Goin' For The Belknap Winter Traverse
As I drove through the dying flurries of an unexpected overnight storm, I realized our entire hike could be derailed by an unplowed parking lot. I passed the plow truck while he crushed back snow in the scenic overlook parking area on Rte. 11 and I sent him mad props when I landed in the crisp, clean Mt. Major lot moments later. I backed my car in and waited for Jeremy, who texted me to let me know he was stuck behind some snow-crawling courteous driver.
The sun wasn't up yet, but both snow and darkness dwindled. I wandered in the purple dawn to stretch out, trudged through the snow a bit and woke up. There was one car in the parking lot and I saw a shadow slip into the woods to head up Major. In about fifteen minutes the entire scene changed and it was a sunny morning.
Jeremy arrived and we got ourselves snowshoed and set off on our attempted Belknap Traverse. That's peaking twelve mountains in one shot – Major, North Straightback, West Quarry, Rand, Klem, Mack, Anna, Belknap, North Piper, Whiteface, Gunstock and Rowe – and we had 'til sunset to do it. None of the Belknap mountains are very big, but to bang out twelve in a day requires a special kind of stamina. You ain't on Mount Major anymore, kiddo!
To add the feeling of “completion,” we planned on hitting three of the “unofficial” Belknap peaks, as well – South Straightback, East Quarry, and South Piper. It came out to twenty miles or so, not a big deal for a couple of experienced hikers. But in winter, everything's different.
Major & The Straightbacks
We had the date – February 18th – picked out for weeks, and it was unfortunate the snow landed when it did. It snowed about six inches overnight, dry and fluffy, a thick dusting. We were bound to break trail for almost the entire day. Kicking through it was easy in the snowshoes. But it wasn't the snow that slowed us down – it was the ice beneath the white stuff.
As we followed the Mount Major Trail, there were times we felt no traction. The ice was thick on the rocks and roots below the snow. As the trail steepened toward Major's rocky summit, we both slipped around. The powder was too dry for the snowshoes to grip and the ice seemed to reject them, too. But the sun was out and we hoped it would make the snow softer.
Soon the shadowy figure I saw earlier passed us on his way down. He had to turn back because the ice was a force to be reckoned with. We criss-crossed the rocks and climbed into the sunlight and had the summit to ourselves. But it was no peaceful place. Gusts of wind barreled in from the bay and swirls of snow jumped and jived all over us. We hid in the remains of the hut for a few minutes to scarf down some breakfast.
Jeremy had packed a pound of bacon, an entire box of what I think he called Peanut Butter Blast-offs, and it seemed every time we stopped for a moment, he'd pull some snack out of some pocket and take a bite. I had a giant bag of homemade trail mix and a ziploc bag filled with over a pound of meat and cheese. Hot tea and lots of water. We ate until our hands were too cold, until the wind whipped into the hut and told us to get going.
We were already way behind schedule, with the snow delay and the ice-climbing, but we were in good spirits. We agreed we'd call it quits if the day went awry – let's just go hike and have fun. As we scampered over to North Straightback, back into the trees, I had a good laugh at the signs that warned hikers this wasn't the way back to the parking lot. But I remember years ago wandering down this path and realizing it wasn't the way I came up, so I'm glad it's there now.
Over to North Straightback was an easy, breezy walk across exposed, picture-perfect slabby mountain top, painted beautifully with the brush in winter's hand. I felt blueberry bush skeletons crackling beneath me in the snow. Our first great views of the Belknap Range presented themselves as we approached South Straightback. Come get us, they taunted, snowy and green.
I haven't snowshoed for long distances much, and Jeremy promised I'd be sore later, but to break through that trail across the Straightbacks, in the quiet sunny morning, was worth every ounce of effort as we slogged toward the Quarry peaks. We had to brush snow off trees to find the white blazes that led to North Straightback and East Quarry. We even kicked at small trees doused with snow, hoping they were cairns. Fortunately, Jeremy knew the trail and we were able to navigate the correct way. Soon we were looking at Major from the flat summit of South Straightback, its bald spot prominent in the morning sun.
The Quarries, East & West
We went ambitiously for the rugged and obscure Dave Roberts' Quarry Trail. We had our first steep descent coming off North Straightback, the first of many butt-first, tree-grabbing, controlled falls that would slow us down bigtime, but each experience was exhilarating and the right kind of dangerous.
