Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Trip Report: Christmas on Cardigan 12.25.12

It's been so long since we last toured Cardigan Mountain (see: A Backcountry Mountain with Training Wheels (2008)) that I almost forgot how much I like everything about this tiny little southern NH peak.  It's close to home, quick to hike, short enough to forgive poor planning, and covered in nice, shallow, mostly avy-free snowfields. There are multiple ways down that are easy to scout on the climb, and and if there's no powder to schuss there's still bound to be enough ice to give Yukon Cornelius a 12 inch pick. Most importantly, Cardigan is a place longtime gear-queer turned first-time BC skiers and alpinists can go to cut their teeth, and bring their family along for the ride.

Since that trip long ago in 2008, climbing Cardigan from the east via the AMC lodge and CCC trail, I've been thinking about a return to explore the western approach. Maybe I've been overlooking it for more exotic tours, or maybe it's just my place of last resort from a bad snow year. Regardless, the things I've seen and done and skied on on the western approach were enough to make me regret these past five years of neglect.

While it might be a stretch to say that Cardigan is THE crucible of beginner backcountry skiing, it is certainly one of the most family friendly tours in New England. If you've been looking to validate your ski fetish to that special someone and show them how safe skiing bald rock, glare ice, spruce schwack and moosegrass can be, look no further than the CCC trail runout (east approach) or Cardigan Mountain Rd (west approach) from outhouse to town highway. Then turn around and put them back in the car before you really start climbing.

Try not to leave your crampons in the car.
Cardigan is easy-up easy-down in the summer, and with the right equipment can be in the winter too (spikes at a minimum, MSR style snowshoes or full-on crampons ideally). Logistically, it's a very simple tour. The western approach starts at the winter parking lot on Burnt Hill Rd (1,600 ft) and climbs up Cardigan Mountain Rd to the summer lot and shelter (1,800 ft). From there, a narrow but gradual single track ascends the remaining vertical over the next two miles, breaking out into open snow fields (or ice flow) around 2,800 ft. While the early portion of the climb gets enough traffic to be boot packable, you'll definitely need to gear up before venturing onto the mountain's upper snowfields.

Hounds are naturally gifted climbers.
Wives, Bassett hounds, and Texans might not be as happy above 2,800 feet if you leave any of the aforementioned traction equipment at home. Even with a deeper snowpack, Cardigan gets enough wind, rain, and sun bake to make some wives and most beginner BC skiers pucker over the final 400 feet of climbing.

First and second to the summit. In descending
order by height.
But a rough day on Cardigan offers huge rewards for non-traditional families like me, my wife and our 1.5 hounds. First is that feeling of satisfaction we get from doing dangerous things together on Christmas Day. This is an important family tradition that takes years and millions of relationship points to establish. Second, there's something to be said for having a non-skier to photograph you as you slide uncontrollably to your death upon the pikes of treeline spruce schwak.

Maybe it's the influence of the younger, better looking, more risk adverse GoPro generation of skier, but when I get a camera turned on me, I just turn all invincible. As of December 25th, 2012, I certainly wouldn't recommend you ski from the top of Cardigan back to the mountain road. But if you do have a photographer in tow, maybe stage a few good money shots for the rest of us to enjoy.

Typical Eastside Tour: Firescrew around to CCC Trail
As for the westside tour intel, I first want to frame things by outlining the typical eastside route taken up, over, and down Cardigan via Firescrew and the dedicated CCC ski trail. There are plenty of drainages to explore on the way back to the AMC hut, which is hard to miss if you're not a complete BC gringo. This is still a great first timer's route to the top.

Westside Tour with Bonus Features
The westside tour, in my opinion, has a lot more potential. It's nicely bounded by a number of old logging roads to the south that either run back into the main trail or the parking lot on Cardigan Mountain Road. As a last resort, you'd be hard pressed not to hit Burnt Mountain Road if you headed too far south.

Satellite View of Bonus Features
There are a number of spots I spied on my way up that are thin and would make for good alternate routes down. The first would be off the summit's southwest snowfields after pushing through spruce into thinner birch coverage. My suspicion was validated by a close look at aerial shots of Cardigan in winter.

After taking advantage of the runout from the summit snowfields, pressing south across the main trail will earn you access to a steep, narrow gully of birch amidst pine that runs down into a shallow drainage and back to the summer lot. I did't actually ski this, but there are more than a few thinned-out routes on skier's left at this point in the descent that suggest the gully as a final destination.

For a less risky alternative, follow a narrow fire road on skiers left at ~2180 feet and drop down into the aforementioned drainage. This is a lot shallower than the birch gully but offers great thin coverage and plenty of schussing within crow-call of the main trail.

If you can stay high enough here you'll be rewarded with another thin pine section that sits above the summer parking lot. After one-two'ing these glades, enjoy the big smile on your face as you wait for the rest of your family slowly plodding down the bootpack.

It's tough being really really ridiculously good looking at tele.

Huge dork


  1. OMG. Please stop posting trip reports until I'm back from Florida. All these snow pics are killing me… even with all the awesome mountain biking here.

  2. Milton's paws didn't freeze up there?

  3. no amount of mountain biking can make up for the 28 inches of powder you missed in lincoln gap today howard.

    brett, milton is a wonderdog.

    1. There aren't enough pictures of you on this trip report.