Thursday, February 4, 2010

-Trip Report- Hunger Mountain: I Lovermont (January 2010)

It had been a while since I skied the backcountry of the motherland.  A rainstorm from a couple weeks ago decimated most of the snowpack in New England, including my backcountry targets in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  While there was plenty of cold to go around, snow was at a premium.  Earlier in the week, Bolton, Jay and Stowe had been hit by a storm that dumped upwards of six inches of fresh snow on each.

This gave me a perfect excuse to drive a little further, and get back in touch with the mountains of northern Vermont.  I was quickly reminded why Vermont is the "Ski Mecca" of the East.

I drove up to Gered's place in White River Junction on Friday night, where we got our "pre-ski-apres- ski" vibe on at the local pub.  In other words, we drank cheap beer, watched X-Games, and dominated the juke box.

Because Gered is a batshit crazy triathlete, he needed to do a simulated triathlon early on Saturday morning.  This pushed back our timing a little, but also allowed me to get some extra sleep, which is usually impossible around Gered.

Originally the plan was to ski Mt. Elmore, in north central Vermont. However, a lukewarm "snow report" from the local country store ('snowmobilin' sucks up here right now'), as well as a recommendation from Onion River Sports in Montpelier, convinced us to ditch Elmore for Mount Hunger, just outside of Montpelier.

Blue sky in January means COLD!

Truth be told, it was really this view of Mt. Hunger while approaching Montpelier that sealed the deal.  The snowfields clearly had plenty of snow.  The rising snowbanks on the drive to the trail head confirmed we had hit paydirt.

We arrived at the trail head around 12:30pm, and the late hour set the tone for the day:  move quickly, or ski down in the dark.

We planned to take the Middlesex Trail, from the Montpelier side of Hunger to the top.

Middlesex starts as a logging road, which then climbs into the thick woods.  It winds slowly, until about a quarter mile from the summit where it hits a steep pitch up next to a waterfall, and then another pitch up some steep rock slabs.

Shall I pack the extra boots this time? 

Now there are logging roads, and there are logging roads. Currently the logging road at Mt. Hunger is a superhighway of diesel monsters hauling trees out of the deep woods.  While we didn't actually see any trucks on the road, we could hear them working  nearby.  This meant, however, that there was enough crap in the road to do some serious damage to the ski bottoms. Undeterred we skinned up on the road edges in the fresh snow all the way to the entrance into the woods.

Given that the trail was well packed out, we decided to throw our skis on our packs, don crampons and boot pack most of the trail up the mountain.  A few skiers and a snowboarder reminded us we were only twenty minutes from Montpelier, however all but one person's trail was confined to the lower mountain below the junction with the White Rock trail.

Strangely, despite the fact it was no warmer than ten degrees, the trail was still wet in places where it crossed small brooks.  This caused snow to ball up in the area between the spikes of my crampons.  This is clearly why people buy anti-bott plates for their crampons-- a luxury I can now humbly recommend. 

Once we passed where White Rock trail joined Middlesex, there was only one set of footprints continuing up the Mountain. We continued bootpacking on the uneven terrain, sometimes post-holing up to our thighs in the deep snow.

Just before the first steep pitch we came across the lone hiker, who indicated he had packed out a trail all the way to the summit.  This was good news.  Making new tracks in waist deep snow is tough work.  We had a good chance of making the top because of his work.

A narrow passage through some rocky ledges separated the lower grove where we came across the lone hiker, from another nearly identical grove above it.  As we climbed through the narrow passage we debated whether, and how, the chute would be skiable.  With a waterfall on one side a solid rock wall on the other, there were irregular boulders, trees, and icy patches interspersed between.

 Gered climbing into the chute

Pushing through the upper glade, we arrived at the bottom of a steep set of rock ledges.  The trail continued to wind around to our right, but we could see the summit almost directly above us.  With daylight waning we decided to ditch the trail, in favor of climbing straight up the 45 degree crust covered ledges straight to the top.  Kicking in steps with the crampons, we climbed up about 50 yards and rejoined the trail as it cut back to our line.

                                                      Could have used the ice axe here

We continued to climb the lower snowfield, finally reaching a spruce glen before the last rise.  Short on time, we decided to ditch the skis for the last 100 yards (oh the shame) and get our photos on the summit.

Looking East over the upper snowfield

The view from the top was impressive. The cold, dry air allowed us to see the Whites to the east, including the Franconia ridge and Mt. Washington, as well as Camel's Hump and Mt. Mansfield across the valley to the west.

Camel's Hump from Mt. Hunger
(At the oh, crap almost sunset.. gotta get down moment)

The skiing was awesome.  After we finished kicking ourselves for not bringing our skis to the top (and thus missing the upper snowfield), we warmed up on the lower snowfield. A combination of leftover climbing wax on our skis, and a hard windslab on top of the powder, caused both of us to take a tumble in our first couple of turns.  With a few more turns, however, we got our confidence for the rock slabs.

If you have ever climbed, you quickly realize that it always looks steeper on the way down.  The 45 degree slope that we carefully kicked our way up, suddenly loomed before us.  With a mix of jump turns and side sliding, we managed to nearly reach the bottom.  However, on our final turns we both  managed to let our ski tips get buried in the powder at the bottom of the slabs, and go flying over our skis.

                                                I'm sorry I abused you ski... please stop hiding in the powder

After successfully navigating the slabs, we carried our new found confidence to the narrow passage between the upper and lower groves.  Somehow we both managed to find fresh lines, and ski the seemingly unskiable pass all the way to the bottom.  Well.... almost. I decided to huck a small waterfall at the end, but when my skis hit, they stuck, causing me to "superman" out of my bindings and onto the snow.  I can guarantee Gered is still laughing as I write this.

We skied the lower part of the mountain in the fading light, and found the trail below the White Rocks junction to be plenty wide enough for linking turns.  The relatively open glades also allowed us to go off trail a little. I should say it allowed Gered to go off trail a little.  I'm as blind as a bat at night, so I stuck to what I could see. (barely)

By the time we reached the logging road it was dark, and so we walked the last mile to the car in the dark, trying to keep warm.

All said, Mt. Hunger was a gem.  The eastern facing snowfields collect alot of snow because of the westerly winds. The two sets of snowfields at the top allow you to get some confidence before tackling the steep slabs below.  Then the rest is open glades to the logging road. 

Although we boot packed from the logging road all the way to the summit.  I would recommend trying to ski up until just after the White Rocks junction, and then donning the crampons.  This would have been far more efficient, and saved us some time.

I can't wait to go back, and with it so close to Montpelier, I'm sure I'll get the chance sometime soon.

View the rest of pictures here:

Hunger Mountain

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