Happy New Year! We were going to head down to Monadnock for our first of the year hike, but the 3.5 hour drive at 6am felt too long and uncomfortable. Plus, Lindsay only gets to be home for the short weekends and was not looking forward to driving back to our old neighborhood. I’m sure our friends at Monadnock missed us and we missed them too, but we had a very enjoyable hike of our own in mind: Mt. Tom. And we were sure to find less people on the trails, well at least less people that we knew. The stats on the hike: 6.6 miles round trip, 4 hours 20 minutes, summit is 4,051 feet.
We headed out at our usual early time of noon and got the last parking spot at Highland Depot off of Route 302. Andrew had hiked this mountain before, but this was Lindsay’s first time. Despite the warm temperatures, it is winter and we had full packs on our backs (extra hat, gloves, emergency down jackets, Stabilizers, in-step crampons, plus the usual first aid, food, water, etc). So many people hike this Avalon Trail that the treadway is a block of ice from the rain-soaked packed snow. Only 3 minutes into the hike, Lindsay insisted on putting on Stabilizers, but Andrew went bare-boot all the way to the summit, putting his on later for the descent. We passed many groups of hikers on their way down. Many had microspikes, others wore full crampons, and a few wore their snowshoes.
Neither one of us had jumped on the microspike bandwagon as most other hikers had. Despite the fact that they were really easy to slip on and off boots, they were difficult to hike on bare rocks becuase of the spikes. We both had Stabilizers that are not spikes, but small screws inserted in Vibram pegs that Andrew converted to harder motorcycle ice screws. Perfect for hardpacked snow and thin ice conditions. Even though they aren’t as long as the spikes, they clung to steep icy spots with ease, plus they easily walked on bare rock. Stabilizers were a little harder to put on because you had to velcro them onto your boot, but once you had them on, you didn’t really need to take them off. We’ve also found that if you put in-step crampons (large spikes that fasten to your boots’ in-step) on top of the Stabilizers, it gives you the perfect solution of needing a stronger grip in more trecherous ice conditions. We had used this method on a cold, windy night on the icy rocks on Monadnock and loved the results. The other option is of course to wear full crampons, but these can be cumbersome and overkill for many hikes.
The forest reminded us of East Royce Mountain (Favorite Mountain) with a mostly hardwood forest, several water crossings, and waterfalls to enjoy along the lower section of the trail. With several inches of snow in the forest, we forgot about our disappointment of seeing bare ground in our yard despite it being January 1 and we live in the White Mountains.
At 1.2 miles we came to the Mt. Avalon and the A-Z Trail junction. We stopped for a moment to take a sip of our drinks and chatted with a dad and his son heading to Mt. Avalon. We continued on the A-Z Trail another mile. The trail got very steep and our conversation stopped as we trudged upward. At the next junction with the Mt. Tom Spur Trail, Andrew posed with his A-Z Trail sign, like we always do when we find a sign with our name or initials.
When we turned onto the Mt. Tom Spur Trail the forest grew tight with Balsam Fir pole trees. As we continued upward, the trees grew shorter and the wind whipped stronger in the upper branches. We reached the summit and were able to see pretty good views of the mountains around us. We posed for pictures then pulled out our soft shell jackets to keep the wind from reaching our bodies. Was that a boreal chickadee we just heard?
Not wanting to stay too long at the windy summit, we turned to walk back down when Lindsay noticed a gray jay in the fir tree. Gray jays are notorious for hanging near the summit of most high elevation mountains in the northeast. We’re not sure who’s trained more: us for pulling our snacks out to feed the bird, or the bird for knowing that where there’s people there’s usually a snack nearby. Only once did we forego our opportunity to feed gray jays (we were on a timed high elevation bird count). Usually we dropped everything to dig up pretzels, peanut butter crackers, or peanuts to feed these friendly birds. I doubt we are the only ones that do this. This particular bird was not interested in the chedder pretzels we offered, but enjoyed the peanuts we carefully picked out of our trail mix.
We took our time on the way back down the mountain, stopping to look at the cascades again. The last 1/4 mile was dusk but our eyes had a adjusted fine and we could see perfectly. We noticed a hiker with a headlamp heading up the trail toward us and we both didn’t think much of it, thinking it was just a night hiker. The problem with hiking with a flashlight is that your eyes can only see inside the beam of light. Your eyes can’t adjust quickly from dusk lighting to bright lighting. Just think about going inside your house after you’ve been out in the bright sun, it takes a while for your eyes adjust. Well, because of this, the hiker didn’t see Lindsay until he was 3 feet away. “Oh hi,” he said, “I was just checking on you. I didn’t know if you had lights.” Lindsay and Andrew looked at each other quizzically. It was a hiker we had seen throughout the day, hiking the same mountain with his wife. We had passed them early on in the hike, but they had passed us on the way down. “Don’t worry, we have lights,” we answered him. In 3 minutes, we would be at the parking lot. It was nice that they were worried about us, but Lindsay admitted she was kind of embarrassed. But Andrew pointed out that he should be the embarrassed one since he needed a headlight when there was still plenty of light to see. Andrew and Lindsay had spent many hikes in the dark, under the light of the moon, or sometimes not. A decade earlier, we hiked regularly at night with friends. And the first one to use a flashlight always got heckled. I guess that couple doesn’t do much night hiking. Night hiking is so quiet and peaceful and a good opportunity to let your other senses take over.
The wind was very strong in the parking lot and we jumped in the truck. Since we were already so close to Franconia Notch we decided to head south to Lincoln and go to The Common Man for dinner. We couldn’t wait to stuff our bellies with yummy food!