| Eggnog on Christmas Eve
The place I come from is rather different than Colorado. The cities are smaller, but the towns far more numerous. The mountains are far shorter--many would be mere foothills outside of Denver, or lie below Colorado entirely--but have a beauty and a ferocity all their own. In the winter, crampons are often mandatory but ice axes are almost unheard of. "Switchback" is an obscure archaic term, and refers to something only on the occasional steep mountain road. Oh, and they make a mean chowdah here...I'm speaking, of course, about New England, where I was born and took my baby steps, both literally, and into the outdoors. And as my father lives there still, it is somewhere I return to often, and which in some ways, feels more like home than anywhere.
Fresh off of my first exhausting semester of med school, I was anxious to get back up in the mountains again, and what better place to do so than on the most-climbed peak in the Northeast? Mt. Monadnock is a local icon, a solitary, symmetrical rocky cone lying amongst the pastoral wooded hills, farms, and small towns of southwestern New Hampshire. It tops out at a mere 3,166 feet in height--lower than any piece of real estate in all of Colorado!--but its local prominence and isolation give it far-reaching views that are as inspiring as many a fourteener. It is an easier climb, but still a worthwhile outing. Given New England's relatively minimal snow this late December, my dad and I figured this would be the perfect time of year to climb it; we'd get the added challenge of winter, and the absence of most of the hordes of Bostonians who descend upon this peak every day in summer.
My dad had commitments back in Connecticut late afternoon of the day we picked, so we left early. We headed north, passing Hartford and Springfield in the darkness, beyond which signs of civilization gradually dwindled as first light rose in the east. Mostly overcast skies gave way to mostly clear ones as we crossed the border into Vermont, left the interstate in Brattleboro, and crossed the old iron bridge into New Hampshire. The sight of the low pined hills brought back a flood of memories from my four years at Dartmouth, only an hour north of here...the classes, the friends, the hijinks, and of course the many forays into the wilderness, whether simple walks in the woods and hills outside of town, or scaling the rocky, eroded high summits of the mighty White Mountains. As much as I love Colorado, I realized a large part of me still deeply missed this place.
On our way to Keene, my dad kept asking when we'd see the mountain, and I told him "you'll know it when you see it", and that it would probably come into view around Keene. He also kept struggling with "Monadnock" and finally just elected to call it Mt. Eggnog...yuck! As we neared Keene, the clouds began to glow a phosphorescent salmon-red color with the rising sun. They became golden-orange as we rounded the bend into Keene and laid eyes on lofty Monadnock for the first time that day. I'd been right: there was no mistaking it.
Mt. Monadnock, seen on the drive out
Not there yet, we continued through the small ramshackle town of Marlborough, NH, home of the Frost Free Library (how they keep a library free of frost in the brutal New Hampshire winter is beyond me!), then continued on to the main state park entrance several miles distant. We finally arrived at the park entrance, paid our five smackeroos apiece, and parked amongst the collection of rustic cabin-style park buildings at the trailhead.
It took little time to pack up our gear, though I made sure to pack microspikes for both of us. When I'd called the park ranger the day before, he'd said microspikes would be "absolutely necessary". Challenge accepted--but I brought them just in case.
The trail began as a broad, occasionally rocky and icy forest path, gently ascending through deciduous forest. After perhaps ten minutes, we reached the split between the White Dot and White Cross trails, and opted for the latter; I remembered (incorrectly) that this was the more difficult option, and figured we'd use it for the ascent.
Where the trails split
Up we went, clambering over a sea of boulders, reaching occasionally icy or snowy spots, but by and large finding our progress easily-fought. At perhaps 2400' elevation, the forest transitioned to pines, and frozen ice flows became much more of an issue.
Typical terrain on the White Cross Trail
A New England ice-flow
Many of these could be skirted on the trail; a few required careful stepping on flat patches of ice, or scrambling on bare rock. Behind us, intermittent long-ranging views to the south began to open up.
Views opening up to the south
At one point, the main trail was completely covered, and I had to scramble up several dozen feet of bare rocky slabs to the right; crossing back over to the trail at the top involved one scary moment where I lost traction, but I eventually made it back safely.
A tricky section of the trail--I went up the right
Now high on the mountain, the air was clear and crisp, and the breezes were beginning to pick up a bit.
