Emilie had been suffering from a serious case of “backpacking deficiency”. With the 3 day Memorial Day weekend coming up, she demanded a “real trip”.
After our first backpacking trip with Isaac we concluded that carrying a kid, kid’s gear and kid’s diapers was going to be a bit too much, especially since we would need a larger tent than the 2 person tent we were using and the kid was getting heavier with time. Last year Isaac started doing some of his own hiking and we weaned him off the backpack carrier. This year he has been hiking progressively more challenging routes and it was time to try backpacking again. We had taken him backpacking once before, but that was a very short walk in the woods.
Emilie suggested a route around Owl’s Head that would have been about 19 miles long. That seemed too long to me so I suggested some sort of an out-and-back in Zealand Notch. Emilie veto’ed an out-and-back. Somehow (I’m blamed for the initial mention of it) we came upon the idea of doing a loop involving the Carrigain Notch trail that I had been wanting to explore as a possible ski trip. This loop would be only 12(*) miles. That would be easy for Isaac to do in 3 days. Oh, but the loop involved the 4,700 ft summit of Mt. Carrigain. Hmmm… I suggested that this might be a problem. I’m not sure that Emilie was hearing me. She wanted to go on a real backpacking trip!
A trip like this should be packed and ready to hit the road first thing in the morning. As usual we were unable to achieve that and by the time everything was packed, the first day’s lunch was eaten on the car ride to the trailhead and we didn’t start hiking until 14:24. Not a good start.
Isaac is still quite slow on the uphills. We started at about 1,400 ft and by sunset, we had only covered a few miles and reached about 3,000 ft of elevation. Worse, we were on a steep section of the mountain and there were no suitable tent sites to be found. While Emilie and Isaac pumped water, I dropped my packed and scouted ahead hoping to find a place for the tent. If it had been just the two of us, we would likely have pushed on much further to find a good tent site but there was no chance that Isaac was going further.
I found a single spot that was flat enough and large enough, but was right next to the trail and not level enough. I kept going down the trail, but the options kept getting worse. …much worse. I showed the spot to Emilie and she didn’t approve. She disappeared down the steep and thickly treed slope. After a bit of looking around and with light fading, she called up that she’d found a spot. She said it was miserable, but less so than what I had found. I noted the direction that her voice was coming from so that we could find it again, she climbed back up and we rushed to get our gear and get back to the spot before it was too dark to find it again. As we hiked down the slope, I was unable to find the reported tent site. When we got there and she pointed it out, I was a bit concerned. It was not flat. It was not level. It was not large enough for the tent! In addition to the “tent spot” not being a suitable location for a tent, the hill was quite steep, footing was difficult and everything was constantly trying to roll down the hill.
Once the tent was setup, it had one corner essentially in the air. No significant area of the floor was flat or level. There was a small sapling creating a large bump in the floor. There was a tree and a fallen log intruding on one side. We ended up putting a rolled foam pad between the tree and the tent. We put my backpack under the tent against the fallen log. I ended up sleeping against the rolled pad and my backpack due to the side slop of my spot in the tent. We put the other backpack under what ended up being my feet to provide some support. We put yet more gear/stuff-sacks under the ends of the sleeping pads to prop them up and limit the tendency for us to slide down hill while sleeping. Oh, and it rained that night. I expected it to be completely miserable and had been mentally preparing myself to accept that I’d get no sleep, but at least Isaac would. It turned out to be only slightly miserable and I slept reasonably.
Photos from day 1:
The next morning was the typical backpacking sequence, with the added benefit of everything dripping on us from the previous night’s rain and everything constantly trying to roll down the hill. By the time we had everything loaded and pumped some more water, it was headed towards 11:00. …another “not a good start”.
The first stretch of trail was rocks. Rocks that are small enough for an adult to walk on, but for Isaac, they were a major obstacle. Progress was slow. We kept discussing the merits of when to turn around. Should we push to the summit and then head back the way we came? Though it was foggy and cloudy, we were getting reports of good visibility and a view of the under-cast from those headed down. Maybe we could get to Signal Ridge and see some of this and then turn around? Maybe we should turn around now? We spotted a couple of campsites that we could use if we summited and then started back down. I pointed out that “making responsible decisions” was a option passed up when we didn’t head down that morning after we had made so little progress the first day. I spent time contemplating how to work with the tent sites we’d found and how we would evacuate Isaac if he reached his limits and had to be carried. Emilie kept Isaac motivated. Signal ridge was too close to pass it up. We kept pushing.
When we reached Signal Ridge we were greeted with sunshine and amazing views with clouds below! Isaac was excited. I was happy. Pictures were taken. …Emilie was too focused on the summit to appreciate it. It was in full view and so very close. We kept pushing.
We soon reached the summit at nearly 16:00 and climbed the observation tower. The views were amazing! A bit of celebrating Isaac climbing his first 4,000 footer and a rest was required. I pulled the tent fly off my pack to shake it out some more and fly it in the breeze to dry it off. I found a strong cell phone signal and checked the weather maps and reports. Now we needed to make a plan and it needed to take into account possible rain and thunderstorms the next day.
