Up On Cherry Mountain
The Cherry Mountain trailhead parking lot was not plowed. And there wasn't a footprint in the snow, either. Beautiful day, beautiful path through the snow-covered trees up to the summit of Mt. Martha, which stands at 3573 feet. I arrived before my hiking companions, so I sat in the car and brushed up on the trail guide.
It's a unique climb – a simple 1.7-mile hike up an old logging road which turns into a ridge path. Pressing onward, it meets with a snowmobile trail that climbs to the summit. From there, one can follow Martha's Mile – only .8 miles along a ridge – to the summit of Owl's Head. This isn't the 4000-footer Owl's Head, but a 3258-foot wannabe. Note that nowhere in that hike does one summit anything called Cherry Mountain. From what I gathered, there is no trail to the summit, just to Martha and Owl's Head. But that's quite fine, it's what we have to hike, so let's go hike it.
The mass of peaks that is Cherry Mountain sits quietly in the northwestern shadows of the Presidential Range, offering fantastic views if the weather cooperates. The name Mt. Martha is in honor of Martha Washington, the first president's wife. It's a fitting name, as the views of Mt. Washington are as intimate as her perspective of the man surely was.
Cherry Mountain's relevance in New Hampshire history goes back as long as settlers began creeping up into the North Country. Lancaster was founded in 1763, but at the time, no one knew of an easy route down to the seacoast, where most of New Hampshire's economy thrived. It was over the mountains or bust. That is, until Timothy Nash chased a fateful moose up Cherrry Mountain. As recounted by Burt in his Story of Mount Washington:
It was not until 1771 that Timothy Nash, a hunter from Lancaster, came upon [Crawford Notch] by chance. All the chronicles agree that he was tracking a moose over Cherry Mountain. The History of Lancaster says the moose disappeared into the Notch, leading Nash to the discovery. Other chroniclers say Nash climbed a tree high on the mountain to get his bearings. Off to the east, to his surprise, the wall of mountains seemed to open. He slid down the tree and, with the unerring instinct of the woodsman, made a beeline for the gateway to the Notch. To his amazement, he found that this was the beginning of a long and rugged defile between what is now Mount Webster at the southerly end of the Presidential Range, at his left, and Mount Willard and the Field-Willey Range at his right.
Nash shared his discovery with Governor Wentworth in Portsmouth and Wentworth told him if he could get a horse through the notch, he'd have a grant of land. Nash and his buddy Benjamin Sawyer managed to drag a poor horse through and he was given a grant that is now the town of Carroll. Crawford Notch quickly developed and became a main thoroughfare through the White Mountains.
In fact, I drove it on my way up. It's a sharp, steep, narrow road, banked by high rocky walls, slathered in ice. Past the Highland Center, past the Mount Washington Hotel, past the bustling ski shops and the deserted, socked-in campgrounds, turn right on Rte. 3, turn right on Rte. 115, nestle the car along the snowbanks and put on the hiking boots.
There was enough snow in the parking lot that I almost stepped in a brook bordering the lot, covered in drift. But a small footbridge leading to the trailhead was an obvious clue to forewarn eager hikers to watch their footing. The snow wasn't deep enough down here to warrant snowshoes, but at the suggestion of my companions, I lashed my snowshoes to my backpack with a spare dog leash I keep in the car. The most recent snowstorm had caused considerable blowdown along Marth'a Mile – and there was a good chance the drift was deep along that ridge, exposed to the Presidential Range and the harsh winter wind.
Lots of water, lots of food, lots of layers, boots, microspikes, and snowshoes. For a five-mile hike – easy in the summertime – being precautious is important. It was a beautiful, sunny, calm morning down here on the backroads of New Hampshire, but at the cusp of treeline, one can't take many chances.
The first mile of the hike is a soft ascent, following the old logging road. It's straight, through birch and other succession forest, just easy, happy climbing. Just to our left, the scarred, exposed side of the mountain continued to heal, letting the birch trees work their magic, letting the sun shine through. The wind blew through the trees above us, the snow fat on the branches like fruit waiting to be picked. Evergreens began to fill in the space, but the birches, some of them thick and old and peeling bark like year-round sunburns, remained dominant along the entire trail. The oldest trees, gnarled and reaching for the sun, reminded me of the landscaping around colonial homes on the seacoast. It's not that common to find patches of birch this mature – it was a special experience.
We stopped often to investigate moose tracks in the snow, cutting across the trail and back into the woods without fanfare. There were other tracks, too, but we weren't sure about them. I thought of Blackwood's backwoods monster, The Wendigo – which leaves distant tracks and carries its victim deep into the woods and to the brink of insanity – but any winter hike in the mountains is already blanketed with enough pending doom, so I kept the ghost stories to myself.
Soon we reached the steeper ridge path, and the real hiking began. I switched to my spikes, as the crusty snow barely concealed the slippery layer beneath it – and one of my companions put on his snowshoes, keeping them on for the remainder of the day. The ridge followed the top of a ravine we had been scaling the entire time, though now it was more prominent below, a steeper drop. We began finding more signs of blowdown, wind-bent trees and fallen logs. We had to stoop under a few crooked trees. I powered up the ridge in my spikes, the trail getting steeper as we approached the intersection with the snowmobile trail, conscious of my footing near the edge of the ridge. Rocks and roots were not visible and occasionally one of us would kick or trip on something we didn't see. One bad slip could lead to a tumble down the ravine – well, it was easy to imagine.