Jeremy poked with his hiking pole and tiptoed his way down, the snowshoes practically useless. “It's sheer fucking ice!” he yelled to me, not for the first time. It was his catchphrase of the day. “Sheer fucking ice!” I crouched and slid, aimed my snowshoe at a tree trunk, and went for it. What would take thirty seconds on a nice summer day took five minutes to hesitate over and grapple with. But getting to the bottom was always a thrill.
We stopped in the col between North Straightback and East Quarry to have some water and a look up what we just came down: the ice on the rocks shined in the sun with an amusement that only a Cheshire cat could exude. Our day had just begun. “We're gonna have some fun today!” said Jeremy.
We pounded it up to East Quarry's wooded summit and found another steep descent, this one longer and nastier. This time I walked off the trail into the thick trees. Jeremy threw his hiking poles down the slope and four-limbed it. The branches and shrapnel under the snow was the best traction I had all day. We got up West Quarry quickly, but took a nice long lunch break in a quiet clearing at the end of a spur trail on the summit. The dreaded snowshoe leg shred was taking its toll on me and I made it a point to get as much water and as many calories in me as I could tolerate.
And off we went for Rand. Things eased up out here. We broke trail through scarce woods. Rusty old tools and other equipment poked out of the snow. The area was wide open and the blazes were getting hard to spot, both because of the lack of trees, as well as the unfortunate choice of white as a color. We came to a clearing and saw no blazes, but the trail could have gone in any direction.
To our left, the beginnings of a ravine looked an awful lot like a trail and to our right there was so much blowdown we figured it was just wrecked woods. We ventured left to no avail and wasted ten minutes searching for blazes. Back in the clearing, Jeremy ducked under a fallen tree and wiped snow off the bark. Bingo – the blaze was on the fallen tree. And like lights in a hallway beyond, white blazes suddenly became prominent and happy to guide us up to the summit of Rand.
Rand, Klem & Mack
Rand was a steady climb. The day was warming up and the snow was getting a little sticky, easier for the snowshoes. The ice beneath the snow was still snarling at us, though, and I had to lug myself up over an ancient stone wall that cut across the trail. I imagined this place covered with sheep a hundred and a half years ago. The summit was secluded and majestic, a little spruce tree fortress. As we left Rand, around one o'clock, we began to think we'd actually complete our Belknap Traverse.
The views looking down into the ravine were impressive, looking up at Klem and Mack. Jeremy pointed out Pine Mountain in the distance. We could see Belknap's fire tower reflecting the sun through the trees.
But the ridges between Rand and Klem did us in.
We came to a sloping ridge that the Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide describes as “dangerous when wet.” The only way across was to go straight over a forty-five-degree angle of unpredictable snow and ice. Jeremy barely eked across and I pinned one snowshoe into ice and got down on one knee so I could grasp branches and bushes – or wipe away snow to see what my next step would look like. Below the ridge laid a steep decline into the woods.
It was a movie climax moment as I reached for a tree jutting out of a high point and felt both of my legs shifting. “Shit!” I spit it out before I knew it. Then I felt myself slipping. “Fuck!” My cursing resolved nothing as I dropped into the trees. I collected myself quickly, though, and aimed my snowshoe at a stump, my open palms reaching for trees to grasp. I landed with grace and looked up to Jeremy about a dozen feet above me. I wasn't climbing back up, so I wandered through the woods and followed his voice around the bend back to the trail.
Within minutes we came to another steep drop. I didn't see Jeremy nosedive down the slide as I clung to spruce branches high above, but I heard him yelling. “Sheer fucking ice!” – his familiar warning. There was no way down except to go for the controlled fall, so I dropped like a ninja six feet to a small tree, then did my best dropkick to another tree six more feet down. Shits and fucks flew out of my mouth, a whole swarm of them, thick enough to see. “Look out!” I yelled as I made my final fall, and landed in a clump of snow and gear right next to Jeremy, as he unwrapped a Peanut Butter Blast-off and enjoyed the show.
Klem's summit was a short climb away. We stopped only long enough to take a picture of the summit sign and then headed for Mack. The trail over to Mack was the easiest hike of the day, through a wooded col. The snow here was deeper, allowing for easy traction. Getting up to the summit area of Mack took no time.
