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Mt Carrigain Trilogy


Mt Carrigain Trilogy


(for Mark and Nat on 9/2/12, in honor of their planned Carrigain ascent)


As I look back over the eighteen years that I spent hiking and exploring in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I can remember climbing Mt Carrigain a total of six times. When I say, “I can remember”, I’m not being facetious; I recently came across some photos of myself on a summit and I cannot remember the trip, that hike has receded into the collective memory of hikes taken over the years to the many summits that I climbed multiple times. On three ascents of Mt Carrigain, I was alone and made the hike up and down as a day trip, and on the three others, I had a companion and camped at the summit. It is the story behind these three trips, the ascents made with companions that I relate today in this story.

My first ascent of Mt Carrigain was a climb that I made with my dog in May of 1976. The 4680’ mountain is considered by many to have the finest view in the White Mountains. I was beginning a week of vacation and I had a tent pitched in a car-camp on the east side of the Kancamaugus Highway. I planned to hike in the southern area of the White Mountains and also wanted to spend one night in the old fire tower on top of Mt Carrigain. After making camp on the first morning, I drove over the Bear Notch Road to rte 302 and made a left turn towards Crawford Notch. The summit of Carrigain was visible from the road at a spot where rte 302 began to swing toward the north; I saw it clearly, the tower was still there! The trip was on.

The next morning was cool and gray, yet I was anxious to head for Carrigain. I packed my backpack and secured the campsite before driving over the Bear Notch road once again and joining rte 302 in Bartlett. A few miles northwest of the town, I took a left turn onto the dirt track of the Sawyer River Road and followed it in for two miles to the Signal Ridge Trail parking area, a small dirt lot located to the right of the road. I put my boots on as my dog, Niz the Weimaraner (yes, same name as me, but that is another story), ran around the forest taking in the new smells, excited at what he knew was coming.

We started out from the car and quickly came to Whiteface Brook. The brook ran high and cold in the snowmelt of May, so I removed my boots and socks and carried them across the stream as I walked through the cold water barefoot; Niz pranced through the brook drinking his fill. Donning my footgear once again, I continued up the trail. We reached a trail junction in about an hour. From here, the Carrigain Notch Trail diverged on the right and headed north for Carrigain Notch and the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We continued on the Signal Ridge Trail, and this route steepened noticeably as we gained altitude on the flank of the mountain.

I labored up the long ridge feeling the weight of my backpack and paying the price over my lack of good conditioning. Niz began to slow down as well. The trail ahead was steep and unrelenting. I put my head down and plodded forward, the hours disappearing in the effort. High up on the ridge the trail became less steep, and I began curl through a section of smaller trees. The weather was now dark and threatening, something I hadn’t noticed down on the trail in the woods.

In a magic moment, I came up to the open portion of the trail that crossed over the magnificent bare crest of Signal Ridge. The ridge fell way to the right. The wind was howling and the air was thick with swirling clouds and fog, gray and very wet, that came curling up over the ridge from below directly into my face. Niz’s ears stood straight out behind his head in the wind. I could not see the summit, yet I knew it was still high above us and beyond the crest of the ridge. It was a wild and invigorating moment, and I was excited just to stand there and take it all in, to feel the wind as it blasted against my body.

Niz began to growl and moved over to the scrub that covered the ridge to the left. I saw something move, but the blowing cloud and fog left me confused and unsure. Niz had a low growl going and pointed at something lurking there in the dwarf trees.

From the trees, a voice shouted out to me through the wind, “Hey, call your dog! I’m trying to get a bird.”

I wasn’t sure if I heard that right or not, but I called Niz over to my side and continued up the trail through the wind and fog toward the shelter of the fire tower. After a steep final ascent, the steel structure of the tower came into view and I sent Niz up the steps and followed close behind.

