Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Backpacking the Southern Monalban Ridge 9/5 - 9/7/13

Working title: A heavy pack, and many miles, makes Bill a happy guy

Peaks: Stairs Mountain, Mt. Resolution, Mt. Parker, Mt. Langdon, The Crippies, Mt. Pickering, Mt. Stanton

Trails: Rocky Branch Trail, Stairs Col Trail, Davis Path, Giant Stairs Spur, Mt. Parker Trail, bushwhack, Mt. Langdon Trail, Mt. Stanton Trail

Mileage/time: 15.2 miles, 5001 feet of gain, book time of 10:09, actual time of ~2 days

With the amount of day hiking I've done, you may be surprised to learn that I've never once backpacked. Sure, I've car camped, and I've gone on multi-day trips (involving hut or cabin stays), but I've never had to carry everything for an overnight... or in this case, two nights. Last summer, my friend Will from work and I camped out in Baxter, and hiked the Knife Edge on Katahdin. This year we were supposed to camp out in Gulf Hagas, but some scheduling conflicts lead to us not being able to. Wanting to get out and do something, we decided on a backpack, and I think we'll be doing this on a yearly basis from here on out. I planned out a couple of loops, with shelters along the way, and we decided on a loop on the southern Montalban Ridge.

The distance and elevation gain of this hike is well within dayhike range for me, but the heavier pack made for slower movement, not to mention that we didn't have to get back to a trailhead before dark, just to a shelter. We met up at Will's house, and made final preparations early Thursday afternoon, before driving up and spotting my car at Mt. Stanton Trailhead. Driving around to Jericho Road, we found that the road was open all the way to the Rocky Branch Trailhead, immediately saving us almost two miles. There was one other car in the lot when we arrived, so we set about getting ourselves ready for the two mile hike into Rocky Branch Shelter #1. I strapped my camera to my pack, and wandered over to the trail sign, to get my standard sign picture to start off the hike. Confusion ensued when the little green light didn't come on when I flicked the power switch... then a knowing feeling swept over me, I'd left my battery in its charger. Dejected, I left my camera bag in Will's car, and we set off up the trail. The one picture contained herein is from my cell phone, and is of dubious quality.

Moving with a heavy pack was interesting at first, not to mention that this was the first time I'd used my 65 liter pack. It's silly to me that I didn't go backpacking sooner this year, seeing as I've had all the gear since May. The Rocky Branch Trail follows the Rocky Branch River (a tributary of the Saco River), as it winds north towards its headwaters on the southern slopes of Mt. Washington. The Conway Company (later Conway Lumber Company) operated the short lived Rocky Branch Railroad from 1908 to 1914, and the trail follows the bed of this former railroad, and is arrow straight in several spots along its lower reaches. Fires put an end to logging in this remote valley, with the rails being removed in the fall of 1914. The predominantly deciduous woods were nice in the mid-afternoon sunlight, and we arrived at the shelter far more quickly than either of us were expecting. Upon arrival, we saw the occupants of the car we'd seen in the lot... and they had definitely occupied the shelter. Their tent sat squarely in the middle of the shelter, and all their other possessions were strewn about haphazardly on either side, leaving no room for others. We conferred for a moment and went down to check out the river. Instead of dealing with it, we set ourselves up on the furthest tent platform from the shelter, and got to making fire and dinner.

We didn't bring tents with us, mostly to save weight, and the forecast was calling for clear skies overnight and no rain. Having eaten, we hung our food, fought a losing battle with the fire we'd built, and eventually sacked out on the tent platform. The sky was so clear that I could see the Milky Way from where I was laying. That, and the sound of the river lulled me to sleep. Any time I awoke during the night, the stars shone brightly above. I can think of few times in my life where I've been more comfortable.

The morning came quickly, and the chill of fall was in the air. I was somewhat reluctant to get out of my sleeping bag, where everything but my nose was warm, when Will informed me that it was 6:30. We retrieved our food, made coffee and oatmeal, packed up, and rolled out past the shelter at 8:15. Nothing appears to have visited our shelter-bound neighbors during the night, as their food and supplies were still scattered all over the place. We had about 8 miles, and 3500 feet of climbing ahead of us, as we stepped onto the Stairs Col Trail, another new section of trail for me. What? You didn't think that I'd go on a trip that didn't involve some redlining did you?

Stairs Col Trail was beautiful in the mid-morning, and I silently wished for my camera, as many things caught my eye. The trail follows old logging roads for most of its length, and traverses fine stands of deciduous woods in the lower mile or so. Some early fall colors were becoming evident, as the leaves began their transition from their spring and summer greenery, towards their colorful autumn finery. There is a fairly distinct demarcation, between the higher elevation spruce dominated forest, and their leafy valley brethren  Passing into the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness, the trail became steeper and the footbed more rocky, with occasional views up the Giant Stairs, our first destination. We reached the height of land in the col, and descended slightly to the junction with the Davis Path.

