Sunday, December 11, 2011

12-11-11 Mt. Skinner (Hadley, MA), Solstice sunlight

I spent part of the afternoon today running some of the trails on the nearby Holyoke Range, Mt. Skinner particularly because of it's steep terrain. Around 3 pm I was coming back up to the summit when I found myself bathed in this luxurious light and it reminded me it's only 11 days until the Winter Solstice when, happily, the days will begin to get longer again--pointing us towards summer but hopefully not before we get to enjoy the holidays and a long winter with lots and lots of snow.

The green in the background represents the dense stands of hemlock along Mt. Skinner's summit ridge and that sweep down across its north face.

It was in the low 30s all day keeping with the mild fall we've been having, but below freezing night-time temperatures have finally put frost in the ground and I hope the same is true for the White Mountains. It would be great to have at least a couple of inches of hard frost before the deeper snow arrives.

At any rate, I just wanted to share this lovely winter sunlight. It's reminiscent of the light I was hiking in last Saturday on Kinsman Ridge.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

12-6-11 Editorial: The Hut Traverse as a Unique, Challenging, Local Treasure


Whenever I mention the hut traverse I get myriad comments and emails from readers. A case in point is the 11-24-11 article, Zealand Falls Thanksgiving, in which George Heinrichs’ 12h:38m time on a recent traverse was noted. I received several comments regarding George’s traverse including one that asked whether it was on the same course I completed in 1963 or whether George had taken the “easy” route.
The traverse is a lovely, unique, and extremely challenging hike/run that not only traverses the AMC hut system, but also traverses one of the most beautiful mountain regions in the United States. It offers enticing varieties of weather, topography and physical environments ranging from Alpine to Northern-forest-wilderness. It has pre-established way stations, the huts, that can be used to cache food/liquids/clothing and are equipped with two-way radios in case of emergencies.
We, and I mean all of us who love trail running, distance trail running, and marathon hikes, are unbelievably fortunate to have this course in our backyard complete with its 80-year history. It’s also noteworthy for its potential to expand into a much longer course by including the Carter-Moriah and Mahoosuc ranges in the east and the Kinsman-Moosilaukee trails in the west. It may even be possible to create an outstanding100-mile course with the traverse as its centerpiece.
The lovely view towards the west (taken in 1967) from the summit of South Twin. Those who do the traverse going east to west are roughly 3/4 of the way at this point and often find this view mortifying because Garfield and Lafayette look so impossibly far away!
The traverse is never easy and there isn’t a separate, easier route. In the first 35 years that the traverse was part of hut history the course generally included Pinkham Notch Camp as one of the huts. Since the 1970’s the traverse became a straight line from Carter to Lonesome Lake or Lonesome Lake to Carter after the visit to Pinkham was eliminated.
The detour to Pinkham impacted the total distance and time factor and would have been a factor in my 1963 traverse except that I started at Madison and went first to Carter by descending Madison Gulf to the Glen House and then running up the Aqueduct Path and Nineteen Mile Brook Trail (hut to hut: 8.7 miles). I went over the Wildcats to the ski area and slithered down a ski trail to Rt. 16 and ran along an abandoned trail (that used to ferry skiers from Pinkham to the old Wildcat Ski Trail) to the old Trading Post at Pinkham (4.4 miles) where I gulped my first food. I then ran up Tuckerman Ravine and Crossover trails to Lakes before heading west.
George started his recent traverse at Carter and went to Madison via Madison Gulf and took Gulfside and Westside to Lakes before heading west. If you do the math (and use the 1960 AMC guide book distances for my traverse) you’ll find that George covered 16.7 miles to reach Lakes and I covered 17.8 miles, a difference of 1.2 miles (even though I included Pinkham). At the western end, after Lonesome Lake Hut was moved to the other side of Lonesome Lake in 1965, the traverse picked up a quarter mile so the difference between George’s and my traverse is about one mile. At 4-5 mph that’s about 15 minutes a mile and means that George’s most recent time is only 27 minutes behind my 1963 time, less than half a minute per mile over the course.
The author (2nd from left in front) in his Adidas, fresh from the hut traverse, starting a fresh cross country season.
I’ve reported that I was in superb shape when I did the traverse in 1963. I was training for something larger in scope than the traverse and was a fiercely dedicated athlete. This is how serious I was: everyday throughout high school I ran a hilly 9.8-mile course and then put in some rigorous speed workouts on the track that added 4-5 miles to my day. I took a blood sample and titrated it for lactose acid content every day before and after practice and every 2-3 months I rotated my diet regimen using the titration data in an attempt to fashion a special diet for distance running (trying to follow in the footsteps of the Australian middle distance runners, like John Landry and Olympic miler Herb Elliot, and their remarkable coach, Percy Cerutty).
Those who attempt the hut traverse with a focus on time really need to think about diet. A fast time is about speed, strength and endurance but efficient energy uptake and hydration, along with pacing, are equally important. (Sorry, I know I promised not to preach.) At any rate, George’s cool, methodical nature is definitely a plus in helping him achieve a fluid pace with good hydration. His recent time of 12 h: 38 m is a good indication that he's in superb shape and may be able to break the 12-hour time that I was trying to break way, way back in 1963. I hope he does.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

12-3-11 Kinsman Ridge (complete)

South (long ridge on the right) and North Kinsman (looking taller than South Kinsman on the right) above Lonesome Lake. South Kinsman is 4358 feet in elevation and North Kinsman is 4293 feet in elevation.