The shelter of the tower was about thirty feet off the ground, and it sat on its steel perch surrounded by a walkway and railing. I let us in the door and found another hiker laid out on his bag smiling up at me. We said hello, and he made friends with Niz. I saw a second bag stretched out on the floor and I told him I had come across his friend out on the ridge. Just then, the door opened and in walked the other hiker clutching a dead quail his hand. So I had heard him correctly back down in the wind of the ridge. The sight and smell of the dead bird set Niz off in a frenzy; he started barking and jumped up on the man with the bird. I pulled him back and got him calmed down, and then let the other hiker make friends with Niz, who kept a watchful eye on the dead bird the entire time.

That night, as the wind and storm slashed at the windows of the shelter, we prepared dinner in the warm candle light of the interior. The hunter cleaned and gutted the bird and boiled it up in a pot. When it was cooked, we removed the bones and added whatever we had to the pot. I contributed some brandy and a can of chicken in juice and they threw in vegetables and rice. I poured some chicken juice on my dog’s dry food and put the rest of the liquid in the pot. Later, we feasted on the hot wild game soup and served it with toasted bread and butter, and followed that with a large pot of macaroni and cheese with tuna fish added to the mix. I shared my brandy, and they shared their wine. It was a memorable and satisfying dinner.

The storm blew by the tower right at dawn, and we watched the clouds depart the summit and fly away towards the southeast. The view was spectacular, and we ambled about the walkway, talking about the mountain scenery about us and enjoying the view from every vantage point. After another coffee, my two new friends packed up and departed. I watched them cross Signal Ridge and pause at the crest in the bright sun of morning. They added a human element and scale to the fastness of the mountains that surrounded me. They waved a last goodbye from far below on the ridge, and disappeared into the scrub beyond.

As I readied my pack for the hike out, I noticed some words carved into the wood below a window inside the tower.

The words said, “Sean and Lisa came back to life here. 8/10/73”

Yes, I thought, I can believe that. I dug out a pen and, on that morning of May 15, 1976, I copied those words into my 1972 AMC White Mountain Guide, where they still can be read today.

The next trip in the trilogy dates from the early to mid 1980’s, and I made that ascent with my friend, Bob Herman. I drove up to his home in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, and we left his house at noon on a Thursday and drove to the Kancamaugus Highway where we made our camp in a car campground on the eastern side of the mountains. Early Friday, we set out with our overnight packs and headed up the Signal Ridge Trail towards the summit of Mt Carrigain.

The fire tower had been removed years ago and a raised platform was erected on the summit in its stead. The platform allowed hikers to appreciate the incredible views that would not be available from the wooded summit.

Bob was using an old Boy Scout knapsack that trip, the kind with the unpadded shoulder straps. These quickly became bothersome, but anything can be endured for one night, so we pressed on. Two words were written on the side of the pack in black magic marker, “Von Vide”. This was an old scout joke that made fun of the way a scout leader sounded when he would ask, “Want a ride?” Early on in the hike, Bob picked up a little snake with a yellow ring around the body behind the head, and it pissed a foul-smelling discharge onto his hand, a smell Bob could not remove until he had taken a shower later at home.

Finally, we gained the summit of Signal Ridge and took a break. We could see the summit and the platform above us to the west. Although the sky was gray, the ceiling was high and we had extended views of the mountains surrounding us. We stared down the slope of Signal Ridge, and glanced over towards Carrigain Notch. Our plan was to hike down the Desolation Trail first thing the next morning, and hike through Carrigain Notch on our way back to the car.

We continued to the summit and set up our tent. We cooked and savored a large dinner and watched darkness come on as we enjoyed drinks and cigars up on the raised viewpoint. In deference to the dampness, we slept in the tent instead of stretching our sleeping bags out on the exposed wood of the platform.

The morning came gray and damp. We used the end of the water to make two large black coffees with my portable dripper. We had a quick breakfast of trail snacks and broke camp. We decided to make hot oatmeal and more coffee at Camp 20 far below, the next location with reliable water.

