Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Kearsarge Powderline

“Wow.  That’s a great looking deer.”

There was just enough time for that simple thought to enter my brain as the front end of my Mercury Tracer crumpled and the airbag exploded into my face.  The sound of screeching brakes and glass scattering along the highway broke the pristine silence of a cold, clear November night somewhere near Warner, New Hampshire.

A cloud of white obscured my vision and as soon as the car came to rest in the breakdown lane, I jumped out.  I stood there by the side of the road for a second- still dazed and trying to make sense of what just happened.   By the time I figured out the car wasn’t on fire, and the white cloud was actually talcum powder from the airbag, the car was rolling down a steep embankment and unceremoniously mowing down a grove of young pine trees far below.

A passerby stopped when they saw me standing on the side of the road.   I explained that I had hit a deer.

“But where is your car?”   I pointed down at the now camouflaged car hidden in the trees below.

“Where’s the deer?”  That one had me stumped.  I had no idea.  It was nowhere to be seen, but judging from the front of the car, it didn’t get very far.

Eventually a state police officer arrived, and invited me to tell him what happened.

“Soooo…… where’s the car?”  “Aaaaand now,.... where’s the deer?”

I’ve driven Interstate 89 between Lebanon and Concord, New Hampshire more times than I can remember.  A few of those trips were memorable ones. 

Setting a skin track.
The time I bagged my first deer with a Mercury Tracer comes to mind.  There was also that Thanksgiving I got caught in an ice storm and it took six hours to travel what usually takes an hour.  Or there was the time that I was trying to do the drive in forty five minutes and got a stern lecture from a familiar looking statie.

Nearly every time I’ve done the drive during the day, I’ve gazed at the line seared into the face of Mount Kearsarge by a powerline and wondered whether it would be skiable.  With all the snow this year, it was time to find my answer.

It is believed that the name Kearsarge comes from the bastardization of the Native American “Carasarga” meaning notch pointed mountain of pines.  It is the first “real” mountain that you see when driving north on I-89 and it stares you dead in the face as you head south toward Concord. If it seems like it towers above the surrounding landscape, that’s because it does.  It is one of only twelve mountains in New Hampshire with a prominence over the surrounding area of more than 2,000 feet.   Like Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, Kearsarge sees more than its share of summer hiking traffic. It is close to the highway, and a relatively short hike up to some excellent views. It is also part of a network of trails linking nearby Sunapee and Ragged mountains.  I’ve done the hike in the summer, and remembered some broad open east facing ledges that line the hiking trails near the top.  The Barlow Trail is considered the easier of two trails that ascend the mountain from WinslowState Park on the northern side.  The second trail, the Winslow Trail, takes a more direct route and is steeper.  In winter there is a third route.  One that is ideal for backcountry skiers: the power line.

It was "full face coverage" cold.
 It was a brutally cold February morning when Gered and I decided to finally check out Kearsarge.  When I left Boston my car thermometer read ten degrees, and it continued to press downward as I drove North. By the time I met Gered at the gated entrance to Winslow State Park, on the north side of the mountain, it was five degrees.  This wasn’t even counting the brutal wind that was raking us from the north.  This was going to be one of the coldest days of the coldest winter in recent memory.  In other words- a perfect day for a winter hike.

Although Winslow State Park is closed to cars in the winter, we discovered that the road running up to the picnic area from the gate was groomed.  This made the mile long skin up to the picnic area fairly easy and the descent back to the car enjoyable.  Had it been ungroomed, the road would not have been steep enough to ski back to the car.

Looking up at the cliff band.
Both the Barlow and Winslow trails depart from the picnic area, as does the powerline.  Both of the hiking trails traverse to the left, while the powerline cuts straight up the mountain.  It was clear that the powerline had been skied before the last storm as we could see the partially buried gentle curves cut by at least two skiers on their way back down the mountain. Most of the trail was mellow enough that we skinned straight uphill, with the exception of two sections early-on that necessitated some switchbacks. 
We eventually rounded a steep left turn and emerged onto a wide open section where we could see the trail fly straight up a cliff band and disappear into the spruce scrub above.  The wind was howling high above us and a cloud of powder being stripped from the top of the mountain was suspended above the peak and filling glades somewhere on the southeast side.

Just above the cliff band.
While the powerline was inviting, we noticed the deliciously open birch glade to the right of the powerline.  Looking upward into the glade, the skiable lines dissolved into a thicker evergreen stand to there right of the cliff band.  We continued up the powerline and approached the cliff surveying for a way to climb above.  While steep, the power line up the cliff was skinnable with switchbacks.  To the climber’s left was an impassible rock wall, and to the right was the steep evergreen glade above the birches.  While this glade was thicker than the birches below it, as I got closer I could see that it was open enough for a decent descent.   I approached the top of the cliff band and pushed into the woods to the climber’s right to avoid a particularly dicey section at the very top of the cliff.  The wind had scoured the snow down to a slippery base, but in the sheltered woods the powder was thigh deep.  I slowly trudged along in the steep woods struggling to make progress as Gered carefully picked his way up the last section of powerline.

No dallying on the summit.
Above the cliff band the terrain mellowed but the weather grew grim.  We had crossed an invisible line where the wind now blasted the spruce down to short shrubs.  We regrouped in the last line of trees and donned our googles and outer layers for our push to the summit.  As we emerged from the protection of the trees, the snow between the shrubs alternated between wind polished scruff and thigh deep powder pockets.  We zig-zagged our way through the maze, now in sight of the towers on top. We finally stumbled onto the rocky summit, the wind howling at our backs and clawing at any exposed skin.  We both turned downwind, afraid to face it head on.  I could feel the cold creeping in on my backside, through the protective layers of my bib pants and baselayers.  Although the sun was shining gloriously above, the urgency from the cold and wind was palpable.  We quickly de-skinned, threw on our packs and started to work our way back down the trail.

Looking down a chute through the scrub.
The steep chutes between the shrubs made for an interesting game of “guess the snow surface”.  What looked like a solid chunk of hardpack could actually be a powder pocket and vice versa.  We carefully picked our way down back into the trees.  And that’s where the real fun began.

Maybe we had come for the powerline, but the glades were the real showstopper.  The soft, deep powder yielded under our skis as we floated down through the steep glades.  Although tight, the evergreen glades beside the cliff band were navigable, and opened up into the amazing birch glade we had first seen on the way up.

We whooped and hollered as we swooped through the wide open birches, eagerly lapping up the fresh powder.  We emerged from the birches at the bend in the powerline and continued downward, enjoying wide swaths of untouched powder.

Oh those birch glades.

Had we more time, we would have gone back up to ski the glades again, and possibly even made a run down the very skiable cliff band.   But Gered was on a tight schedule, and so we schussed down the groomed road back to our cars.  All told, the lap took us two hours from start to finish.

After our short trip I stopped at the nearby Flying Goose Brew Pub for lunch.  As I sat there drinking a brew and looking up at the mountain, I thought back to that cold, clear November night on a nearby stretch of highway.  And how I stood there on the side of the road pointing out to the tow truck driver where my car had gone, and explaining over his laughter that I had no friggin’ idea where that deer had landed.

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