Hiking the White Mountains Without a Reactive Dog

When I started back into hiking with Lilo, I made her a promise: my first priority when she was out on trail with me would always be that she had a good time. I’d challenge her and stretch her comfort zone, yes, but if she was ever really and truly not having fun, we’d go home. She didn’t care, because she’s a dog and doesn’t speak English, but I do think that managing our hikes with that in mind has been a big part of her successful transition to trail dogdom. And it means that every once in a while she stays home.

Usually it’s because I’m committed to a group hike that’s obviously too many miles for her. She didn’t come along for my Bonds traverse or either time I’ve done Owl’s Head.Β  My love of sketchy, scrambly trail is more of a balancing act — she’s a pretty good scrambler, but watching makes me nervous — but mostly my love of hiking with Lilo wins out and I pick a more dog-able route. Weather- and footing-related calls are the tough ones because conditions can change so quickly in the mountains. But the combo of forecasted rain, reports of serious ice, and it being somebody else’s birthday hike simplified my decision-making this Sunday, and Lilo stayed home.

I was glad of it when I stepped out of the car at Crawford Depot into some high-mileage winds. The expected few inches of snow had turned into 6-8″ and the roads were as yet entirely untreated; I didn’t see a plow until the last few miles of the drive. Lilo would not have minded the slow going in the car, but she would not have thought the winds were a funny jokes! But the trailhead for Ethan Pond trail, the start of our planned traverse, was still and quiet, and the snow ceased to fall. As we moved off through powdery snow and mild temperatures, I thought that maybe I should have brought her after all.

Venturing forth!

wtf2And then we got to the steep bits and AHAHAHA, NOPE.

Here’s the thing about our route: we went up Ethan Pond to the Willey Range trail, traversing to end up at the depot rather than doing the out-and-back that I’d done on both prior tours of these mountains, both times with dog in tow. I’d heard about the ladders on the other side of Willey and mentally bookmarked them to try at some future date. But somehow, despite hearing that the range was icy, I hadn’t quite done the math on steepness plus differing patterns of sun and wind exposure. Those fresh 6-8″ of snow covered sheets of boilerplate ice.

A confession: I was undergeared for this hike. I have snowshoes, but not a proper mountaineering version with aggressive traction. I have microspikes, but not full-on crampons. At the start of the season, I hadn’t planned to hike winter mountains at all. But it’s been a mild winter. I did one, and then another. My grad student budget would only stretch to so much gear. I figured that at some point I’d hit a stretch that I wasn’t comfortable with and turn back and that would be it. But so far so good. Until Sunday.

(Although to be fair, the other four in our group had quality snowshoes and I was not the only one struggling at times. The cattle dog did great, though!)

Where there was snowcover, I held my own. Some of the sketchy bits found my ninjaing my way through the trees to the side of the trail, but that was okay. And then there were the other places, where there just was no good alternative to going straight up a sheet of ice. Those places were not so good. I never once felt unsafe, but there were a handful of moments when I genuinely had no idea how I would make it up the next pitch except that it had to happen somehow because no way in hell was I going back down the way that we’d come.

Spent a while stuck here trying to pick my route and figured I might as well document the moment. The lower stairs were fine, but the upper ones entirely encased in ice were…a bit challenging. (Unfortunately most of my pics that show the steepness of the terrain — with and without ladders — also show my fellow hikers and I try not to post those on a public blog. Also I was too busy trying not to die to get pics of the really sketchy stuff.)

We had a great crew. Hiking with a new group is always kind of a coin toss; you just don’t know how it’s going to be. I’ve known most of the others online for a bit and briefly met one on Moosilauke’s South Peak when he and his dapper little pup happened on our five-dog summit party, so I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t be murdered in the woods, but still. You never know what the chemistry will be. This group, though? The chemistry was great. Lots of can-do and quality banter and calm, cheerful competence. I think that we did not enjoy every minute of the Willey ascent, but we got each other through, and it’s a thing that I’m very glad to have done.wtf4My big fear on the way up Willey wasn’t so much that something bad would happen — like I said, I never felt unsafe — as that the rest of the hike might be that same ice. It’s one thing to deal with a handful of patches and pitches; that’s physically and mentally fatiguing, but then it’s done. It’s another thing to deal with that for miles on end. I figured the flattish ridge would be fine, even if icy, but there’s a short but very sharp, steep section on the ascent to Field that I was worried about. And, while A-Z trail to Avalon on the way down isn’t overly steep, ice too hard for our traction to bite on well would make for very slow going at the end of the day. But it would be whatever it would be and given that descending Ethan Pond wasn’t an option, it didn’t seem to bear too much worrying about until and unless it turned out to be real.

Happily, it did not! Topping out on Willey improved our lot in life considerably. The snow was deeper on the ridge, but some intrepid hikers had gotten an early start on the out-and-back from the depot and broken the trail out beautifully, and the only real ice we saw from that point on was decorating boulders off to the sides of the path. The winds picked up occasionally, but this ridge is well-protected and it was such a warm day that we were really quite comfortable.wtf6

One partymember was on a mission to find the summit sticks for all three peaks.

Ghost of a ridgeline just visible through the clouds.
Some moose was here!

wtf9The ridgeline ramble was just fine. While I wasn’t quick enough to capture the view, the clouds did very briefly lift on Field. I hike for interesting forests and features as much as for dramatic views — although the amazing undercast decorating the Presidentials last time on Willey is one of my favorite views to date! — and there were plenty of both, from the stacked boulder above to ripply ice to frozen downy Spanish moss. The company remained excellent and the cattle dog cracked me up; a veteran hiking and backpacking dawg, he gave a total of zero fucks all day and often plopped down in the snow to wait for us slowpokes to catch up when he wasn’t busy supervising our attempts to climb the icy bits. Herding dogs are not usually my jam, but he was a cool, cool kid.

The descent back to the depot found us racing the setting sun and the start of a light drizzling rain. We’d started a bit later than planned due to the road conditions and moved slower on the ascent up Willey due to the ice. We all had lights, of course, but no one really wanted to stop to dig them (or full-on raingear) out unless it got really dark. (And hiking by headlamp is not my favorite. I love hiking in the dark, especially under a full moon with snow reflecting back the ambient light, but an artificial light source makes me all too aware of everything that I can’t see beyond the limits of my light!)

Still, there’s always time to appreciate a lovely birch wood and a happy face…wtf10wtf11In the deepening dusk, tired (some of us — like me! — more than others) and happy and feeling thoroughly accomplished, we reached the sign for the cascade loop and then the Mt. Willard trail and the depot just steps after that.

And of course when I got home, Lilo was ready to plaaaay!


4 thoughts on “Hiking the White Mountains Without a Reactive Dog

  1. Y’all be cray. Maybe one day I’ll get into winter hiking…but I prefer my skis! Huzzah for not sliding down all that ice encrusted glory to your death. That’s quite a feat.

    And yeah…worst part about leaving WITHOUT the dog is the dog’s energy level when you arrive home completely whooped!


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