Ascending into winter
Nearing the treeline
We could finally see the rocky summit cone coming into view ahead, and it looked to be largely clear of snow and ice. Now treeline in New Hampshire is low--somewhere on the order of 4500'--but even so, Monadnock should have been entirely forested. However, a fire a few centuries ago had apparently burned not only the vegetation, but all the topsoil off the upper reaches of the mountain, much like on Mt. Cardigan to the north. It would be thousands of years before any trees of note would grow here again...luckily for us, this ensured sweeping, 360-degree views.
High on the summit cone, looking down to the southwest
The last several dozen feet of rock before the summit
We met the rejoining of the White Dot trail and spotted the first other hikers we'd seen that day. There still weren't many to be seen, which surprised me on this beautiful day. The summit was now a mere 400' or so above us, though we weren't home free yet. The trail dipped in and out of patches of forest, at times climbing steeply through areas with poor traction or tricky routefinding around ice. We emerged from the trees and found ourselves on mostly bare rock, but still having to contend with snowy sections crossing the top of smooth rock ledges that'd send you tumbling fifty feet if you slipped. We toughed it out without microspikes, but I was glad to be past that part. At last, only a hundred feet remained, and we largely chose our own path up the smooth but grippy class 2 rock to the summit.
Views to the southeast. Boston's skyline is baaaaarely visible here, dead center, if you zoom in!
East, to Pack Monadnock Mtn
To the north...in the distance lie some of the higher White Mountains
On top, it was windy, and bitterly cold. My dad and I soon hunkered down behind some rocks, and I reemerged to take some summit photos. By the time I finished, I had a bad case of the screaming barfies, and quickly made my way back to where my dad was huddled, trying to get some feeling back into my hands, and watching a red squirrel play amongst the summit rocks. What I had seen on top, though, was amazing...Greylock (the Massachusetts state highpoint) lay far to the west, covered in snow. The great mountainous wall of the Green Mountains of Vermont ran its way northward, displaying its many ski resorts in a line: Snow, Bromley, Okemo, Killington...to the north, isolated, forested knobs thrust their way upward out of the sea of forest, many of them mountains I'd climbed and held dear. To the right of them, almost imperceptible in the clouds and haze in that direction, were the high White Mountains. But most surprising of all was the news a fellow hiker relayed to me--we could see Boston! Sure enough, on the distant horizon, the cluster of skyscrapers was tiny, yet unmistakable. We could even see the John Hancock Tower and Prudential Center standing off to themselves on the right. Checking my GPS, Boston lay 64 miles distant...wow...
Ascutney at R, and the high peaks and ski areas of the Green Mountains visible far in the distance
The town of Keene, from the summit
Conscious of the time, we started down, and were almost immediately out of the wind; the screaming barfies slowly subsided, and things were good again. We opted to take the White Dot trail for the descent for a change of scenery. And scenery it provided! The trail remained high, affording ample views to the east. We ran into two teenaged climbers who asked how far it was to the (still-visible) top, and they proved to be the first in an ever-increasing conga line of climbers heading up the mountain. It seems our early start had been a wise move!
An interesting boulder chilling out on a high shoulder of the mountain
The summit cone, taken on the way down
Looking down the mountain, and at our descent route
The trail now descended rapidly, involving several stretches of scrambling and petrous gymnastics to avoid the ice and snow. I enjoyed the views straight down the mountain, rather uncommon at these elevations in New England. Soon, we were back amonst the maples.
The mountain still had one or two curveballs left to throw at us, but they were minor. The toughest spot forced me to simply butt-slide down an ice flow covering the entire trail. I was reminded of my winter ascent of the Osceolas several years earlier, where our group had slid down 2000' of steep snowy and icy trail--we'd gone hurtling off the trail and into the woods on more than one occasion, but had escaped injury. Thus had been my introduction to that little-known division of the Dartmouth Outing Club--Butt & Snow! Past these obstacles, the trail became easier, and we were soon back on familiar ground. Shortly thereafter, we were back at the car, and it was still before noon.
The drive back went fairly quickly, after a brief stop in now-crowded Keene to grab some BK (incidentally, I think this is the only Burger King I've seen INSIDE a strip mall!). We left the wilder mountains of northern New England behind, passing through the farmland and hills of the Connecticut River valley in northern Massachusetts, then into the cities and suburban sprawl further south and into Connecticut. I was leaving behind this wild and oft-underappreciated part of the country, but I would once again take my memories with me, and return as soon as I was able.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
My dad and I on the summit. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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