Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Circling the White Mountains, Clockwise

The past three winters, Gretchen has listened to me talk of "the limestone jags," "the ice lakes," and "the divide" as mythic places way beyond, lurking in the backyard of the White Mountain Rec Area. Finally, these past three days, she saw them for herself.

Over two nights and three days we completed the 102 mile loop. I've skied this loop once training for and twice competing in the White Mountain 100 ultra ski/bike/run winter race. Due to cabin availability, we skied the race route in reverse. It would be my first time completing the entire route in this direction.

Sunday morning, when we began from the Wickersham Dome trailhead at mile 28 on the Elliot Highway, the temperature was -2F according to the truck's thermometer. By the time we reached Borealis cabin at 9pm, 20 miles down the trail, the cabin thermometer read -10F. I don't know how cold it got that first night, but by the time we left the cabin at 9am the thermometer read -8F.

The 19 miles from Borealis to Windy Gap was slow, very slow. The snow was dry and crunchy. But the temperature warmed and it was in the teens (above zero) by the time we arrived at the cabin--not quite mid-way to Cache Mountain, our final destination for the second night.

Some nice folks at the cabin allowed us to come in and warm up. Approaching and entering cabins is frowned upon by the BLM unless you have a reservation or unless you have an emergency. We had neither but the folks graciously allowed us to sit and rest inside. I think skiers and snowshoers are most vulnerable in the Whites and it's nice when snowmachiners take pity and share their shelter. This was some of the slowest skiing I've done on these trails and we were happy when one of the gentlemen offered a ride up the trail; he was going to look for wood and I think he heard the dread in our voices describing the distance still ahead of us. It was 5pm by then. The wind was gusting. Our cabin was still 24 miles away. I'm not sure where he intended to get wood, but he dropped us off above the ice lakes, a little over 9 miles up. I rode in the sled, clinging to Jack, keeping him from leaping out as we bumped along the narrow trail. Gretchen rode on the snow machine behind the driver we'd only just met. I recognized most of the trail from my past experiences and secretly rejoiced every mile we climbed up the divide, knowing I wouldn't have to ski it.

We got dropped about a mile and a half below the top of the divide. Once over the crest of the climb it was at least 8-10 miles of nearly constant downhill--fast, flowy, fun skiing. In the sections it flattened slightly we could double pole and keep up our momentum. We coasted into the cabin about 9:30pm,  an hour after dusk, the trail illuminated by our headlamps. The ride up the divide had saved us at least 3-4 hours slogging. The temperature at Cache Mountain cabin was 20F. That night it snowed less than an inch.

Tuesday morning we awoke to bluebird skies and fast trail. The temperature rose to 30F and softened the snow. The kick was still great and the glide quickly continued to improve. We made better time setting the kind of pace I'm used to, skiing 4-5mph.

These photos are a smattering of the 102 miles. I didn't take many photos after the wind picked up and the ice got bad skiing into Windy Gap. I didn't take any photos of the sections we rode by snow machine (limestone jags and the ice lakes) or from the top of the divide.

 Rime and snow grows on the windward side of spruce boughs
 Sunny, but cold Sunday afternoon when we started our trip
 The trail, well packed, only a couple miles from the parking lot
 The first and last 6 miles of the trail rises and falls over as series of "domes"

 These are multi-use trails and open to snow machines, skiers, bikers, mushers, snowshoers, and hikers

 The tracks of a snow bike (aka fat bike, aka Surly)

 Though trail junctions and cabin locations are well marked with permanent signage, 
the distances often cannot be trusted 
 The Wickersham Creek Trail snakes across the forest and into the mountains

 Overflow is one of those mysteries of cold climates. It was about -5F when this photo was taken. The previous six nights it'd gotten below -30F, yet water still flows and freezes on top of the trail. But springs can still flow beneath the ice, this time of year temperatures can vary from sub zero to positive 30. The snow often acts as an insulator. Backcountry travelers must beware not only of the glare ice but because the water softens the snow and can easily be "punched" through, even on skis. 

 Looking down into Beaver Creek

Thermometer at Borealis cabin 


 Cache Mountain Cabin

 Crowberry Cabin, we stopped here for lunch

Lunch break near Moose Creek