Emilie Phillips updated March 14, 2019
“I can’t see where I’m skiing,” Becca said, “I’m holding my poles in front of my face and closing my eyes. “
“I did say to bring eye protection,” I responded ruefully, “but it wasn’t this bad when I was here four years ago.”
Becca shook her head in agreement. This was a disgrace. Taking two participants on their first and second AMC trip respectively, on a trail that was no better than a bushwhack.
“This is a great adventure,” Armin said when he appeared grinning out of the spruce ticket behind us, “you promised adventure in the trip description.”
I had. Every year I try to improve the trip description to get more people to sign up. Here’s how I listed the trip this year.
Cedar Brook – Pemigewasset high elevation tour
Thirteen varied miles into the solitude of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We climb up to the notch between Hitchcock and Hancock, then down on logging roads with a few challenging stream crossings. Finish with a flat and rolling exit along the scenic Pemigewasset River. Expect to break trail through the notch. The glide down the gradual logging roads is worth the moderate climb. If lucky there will be enough snow to make the stream crossings easy.
Suggested equipment/skills: 60-80mm wide backcountry skis with metal edges. NNN-BC, SNS-BC, or three pin bindings. Strong climbing skills or skins (loaner skins available on request). Good general fitness. And enthusiasm for adventure.
Becca and I only got two participants, Mark and Armin. Both of them were very strong skiers. Nick had lots of solo backcountry experience. Armin was just getting into backcountry skiing, having taken the AMC winter school last year. I am open to ideas to make the trip attract more skiers, and those with less experience. Have any?
The start of the trip had gone well. We had a little adventure parking the car. It was such a glorious blue bird day that the Hancock Notch parking lot was full when we arrived at 8:20AM. I squeezed my Subaru into a half size spot after Becca, Nick, and Armin kicked apart the snowplow bank.
“50mm, that’s narrow,” Armin said in surprise when I pulled my skis off the rack, “Why are you skiing with those?”
The other three had notably curved skis, 78 to 90 mm wide at the tip, and aggressive scales.
“I like to glide,” I said with a shrug. No point getting into an argument with someone who clearly liked a different skiing style. And glide I did.
The snowshoe track on Hancock Notch Trail was packed firm enough to practice my classic technique from last weekend’s class. I concentrated on bending my ankles and keeping my knees relaxed. Every stride rewarded me with a smooth glide.
I had the best glide of the group, and the best stick. I will attribute that to my improved technique. At the Hancock Notch and Cedar Brook Trail junction, the others put their skins on. Nick and Armin had the new Fischer EZ-Skin kicker skins system. They went on nicely. Becca had full length skins. I gave myself a head start up the next hill.
“Easy climbing,” Nick was saying to Armin when they caught up, “is well worth loosing a little glide.”
At the Hancock Loop junction, as expected, all the snowshoe traffic turned right to bag a winter 4,000 footer. Only a faint depression covered by several snow storms continued on the Cedar Brook trail. I consider this junction the start of the steep climb. As soon as I put my skins on, I almost tripped over the front of my skis, just like Tyson did two weeks ago recovering from the fancy skate skis. I smiled, happy that my weight was forward.
Cedar Brook Trail was well maintained up to the top of the pass. We took the obligatory photo at the wilderness boundary sign, and then stopped to remove skins in the next sunny clearing. Normally we eat lunch there, but it was only 10:45AM.
Starting down into the wilderness, on the northern side of the pass, the trail changed completely. Where we should have been gliding swiftly downhill, we were instead pushing our way through interwoven spruce boughs. Mature spruce and hardwoods trunks grew alongside the trail. Between them, the ten to fifteen year old spruces that we were battling had popped up in the trail.
We adopted various strategies for skiing through the branches. Becca favored arms in front of her face. Armin opted for crouching down low, almost sitting on his skis. I preferred a split kneeling stance, with one arm in front of me, and the other arm holding my hat on my head or retrieving it from the latest thieving tree.
The usual problem on Cedar Brook is water crossings. I anticipated the crossings might be worse this year after the February rain storm and subsequent flooding. Places that are usually depressions in the snow, were open down to wide puddles. The streams had cut their banks to vertical icy cliffs, blocking any attempt to ski down and back up. The bottom of the stream beds had frozen back over.
