In the last month, I’ve gone
on two big hikes in the Great Gulf Wilderness.
I’ve had this objective in mind for a bit: to start at the Pinkham Notch
Visitor Center, hike north into the Wilderness Area, west and south to climb
onto the shoulder of Mount Washington, summit, and come down via the Lion Head
Route. My first attempt was in early
February; my second was last week. Some
readers might wonder why I would bother taking such a circuitous route to the
summit. I guess my main justification is
that I’m focusing on the journey, rather than the destination. As such, part of this post is meant to be a
quick introduction to Wilderness – the one that often comes with the capital W.
|The summit ridge of Mount Clay, in early February.|
Huh? Yeah, there’s a difference between wilderness
and Wilderness. Lowercase w wilderness
means different things to different people.
Some people might think of the nearest state park. Some people might
gesture vaguely to the west. Some people might think of a desolate and bitter
cold, hundreds of miles removed from the nearest human, encircled by the
gleaming eyes of wolves, mountain lions, and grizzlies. Personally, my favorite definition came from
a wilderness first aid course: “wilderness
is where you are and they are not.”
|Entering the Great Gulf Wilderness|
And Wilderness? In the United States, Wilderness is a piece
of land that has been set aside by the federal government for protection and
preservation. The Wilderness Act of 1964
provides a formal definition: “a
wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate
the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its
community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who
does not remain.” There are a
handful of additional distinctions and qualifiers about Wilderness:
- “…undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and
influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation…”
- “…generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of
nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable…”
- “…has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and
unconfined type of recreation…”
- “…has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as
to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition…”
- “…may also contain
ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic,
or historical value.”
Fitting with the definition, the
Wilderness Act also places some restrictions on the use of federally designated
wilderness areas. In general, these
lands are off limits to commercial enterprises such as logging, mining, grazing,
and extraction of other resources. Roads,
motorized vehicles, and mechanized equipment are also prohibited. Under normal circumstances, this means no
chainsaws and no wildfire response. No OHVs
(Off Highway Vehicles), no helicopters.
You’re on your own. Wilderness
areas commonly have restrictions on group size, camping, and fires, but these
vary and are set by the managing agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, Fishand Wildlife Service, Forest Service, or National Park Service. At present, there are 765 distinct wilderness
areas in the United States. The White
Mountain National Forest encompasses six of these areas in New Hampshire and
Maine: the Great Gulf
Wilderness, the Pemigewasset
Wilderness, the Presidential
Range-Dry River Wilderness, the Sandwich Range
Wilderness, the Caribou-Speckled
Mountain Wilderness, and the Wild River Wilderness.
I step foot in the Great Gulf
Wilderness about once a week when I run to Low’s
Bald Spot, but have seldom ventured farther than that first couple
tenths of a mile. This was part of my
original interest in exploring the Wilderness.
For both attempts at my circuit trip, I started at the Pinkham NotchVisitor Center. I live and work there,
so it’s an easy place to start. I headed
north on the Old Jackson Road, a mellow trail that leads 1.9 miles to the Mount Washington AutoRoad. This trail typically gets a decent
amount of traffic, but I was the first person on the trail last Wednesday after
half a foot of snow overnight. Snowshoes
were a big help, for one of the first times all year.
|A week ago...Half a foot of fresh snow!|
After crossing the Auto Road,
I entered the Great Gulf Wilderness on the Madison Gulf Trail. There were no tracks, but the trail was still
easy to follow. The trail went over a small
ridge and then gradually descended to the West Branch of the Peabody
River. There were numerous brook crossings
along the way, but they all had adequate ice and snow cover. After 2.1 miles on the Madison Gulf Trail, I
turned left onto the Great Gulf Trail.
Before long, I passed Clam Rock on the left. It’s a big rock. It looks like a clam. Use your imagination…or find it yourself. As an extra perk, you can legally camp right
next to it.
