Friday, November 30, 2012

The Montalban Ridge 11/29/12

Working title: Trails are for pussies

Peaks: Mt. Crawford, Stairs Mountain, Mt. Davis, Mt. Isolation

Trails: Davis Path, Crawford Spur, Stairs Spur, Davis Spur, bushwhack, Isolation Spur, Isolation Trail (East), Rocky Branch Trail

Mileage/time: 18.4 miles, 5600 feet of gain, book time of 12:02, actual time of 11:50

Last weeks Tripyramids extravaganza netted plans for this week, a Franconia Ridge traverse. Mother nature had other ideas. With the Mount Washington Observatory calling for temps in the single digits, 60-80 mph winds increasing to 70-90 with higher gusts in the afternoon, and wind chills of 30-40 below zero, we decided the traverse might not be a good idea. Owl's Head was floated as an alternative, as was Isolation... then Mike mentioned the Davis Path. I ran some numbers, and it looked like a doable day hike, mostly sheltered, and fairly gentle. Initially I didn't include the spur trails to the summits along the way, as the forecast called for summits in the clouds, so I quoted Mike 17 miles, and 5200 feet of gain, and a plan was in place.

There was a lot for me to do on Wednesday, so I got out of work at 6am, and stayed up all day, getting stuff done and preparing. By 6pm, I was done, brain not functioning, and I passed out, setting my alarm for 2:30 so I could finish final preparations. Alarm goes off, dressed, prepped, and out the door by 3:40. I figured since I needed to pick up something for breakfast, and get gas, it would give me more than enough time to make it to the Rocky Branch trailhead before 6. It was mostly clear on my drive up, with passing clouds, and a bright, nearly full moon lighting the road. I ended up arriving at 5:20, so I got my boots on, and settled in for a bit of a wait. The wait was short-lived, as Mike pulled in just after 5:30, hoping I was early. He got himself ready, threw his stuff in my backseat, and we were off to the Davis Path trailhead.

Mike was ready to go before I was, and ended up pacing around the empty lot waiting for my slow-ass to finish getting ready. We started down the trail at 6:15 by headlamp, shortly crossing a suspension bridge across the Saco River. The lower section of Davis Path was easy to follow in the dark, and there was no snow, interesting for it being almost December. We climbed gradually at first, then more moderately, as light slowly bled into the sky above. It's hard to imagine that this trail used to be a bridle path, where horses were ridden up to the summit of Mt. Washington. There are sections where I can see it being feasible, others not at all. The first rays of sunlight broke out onto some ledges near the spur to Mt. Crawford, and with the weather cooperating (clear skies overhead and manageable winds), we decided to hit the summit spurs along the way. As we climbed, there was a light dusting of snow, just enough to make things interesting.

Carrigain from Davis Path

Tremont and the Sandwich Range from Davis Path

Golden morning light

The views from Mt. Crawford were impressive, revealing some of our targets for the rest of the day, a socked in Mt. Washington, and many places I've been before. The winds were rolling steady out of the northwest, and it was certainly cold, but neither of us were uncomfortable. About the time my facial hair started to freeze up, we got down off the summit, and made our way back to Davis Path.

Crawford Notch from Mt. Crawford

Carrigain and Nancy

Giant Stairs

From here, the trail begins its rolling jaunt up the Montalban Ridge towards Mt. Washington. It dropped to a small col, and climbed up an easterly shoulder of Crawford Dome, with an open ledgy section along the way, before dropping again as it neared the base of Mt. Resolution. The trail then goes nearly level for a while, as it works its way along the west side of Resolution. This was a common theme for the day, as the Davis Path never passes over any of the summits, but skirts them to the east or west.

We reached the Stairs Col Trail junction, and had some views up to the impressive Giant Stairs. Heading to the west side of the ridge, we soon reached the spur, and climbed up to the summit. The true summit is in the woods, but the viewpoint from the top of the "stairs" was fantastic.

Sandwich Range from Stairs

Kearsarge North et al from Stairs

There are a couple of designated camping sites just off the summit, would be a cool place to spend the night. From here, the trail runs for a good 4 miles, undulating, working its way along the ridgeline, seemingly coming upon false summits all along the way. Eventually, we could see a summit through the trees that wasn't false, and we reached the spur. The Mt. Davis Spur was pretty steep and rough, and while we made it up and down with bare boots, it was tricky with some icy sections. The views and the wind were incredible.

North to Isolation and Boott Spur from Davis

Franklin and Monroe from Davis

Carrigain and Nancy Range from Davis

After a rickety descent, we started the short hike over to Isolation, or so we thought. Probably about 0.3 from the summit spur, the trail disappeared into a mass of downed trees. We started climbing over and ducking under them trying to find the trail on the other side... all we found were more downed trees. Enter the impromptu bushwhack. Mike went left, and I went right, we zig-zagged a bit before just aiming for the highpoint and pushing through. It was thick, it was nasty, but it was a hell of a lot of fun. We popped out of the scrub onto the summit of Isolation.

The beginning of blowdown hell

Leaving the summit, we got back onto Davis Path, and headed north. We ran into some blowdowns I'd read a report about not far from the junction of Isolation East, but they were fairly passable. Once on Isolation East, the trail doesn't really do much, just keeps you on mostly the same contour for quite a ways. There were some blowdowns that we were able to navigate, and some icy stretches. We put on Microspikes about 0.8 from the junction with Rocky Branch Trail, and agreed that we should have put them on sooner. We made it to Rocky Branch Shelter as the light was beginning to fade, and snow started lightly falling from the sky.

Sentinels watching over Rocky Branch Shelter #2
Here is where we took our longest break of the day. It was really nice, a light snow, fading light, knowing you're still almost 4 miles from the road. I've started hikes by headlamp, but have never finished one by headlamp, here's a first. Right from the shelter, headlamps lit our way. The crossings that I remember were partially ice bridged, but I found myself getting a bit of tunnel vision while hiking along, following Mikes silhouette, with snowflakes flying in my face. Snow began to pick up its intensity as we descended, and I could hear the wind roaring overhead at times. I was thankful for a couple chances to stop and adjust my microspikes, and I asked Mike to turn off his headlamp for a second. We enjoyed our surroundings without headlamps for a minute, it was pretty awesome, an ethereal scene of open woods and a sense of the slope we were on emerged from the blackness. Uneventfully down we went, and just as we questioned whether or not we should be hearing vehicles by now, we popped out at the trailhead and Mikes waiting truck.

We then drove around, picked up my car at the other end, and went to the Cabin Fever Restaurant, where we enjoyed some coffee and apple pie. A great way to end a long hike, on a cold and blustery day. Thanks Mike for joining me on this extra long trek!


  1. Awesome report, Bill, and awesome journey. Can't wait for the next one!