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Sun, snow and great views


A full day on Mount Pequawket


February 03, 2011
This mountain has long been known by another name, as well Mount Pequawket, once spelled "Pigwacket," after the Abenaki tribe who lived in the Saco Valley. Partisans of both names have been jousting since the 1800s. In 1915 the U.S. Board on Geographic Names proclaimed that "Pequawket" was the official name for the peak, but in 1959 the Kearsarge North name was reinstated. "Pequawket" does have a nice sound to it, though, doesn't it?

Last Thursday hiking buddy John Compton and I decided we would make the familiar climb to Pequawket, with a side exploration off-trail to Bartlett Mountain, the ledgy western shoulder, on the way. We met late morning at the trailhead under sunny skies. From the start the trail was a smoothly packed sidewalk of snow. Though we prefer snowshoeing, for the ascent we decided it would be easier to strap our snowshoes to our packs and "bareboot" it.

Early in January, when the Valley was in a snow drought, this trail reportedly was one long ice flow. We were glad that several snowfalls had since cloaked the mountain, making for good footing. We strolled through the easy lower stretch, past a few summer cottages. The serious climbing began when the trail entered the National Forest; for a long time we angled upward through a beautiful open hemlock forest. The snow cover is always thinner in here.

One of the nicest parts of this climb is the half-mile section that ascends through a piney area of sunny, snow-covered ledges. Looking back, we had occasional views of the white-mottled Moats, with the crusty horn of Chocorua peering over in back. At the top of this pitch is a more open ledge with a long vista south. We stopped here for a lunch break in the sun.

We then donned our snowshoes in anticipation of our off-trail push and continued up the trail into snow-cloaked spruces. At our planned departure point we discovered a snowshoe track heading in our intended direction, towards Bartlett Mountain.

This 2,661-foot spur peak of Pequawket is prominent when driving along Route 16 between North Conway and Glen. Its summit and southern slopes are in the 515-acre Merriman State Forest, land donated in 1913 by Mrs. Helen B. Merriman in honor of her husband Daniel; they were longtime summer residents of Intervale.

The eastern side and lower northern slopes are in the National Forest. Over the last few years the Society of the Protection of N.H. Forests has acquired two parcels totaling 320 acres on the north side of the summit. A land exchange is in the works to add a 100 acre-parcel (located just north of the summit and the connecting saddle to Pequawket) to the National Forest.

In days of old there were hiking trails leading to Bartlett Mountain from several directions, and in the 1930s the Maple Villa Ski Trail, two and a half miles long and 15 to 30 feet wide, was cut up its western slope. But by 1948 all of the trails on Bartlett Mountain had disappeared from the "AMC White Mountain Guide," and for the last several editions the book has merely hinted that "a number of ledges invite exploration."

The snowshoe track we followed along the ridge at times appeared to trace remnants of the old trails. It led us across snow-blanketed ledges and through picturesque spruce glades. On the broad saddle we left the track and broke trail through deep powder down to a vast snowy ledge with a sweeping view north to Doublehead, Carter Notch, and many other landscape features. Off to the northwest Mt. Washington was smothered in a chilly-looking cloudbank.

We returned to the snowshoe track and followed it through several scrambles up ledge steps to the wooded summit of Bartlett Mountain. The packed route ended here, so again we plowed through the powder out to spacious ledges overlooking North Conway and the Saco valley, spread wide between the Green Hills and the Moats. Across the horizon we could spot the Ossipees, the Sandwich Range, the Hancocks, Carrigain and many other mountains. On the south side of the ledges it was warm enough in the sun to sit down for a second lunch.

It was hard to leave this spot, and it was late afternoon when we got back to the Kearsarge North Trail. Still, the lofty summit of Pequawket beckoned. Leaving our snowshoes on for traction, we set a steady pace up the last 650-foot ascent through the spruce forest. The silky snowshoe track was perfect for climbing.

A little after four o'clock we broke into the open and huffed up the final pitch to the summit. The crusted-over ledges were lit by the last golden, slanting light of the soon-to-be-setting sun. There was not a breath of wind. The stillness and silence were astounding.

We roamed carefully around the ledges (some were icy), snapping photos in various directions. John took off his snowshoes and paid a brief visit to the cab of the fire tower. I wandered over to the north side of the summit to peer out at the Gemini-Mt. Shaw range and the far-off ridges in the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness, then to the east side to gaze down at frozen little Shingle Pond. Farther out, the long crest of Pleasant Mountain presided over the flat lake country of Maine.

John had a time commitment for that evening, so he headed down ahead of me. I lingered a few minutes longer, alone on top of Pequawket for the last glimmer of a gorgeous winter day.

Having been up here several times before in winter, I knew that with good snow conditions the Kearsarge North Trail is conducive to a quick trip down, even for a non-speedy hiker like me. Today proved no exception. Leaving my snowshoes on for traction and stability, I was able to cover the three-mile descent in an hour and a quarter. It was touch and go in some of the dark hemlock groves, but I made it down without resorting to the use of a headlamp.

I did some reading about the mountain after returning home. I especially liked a passage from Moses Sweetser's guidebook, "The White Mountains: A Handbook for Travellers," first published in 1876, which included a panoramic sketch of the summit view: "Pequawket-Kiarsarge lifts its symmetrical cone into the blue sky over North Conway, the most alpine of all the heights about that village..."

And this from "White Mountain Trails," by Winthrop Packard (1912): "On few mountains does one get the sense of exaltation and ecstatic uplift that comes to him when he stands on the high summit of Kearsarge."

The round trip to Pequawket via the Kearsarge North Trail is 6.2 miles with 2,600 feet of elevation gain.

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