We took a rest in the shadow of the windmill and a giant solar panel. My guidebook says the windmill “apparently” works. I thought the giant red arrow was a little underwhelming at first, but every now and then I noticed it pointing in another direction.... and it was endless excitement.
Our first of two planned out-and-backs would be over to the quiet peak of Anna. We stashed our bags on tree branches and made a run for it.
The hike to Anna was easy, a light downhill, some brook crossings, and a lovely surprise! We crossed paths with two women, heading up to Mack from Anna on a Belkap Ridge Trail adventure of their own. They planned to make it all the way to the Gunstock parking lot by nightfall, too. We thanked them for breaking the trail for us (and they returned the gratitude, though I think Jeremy meant the rest of our hike, not the path to Anna, as they'd be leading the way from here on out) and we went our proper ways. We had to cross the brooks carefully in our snowshoes, as rocks and floating water made the snow cover unpredictable.
At the Anna summit sign, we realized it was pushing three o'clock and the odds of us completing our traverse were rapidly diminishing.
Getting back to Mack felt like a big deal, as it suddenly felt steeper than it seemed on the hike down. The sun seemed lower. Weariness began creeping in. But we got back to our bags and our calorie stash. And the invigorating feeling of success as we entered the western half of the Belknaps.
There was a steep decline off Mack's summit, but we were able to follow snowshoe prints around the tough spots. As we descended Mack toward Round Pond, we met a few guys and a little girl having lunch in a parked snowmobile. The ice was so bad that their snowmobiles couldn't climb the slopes. “It's not a good feeling,” one of them told us, “when your snowmobile starts going backwards!”
Round Pond & Snow Angels
We wished them luck and headed down to Round Pond. From the icy shores, the sun barely clung onto Belknap Mountain and we felt the chills of nighttime coming. The sun's golden glow stretched across Piper and Whiteface, a sure metaphor to give them up. Rowe was out, too, we decided. Gunstock was probably out, unless we wanted to come down the ski slopes with headlamps on in order to avoid the icy ledges.
We considered banging out Belknap for the heck of it, but we'd both hiked it before, so you know what? There was no sense of achievement in doing it. No reason to risk being up here on the icy slopes in the dark. We decided to find the fastest way back to civilization, where Jeremy's wife was ready to pick us up and drive us back to our cars.
It took a few minutes to process the “failure” of our attempted Belknap Traverse – but as we rounded Round Pond and followed boot prints and dog tracks, we felt pretty good about cutting out. The sunset over the pond was peaceful and we navigated the multiple trail intersections over the next mile or so until we were heading for the Bickford Road parking lot.
The boots prints and dog tracks turned down a different trail and we realized we were following the snowshoe tracks of the only other hikers we saw that day. So they turned off, too. That made us feel a little better. The day was just not long enough. We skipped down the Gilford Fire Road in the shadow of Belknap Mountain, feeling the need to beat the darkness. We stopped only to admire a stellar snow angel right in the middle of the path that one of the women must have made. It even had a halo.
It brought a big smile to both our faces – and reminded us that we still made our day a great one, peaking seven of the twelve Belknaps, and some of the toughest ones, too. And most of it breaking trail after a sudden winter storm. Suddenly our “failure” felt like a success.
We landed in the Bickford Road parking lot in the last seconds of daylight and I ripped my snowshoes off with a hurrah. I felt as light and fluffy as a snow angel, myself, as we skipped out to Rte. 11A to wave down our driver. I checked my watch. Thirteen and-a-half miles in ten hours, almost all of it breaking trail or navigating icy slopes.
Jeremy's wife scooped us up and dropped us off at our cars. After everyone left, I decided to change my clothes real quick. I stood bare-chested under the crescent moon, looking up at Orion – bearing his lion – then I put on my shirt.
"The Ice Is Getting Thinner" came on the radio, a sad song. But I felt good. Kinda bittersweet. If we had done this hike yesterday, Jeremy had told me earlier, we'd be up and down in eight hours. The Belknaps just didn't want us to have it easy today. But I can't help but chomp at the bit to try again next year. Right after another nasty storm. I'll think about it all summer.