Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Tales had been told of the ridiculously deep snow that had fallen high up on the Kancamagus Highway and surrounding ridges during last week's massive storm, which had brought only rain to Lincoln. It was time to see for myself. After an unexpectedly gorgeous day spent on the Champney Falls Trail and the open, snow-plastered dome of Mt. Chocorua's First Sister, I can verify that these stories were no exaggeration.

There were huge snowbanks in the Champney Falls parking lot, and the crossing of Twin Brook at the start, which was shaky at best two weeks ago, was completely buried.

The trail had a well-packed snowshoe track. I wore my MSRs from the start, knowing that the snow would soon soften up (it was 38 degrees at 10 am) and that the trail was likely to be less well-packed after the turnoff for Champney Falls.

There was no sign of open water on Champney Brook.

The trail was, indeed, less well-packed above the lower Champney Falls loop junction. For the next 0.3 mile the track was soft and choppy, and two people somewhere ahead of me, hiking in bare boots and crampons (!) were making it worse. Along this stretch there was a view up to the ledgy area known as "Hobbitland" to climbers.

This was one of the surprisingly few blowdowns encountered along the trail; it could have been much worse given the 60 mph winds of the storm.

At the upper Champney Falls loop junction an old snowshoe track rejoined the main trail, and the going was smoother, other than the numerous divots and occasional deep postholes made by the booters. Farther up the valley there was a view up to Middle Sister.

The first view comes at 2.4 miles, near the end of a long straight pull up the valley. A cloudbank hovered over the Presidentials.

Here the trail begins a series of switchbacks. A probe of the snow depth here showed it up to the top of my 4-foot ski pole.

A nice hardwood and birch forest bordered the first switchback.

The upper switchbacks led through some snow-draped conifer corridors...

...and snowcaked saplings.

My initial plan was to take the Champney Falls Cutoff (aka Middle Sister Cutoff), to the col between Middle and First Sisters, then make a north-to-south loop over First Sister. But a look at this unbroken, sidehill trail, with undoubtedly many snow-laden bent-over conifers to push through, prompted me to opt for a more direct ascent of First Sister from the south side.

A steady climb led to a sunny opening and the junction with the Middle Sister Trail.

I broke trail across the clearing, with a glimpse back to the whitened cone of Chocorua.

After locating the entrance into the trees, I followed the trail a short distance through the wooded col.

I quickly climbed to the bottom of the steep, ledgy, open south face of the First Sister - which today was one vast wind-packed snowdrift, with no ice and hardly any open rock showing.

A short way up I caught the first views west along the wild, twisting ridges of the Sandwich Range, one of my favorite vistas in all the Whites.

Whiteface and Passaconaway in the heart of the range.

And then, the classic horn of Chocorua.

And vast horizons to the north. It took a long time to make this short climb up the snowfields; every few steps I had to stop-and-gawk. And it was a day for viewing comfort - bright sun (sunscreen and shades), temps near 40 and virtually no wind.

I followed a winding route up the steep, windpacked drifts. The soft top layer provided secure footing.

Approaching the summit, the SW horizon appeared over the snowfields of the next knob along the ridge, which is, perhaps, a Half-Sister to the First, Middle and Third Sisters.

It was clear enough to see Mt. Monadnock, 86 miles away, glimpsed here on the horizon at the left-center of the photo, over a notch in the long eastern spur of Red Hill.

From one spot the SE ridge of Chocorua was visible, leading down to Bald Mtn. at its end.

Summit snowdrifts.

Looking back, I spotted the two hikers who had preceded me up Champney Falls Trail coming down the summit cone of Chocorua. They followed what looked like a precarious route off the north side of the summit; perhaps the last sidehill section of the Piper Trail along the west side was too tricky with the windpacked snow.

The snowpacked summit of First Sister.

This is one of the finest viewpoints in the mountains - the distant panoramas are comparable to those from Chocorua itself, plus you have the added benefit of looking at that ever-impressive peak.

The Presidentials were still partly immersed in cloud, and remained that way throughout my lengthy summit sojourn.

Middle Sister is close by to the N; the snowy Baldfaces can be seen to its L, and the Moats and Kearsarge North to its R.

Kearsarge North behind Middle and South Moat.

Pinkham Notch, the Wildcats and Carter Dome.

Passaconaway and Tripyramid.

The broad south view includes Silver Lake (L) and Ossipee Lake (R). To the SE the buildings of Portland, ME were clearly visible with binoculars.

From the NW edge of the summit, a view over the Champney Brook valley to many peaks.

A vast northern horizon.

Mt. Carrigain emerged from its cloudcap. Bondcliff can be seen through the col to its L.

The Hancocks above Green's Cliff, the Franconias behind on the L.

A jet left a smoke signal on high.

After a comfortable summit stay lasting 1:45, I followed my tracks back down the snowfields, with a parting view of Chocorua under graying skies.

Near the top of the Champney Falls Trail, I looked for the "VIEW" sign and short path that leads up to an open ledge on the S side. No trace of it in the deep snow, but a very short semi-bushwhack lifted me to the ledge and its intimate look back at First Sister.

Mt. Washington made a cameo to the N.

A vast windpacked snowfield beckoned above, leading me upward to the top of the "Half-Sister."

The partly wooded summit of this knob, looking W to the Sandwich Range.

And back at First Sister.

A steep sidehill spot on a switchback along the Champney Falls Trail. In summer there are steep, wet sloping ledges on the uphill side.

Before heading for home, I made a 20-minute venture through the deep snow into a favorite birch glade on a NW shoulder. Under an upper soft layer of about a foot, there was a firm base.

I picked a spot at random for a snow depth check. The top of the ski pole went below the surface up to my wristwatch. Total depth: 57 inches!

This Kilkenny-like birch foray was a great way to close out a memorable day in the mountains.


  1. Words fail me . . . "Totally awesome" is about the best I can do!

  2. John,

    Between the weather and the snow, I really lucked out on this one.