The Al Merrill Loop had foiled me once before. On my first attempt, snow like an ice skating rink forced us to retreat after skinning a short section. Nine years later, I was back to try again.
“It’s plowed” Tyson said pointing to the sandy road behind the gate. It wasn’t supposed to be plowed. It should have been a smooth, 1.5 mile ski in to the summertime trailhead. We tried skiing along the edge between the road and the drainage ditch. The plow had cut a knife edge through layers of snow and ice. On our left was a cumbersome side step down to the road. On our right, the snow slid down into open water in the ditch. Isaac gave up trying to ski the arete and wondered off into the woods to find some fun.
“Where?” Tyson answered, rehashing old discussions. “There’s no way to make today work.”
Twenty minutes later and 5 yards down the road we strapped our skis on our packs and started hiking. Tacked on a birch tree beside the plowed road was a sign saying “Please help us maintain a good ski track!”
At the summer trailhead, we found snow, nice snow that glided easily under my skis. I gobbled my lunch, Tyson read the kiosk sign, and Isaac took one more tour through the woods. Then we were off following the Ravine Trail to the Baker River.
The Baker River was covered with ice and partial snow bridges. Great slabs had broken off. Their edges showed an inch of aquamarine sandwiched between white irregular ice below and snow on top. Where the water cascaded over rocks, tapered pillars of ice rose from the surface of the water to the poke roof a foot above. In other places, glittering beads hung down around the edge of the roof like fringe on a giant lamp shade.
Now on the west side of the river, the Ravine Trail started climbing, winding its way through the forest. The trail was well maintained and had bridges across all the water crossings. When the forest changed from dense conifers to open hardwoods, ski tracks turned off the trail. Maybe heading to a glade? But all that came back through the hardwoods was soft golden sunlight.
“Sunset will be coming soon” I thought. “It’s probably 4 o’clock.” I didn’t ask Tyson the real time.
“We aren’t halfway up the loop yet” I quarreled with myself, “and after that we have to ski back down.”
“Hush. I’m skiing.”
“Well,” my conscience continued, “you aught to at least run through your checklist for night skiing.”
“Not turning around.”
We skied on.
Tyson and Isaac spotted red berries crushed in the trail. They came from the crowns of mountain ash high above the river. Birds must have picked the berries to eat and dropped them far from the trees. I was pleased with how nice this hiking trail was to ski. A bit narrow for skiing down, but just right for going up. Tyson pulled out his phone to look at the map and our GPS position. “500 feet” he said “to the trail junction.” That didn’t agree at all with my map. Mine showed the Ravine Trail crossing back over the Baker River and running south for a quarter mile before the Al Merrill trail split off. In 500 feet, we found no trail junction.
Farther along, we crossed back over the Baker River. Tyson thought we might reach the overlook in time to photograph the sunset over Moosilauke, but before we reached the the Al Merrill junction, I saw the last rays of sunlight disappear. We stopped for a snack at the junction and then pressed on.
Three quarters of a mile to the top. “It’ll get better, right?” I tried to reassure myself that my stubborn determination to go skiing hadn’t been a mistake. But it didn’t get better. It got steeper and darker. Isaac slipped more and more, either from fatigue or from the challenge of herringboning a rough trail by brail. Finally he slid down one bulge so many times that he scrapped the bulge to an ice layer. Time for the backup plan — tow rope for Isaac and skins for Tyson.
Thus equipped we zoomed up to the overlook. I made out a faint glow of twilight behind Mt Moosilauke. We all had our headlamps on. Isaac cheerfully pointed his skis down the other side of the hill. Safety was our primary concern skiing down. One adult led the way, looking for downed trees. The other adult took up the rear, waiting with Isaac when he fell. On a steeper section, Tyson put his skins back on and hooked the tow rope to Isaac from behind to slow Isaac, but the trail immediately flattened out again. The trail wasn’t as steep as Tyson and I remembered.
I was waiting for Isaac and Tyson to ski around a downed tree when I heard a thunder of wing beats above my head. I yelped, and snow showered down on me. There must have been a grouse roosting up in the tree.
For all the hours it took to ski up, we descended to the summer trailhead in no time. Then we skied out the power line cut as long as it followed the road. We hiked the last mile to the car. Isaac always hikes fast downhill and especially so in the dark. We reached the car at 8:30PM.
Tyson and I had both made choices that got us here. Were they good choices or bad choices? I now know the Al Merrill loop is a worthy cross country ski trip. And Isaac? A couple days later, after he had recovered, he said skiing down in the dark really was fun.
Explore other trips on Mt Moosilauke.