty feet at a time every so often; I still had plenty of miles to go in the day and didn’t want to lose time putting on and taking off the spikes constantly. Eventually the trail opened up and the snow dissipated, to my delight. The loop trail up to Adams’ summit was short and quick, and I made the summit right around 10am. The views from Adams were spectacular, with Madison rising up steeply to the northeast and Washingon and Jefferson looking regal to the south. I decided it was a good spot to get a photo before moving on, and took one of my favorite timer “selfies” to date.

Had to get one with Washington and Jefferson before I moved on.
Had to get one with Washington and Jefferson before I moved on.

The descent down Adams was simple enough, and the section of Gulfside between there and the Madison Hut was the smoothest I encountered all day. Unfortunately the Madison Hut is closed for the winter, so I didn’t linger very long and got moving on to the summit of Madison on the Osgood Trail. It climbed steeply up to the summit in just under half a mile, and by 11:30am I had reached my third and final summit of the day. It was finally there, after 4 1/2 hours, that I saw my first person of the day, and older gentleman who had hiked up Madison that morning. We chatted briefly about our 4,000 foot journeys (he had just the Bonds left after Madison), I snapped a picture for him, and he got moving back down the mountain. I found a nice sunny spot out of the sun, sat down, and took it all in. The Carter-Moriah range looked especially good from my spot on Madison, and the Great Gulf below Washington looked spectacular as well. I took off most of my sweaty clothes, changed out for some dry socks, and enjoyed my favorite trail snack, an apple. I sat for almost a half hour in silence, enjoying the warmth and the views. The clock struck noon and I decided that my things were dried out enough to move along, and I packed up and got going back down towards the Hut.

Once back down to the Hut, I started back up towards Adams on Gulfside, enjoying the relative flatness of the rocks making up the trail. Before long I had reached Thunderstorn Junction just below Adams’ summit and began back down towards Edmands Col. The snowy section of trail that had provided trouble in the form of ice on the way out that morning had now seen enough sun to melt and was now not passable without sinking down to your knees every other step. The satisfaction of bagging three peaks that morning was still strong, so I mostly shook off the snow and kept moving. I saw only a couple more people; a pair of gentlemen who had looped Adams and Madison earlier, and another gentleman heading up to Adams himself. Just after 1pm, I made it back to Edmands Col, where I would meet the trail that would take me around Jefferson’s summit and back to the Caps Ridge Trail.

The midday sun rises up over Jefferson as seen from Edmands Col.
The midday sun rises up over Jefferson as seen from Edmands Col.

Just off the Gulfside trsil from Edmands is the northern end of “The Cornice”. This trail is relatively flat, and would save me about 700 feet of climbing up over Jefferson’s summit and all the way down Caps Ridge. Instead, I would take The Cornice 1.3 miles around the summit cone to meet the Caps Ridge about a half mile down from the peak. An important thing to note is that the name of this path is “The Cornice”, not “Cornice Trail”. This is, assuredly, because The Cornice is no trail. It is simply a suggested route you could take around the mountain, if you wanted. The trail is marked by nothing but cairns, and if they weren’t there, there would be nothing to indicate where to go next. Navigating the trail was a veritable pain in the ass, as the uneven footing and waist-deep snow patches gave me fits for every inch of those 1.3 miles. Multiple times did I curse my decision to take this “shortcut” to save climbing, but retrospectively it was probably the right choice.

After a nearly hour-long struggle to navigate The Cornice, I met the Caps Ridge trail to begin my descent. I stopped shortly around 2:30pm on one of the caps to dry my sweaty feet and have a granola bar, then continued my way down the ridge. I made treeline quickly and found the shade to be nice after long hours hiking in the sun. The trail only got smoother from there, and I made great time down back to the trailhead. About fifteen minutes from the parking lot I met an older woman and her dog, and we walked the remaining distance together, sharing in our appreciation for the fantastic weather and trading hiking stories. Once back at the cars we talked for another fifteen minutes or so — she’d been hiking the 48 since before I was born and had tons of interesting stories to share — then we said our goodbyes and departed. After 8 1/2 hours and 12 miles, I had bagged the northern Presis, and I was sitting just two shy of a completed 4,000 footer list. The sun set quickly as I got back on the long road to Maine, but it sure seemed shorter than it had in the morning.

Cabot was a completely different day, as previously mentioned. Alyssa and I originally planned to hike Owls Head on Sunday, but instead decided to take on the shorter and gentler Mt. Cabot. The weather conditions had us a little tentative to do the slide on Owls Head, and the idea of sleeping in a bit for a shorter hike sure was nice. We set off around 5:15am and made it to Berlin around 7am, getting to the trailhead just after 7:15am. We quickly got our stuff together and set off under thick clouds and a steady, misty rain. The Bunnell Notch trail would take us 2.8 miles to the Kilkenny Ridge trail, from which we would meet the old Mt. Cabot trail up to the summit another 1.7 miles on. The Bunnell Notch trail was long, flat, and exceedingly muddy. The thought of a day with dry feet vanished quickly. but I had a change of socks and we only had to log nine miles for the day. After a long, wet slog through Bunnell Notch, we eventually met the Kilkenny Ridge trail and shortly after, the Mt. Cabot trail. The sign at the bottom of the trail indicated that the trail was no longer maintained, and that was quite evident, with many downed trees making for interesting obstacles along the trail.

The climb up to Mt. Cabot was actually quite pleasant, winding up the mountain at a fairly gentle grade. As we get to about 3,600 feet, the rain we had been trudging through all day turned to snow, which was a joy to walk through. Eventually, we came to the clearing where the Cabot Cabin stands and we decided it would be nice to stop at — after we visited the summit. We pressed onward the short distance the Cabot’s summit, the clearing full of snow and a puffy grey jay was standing watch in a nearby evergreen. We snapped a couple photos of the summit sign, and I tried (unsuccessfully) to get the grey jay to land in my hand without baiting it. We said goodbye and started back to the cabin, getting back in no time at all. We swung around and climbed up inside, examining the quarters and finding a lot of nothing. A table and a makeshift sink stood in the front room, and the back contained a duo of bare bunk beds. I took off my layers — all of which were soaked — and tried to warm up by drying off. We found plenty of interesting graffiti on the walls, including some vulgar political comedy and a racy joke about a nearby peak (The Bulge; use your imagination). We hung out for about fifteen minutes and I decided I wasn’t getting any drier, and we got moving down again.

Cabot Cabin in the snow just before our descent on Sunday.
Cabot Cabin in the snow just before our descent on Sunday.

We made great time on the descent, myself enjoying the familiar rocky footing instead of the wet slop we’d come up through in Bunnell Notch. Eventually, though, we made it back to the Kilkenny Ridge junction and were back on the Bunnell Notch trail shortly thereafter. The rain had picked up since we were last on this part of the trail, and the mud was even worse than it had been in the morning. My second pair of socks, mostly dry since switching at the cabin, quickly soaked through. One upside was that it had warmed slightly since the morning, so the layer of moisture our bodies wasn’t so cold as it was just uncomfortable. Thankfully, the trail was flat and we could hike fast, warming us up from the inside out and getting us back to the car faster. We made it to the car just after 12:15pm, giving us the nine-mile loop in just under five hours. Luckily, we both had some dry things to change into for the ride home, as I think my feet would’ve fused to my socks had I kept them on much longer. It felt great to get a nice hike in early on a Sunday, and we were both one step closer to our 4,000 footer finish. Alyssa bagged her 35th peak on the list, and I notched my 47th.

All in all, it was an awesomely opposite weekend hiking in the Whites. While the warm sunny day always sounds better, the cloudy and rainy day is almost always equally rewarding. Both days have their different moments and in the end, climbing mountains is always a great way to spend your day. Now my 4,000-footer journey is winding down, with only the infamous Owls Head between me and my completed list. I don’t want to waste any time getting after it, and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for nice days to tackle it in the weeks following Thanksgiving. With any luck, I’ll get a nice day somewhere, but if not… I’ll just bring plenty of extra socks.

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