Shelter from the Storm - A lucky escape in New Hampshire's winter mountains
So often we can underestimate the difficulty of the walk and the severity of the weather. Here, Eric tells the cautionary tale of a recent winter hiking experience in the mountains of New Hampshire, USA. Akin to Scotland, in winter these mountains pack a punch that belies their modest altitude.
As we drove south towards home, my son Arthur put on some Bob Dylan and eventually ‘Shelter from the Storm’ played. The song’s title instantly took me back to the night before.
Arthur and I had decided to use the long route to the summit of Cardigan Mountain by following a trail called Back 80. We headed out about 12:30pm thinking that we would have more than enough time to reach the summit and the ‘High Cabin’ one half mile below, where we planned to spend the night.
At first the going was great; snow covered the ground and it presented no early impediment. We pushed forward on level ground for a mile or so, but then the terrain began to change. We now were breaking trail with snowshoes that did not function perfectly, slowing our pace significantly. Finally, we reached the Elwell Trail intersection that would take us up the steep eastern side to the ridge leading to Firescrew Mountain, and finally, Cardigan summit.
Even before we attained the ridge, we realised we had a serious problem with the clock. It was now 4pm and we had to cover two miles to Cardigan over rough terrain and drifting snow. I was losing energy and both of us were losing the light of day. The wind gusts told us that the summit would be inhospitable at best and dangerous at worst, but we kept pushing ahead. Arthur even took my backpack as its weight was definitely slowing me down. As the time approached 5pm, we came across a shelter that offered some cold comfort, but we decided that we could make it to the summit and High Cabin and so we kept going.
From Firescrew Mountain to Cardigan the trail is completely exposed. The path moves over granite slabs and is marked by cairns. Often we would lose the way as dark had descended and the windblasts had increased in frequency. Finally, after much effort, Arthur and I reached the fire tower at the summit of Cardigan. We had arrived but we were not done. The wind, snow and dark made it very difficult to find the way off the forbidding summit to the cabin. We hunted around looking for cairns or a sign, but had no luck until I spotted an ice encrusted signpost fifty yards behind the fire tower.
We did not hesitate. We followed the direction given on the sign and soon found a series of cairns that led to a trail and eventually to the High Cabin, the most pleasing sight in the entire world. We were safe and incredibly grateful that our winter adventure had not turned into something very different.
Our dilemma had begun earlier that day, back in the warmth of Cardigan Lodge at the base of the mountain. We studied the trails and decided the direct route to the cabin would be too short. We had time for a longer ascent and so we chose the Back 80 trail that looked doable from the warmth and comfort of the lodge. But maps do not show snow depth, winds or fatigue. We were using summer thinking to analyse winter conditions and so we miscalculated, leading to a potentially bad situation for us as we entered a very dangerous and forbidding world at the icy summit of Cardigan Mountain. In the end, though, we found shelter from the storm and the ‘mighty tempest’.
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