Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sandwich Range Traverse - August 18, 2012

With summer winding down and an impending trip to Baxter, I was hoping to squeeze one more backpack in before fall. This was to be close to a trip that was planned initially back when working on the first round of the New Hampshire 4000-footers: a traverse of Passaconaway, Whiteface, and the Tripyramids. A total of 4 official 4000-footers, and along the way a New England 100-Highest in East Sleeper, which is between Whiteface and South Tripyramid (which doesn't count on the list). There used to be a number of shelters in the area, 2 near Whiteface, and one near Passaconaway. However, all of these fell into states of disrepair and were removed around the turn of the century (~2000) and not replaced since the area is a Wilderness Zone: such a designation means that there are to be no man-made structures, trails are to be maintained to a lower level, and signage and blazes are to be minimal. Since these sites were pulled, and in particular the ones near Whiteface, roughly halfway along the traverse, had unreliable water, we cancelled the trip and hiked the 4 4000-footers as a pair of long dayhikes.

However, I revisited planning of the trip over the summer, and discovered that at the intersection of the Kate Sleeper and Downe's Brook Trail, between East Sleeper and Mount Whiteface, there was a reliable water source, and the area was quite flat in terrain, and there were some established camping areas. Sounded like a perfect spot to spend a night, and in fact I read several trip reports over the summer using this area.

As I got closer, however, I realized that I would reach this camping area by early-to-mid afternoon without any trouble. I didn't really want to be hanging out at a camping site for 5-6 hours before going to sleep, especially when I would likely be the only one camping in the area. As the chosen weekend neared, I began to consider doing the entire hike in one long day. On the trails, it is roughly 17 miles with ~6200 feet of elevation gain, so this would be the hardest day to date I had ever done. To top it off, the trailheads are separated by about 3.5 miles along the Kancamangus Highway, and I had no promise of a ride between them. Nevertheless, as I pulled into my end point at Pine Bend Brook early in the morning, I opted to go for it. It was to be a perfect day, with temperatures in the low-70s in the valleys and with decreasing humidity as the day progressed.

So first off was a 3.5-mile walk along the Kancamangus Highway from Pine Bend Brook Trailhead, which is a dirt pull-over alongside the highway, to Oliverian Brook Trailhead. Luckily there is no elevation change between the trailheads to speak of, Oliverian Brook starts maybe a couple hundred feet lower than Pine Bend Brook. I left my car at 8:15 in the morning, and hoped to be out around 7:30-8:00, which would put me well under "book time" for this trek (just the trail alone was a book time of close to 12 hours).

Walking along the Kancamangus Highway

One of several brooks crossed on the way to Oliverian Brook - this was Downe's Brook I believe

Old forest/logging road along the highway

Green's Cliff

Mount Tremont
As I walked, many cars passed in each direction, but none slowed to offer a ride, and I wasn't looking to flag anyone down. I steadily trekked down the road, without a killer pace since the day ahead was long, and still reached the Oliverian Brook Trailhead in about 1 hour.

From here, I would be on established trails all the way to my waiting car. Oliverian Brook Trail was my first of the day, and I continued to move along at a good clip, since the 1.9 miles of this trail that I was on gains all of 240 feet, and the footing is soft and good the whole way. From there I turned onto the Passaconaway Cutoff, which is mild for its first half, and then it climbs at a good rate to a junction with the Square Ledge Trail. Here the trail steepens significantly, but the footing overall is good, and I steadily made my way up to the Walden Trail. Along the way, the trail crosses the foot of a small slide, which if one climbs a bit (carefully), it is said that good views towards the Presidentials can be had. I did not venture up.

Small slide on the Square Ledge Trail that the trail crosses the bottom of
I was making good time to this point, but now there was the steep climb up the final stretch to the first summit of the day: Passaconaway. This side of the loop over the summit I had never been on, and near the top there are some nice outlooks towards the North. I followed a sign to the summit, touched the high points in the area, and then started down the Dicey's Mill Trail to the first overlook, not far from the summit, where I had a good break.

One of Passaconaway's southern knobs

Large blowdown across the Walden Trail, this sucker was about 2 foot in diameter and had been cleared by axe!

South towards the lakes

Mount Chocoura

The Tripyramids from my snack ledge along the Dicey's Mill Trail

Franconia Ridge off in the distance
After descending Dicey's Mill Trail for a while, I inadvertantly wandered into the old Camp Rich site, the location of the shelter on Passaconaway I mentioned earlier. It is merely a large clearing now. After getting back to the trail, I descended a little further, and then grabbed the Rollins Trail. Just before this point I once again ran into a Hike-NH member who I'd seen a month before on the Hancock hike. This was his only hike since that day in fact. One of us is apparently stalking the other, hard to say who is who yet!

Rollins Trail gradually works its way up to the summit of Whiteface, never getting particularly steep. There are even some view points along the way.

Whiteface's summit

South towards Ferncroft, the normal starting point for a hike of Passaconaway and/or Whiteface

Mount Chocoura

Whiteface's summit carin

Awesome summit isn't it!
The actual summit of Whiteface is completely treed-in. Many people hike Whiteface from the South via Blueberry Ledge Trail and get to the open ledges that make up Whiteface's South Summit and don't realize that the actual summit is 1/4 mile or so further up the trail. That of course only matters to peak baggers! Rest assurred, if you do a loop hike of Passaconaway and Whiteface via Blueberry Ledge and Dicey's Mill Trails as many do, you cross the actual summit shown here.

