Thursday, April 25, 2013

Willey Range Loop April 7, 2013

With a weather forecast calling for rain showers in the afternoon (not fun with temps barely above freezing, and rather dangerous at that), lots of clouds before that, and a continuation of heavy winds like the day before, I hit up the Willey Range, a hike that seems to have become my universal iffy-weather hike. The Willey Range is fairly well-sheltered yet offers several excellent view points, and the full "loop" offers a total of 3 4000-Footers and a 52 With-a-View peak, all for 10 miles and a little under 4000 feet of total elevation gain.

Setting off from the Crawford Depot (park here and not at the Highland Center just up the road - the Highland Center spots are for guests of the lodge, and often in busy times dayhikers take up all the spots from lodge guests), the skies were cloudy. An empty parking lot was a surprise, though it was 7:45 when I left, which is a little early for many hikers. That, and early spring isn't a terribly popular time for hiking due to rotting snow, monorails, mud, and bugs. But with cold weather for yet another day (valley temps were to stay below 40F on this day), the snow was hard-packed and I started the day in microspikes, with snowshoes on the pack. I expected I would need them later once I reached the ridge.

When I do this loop, I prefer to take the Avalon Trail all the way to the summit of Field, do the out-and-back to Willey, and then head across the ridge to Tom and down the A-Z Trail (Avalon-to-Zealand Trail). Most others prefer to do this route in reverse, hitting Tom first, but I prefer to climb the steeper (at least it seems steeper) Avalon Trail and descend the slightly milder A-Z Trail. On this day that proved to be very prudent.

Spring starting to take hold of the streams at long last
I was pleasantly surprised to find all stream crossings on this hike to still be solidly snow-bridged, even the lowest (and trickiest) one. Once reaching the Avalon/A-Z Trail junction a little over a mile in, I hung left and began the hardest part of this hike: the climb to the spur to Mount Avalon. This 1/2-mile section is quite steep in many places, and the trail was extremely hard-packed (even icy in spots) through here. Microspikes were still sufficient, but the climb is still steep and took a while to reach the Avalon Spur. This short spur is steep as well, but the rocky outcropping at the summit of Mount Avalon (a 52 With-a-View peak) is well worth the side trip. Due to Southerly winds, the summit was quite windy so lingering was not a desireable option, but I had to capture some pictures first. I could see the clouds lowering and I was expecting that this might be my only views of the day.

Pano showing Webster's Cliffs, Mount Jackson, and Mount Washington in the distance

Mount Willey from Mount Avalon

Mount Field from Mount Avalon

Mount Tom from Mount Avalon
From Avalon, the trail grade moderates a little, though it still climbs roughly 1000 feet in the next mile to just below the summit of Field. In a few open spots the trail was drifting a little leaving me to contemplate putting the snowshoes on, but such spots were short and the trail quickly reverted to rock-hard snow so I stuck with the light traction. In less time than I expected, I topped out on Mount Field, which itself has no view but there are a couple good viewpoints only a few yards from the summit. As I got here, I felt a little sleet falling from the sky, and noted that Mount Washington's summit was now largely obscured.

Just barely can see Mount Washington now

Tom, with Cherry Mountain (Mount Martha) behind

The trail-less peaks of Deception and Dartmouth

The Highland Center down below
With the sleet lightly falling, continuing to move was the order of the hour, and I quickly headed off on the Willey Range Trail to Mount Willey, nearly 1.5 miles away. Here I expected to need the snowshoes, as the trail can get very drifted in here, but aside from some minor drifting in a few spots, I had hard-packed trail conditions all the way to Willey, and I was able to keep the microspikes on the whole way with no damage to the trail (what little drifting there was was drifting in any footprints I left anyway). As the trail nears the col between these two peaks, the trees thin out and there are normally some great views into the vast Eastern side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. There were still some views, but I didn't stop for long as throughout this section of trail, the wind was whipping in and driving a fairly steady sleet into my face.

