A warm-up hike in the Middlesex Fells convinced me that "McRat" wasn't an axe murderer (or, if he was, he at least had enough taste and restraint not to push me off the first ledge we came across), and I was pleased to see that he'd brought his full overnight pack (including a bear cannister), plus some extra weight, to make the practice hike as realistic as possible. (I'd considered doing likewise, but I was biking ten miles to the meeting point, and hitting the brakes on my bike is already exciting enough without thirty extra pounds trying to slide over my head, so I just had a day pack, though I carried a bit of extra water to add weight.) Maybe I was just tired from riding my bike, but I found that while McRat talked a lot about being out of shape, he kept a steady pace which, considering the size of his pack, (more about that later) was perfectly respectable. And at least in the Fells, he showed a good sense of direction.
We parked at the Lincoln Woods trailhead, crossed the East branch of the Pemigewasset River on a suspension bridge, and began walking along the Lincoln Woods Trail. It's a former railway line (once used for extracting lumber), at least ten feet wide and utterly flat. The weather was warm and partly sunny, the trail was dry with no trace of snow anywhere, even on the peaks we'd glimpsed from the road, and the trail, did I mention already, was flat. I started muttering to myself that I shouldn't have brought my hiking poles, and I thought about running back to the car or ditching one by the side of the trail. Later I would be very glad not to have ceded to that impulse.
Just when I was starting to feel the weight of my pack settle into my shoulders, we turned North on the Osseo trail, following a small brook. This trail was a bit narrower and began to rise slowly, but I was still congratulating myself on what an easy hike this was going to be. From time to time I'd look up and see some wooded peaks. Never having come this way, I knew that the first peak would have to be Whaleback but I was certain that each newly-revealed high point was Mount Flume, our first target. So I kept thinking to myself, "well we're practically there, and we've only been hiking for X minutes." It turns out that Whaleback has several peaks, so we got to the actual slopes of Mt Flume rather later in the day than I had assumed. Still, it was by no means a difficult hike, and I was feeling confident, especially since we'd soon reach a section of trail I had hiked before. I'd climbed up the Flume Slide in April of last year, walked along the ridge to Liberty, and descended the Liberty Spring Trail. I'd also done the Haystack-Lincoln-Lafayette section of Franconia Ridge many times, and I figured the section between Liberty and Haystack would be trivial.
In the meantime, we encountered snow just above the first overlooks on the Osseo Trail. Just before that we also encountered the only other hiker we'd see that day, an older gent making his way down the trail. Asked about a good viewpoint on which to stop for lunch, his reply was, "well the best views are from the summit." I plan to be just like him when (if) I grow up. At this point the trail proceeds up a series of wooden staircases, which was a new experience for me. Luckily the snow was soft, so I kicked it off the steps as I led the way in my canvas shoes. (McRat had brought a pair of aluminum crampons and had seriously considered bringing snowshoes as well. I had a pair of YakTrax, which I would use later with mixed results.)
Once at the summit of Flume, I took the obligatory "hero shot" of McRat (he's working on the list of 48 "official" New Hampshire four-thousand-footers), and also one of Mt Liberty, which we'd be climbing next. The summit gets lots of sunlight so the snow had all melted, but once back in the trees the snow would return.
The trip along the ridge to Mt Liberty was just like I'd remembered, except that there was significantly more snow on the ground despite the fact that my previous climb had been a month earlier in the year. At the top of the Flume Slide Trail I thought I could see one or two sets of footprints, but nothing recent. I don't know if I'd have made it up that way myself.
We then trudged down the Liberty Springs Trail to Liberty Spring Campsite, which mercifully was just below the snow line. We had plenty of time to set up our tents (this was the first time McRat had used his), enjoy dinner, and watch the sunset (too cloudy to be worth photographing) from a little bench on a ledge. My wet shoes weren't exactly warm, but some hot tea kept hypothermia at bay. While setting up camp we were visited by a mouse-like rodent (I looked it up later: it was a vole) which apparently had a nest underneath my tent platform. That was all the incentive I needed to string my food bag high up between two trees, which I managed to do without getting it stuck. (I'll get a bear can one of these days, it's just that I'm low on cash right now.) Then it was bedtime. I never sleep well on my first night out, and this was no exception. McRat had warned me at the last minute that he's a snorer, so we had pitched our tents on widely separated platforms. I heard him just fine but I'm used to my fiancee snoring right in my ear. I must have fallen asleep at some point because McRat says he heard something go snuffling past his tent during the night, but I never heard anything.