The Madison Gulf Trail follows
the West Branch, steadily climbing through the Great Gulf. The trail crosses a few brooks and the river
itself a handful of times. There are a
few trail intersections along the way: the Chandler Brook Trail, the Wamsutta
Trail, the Six Husbands Trail, and the Sphinx Trail, all climbing out of the
glacial cirque in different directions.
On Wednesday, I took the Wamsutta Trail toward Nelson Crag. In early February, I stayed on the Great Gulf
Trail. I’ll detail the February trip
February 10: Pinkham Notch to Spaulding Lake
First off: glacial cirques are
formations that occur when alpine glaciers (the relatively small ones on
mountains, not the continent sized ones) make their way through valleys. Over time, the glacier widens the base of the
valley to leave behind a cirque, characterized by a broad and relatively flat
floor and tall, near-vertical walls. The
wall is commonly referred to as a headwall.
Another common feature is a tarn, which is a lake or pool formed in a
Great Gulf has such a tarn
and it is called Spaulding Lake. While
not very large, this tarn collects the water flowing down the steep walls of
the cirque and channels it to form the West Branch. One of my friends spent an extensive amount
of time here one summer, helping the AMC with water quality research and data
collection. It’s no surprise that she refers
to Spaulding Lake as her happy place. It's a beautiful spot.
|Spaulding Lake, in early February.|
All the way up to Spaulding
Lake, I had been following in someone else’s footsteps. At lower elevations, there was barely an inch
of fresh snow. The snow depth increased
as I climbed higher into the Great Gulf, and my mysterious guide’s footsteps
were shin deep by the time we got to the lake.
Not long after passing Spaulding Lake, the footsteps disappeared and I
found myself in a stand of spruce trees with no clear direction to go. I looked at my watch, as I had a dinner shift
at the visitor center. I could turn
around and hustle back the way I came or I could take a chance at stumbling to
the headwall, finding a way up, and taking the shorter, faster, and more
traveled Lion Head Winter Route back down.
It didn’t take much
thought. As enticing as the idea was,
pushing forward held a lot of unknowns.
How difficult would it be to make my way to the headwall, having lost
track of the trail? How safely could I
find my way up the headwall? What if I made
a mistake somewhere? I was deep in the
wilderness. On my own. Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines were both
rated at considerable avalanche danger that day, and the Great Gulf is
certainly prone to avalanches. I took a
couple pictures and took off the way I came.
And I got to work 5 minutes early.
That evening, I used the White Mountain Guide Online
to map my route. The online guide is
like a hybrid of the White
Mountain Guide (a fantastic and comprehensive reference) and a trip mapping
website. I plotted my hike and it
returned a wealth of information, which I was able to save and print as a PDF
document. I had traveled 15.36 miles
with 2230 feet of elevation gain to reach Spaulding Lake. I was presented with a detailed route
description, including intermediate mileages and elevation information. I also got a map showing my route. Want to try it out? There’s a free, full-service, 5 day trial. Check it out, it’s pretty useful. On paper, you can find the Great Gulf
Wilderness on the AMC
White Mountains Trail Map #1 for the Presidential Range.
March 2: Pinkham Notch to Auto Road via Wamsutta Trail
Last Wednesday, I decided to
try a shorter and theoretically easier route.
I turned from the Great Gulf Trail onto the Wamsutta Trail. I figured I would climb onto Chandler Ridge,
the shoulder of Mount Washington that includes Nelson Crag and Ball Crag. From there, I could head up to the summit or
take the Alpine Garden Trail across to the Lion Head Route.
|Antler rubs on the Madison Gulf Trail.|
If I may backtrack for a
moment: along the Madison Gulf Trail, I passed by a series of four young trees
right next to the trail. These trees
were maybe 4 or 5 inches in diameter and the bark had been abraded between 3
and 7 feet above the snow surface. It
looked as if a deer or moose had rubbed its antlers to help with the shedding
process. Not half a mile later, I saw
the back side of a moose amble away from me through the trees! While moose are in the area, I don’t often
see them. That was a neat moment.
Now, fast forwarding a few miles. I’ve made it to the Great Gulf Trail and
turned onto the Wamsutta Trail. This
trail starts out really mellow but soon becomes very steep as it climbs up the
ridge. I switched from my snowshoes to
crampons. Before I knew it, I passed the
Alpine Zone sign and popped out of the trees.