Across the Eastern Pemi towards Carrigain and the Hancocks
The sleet fortunately did not last for long, maybe 15 minutes, and by the time I reached the col and began the climb to Willey, it was done. Just above the col on the Willey side, I noticed some extensive damage to the woods. I had not been through here since Hurricane Sandy hit in the fall, but I had heard that the storm made quite the mess on the Willey Range, and now I was seeing evidence of this. Much work had clearly been done by others to clear the trail of blowdowns, but the surrounding woods looked like someone had pushed them onto their sides. You really have to see it to get a feel for it, and my understanding is that other areas of the White Mountains suffered even worse damage (namely, the area around East Sleeper in the Sandwich Range).

No funny business here, the trees really were leaving over that much!

By the way, still lots of snow up here!
Aside from exploring the damage a little bit, I continued on to Mount Willey, and the couple of yards past the treed-in summit to the terrific overlook down Crawford Notch. It was a little windy here too, but I still hung out for a little bit enjoying the views, as the clouds seemed to be lifting a little bit.

Pano from the Mount Willey overlook, looking down through Crawford Notch

Route 302 and the scenic railroad heading down Crawford Notch

Webster Cliffs from the Willey overlook
After turning around and heading back to Field, I took a few minutes at a trail side viewpoint not too far after the summit of Willey.

Pemi Wilderness (towards the Bonds) from near Mount Willey

Ethan Pond from near Mount Willey
Reaching Mount Field for the second time on this day, I immediately headed towards the Mount Tom Spur after taking a few more pictures from near the Field summit.

Twins/Bonds from Mount Field
The next mile to the Mount Tom Spur is a fairly gradual downhill grade the whole way, and though the established track meandered from the actual trail a few times, such excursions were minor and I reached the junction with the A-Z Trail in good order. This was the only section of trail where I really considered the snowshoes though, as there were a few softer spots, but with care I was able to leave no postholes to trip up those coming after me. From this junction, which is the Northern terminus of the Willey Range Trail, I turned right for a few dozen yards to reach the Mount Tom Spur (heading left, the trail was un-broken as it heads to Zealand Road).

A-Z Trail/Mount Tom Spur junction - note the snow depth here.
The Mount Tom Spur is fairly mild overall, with a couple short steep spots, but none of it was a problem, and I reached the first open area (not the summit, it is a little further up ahead) without trouble. From there I made sure to head to the true summit (the carin was buried under the snow) where you get some fine views into the Pemi Wilderness. The clouds were actually starting to break at this point (versus raining as it was supposed to be about to do) which was great. The wind was still blowing fairly hard though, so the break here was minimal, but enjoyable.

Field from near Tom's summit

Carrigain Notch beside Field

Across the Pemi Wilderness to the Hancocks

Twins/Bonds across the Pemi

Pano from Tom's summit

The descent was uneventful, though the steep section on the A-Z Trail coming off the ridge was a little tricky in a couple spots (I can't imagine what descending the Avalon Trail would have been like!). A little bit below the A-Z/Avalon junction, I saw the FIRST people I'd seen on the trail all day, heading up. I saw no one else the rest of the way to the trailhead, but the parking lot was now full. I guess everyone else headed either just to Avalon or to Field, and got there after I did.

O yea, and now that I was at the parking lot, the sky was almost clear of all skies...the weathermen missed on this forecast, but that was fine, it turned out to be a much better day than anticipated! I later discovered that this hike also put me over the half-way point for a 2013 circuit of the New Hampshire 4000-Footers, cool!

Trails: Avalon Trail, Mount Avalon Spur, Willey Range Trail, A-Z Trail, Mount Tom Spur
Peaks: Avalon (3442', 52WAV), Field (4340', NH4K), Willey (4285', NH4K), Tom (4051', NH4K)
Mileage: 10.15 miles
Elevation Gain: 3800'
Book Time: 7hr (actual 5hr 50min)

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