As I drove North on I-91 early Saturday morning I wasn't sure of my destination. It was forecast as a lovely mountain day and I was thinking about Mt. Adam or Mt. Washington, but they both engender two extra hours of driving when coming from the West. I thought of Franconia Ridge but with the perfect weather the trail was going to get crowded. I had a yen to hike somewhere quiet and out of the way; somewhere I hadn't been for a while. As I drove over Sugar Hill, in Franconia, I looked over at Cannon Mt., the Cannon Balls and the Kinsmans and decided that Kinsman Ridge would be a perfect hike on such a perfect day. It's been at least 30 years since I've been on the Kinsmans and I have fond memories of previous forays into this little known realm.

Getting to the Kinsmans from the east is easiest via the Fishin' Jimmy Trail that starts behind Lonesome Lake Hut which, in turn, is about 1 1/2 miles from I-93 in Franconia Notch via the Lonesome Lake Trail.

It was astonishing to not see more snow. The lake ice was still thin but is smooth enough for skating later, when it gets thicker. Hopefully it will be smooth as glass and a foot thick by New Years Eve! Franconia Ridge, with Mt. Lafayette on the far left, Mt. Lincoln (center) and Little Haystack (to the right).

Cannon Mt. with Coppermine Col (deep notch to the left) at the north end of Lonesome Lake.

The Fishin' Jimmy Trail starts at Lonesome Lake Hut and in 2 miles gains a saddle on Kinsman Ridge at the bottom of North Kinsman where Kinsman Pond and Kinsman Shelter are located. The trail is steep and rough in places but threads through a primeval landscape, including this dark forest where only a small amount of light reaches the floor.

The forest quickly alternates with more open areas like this birch grove where a lot of sunlight reaches the floor. Certainly one of my primary objectives in hiking the Kinsmans was to become immersed both in solitude and this rich, buttery, winter sunlight, now close to its ebb, and enjoy the colors and the stillness.

An open grove of young and old balsam firs that is flooded with sunlight. (This might be called a perfect picture of biotic succession with healthy young and old trees and lots of nutrient represented by all the detritus, e.g. dead wood, on the ground.)

A glacial erratic that looks just like half loaf of bread. It's large; about 8 feet high by 10 feet across at the face. It's mentioned in the guide book as the beginning of the steep section that extends up to the ridge. It made me want some french toast! With lots of butter and maple syrup.

In 30 years I had forgotten a lot about the Fishin' Jimmy Trail including how steep it is. This icy pitch is an example and was steep enough to require some rock climbing techniques.

Icicles on a rock face next to the trail catching the early morning sunlight.

An oasis.

In between steep sections there are short, level places where you can stretch out your calf muscles, but.....

quite quickly another steep section presents itself. I didn't photograph all the steep bits because I was too busy with hands and feet but this is one example of a long stretch of granite slab at about a 45 degree angle and 40 yards long. Towards the top you can see a set of steps placed magically

on the rock and tilted to one side so water can run off. In spite of the intent the steps were still icy and a little hair raising as you aren't quite sure what is holding them up.

I call sections of trails like this "escalators" and I prefer them to the wood step affairs because they're good and solid and offer better purchase in ice and snow.

Below the ridge the forest became dense and coniferous, or boreal in structure and specie, and with a light edging or rime in the December light they were jewel-like. The photos that follow are examples of the lyrical quality of the low-angled sunlight.

Photo taken in the vicinity of Kinsman Junction where the Fishin Jimmy Trail meets the Kinsman Ridge Trail. The woods were enchanted...

with rime coated scenes like this....

and this.

The ridge was a warren of shaded dells carpeted with thick sphagnum moss.

A close up of the rime which is really tiny ice pellets that are formed in wind that, due to its velocity and the ambient air temperature, has become super chilled. The tiny ice pellets become glued to everything the wind brushes. Rime formations are sometimes dramatic and are icons in the areas above timberline in the White Mountains.

This is the new Kinsman Pond Shelter constructed in the summer of 2011 and it's quite spiffy. Shelters made from local materials last about 25 years in severe high mountain environments. This one was designed to last a bit longer with it wide eves and steep roof to move the water away from the logs walls.

