Trip Reports

Winter Returns… The Skookumchuck Adventure 03/31/2009

  • March 31, 2009

After two straight days of rain, Tuesday was going to be sunny and “the pick of the week” according to the state weather forecast. Even WMO predicted in the clear under partly cloudy skies. The rain had done its damage to the wintery landscape of several weeks past… nothing but mud, dirt, and more dirt on the carcasses of muddy rotting snowbanks along the roads of Bethlehem.

So, the plan was to go “up” to find a more scenic landscape! After two days of rain and near-freezing nights, I hoped to encounter some great icy art in the alpine zone. I called my buddy Mark and soon we settled on Lafayette via the Skookumchuck trail, which neither of us had ever traveled in the winter. And, based on BigEarl’s somewhat recent trip report, we planned to spot a car so that we could traverse the entire ridge and head down to Liberty Springs. No problem!

Tuesday morning arrived with a thick, cloudy, dismal drizzle. Trusting the scene would clear up soon, we were on our way after a bit of a late start. No problem! We got the car spotted and were on our way up the trail when I realized I had left some of my gear in the car. The other car. So, back we went down, drove through the notch again, retrieved the gear, drove back to the trailhead. The clock now read 11 AM… no problem, plenty of time!

The start of the Skookumchuck trail was wet and muddy, with slick strands of ice and snow buried in the fallen leaves of last autumn. A fine misty drizzle still fell from the murky grey sky. We plodded along, skirting muddy holes, rocks, ice, and a few blowdowns. As the elevation increased, so did the snow cover. After about a mile in, we switched to microspikes for traction.

On we plodded… the snowcover becoming progressively deeper and deeper. The trail was transforming into a nightmare, pockmarked with 2-3 foot deep icy postholes covered with new snow drifts. One step off the trail to the left or right and you were up to your waist or worse. Staying on the trail meant testing each step ahead of you before putting your weight down. We tried switching to snowshoes but the trail was too eaten up for them to be useful, so we stuck to barebooting on the worn track. At one point, a giant Spruce Trap swallowed me whole and it took a bit of scrambling to extract myself from a hole as deep as I am tall.

The upper branches of the trees, laden with heavy snow from the two days of “rain”, bowed down to what was sometimes a mere 2 to 3 feet above the trail. Each branch was determined to dump its load of snow down our necks as we scraped and crawled beneath them, attempting to not break an ankle while staying on what was left of the trail. Was this a trail or a bushwhack?

Despite all of this, the forest, blanketed with snow and ice, was beautiful. What an amazing difference from a few thousand feet below. Branches everywhere were covered with a spidery web of crystalline frost.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, (and it was), we found the top of an Alpine Zone sign sticking out of a drift. The wind was picking up and the visibility was getting poor. As the trees got shorter, the trail got less and less descript, until it finally vanished.

I had done the Garfield Ridge trail the previous summer and had marked the Skookumchuck intersection on my GPS, so we picked our way in that direction through the trees and drifts until we found the sign. It was so laden with rime ice that it was almost unrecognizeable! I was hoping to find a more distinct trail leading up the ridge, but other than the sign there was not much of anything with a distinct shape. We headed south and up, finding a few cairns on the way, zigzagging up the slope of North Lafayette until we hit the top of the sub-peak. Here, in the thick clouds, we were treated to a lovely view of Franconia Notch…or is that Lonesome Lake?:

Straight up, we could see the blurry sphere of the midday sun attempting to burn through the clouds above us. The world was completely white, and the sun’s rays, diffused through the clouds, made everything difficult to look at. The surface of everything was reflecting the light. Neither Mark nor I had brought sunglasses – that is a mistake we will not make again! Hard to believe you can be partially blinded while trying to find the trail through windy clouds!

After a quick break on top, we headed down the southern slope and towards the main summit of Lafayette.

As we started the climb towards the top, an amazing thing happened. The clouds became thinner and thinner. Suddenly, through a break in the haze, we could see our goal ahead!

Clearer and clearer it became, the higher we traveled!

Here, on this small island world higher than 5000 feet, we emerged from the clouds to the most spectacular undercast I have ever seen.

It was breathtaking in it’s sheer scope… clouds stretched into the distance as far as the eye could see in all 360 degrees.

Across the ocean, lonely Mount Washington pierced majestically from the foam and shared this special moment with us. We wondered if anyone was out there on the Rockpile right at this moment, looking toward Lafayette and seeing our tiny crest bobbing above the waves.

We took a long break under a rock with 12-inch sideways rime icicles. Then, to the south, a shift in the roiling clouds brought a stunning vision of Franconia Ridge from out of the deep:

It was there for but a fleeting moment, soon to be swallowed back up by the voluminous cloudy sea.

The wind was picking up again, and it was time to go. A few more shots were taken:

And Mark in front of the summit sign:

We had decided much, much earlier to turn back instead of traversing the ridge. It had taken so long to get here, and we had no idea of the trail conditions ahead. We had no regrets about this decision, as it was already well past 4, and sights we had indeed seen!

The clouds started to boil in around us as we made our way back down the slope towards the little peak of North Lafayette

Visibility was getting very poor again, but we could still see our original tracks leading back the way we came. We picked our way slowly down the slope to treeline.

On the way down, the clouds opened up again to treat us with a few fine views back up the slope:

The snow seemed a bit softer as we descended, so a switch to snowshoes was in order for the middle of the slope, and we attempted to pound down the trail as we went along. Both of us were hobbling a bit from sore knees and ankles, so it was by the light of headlamps that we emerged from the last muddy mile, weary but happy, at the Skook parking lot. What a day!