Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Struggling up to the Bigelows - Jan. 2, 2016

Route: Stratton Brook Pond Road, Firewarden's Trail, Appalachian Trail
Peaks: Bigelow - Avery Peak (4090', NE4K), Bigelow - West Peak (4145', NE4K)
Mileage: 12.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 3400ft
Book Time: 7hr 50min (actual 7hr 30min)

The morning following our successful hike up to Saddleback and Saddleback-The Horn, we all headed out early in the morning for the 50-minute drive North to Stratton to hike the Bigelows. My recovering sprained ankle had reacted well to the hike the day before, with only a minor bit of swelling and soreness, so we were all going on this one: no splitting of the group was planned this year. The winter approach to the Bigelows is similar to the summer one for dayhikers: head up via the Firewarden’s Trail to the col between the 2 peaks, and then do a short out-and-back to each summit from there. In summer one can drive down Stratton Brook Pond Road to the start of the Firewarden’s Trail, but in winter this road is only plowed to the last house, maybe 1/10-mile from Rt. 27. There is limited parking at the start of the road for a couple of cars (take care not to block the driveways, nor the snowmobile trail which is the road itself). It is a 1.5 mile(ish) road walk to the trailhead. Alternatively, one can take the Appalachian Trail from where it crosses Rt. 27, though in past years this lot is almost never plowed. It is slightly shorter to access the trailhead this way, if you can access the lot. I did read after the fact that apparently this lot has been getting some plowing attention in the 2015/2016 winter, so perhaps this will be a more viable option in the future.

We pulled onto Stratton Brook Pond Road, and actually kept driving past the end of the plowed section, onto a hard-packed snowmobile path. The snow depth wasn't very deep yet, and with both vehicles being fairly high-clearance and having 4-wheel drive (a Jeep and a Subaru Forester), we were fine driving down the road. A little over 1/2-mile from the spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road, there is a road junction with lots of room to park. Here, the road drops down a small hill to this junction, and maybe 1/3 of the way up (back towards the highway) was a small low-clearance car stuck on the hill. He had come in the day before to hike, and got stuck at the bottom of the hill. They had gone on to do their hike, walked back out the road to where they were staying somewhat nearby, and he had just come back to work on getting it out. We had him roll back down the hill, got around him and parked (the road ahead looked softer than the hill even, and so we had no plans to go any further), then got to work with the shovels to make a path for him to get back up the small hill. 30 minutes of digging and pushing later, and he was up the hill and on his way out of there (he made it out just fine from there apparently - there was no sign of the car or trouble when we left).

Heading off on foot down the road to the trailhead.

Blue skies and some clouds on the Bigelow Range. West Peak is off to the right behind the trees.

South Horn from Stratton Brook Pond

Nice bridge over the Stratton Brook Pond outlet.

South Horn, and more of the ridge heading West.

Crocker Mountain to the South.

Sugarloaf Mountain and Ski Area.
We set off, once again with snowshoes on from the start, for a roughly 1-mile walk to first the trailhead, and then Stratton Brook Pond. On my only prior visit to the Bigelows in 2012, the crossing of the brook outlet was an open rock-hop, but a year or two ago there was a nice, fancy new bridge installed, which makes this crossing completely trivial. Blue skies teased us, though the forecast was for overcast skies. Still, it looked promising, and we continued on down the trail. After a while, the flat trail begins to climb, and my legs were not liking it. Every year it takes a few hikes for the "snowshoe legs" to get into shape, and not only was this one of the first, but I'd been pretty sedentary for the last month due to the injury. Thankfully the ankle wasn't really bothering me, it was just tired legs. Shortly before reaching the Moose Falls Campsite, the trail gets excessively steep, almost all the rest of the way to the ridge. This section was very slow-going, and I almost threw in the towel, but I plodded away, and did eventually make it to the col.

Heading up the steeps.

Heading UP the steeps...

Part of Avery peak as seen from near the col.
From the col, it is less than 1/2-mile to either of the main Bigelow summits. We opted to go to Avery Peak first, summitting inside of a cloud, as expected (the blue skies disappeared not terribly long after leaving the pond). Winds were very stiff, it was a full facemask, goggles, and shells stop for only a couple quick summit photos then back to the cover of the trees (the upper 1/10-mile is completely above the trees). Then it was another quick shot up the other direction to the West Peak, for a repeat of the quick-pictures-then-to-the-trees game. The night before there had been discussion of maybe heading across the ridge to the Horns, but with the lack of visibility (and there was no way I was going to be able to do so), the whole group opted to just head down. The Horns Pond Trail was broken out, so we likely would have had a relatively simple go of it, but as it was we got back just before dark, and we were all hungry anyway.

Brent approaches Avery Peak.

Descent off West Peak, part of Avery Peak visible in the background.
After a good snack break, it was off on the long trip back down. Some of the steeps were tricky with the moderate snow cover on top of icy rocks, and some involuntary sliding was done by all (I had to do my best to keep mine to a minimum), but we all got down fine. We did see a few folks heading up as we were coming down through the steeps, and there was a fair bit of snowmobile traffic on the road and the trail between the road and the bridge, but overall it was a quiet day. The drive out on the snowmobile-packed road was uneventful, but I can't say I'd recommend doing it, and definitely not if you don't have good snow tires, decent clearance, and 4-wheel drive. And even still, with any more snow on the ground, this would be a no-go move. The other hikers we had seen all parked in the small pullout off of Rt. 27, or may have taken the Appalachian Trail. We returned to the house, made dinner, and had a leisurely departure in the morning for the drive home, and back to work after the holiday vacation. But now I really need to rest the ankle, and get it fully healed for trips planned for later in the winter!

The Bigelow Range (Cranberry Peak perhaps, South Horn is on the right).

Of course the skies were clearer down here again...

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