I stopped if I got too far ahead of the group and took in the scenery. The sky was a dark, fresh blue, the sun was reaching its highest point of the day, though still low in the sky, but it offered a powerful blast of gold, giving the dark evergreens and crisp, fresh snow on their boughs a vibrant, memorable appeal. Every tree – pine, spruce, oak, birch – tottered gently in the wind. We stumbled into the territory of some fat, active birds, chirping vivaciously as we tried to identify them. Bright oranges and blues, feisty little things. They seemed okay with us, as long as we kept moving. It was a marvelous burst of life in this quiet forest.
Then we reached the snowmobile trail. It zipped by us, to our left, and up, to the summit of Martha. We climbed it, stepping into the churned up snow, fresh tracks, easy climbing right to the clearing of Martha's peak. There were numerous lookouts all over – to the immediate southeast of us was the Presidential Range. From Adams to Monroe, tucked in with cloud. But from Eisenhower to the Webster cliffs, I was able to identify and point out the summits. Eisenhower's chrome dome shined under the sun, it was impeccable.
On the north side of the summit, just past an old fire tower site, we saw the biomass plant, the airport, Cherry Pond, and the rolling hills of the North Country. We saw Bretton Woods ski area, Cannon's slopes, and Mt. Lafayette in the west, its head in the clouds, too. It was cold – somewhere below ten degrees – and calm, a pleasant day. But we had not yet marched Martha's Mile.
Martha's Mile & Owl's Head
The descent off Martha onto the ridge was moderate. I continued down in my micro spikes through a tunnel of evergreens, darkened by the snow. It was fun to duck into the tunnel and crouch along, down to the col. The snow was definitely getting deeper here, as we poked out of the tunnel and onto a more exposed ridge. The trees weren't any taller than we were, and we had wonderful views to the Presidentials, the clouds and frozen landscape. The shrapnel from the recent storm was definitely on display, but most of it was cut up and pushed aside, thankfully. One fallen tree leaned over the trail – the yellow blaze on it right in my face. I stayed in the back of the group, letting our snowshoed member lead the way.
“Hole!” one of my companions yelled, pointing to a deep gap in the snow just off the trail. Then a few moments later, I sank into the snow, knee deep in no time.
Hoo boy, time to put on the snowshoes.
The wind had picked up and it was definitely pushing zero degrees. My hands were going numb while I struggled to snap in my snowshoes, but once I had my gloves on, my fingers perked back up. For just a moment, while I rubbed them together, I felt the daunting hopelessness of being stranded on the back of this mountain, freezing to death.
I remembered London's story, To Build A Fire, in which a man is taking a simple hike through the Yukon wilderness back to his camp, but loses the ability to start a fire when his hands freeze up, and things get real hairy. I never lost enough feeling in my hands to feel like I'd need to worry. However, I sure wish I had a packet of Hot Hands in my bag.
Once we were all on snowshoes, Martha's Mile was a gliding breeze. We quickly reached the final climb to the top of Owl's Head, two steep turns up a rocky face. In the summer, I imagine it is all boulder. In the winter, there was a covering of snow – beneath it, a layer of ice. Ice gushed out of the snow in spots, giving the entire climb a harrowing look. There were warped roots jutting from the rock, handles waiting to be grasped.
We went up one at a time, those in the back giving the fellow in front plenty of room. With ski poles and snowshoes and crampons, they both eked up the rock face. I was given a ski pole to help balance myself, but I felt more comfortable muscling up by grabbing a tree and pulling, then sticking my snowshoe at the base of the tree and heaving myself upward. The ice made the snowshoes completely useless and if it wasn't such a hassle, I would have removed them and used the spikes to get up.
I'm glad I kept them on, because as we approached Owl's Head, the drift was deep again, and the dropoffs around us were steep. I had no interest in slipping or falling. There was another marvelous lookout from just below the summit of Owl's Head out to the Presidentials. And we could look back to Mt. Martha – and just behind it, we thought we could see the peak without a trail that is the actual Cherry Mountain.
Up at the true summit of Owl's Head, we had another look out at the North Country, then decided to head back. It had been a 2.5-mile hike so far, but had taken us three hours. It would take two more hours to get down. The steep descent down that rock face was tricky. We all tried different strategies. Mine was reckless, but effective: butt-first. I aimed for some trees, slid toward them, grabbed a tree and wedged my snowshoe into the trunk of another. Then I hoisted myself down while holding the tree, landing on my feet. I do not recommend trying that. I felt comfortable with my intuition and athletic ability. It's what worked for me. The two behind me had their ski poles and one was wearing crampons, so their techniques were both different and also effective.
We stopped again on the summit of Martha to fuel up and drink water. One of my bottles was frozen at the top and I couldn't open it, so I drank from my backup bottle. I learned a little tip: store water bottles upside down. Ice floats to the top of the container, which would be far away from the bottle cap, minimizing the chance of it freezing shut.
We noticed as we returned to Martha that our boot and snowshoe prints were gone, washed away by fresh snowmobile tracks. Eerie. There were no other signs of anyone, no sounds, no sights. We were careful heading around the bends of the snowmobile trail, in case another one arrived.
We quickly reached our ridge trail and carefully descended the mountain. At times my snowshoes caught plenty of powder and I skiied a few feet. Other than that, it was easy and fun and we were off the mountain in no time, only stopping to gaze at the moose tracks and wonder where it was off to.
As I drove home through Crawford Notch – easy driving, cruising downhill past resorts and scenic overlooks – I was glad for Timothy Nash's wild moose chase. Thinking about those moose tracks we saw, those moose just come and go, from the high woods down, down into the ravine, wherever they please, really, regardless of the weather, regardless of where others go. Most of us humans have to stick to trails, stick to roads, and just enjoy the scenery – but as long as I cross paths with the moose once in a while, I'll keep going.