From the summit, it is a short descent to the junction with the Kate Sleeper Trail (unfortunately not all the way to the nice views from the South summit), where I turned and descended on the far-less-traveled route. Rocky at first, the descent soon eased into a nice trail to the junction with Downe's Brook where I found a wonderful stream in a peaceful setting. Certainly a wonderful spot. I grabbed a liter of water here to tide me through the rest of the day, I was doing far better on water than I expected. To top it all off, it was only 2:15, and roughly 1hr 45min ahead of book time! After getting going again, I immediately passed beaten herd paths to presumably some camp sites off the trail. There was also a site RIGHT next to the trail, really wish people wouldn't do this...

Camp site RIGHT next to the Kate Sleeper Trail
 The Kate Sleeper Trail all the way until it hits the South Tripyramid Slide is a nice, gentle trail with mild grades and great footing. It was a pleasure of a trail to hike on.

Beautiful trail, the Kate Sleeper Trail
In what seemed like no time, I was at the side spur trail to East Sleeper, a short, less than 1/10 mile trail to the high point of this New England 100-Highest Peak.

East Sleeper
I continued on down the trail after this and soon reached the high point near West Sleeper, where I followed a short (~100 foot) herd path to the summit of West Sleeper, just for the heck of it. Then it was on to the aforementioned South Tripyramid Slide. The Kate Sleeper Trail emerges on the slide near the Mount Tripyramid Trail, climbs for a short bit on the slide, and then cuts over to that trail. Being a slide, the views are great, Southward in this case. The South slide is a loose, gravelly one, but it wasn't bad to climb, as there are plenty of solid rocks to utilize.

Sandwich Dome from the South slide

Towards the Lakes Region

Looking up the South Tripyramid slide

Sandwich Dome, Jennings Peak on right

Welch/Dickey and Tecumseh (Waterville Valley)

Looking down the South Tripyramid slide

Part of West Sleeper

Mount Tecumseh and the Waterville Valley ski slopes
After the short, but steep climb to South Tripyramid, I was nearing the end of the climbing at last. 2 more objectives: Middle and North Tripyramid.

Middle (right) and North (left) Tripyramid
After a steep, but short descent of South Tripyramid, there was a steady ascent to the summit of Middle Tripyramid, where there are some nice views towards what I'd climbed that day. There was also another view point towards Waterville Valley at North Tripyramid.

Passaconaway, with Chocoura behind to the left



North Tripyramid slide to the right - someone carved "not recommended" in the sign!
Now it was a stretch of steep, slabby descent off of North Tripyramid. Just after the steep stuff, but before hitting the Scaur Ridge Trail junction, I ran into a solo hiker heading up with a full pack to spend the night somewhere on the ridge. Really I saw only a few people in the vicinity of Passaconaway, a handful of pairs of hikers along the Rollins Trail, and a large group on South Tripyramid. Lots of solitude on this hike.

After Scaur Ridge Trail split off, I continued down Pine Bend Brook Trail, which is gentle along the ridge, then steepens as it drops off the ridge, with a number of eroded sections. Then the footing gets downright rough (perhaps it was just being that it came at ~mile 18 on the day?) for a while, with a lot of boulder hopping along what looked to be an old stream bed. This was not a pleasant section of trail, but eventually it turned into nice smooth trail for the final stretch to the highway and my waiting car (basically form the Wilderness Boundary to the road was fine). I arrived at the car shortly after 7PM, for a total time of under 11 hours! Oddly, I even felt like I could go a bit further, though I was more than happy to be back at the car instead.

4 more NH 4000-footers left for a 2012 list completion, and I'm looking forward to each of them! But first, off to Baxter State Park for a week to hike Katahdin and a few other mountains.

Peaks: Passaconaway (4043', NH4K), Whiteface (4020', NH4K), East Sleeper (3860', NEHH), West Sleeper (3881'), South Tripyramid (4090'), Middle Tripyramid (4140', NH4K), North Tripyramid (4180', NH4K)
Mileage: 3.5 miles road walk, 17.2 miles trail, 20.7 miles total
Elevation Gain: ~6200 feet
Time: 10 hours 50 minutes (book is 11hr 40min on trail, not including the road walk)


  1. Matt,
    Great post for a great hike! My brother and I have done this combo twice in the last year and look forward to doing it again!

    1. Thanks Scott! It was perfect weather for a long hike, despite being mid-August. The hike offers a bit of everything, and was truly awesome. I see why it is a relatively popular long loop hike.

  2. Thanks for the blog, this allowed me to plan my weekend adventure. I turned towards Livermore after North Peak, and had an adventure of a lifetime getting down the northslide scree field and slabs was nail biting. Hopefully others enjoy the trip as well. I included some videos of the trails on my blog.

    1. Steve, as it sounds like you found out, the North Tripyramid slide is not a great descent route! I'd suggest taking the Scaur Ridge Trail (head just a little further North from the junction you headed down on) down should there be a next time, there are not the views, but it isn't a hair-raising descent either!