After a brief break at the junction, we started the climb up to the Giant Stairs Spur. It was a bit steeper than I remember it, but 10 months and a lot of hiking in between, does a lot to dull perception. Along the way, we ran into a couple who were on their third day out, and we were the first people they had seen. They were heading to the Mt. Langdon Shelter, so we wished them a good day, and said we'd see them at the shelter in the afternoon. We soon traversed the spur trail, and popped out on top of the stairs, to the magnificent views they lord over. The sky was a brilliant azure, and the views were far reaching, sweeping from the east, to the south, to the west. Mt. Resolution was prominent in the foreground, and the Bemis Ridge, with Mt. Crawford and Crawford Dome, swept off to the southwest. The entirety of the Sandwich Range, and the depths of the Pemi were clearly visible. We took a break here, basking in the sun, while a cool breeze blew out of the west.

Descending back to Davis Path, we headed south, toward the junction with the Mt. Parker Trail, and our remaining mileage for the day. Once at the junction, we dropped our packs, and checked out the old Resolution Shelter site. All that remains is a few small piles of boards and some logs in the woods. Also, what is it with off trail shelters in the Whites, and their steep spur trails? Back to the junction, we headed up Mt. Parker Trail towards Mt. Resolution. The going was decent, if not somewhat steep, and we took frequent micro-breaks. The trail doesn't pass over the actual summit, but there are many open ledge areas along the trail that provide excellent views. At one point, I remarked to Will that it was bushwhacking time, and set off on a herd path, heading roughly east. There was some thick going, and off and on herd paths. We never did find the actual summit, but we were close, so I'll be back for the actual high point. 

Once beyond the ledges of Resolution, the Mt. Parker Trail took on a different character. Blowdowns were the rule, many of the climb over and whack around varieties, and the trail narrowed due to vegetation, becoming difficult to follow in spots. There were even fungi growing in the footbed! The map doesn't show enough detail to properly explain what the trail does as it approaches Mt. Parker. There were more ups and downs that I cared to count, many of them steep, causing us to wonder if we'd already hit the summit. We ended up stopping on a sunny ledge, when our energy reserves ran low, and had lunch in the sun. Not incredibly long after lunch, we actually arrived at Mt. Parker, and the summit was hard to miss, or ignore. It sports massive views to the north, up the spine of the Montalban Ridge, all the way to Mt. Washington. The views to the east and west are great as well, but the northerly views take center stage.


The trail beyond the summit improved significantly, then drops steeply off the cone of Mt. Parker, as it heads south to meet up with the Mt. Langdon Trail, ascending up from 302. We finally reached the junction, and turned towards the shelter, a mere 0.4 miles away. The sun hung low in the sky, a brilliant orange streaming through the leaves, as we reached our home for the night, in the flat col between Mt. Langdon and Mt. Parker. The couple (Bonnie and Matt) and their dog (River) had beaten us there by about 30 minutes, though they were sure that we would have passed them. When we left Rocky Branch, we figured we'd be there around 4, and our estimate was right on the dot. Matt directed me to the stream, where I filtered water, which was particularly delicious. After hacking at couple of downed logs, we started to settle in for the night. We chatted, laughed, ate dinner, and started a fire. It burned well until most of the light was out of the sky, then a piece that didn't want to burn was put in there and fouled things. I think we were all too tired to care, and crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. 

The second night was warmer than the first, and I woke up a couple of times, listening to the trickle of the stream off in the distance. The morning came, it was slightly overcast, and we were up at around 7:30, the breakfast ritual was repeated. We packed up, bid Bonnie, Matt, and River goodbye, and continued our southerly journey. The trail signs for Mt. Stanton Trail lie, at both ends, and don't agree with the map. At the shelter, the sign says 4.5 miles, at the trailhead, the sign says 5.4 miles, and the map says 5.2. This leads me to believe that I can't trust signage. 

Right out of the gate, the trail ascends the viewless Mt. Langdon, and our legs protested. The day was warmer than the previous two, and I quickly became a sweaty mess. Beyond Langdon, the ridge narrowed, as the trail undulated over the peaklets known as The Crippies, which sported fine views from several ledges. A couple more bumps, known as Mt. Pickering and Mt. Stanton, and we started our descent toward Bartlett. There were some unique views out to Bartlett village, and Attitash looming above. The trail below Stanton got messy. It was very eroded, and fully of loose gravel, oh, and it was steep. What an awesome combination of conditions to hike on with a heavy pack. Our sense of timing was right on, as we projected that we would be out by 1, and came out to the road (and my still intact car) at 12:50. 

We shuttled around to Jericho Road, and then parted ways, Will needing to get home to his family. I ended up at the Moat, for beers and lunch. Afterwards, I ended up going and visiting my friend Mike, who conveniently lives directly around the corner from there! It was good to catch up. 

To make this long story short, backpacking just put the hook in me. We couldn't have asked for better weather! I'll be back for more, and soon.

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