A side view. The shelter, like the one it replaces, can comfortably hold 12 people although there will be nights when it will shelter 20, or more. In addition to the shelter there are four large tent platforms nearby.

Kinsman Pond looking towards South Kinsman (4358' asl) with North Kinsman (4293' asl) to the right. I sat on a wide ledge of granite on the shore line and spent a wonderful hour there eating lunch and basked in the surprisingly hot sun in a vast silence. The only sounds came from occasional bands of garrulous chickadees darting through the spruce and balsams near the shore and the mysterious cracking of the ice.

Just below the North Kinsman summit.

The Kinsman Ridge Trail heading north has a wild, lonely appearance with its old log "bridges" that protect the bog-like ground. The Appalachian Trail (AT) descends the ridge via the Fishin Jimmy Trail so that the Kinsman Ridge Trail, of the two, is the one less traveled. It's a lovely trail with wild, roller coaster undulations as it rolls over the Cannon Balls and Cannon Mt. The clefts between these lesser, rounded summits, are steep and deep making legs groan and spirits flag.

There are rare glimpses of surrounding mountains like this one from the second Cannon Ball of towards Franconia Ridge in the distance and Cannon Mt. on the left where you can see the top of the summit building.

This is what I meant by primeval landscape. The only logging that has ever been done along this part of the ridge is by the fierce winds that come down out of the northwest and first strike this ridge before plowing across the successive ranges and only Mt. Lafayette gets the full bore of the wind that the Kinsman Ridge experiences.

This may be close to what the northern boreal forest looked like until the 1880s when the methodical butchering of the forest began in central and northern New Hampshire (all of northern New England is more accurate) as mechanized logging was introduced and continued into the early 1920s. If you enlarge this photo and the one below and just look at them for a moment and consider the beauty that's there, and wonderful sense of wildness and timelessness evoked by the interplay of light in the trees, the forest floor, the roots and the stones along the beckoning path.

Looking back and the Kinsmans from the second Cannon Ball.

On the last Cannon Ball I found this wild scene (above photo and below), also primeval, of a wind devastated forest coated with rime.

It was hard to tell when this damage occurred but it was from a storm that approached the ridge from the north, possibly from the northeast, but the repairs to the trail were minimal.

The Lonesome Lake Trail joins the Kinsman Ridge Trail at the bottom of the last cleft, or notch, between the Cannon Balls and Cannon Mt. I was happy to see see it. With all of my rejoicing about the winter light I had also been a little on edge because, judging only by the sunlight, it felt like it was quite late, almost evening, when it reality it was only 2 pm, or so.

As fair warning, two of these notches, this one between the last (or first going south on the ridge) and Cannon Mt. itself in particular), are very steep and require extra time in trip planning. They can be run quickly using hands and feet but with packs they require extra care. On my traverse there was some ice on the steep sections but navigable without traction. In winter you should expect a good bit of ice on the trail throughout.

The descent from Coppermine Col to Lonesome Lake is rapid. The trail is basically a brook wending its way under and around these large felsenmeer like blocks of granite. The geology of this region is fascinating and well worth perusing. There are a number of texts available. Charles R. Williams, a student of Marland Billings at Harvard, published Geology In the Franconia Region, and edited version of his doctoral thesis, in the June 1934 Appalachia. It sounds technical but it's a good place to start if you're interested in the glacial history of the Kinsmans and Lonesome Lake area as well as the local geology.

Speaking of glacial history this is an extensive area of muskeg that's in slow succession and may be reminiscent of the landscape here at the close of the last glacial period 11,000 years ago. I timed my hike to return to Lonesome Lake as the sun completed its arc here and descended behind the Kinsmans to enjoy the sunset from the lake shore.

Looking east across Lonesome Lake towards Mt. Liberty in the distance.

Looking back up at Coppermine Col and the steep, southwest side of Cannon Mt.

The "Round the Lake" Trail utilizes these board walks for much of its circling around Lonesome Lake and particularly the west side.

Looking down towards the south end of Lonesome Lake from the lake trail.

Franconia Ridge at sunset from the west side of Lonesome Lake.

The Kinsmans at sunset.

The fast ebbing of the lovely, last bits of light (reflected from the lake) along the trail down.

I had the great pleasure of hiking back down to the highway with Beth and Mack who were at Lonesome Lake Hut on some official business. Beth has the highly coveted position of Hut Checker for the winter which translates into being a 'professional hiker' as she makes regular, unscheduled visits to all the huts that are aimed, hopefully, at reducing vandalism. Mack has worked in the huts for several summers and is on his way West for the winter, possibly Colorado or California, looking for snow.

Bib: Charles Williams, Geology In the Franconia Region, June 1934 Appalachia. Email to request a copy.

Paul Jenks, The Fishin' Jimmy Trail, December 1930 Appalachia