The descent began on the Desolation Trail. High up on the mountain the trail is very steep. We continued down the steep and rocky trail as it made its way down through roots and stones. Eventually, the steepness abated and we set off on several long switchbacks that took us down a ridge on the lower flank of the mountain. A group of younger boys and girls, along with their leaders, were struggling up this part of the trail toward us, their backpacks looming above their shoulders.

As we met on the trail I said, “Enjoy the horizontal while you got it.”

“Oh, man, you’re not serious, are you?” said one, huffing with the exertion.

“Yeah, don’t tell us that,” said another.

“Fine,” said Bob. “It’s easy goin’ up there.”

They took the opportunity to rest and stepped off of the trail to let us pass by. We continued down the trail to the brook and stopped at the old lumbering site called Camp 20, where we shed our packs and enjoyed hot breakfast and more coffee. Afterwards, we resumed our hike and stopped to savor the view as we looked up at Signal Ridge from below, then continued on through the wild heart of Carrigain Notch. Soon we were back at the car and headed back to Bob’s home in the south.

What a fine weekend, lived and enjoyed to the fullest. Bob told me later that after I had left his house back in Jaffrey Center, he doused the old canvas pack with gasoline and burned it in the driveway until the only things that remained were the brass fittings. That knapsack, a pack that had caused him such pain and distress during the hike, would not torture anyone again.

The third story revolves around a trip I made with my friend, Steve Barton, in the summer of 1987. He wanted to climb Mt Carrigain and experience the famed view for himself, and he wanted me to join him on the hike. We didn’t have much free time, so we arranged to make the trip on a holiday weekend soon after the summer solstice. Steve would drive up from Connecticut on Friday night and meet me at Sue’s house in Concord, New Hampshire. From there, we would leave early Saturday morning and drive to the trailhead, and then follow the Signal Ridge Trail on our hike up to the summit. After spending one night on the peak, we planned to return the next day to Sue’s house, and Steve would then drive back to Connecticut.

That Saturday found me climbing up the Signal Ridge Trail once again, this time on a bright summer day. The air was clean and pure, there was little humidity and the visibility was incredible. Reaching the summit, I erected the tent, but because the air was so dry, Steve chose to throw his pad and bag down up on the wooden floor of the platform. Other campers were around, but basically, we had the summit to ourselves on a perfect night.

After dinner, we enjoyed port and cigars on the platform. The sun set in the west and I found myself mesmerized by a backlit distant mountain, its ridgeline crystal clear as it stood black and silhouetted against the unseen distant sun. I thought it was Mt Mansfield in Vermont, but I wasn’t sure.

The light on the far horizon diminished as the earth turned and the sun retreated in the west, but a slim aura of light remained visible, and the light traveled north up the horizon to the west of me and moved toward due north as it grew ever more dim. Around 1:00am, it was totally dark out on the horizon. Less than an hour and a half later, I could make out the smallest change to the light on the horizon just to the east of due north. I watched this dim change in light slowly grow in intensity as it moved south along the eastern horizon, finally ending in a spectacular dawn.

What an incredible experience. I had seen unbelievable sunsets before, and I once had landed in Anchorage, Alaska, after midnight when the summer sun was still above the horizon. But for the first time, there on the summit of Mt Carrigain, I actually experienced the movement of standing on the globe called earth, as it rotated around its axis with the planet tilted towards the sun as it does during summer in the northern hemisphere. The last and first light of the day was very dim to be sure, but true darkness was so short that I felt awed and privileged by the display. Steve and I left the peak later that morning, and after descending the same trail, we returned to Sue’s house in Concord.

That was the last time I stood upon the summit of Mt Carrigain. My old dog, Niz, has been dead for more than twenty years. Bob now lives in Colorado, and Steve calls San Diego home. Yet I remember the mountain and those trips to the summit of Carrigain with a crystal kind of clarity, a type of clarity usually reserved for distant mountains backlit in the setting summer sun.



Laudizen King
July 2008