Thursday, March 18, 2010

MT. HIGHT: 3/17/10

March is a great time to hike in the Carter Range, when the snow piles deep and snowshoers are lifted above the trees for many winter-only views. Two northeasters in the previous three weeks had dumped copious amounts of snow up on the ridge.

No trees obscure the views in any season on bare-topped Mt. Hight (pictured below, as seen from South Carter), the second highest of the range and one of the top-ranked viewpoints in the Whites. When this range was first explored by AMC trampers in the early 1880s, Edith Cook described this peak as "...the crown-jewel of the dark mountain brow, the pre-eminent grace of the Range..."

John Compton and I hoped to climb Mt. Hight on this gorgeous spring-like Wednesday, with valley temperatures expected to soar well into the 50s. Success wasn't guaranteed, as two internet reports from the previous day on the Carter-Moriah Range told of difficult conditions and obscured trails due to the 16-inch dumping of heavy wet snow from the past weekend's storm. We figured we'd give it a shot, and have a visit to Carter Notch as a backup plan. There were only a couple of cars in the parking area off Route 16 as we started up the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. This trail was well-packed, and we used Microspikes for traction on the hard-frozen snow.

The typically icy spots along the brookbank had a good covering of snow.

It was a beautiful sunny morning in a lovely valley.

Nineteen-Mile Brook was buried under several feet of snow.

At the junction with the Carter Dome Trail it was decision time. Even though the snow was already starting to soften - a real concern on a lightly broken, and then unbroken trail - we agreed to try for Mt. Hight.

Two snowshoers had reported going up to the two brook crossings on the lower part of the trail the previous day; then they retreated. We followed their tracks up to the second crossing. The top layer of new snow was wet, dense, and a good 14 inches deep; a plunge of a ski pole revealed the cement-like old snowshoe track beneath the newer snow. The trail leads through this pretty birch glade between the first and second crossings.

The brook at the second crossing. Here the previous snowshoers lost the trail and meandered around before turning back.

On the far side of the brook we missed a sharp right turn up a bank, lured ahead by snowshoe tracks and cut branches. We bushwhacked rather steeply up the slope through wide open woods, seeking the trail. (On the return trip, we followed it all the way down and discovered that we actually crossed it once while bushwhacking.)Farther up the slope we were happy to regain the trail, which was easy to follow thereafter.

Higher up there was a peek at Carter Dome and its great NW-facing slide, which reportedly fell in 1869.
The Carter Dome Trail provides a pleasant climb, with moderate grades and mostly open woods.
We broke trail up its several switchbacks, with the snow softening in the midday sun. The density of the new snow allowed us to stay fairly well on top with our snowshoes.

The final approach to Zeta Pass, the fir-forested 3890-ft. saddle between South Carter and Mt. Hight.

Impressive snow depths up there - John uncovers the sign for the Carter-Moriah Trail.

We headed south on the combined Carter-Moriah/Carter Dome Trails, following a set of snowshoe tracks left by someone apparently traversing the range. A short bushwhack to a snow-packed scrubby area revealed a great view of the Northern Presidentials.

Adams and Madison in their snowy glory.

Mt. Washington, with the headwall of Huntington Ravine prominently displayed.

The rounded summit of South Carter rose close at hand to the north.

We could not find the junction where the Carter-Moriah Trail splits off to climb Mt. Hight. Signs and blazes were completely buried. We investigated several corridors, but none looked quite right. So after a futile search we just started bushwhacking across and up the slope through open woods. Soon we climbed up a ledgy patch with a view back to South and Middle Carter.

Above here we picked up the trail where it cuts across the slope. Then we followed it on a steep climb, breaking trail through heavy, sugary powder on this north-facing slope.

There were some wonderful old gnarled firs along the trail. In places we had to weave and duck to get past limbs obstructing the trail.

John breaks trail up a steep pitch.

As we gained altitude, views became more frequent, including this look back at an impressively steep-walled Middle Carter.

The trees became scrubbier as we approached the summit.