The clouds were thick and gray.
The wind was stiff and chilling.
After weaving around for a bit, the trail went back into the woods. While this was a nice break from the wind, I
found myself in knee to thigh deep powder.
I didn’t want to switch back to crampons, which was a poor
decision. The deep powder section seemed
endless and it was exhausting. The trail
kept climbing uphill and the trees were not getting any shorter. My legs burned as I lifted them extra high to
climb out of my own postholes.
I thought things would get easier
when I finally broke out of the trees again.
Instead, I got slammed by wind from the west. It was unrelenting. Snow from the previous night whipped at my
face, so I hastily put on my goggles and pulled my balaclava over my nose. I spotted a cairn and staggered toward it,
relying on my axe for extra support. I
wondered how hard the wind was blowing.
I guessed it was at least 60 or 70 miles per hour as I reached the cairn
and crouched to reduce my wind profile.
|And this is before things got really hairy.|
I pulled out my compass. I was still headed south, so that was a good
sign. I looked from side to side,
searching for any signs of a trail. No
footsteps – I can’t imagine anyone had been up this trail in months. No cairns.
Shrubs and grasses poked up between rocks and wind slab, but no
consistent ribbon without vegetation. I
picked the cleanest line, unsure whether it was actually the trail, and
stumbled southeast. I reached a wider,
relatively flat strip. Was this the winter
shortcut of the Auto Road? No snow cat
tracks. I had likely veered southeast
off the trail, so I turned right onto the strip – straight into the wind. If I was on the road, I was on track. If I wasn’t, I would find the trail again on
my left. In theory.
I stopped, leaning into the
wind, weighing my options. It was 3:15,
sunset was around 5:30, and it would take until at least 7:00 to retrace my steps
to Pinkham. It was 1.5 miles from the
Auto Road to Lion Head by way of the Alpine Garden, which would be familiar
territory. But also very exposed
territory. The wind was supposed to keep
rising all day. Visibility was low. I was possibly off trail already. Pushing forward would be unwise. I had to turn around and I knew it. I followed my tracks back to the cairn –
they were already becoming obscured – and then made my way back into the
trees. Sheltered from the wind, I
switched into snowshoes and made quick work of the descent. It was so much easier with the added flotation. I made it back down to the Great Gulf Trail,
then down to the Madison Gulf Trail, where I put on my headlamp. I sped down Old Jackson Road and got back
just after 7, with another unintentional 15 mile day in the books. While having dinner, I looked up the summit
weather history. Sustained winds of 75
miles per hour, gusts of 85. This place
is truly wild.
Some quick lessons:
- Always bring a headlamp. Always.
- Know the weather conditions. How is the weather expected to change
throughout the day? What is the
avalanche forecast? How are the winds
expected to behave? What time is sunset?
- When it comes to switching between different
types of traction, curb your stubbornness.
Just put your snowshoes back on.
They’re worth it.
- Wilderness is equal parts beautiful and
unforgiving. Trails may exist, but you
may get lost. Don’t expect a walk in the
park. Don’t expect to be coddled.
- Some days, mountains are just not meant to be
climbed. It would be wise to recognize
these days as great opportunities to do laundry.
A quick footnote from Chris' supervisor...believe it or not the landscape has changed again out in our woods. We are now thawing profusely and the rivers are high! That said, in the Great Gulf there is a LOT of snow to dissipate! Be prepared!
Questions about Wilderness Areas in the White Mountains? Come chat with us at the Pinkham Notch Visitor
Center. We are here every day from 6:30 AM
to 9:00 PM. We are also available by phone at (603) 466-2721 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts,
please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm.
Go out and explore!
AMC Backcountry Information Specialist
Labels: Alpine Zone, Auto Road, avalanche reports, hike safe, Hiking, Low's Bald Spot, Moose, Mount Washington, New Hampshire, Old Jackson Road, Pinkham Notch, snowshoeing, White Mountains