Still, it was an easy hike to Little Haystack, whence we could look back to Mt Liberty and ahead to Mt Lincoln.
As we continued to Mt Lincoln, the first real uphill slog of the trip, I became aware that I was continually pulling ahead of McRat. That should have been about my fifth clue that he was probably hauling more gear than he really needed, but I'd glanced at his packing list and not noticed any problems. He hadn't listed the bear whistle, GPS receiver, night-light with ten different modes, and whatever it was that made all of his pockets bulge, but surely these were small items anyway. Only after the hike was over did I come to suspect that he had more stuff than I had laid eyes on, like the five pounds of uneaten GORP that he left at the last shelter. Next time I hike with someone less experienced I'll check the weight of their bag. Had I done so, I would have noticed a difference of at least ten pounds. On the other hand, it could have been worse: the next day we'd meet a nice young couple at Galehead Hut; the guy said his pack weighed seventy pounds (we think he was carrying all the gear for both of them).
From Mt Lincoln (where we met a pleasant young southbound couple who, if they hadn't bumped into us, would have descended the Flume Slide Trail without crampons), we had good (though overcast) views in all directions, including east to the Twin Range (our target for the next day) and the Presidential Range behind it, north to Mt Lafayette (the highpoint of this hike), and south to Flume and Liberty.
After basking in the sun all along the ridge up to and over Mt Lafayette we plunged down into the trees along the Garfield Ridge. The snow came back with a vengeance, and it was mostly unpacked. We slid and postholed constantly. There was a thin and invisible line near the middle of the trail where the snow would usually hold your weight, but look up for one step and you'd come to a sudden halt with one leg buried. My shoes had finally dried out on Lafayette, but it was back to wet feet for me. Actually, it was a rather pleasant way to keep cool. And it turned out that McRat was actually faster than me on the downhill legs (in part because he sank further into the snow, so he didn't have to tread as carefully in the slippery sections).
By the time we reached the summit of Mt Garfield the clouds had closed in and the snow flurries completely blocked the view. We made it to the shelter just minutes before a prolonged snow squall, which doused my attempt at a campfire despite the fact that I had cheated by adding stove fuel to the kindling.
From the hut, I charged ahead up the spur Trail to Galehead Mountain, an unexciting treed-in little summit with an overlook giving a fine view of the hut.
McRat followed just a few minutes behind, but I increased my lead on the thousand-foot rise up South Twin, leaving my pack on the summit while I made a detour to North Twin. The trail between North Twin and South Twin was almost completely untrammelled, and probably the worst snow conditions of the entire trip, but I felt weightless without my pack. South Twin had fine views in all directions. The summit of North Twin is in the trees, but much of the trail to it is open, with good views of South Twin and down to Galehead.
Then it was back into the trees for a long section of the Twinway, which wasn't in great shape either. I caught up with McRat before we emerged from the trees near the summit of Mt Guyot. This is one of the more isolated places you can find in the Whites, and I was thrilled to return here when the skies were reasonably clear, only to end up cursing my camera which has a real problem with cold weather. I only got a couple of shots off before both batteries died. The one below was intended to match one I'd taken back in January . One thing surprised me: when I pointed out to McRat that we'd accidentally bypassed the true summit, he had no interest at all in backtracking a few hundred nearly-flat yards. Only later did I remember that Guyot isn't an "official" 4000-footer. It'll serve him right if new measurements are made and he ends up having to hike all the way back to finish his list. The shelter just south of Guyot was, um, small, but warm: my ground cloth fit neatly in the doorway thanks to some screws McRat had brought along. I couldn't find a good pair of trees to hang my food bag from, so I suspended it from the gable of the shelter just outside the door. Luckily no bears paid us a visit.