“There’s a stream crossing coming up”, I told Armin who was ahead of me on the first side hill descent, “which is usually a hazard because people don’t stop in time.”
Armin struggled through some more branches.
“But I don’t think we’ll get going fast enough for that to be a problem today” I finished.
On the other hand, I didn’t anticipate all the small water crossings.
“Extra fun!” I warned to Armin behind me another time as I almost stumbled into a hidden drop off.
He pushed through the spruce branches behind me.
“A water crossing too” he exclaimed.
“That’s what I meant by extra fun,” I said.
“Oh, I thought you meant the branches in the way.”
Nick turned out to be good at finding routes around the water hazards. I let him lead much of the way.
“The woods are more open down there,” Nick said pointing to the right, “than up here on the trail.”
“Sure”, I said, “we can go ski that as long as we stay near the trail.”
He swooped down into the open mature woods. Shortly the forest closed in with more young spruce, forcing us back up to the trail. The mature woods to either side frequently seemed more open than the new growth on the trail.
A while later, when I was leading, we had to detour around a section of blown down trees. I headed off into the clearing opened up by the deadfall.
“Shall we just stay over here where we can make good progress?” I asked the group.
They all agreed. Becca suggested we make sure we didn’t stray far from the trail. I skied on until the end of the obvious clearing. The trail had been descending, whereas our nice clearing was on a level shoulder. So I turned left, back into the spruce trees to find the trail.
I descended for quite a ways and didn’t find the trail. Becca and I pulled our phone GPS’s out. Her app had only a vague notion of the Cedar Brook Trail. I used open street maps. Our track, until the clearing, had been following the trail exactly. Now, the trail was uphill from our position.
“The trail is back up the hill,” I hollered to the others scattered through the woods, “Let’s contour around until we meet it.”
We contoured for a while, but my GPS indicated the trail was getting no nearer. Instead, the spruce forest we were bushwhacking through had become denser than the trail had been.
“There’s needles down my neck,” Becca complained.
I had to agree. We came to the crest of a descending ridge. I couldn’t remember the trail going over a ridge like that. So I pulled out my phone and analyzed the map. The trail appeared to have stayed high and then turned right into the next hollow. We continued pushing our way around the ridge and to the right. On the other side, we found a giant ravine. I’ve never seen a deep ravine on the Cedar Brook trail.
There was no way we were skiing down and back up it. On the plus side, the view of far away mountains and blue sky was impressive. I snapped a quick photo that doesn’t do it justice. On the minus side, the only way to go was straight up through the spruce forest to find the trail.
“No more going off the trail,” Nick said. He was in the lead again finding a route through the thickets.
“We won’t be tempted,” Becca agreed.
Ten times longer than I thought it would take, we emerged back onto the trail.
From there down, the forest shifted in patches from spruce to hardwoods. Becca kept glancing at the open woods on the side.
“Look at that nice glade”, she would say, shaking her head.
“Don’t be lured off the trail”, Nick would caution.
At 2:30PM, we spotted the Wilderness Trail sign, and fresh ski tracks. Considering that other years, with better conditions, the sun has set as we arrived at the Wilderness Trail, this years’ group was exceptionally strong. The presence of ski tracks meant Cedar Brook was crossable.
Even the Pemigewasset River had frozen over enough to cross at the wilderness boundary. Becca and I were both happier returning by the railroad grade on the East Side trail. I zoomed off on my fast gliding skis, occasionally waiting for the group. Maybe not as often as I should have, being a trip leader and all.
Halfway back, I figured out how to slow down. I swapped skis with Armin. By the time we got back to the cars, he was grinning.
“Now I have a problem,” he said, “I need a fifth pair of skis.”
Between the Hancock Notch Trail and the Hancock Loop Trail, the Cedar Brook hiking trail has been rerouted. There used to be a spot where the summer trail crossed left over the stream and the winter trail stayed on the right side of the stream. I noticed the snowshoe track on the right side didn’t go where I remembered, and then I noticed fresh yellow blazes. This new hiking variant is quite skiable. There’s no more need for the separate summer and winter routes.
The gorge we found during our bushwhack is downstream of the one stream crossing that’s always open water. Just in case someone wants to bushwhack back down for the view.
I found a map of the old logging railroads and camps online. The Cedar Brook trail descends onto the Cedar Brook Branch near camp 24.