Time to layer up. We could hear the wind, and knew the Observatory was predicting speeds to ramp up to 50-70 mph on Mt. Washington later in the day, which it now was.

From this partly sheltered spot we could take in Hight's stellar Presidential views.

The final push.

The bare summit was caked with firm windpacked snow. Our MSR snowshoes worked well on this surface.

From the windswept summit we could look south to Carter Dome and its huge west-facing snowfield.

There was some bare rock at the summit. The wind was fairly strong, maybe 30 mph or so, but with a temperature around thirty it was not bone-chilling.

John faces the wind and the view of Mt. Washington.

Having long been an enthusiast of the Wild River area, I especially enjoy Hight's views over that expansive Wilderness area. Hight has a great view right down into the remote, trailless upper valley of Spruce Brook. In the center of the picture are several beaver ponds and meadows along Red Brook and at the headwaters of the Wild River itself (including No-Ketchum Pond, in the back on the left).

A view across the valley to the Baldface Range, with lower spurs of Hight and Carter Dome in the foreground.

Looking NE over another Hight spur to the Meader-Royce area, with the Caribou-Speckled Wilderness in the distance.

The view north along the Carter-Moriah Range.

A closeup of Mt. Moriah, its many bare ledges (the result of an 1890s fire) highlighted by the snow. Sunday River Whitecap can be seen in the distance behind Shelburne Moriah, and farther still are Saddleback and Abraham in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine.

East Royce on the R, snow-topped Caribou Mtn. in the center.

We dropped a short distance down on the E side of the summit and found a nice spot for a leisurely late lunch, in the sun and out of the wind.

The view from our lunch perch.

The snow cones of the Baldfaces gleamed across the valley.

The west winds were definitely picking up, as evidenced by this snow plume blowing off Carter Dome.

Looking north from our lunch spot.

After an hour's stay, around 4:00 we crossed back over the summit into the teeth of the wind. I paused for this shot of the western White Mountains, including Carrigain and Hancock on the L and Moosilauke and Bond on the R.

Back in the scrub and out of the wind, we began our descent.

It was fun plunge-stepping down through the heavy powder. I took one shortcut through open woods and gained this view of South and Middle Carter from a blowdown patch. We were able to follow the Carter-Moriah Trail back down to its junction with the Carter Dome Trail.

Back at Zeta Pass, we made a short bushwhack side trip down to a small, scrubby opening at the top of the steep headwall on the east side of the col. When we pushed out to this spot, we were stunned by the wide-angle view over the wild valley of Cypress Brook. This trailless valley is four miles long, and splits into two cirque-like basins below the Carters. This view looks over the southern basin, which harbors large beaver meadows on its floor.

A four-mile long spur ridge running east from Middle Carter closes in the Cypress Brook valley on the north side. The late Guy Waterman and, more recently, bushwhacking maestro J.R. Stockwell each traversed this ridge and found it.......long.

About 15 years ago my friend Creston and I visited those beaver meadows on a golden late October day, when the tall tawny grasses glowed in the sun. A magical place. We went into both Cypress Brook cirques and ended up bushwhacking 8 or 9 miles for the day, the last part by headlamp.

Near our Cypress Brook viewpoint John and I found a look back up at Mt. Hight.

The open fir woods of Zeta Pass.

Soft, wet spring snow was the rule on our descent along the Carter Dome Trail.

Evening sun in the birch glades.

We were sinking in the mushy snow on the lower part of the Carter Dome Trail, so I snowshoed off-trail, right down the brook in places, and found firmer snow. We made it out with even some daylight to spare, and agreed that this had been a very fine adventure on the heights of the Carter Range.


  1. Steve . . . what a way to end the winter hiking season. It was truly a "grand finale"!

    This will be a tough act to follow for the end of next year's winter season, but somehow, I think you'll likely manage to come up with something!


  2. John,

    I totally agree - one of the great trips of the winter, and we've had some good ones! Hight is one of the best peaks!