After studying the guide descriptions of the trails we concluded that we would head down the Desolation Trail into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We had covered 5 of the 12(*) miles. That meant that this route would be 2 miles longer. However, the route we came up was a “no tentsite zone” for a large stretch exactly where we needed to stop. I did not want to repeat our first night’s camping experience. Getting past it to reasonable tenting seemed like quite a stretch over some very rocky trail. Stopping before the no tentsite stretch would leave a long, difficult and sometimes steep hike the next day with possible rain making it slippery. Desolation trail was described as very steep and difficult, but we felt we had a reasonable chance of getting it done before sunset so we would be off the mountain and would reach good tenting. Once off the mountain, we had no concerns about hiking the relatively flat 5(*) miles back to the car in any rain the next day. We had no way of being certain what was the right choice and we were both aware that we wanted to do the loop route instead of going back the way we came, making it difficult to be certain of our objectivity. A longer route into Wilderness on trails we had never seen before could be considered a bold choice even if it held the promise of getting off the mountain before any rain and a much better campsite.
We started down the Desolation Trail. It was steep but seemed manageable and eventually got a little easier. Isaac took a couple of tumbles. We were stopped about 1/2 mile from the summit for a rest and a snack when a father and son came up the trail. They asked about water sources and tent sites ahead. We were able to help them with that information because we had been taking mental notes for our own possible use. He asked what our plans were and, with concern, he pointed out that there was no chance of setting up a tent for the next mile and half which was very difficult hiking and there was no chance we would get to a tentsite until after dark. This was not what we wanted to hear, but we were used to hiking and setting up camp by headlamp and if we indeed reached good tenting, doing so could be done.
As we continued, the trail soon got more challenging. Much more challenging. For Isaac it became 5.3 free solo down climbing with dad providing beta and a spot. Progress was painfully slow. Eventually, the pitch started to ease up. The space between the rocks became more filled in with dirt. In time, we were able to “just hike” with ease. However, Isaac was running out of go. Emilie resorted to singing which helped Isaac keep focused on hiking and provided a bit of cadence for him. Emilie sang. …and sang. …and sang. Would we ever reach our goal of the area where the Desolation Trail and the Carrigain Notch trail meet?
As the light was starting to dim we reached our goal and found a suitable site for a tent right next to the trail with the sound of the “Carrigain Branch” of the “East Branch Pemigewasset River” nearby. Emilie disappeared deeper into the woods to see if she could find something better. She did. We ended up on a flat spot of what was previously a railroad bed with a nearby spot that had been used as a campfire site with a log bench. There was Trillium all over the place and quite a few Lady Slippers just starting to bloom. With the river right there for a water source, it was pretty much an ideal camping location. We had a rope for the “bear bag” hung and the tent setup before it was dark. Isaac’s performance had been amazing. Two days in a row he had exceeded his previous accomplishments.
[Edit] The descent on Desolation Trail is one of the Terrifying 25 trails.
Photos from day 2:
That night we all slept well on the nice flat and level surface. There was a small amount of light rain. The next morning when we woke at about 06:00, the rain had stopped. We knew we needed to get a decent start and were motivated by the possibility of eating breakfast and packing before any more rain started. Isaac was generally in a good mood and seemed to be enjoying the adventure.
During the hike down the Desolation Trail the previous evening, the distances didn’t quite add up for me. The 5(*) miles we had left didn’t seem right when compared on the map to the 5 miles from the car to the summit. We did some review of our information and found that somewhere a mistake had been made. We had 7 miles to get back to the car! This was not a 12(*) mile loop. It was a 14 mile loop. While 7 miles didn’t seem impossible for Isaac, even with fresh legs it would be a marathon for him.
This morning we did much better and hit the trail at 09:00. The first part of the Carrigain Notch trail was flat with very easy footing. We covered the first mile in about 40 minutes. At the junction with the Nancy Pond Trail, the Carrigain Notch trail turns right and changes character to be deeply rutted and sometimes muddy or wet, but it remained generally easy going. We had heard reports of the trail being somewhat abandoned or grown in, but this was not the case. There was a slow climb of about 500 ft to the saddle of Carrigain Notch which we reached that around noon time. It was not only looking like we would make it back, but we might make it back before Flat Bread Pizza in North Conway closed! Better yet, the skies were blue and there was no sign of rain.
The descent down from the saddle got gradually steeper and then slowly leveled off. We spotted what we suspect is the start of the “bush whack” to Vose Spur on the east side of Mt Carrigain. With Isaac starting to cycle between bounce enthusiasm for games and declaring that he couldn’t go any further with the body language of someone completely exhausted, we eventually returned the Signal Ridge Trail and then the crossing of Whiteface Brook. We stopped here to rest and let Isaac play for a bit. The time was looking good for pizza and we had less than 2 miles to go.
For the final 2 miles, Isaac continued to emotionally (and physically) cycle, but generally with more up than down. We encouraged him with information about how close we were to the car and pizza. We reached the parking lot at about 16:10. Not a minute or foot too soon. …and still blue skies.
Wow! Isaac had just completed a 3 day, 14 mile backpacking trip that included the climb to the 4,700 ft summit of Mt. Carrigain! We did not carry him, he did it under his own power. …and he seems unable to understand how impressed and proud we are. Pizza was followed by a Brownie Sunday. On the drive home, Isaac napped.
Photos from day 3: