An Unassuming Gem: Mount Whiteface
At 4,025 feet, Mount Whiteface ranks near the bottom (45th) of the 48-member New Hampshire 4K Club but this meager statistical standing belies the true majesty of the sights one encounters by making the trek up this gem in the Sandwich Range. Coupled with its neighboring peak Mount Passaconaway (4,060 feet), the duo make up the bulk rim of The Bowl, an expanse of just over 1500 acres of declared Research Natural Area, a vast stretch of geography never before logged and managed by the White Mountains National Forest. Mount Whiteface is the most southern peak of the NH four thousand footers.
The true beauty of Whiteface rests in the ascent, not the actual summit, as the top is partially blocked by alpine trees and massive rock faces and formations. No matter. The sheer drops and steep inclines heading up the last five hundred feet of elevation offer enough views of the Waterville Valley region to keep you motivated to continue upward into the tree covered rocky trail to the summit. The Blueberry Ledge Trail (requiring just over 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the Whiteface summit) is the shortest and most common trail to the top and this was the chosen route on this clear October day.
The plan was to summit Whiteface and then continue on the Rollins Trail another two miles to Mount Passaconaway and then back to the parking lot via the four mile-plus Dicey's Mill Trail. But, as this day proved, sometimes plans go awry and in unpredictable, yet appropriate, fashion. More on that later.
The ascent of Whiteface offers a routine, even benign, start from the Ferncroft Road parking lot where hikers trek two tenths of a mile on a dirt road past private property and homes to the actual Blueberry Ridge Trail. From there, the ascent feels more like a nature trail with mild uphills and reasonably varied terrain. This gives way to large, open rock faces of modest elevation where the tree cover opens up to reveal more sky and hints of the views to come. This was a dry (but leafy) day and any wet weather would certainly make this trail very slow going, especially as the elevation increased and rock faces grew steeper. The trail hits tree cover again for a significant stretch, pushing hikers up some deceptively challenging uphills along the way. One saving grace is the stair formations which make up long stretches of this ascent, bonuses greatly appreciated as one forges ahead on this upward trek.
At around 3,600 feet (just under 500 feet from the summit) the first breathtaking view reveals itself off to the left side of the trail, a vast, sloping rock face which provides a beautiful vista of the Lakes region and Sandwich Dome. On this fall day, the leaves were bright oranges, reds and yellows, making the view even more radiant than most times of the year. From this point on, the rock scrambles are many and angles sharply uphill, often requiring three points of contact and a secure balance afoot. Once again, on a wet day this part of the ascent would prove very risky and difficult to climb, but the mild and dry conditions of this day made it a vigorous and stimulating end to the hike.
A well known tenet of hikers (especially those seeking high elevations and long distances) is knowing one's limits and sticking to a plan. Moreover, hikers need to allow themselves to opt out of a planned hiking plan if their gut says so. Once atop Whiteface, the assessment began, a process made more difficult when gazing at the loping range leading to Passaconaway's inviting peak across The Bowl. It was mid afternoon, the result of getting off to a later start in the morning than originally planned. The peak would require another three miles and change to the relatively viewless peak followed by a roughly three mile descent down Dicey's Mill Trail back to the parking lot. In a suspect move, I was also wearing brand new hiking shoes (Merrell Moab 2 Mids) which I am sure will be great someday soon, but today they hurt. Complicating matters was an ingrown toenail that I discovered upon putting my hikers on in the parking lot but promptly dismissed (rub some dirt on it and keep movin', right?). Despite feeling completely up to task in terms of fitness, the idea of hiking six plus more miles with my feet in their current state was completely unappetizing, not to mention the thought of descending at some point in the dark (I always carry a headlamp in my pack regardless, however) due to our later start. Gritting our teeth and feeling a tinge of regret, we decided to take stock in scaling one 4K for the day and coming back to fight another day. Of course, upon making pleasant conversation with the hiking couple leaving the summit of Whiteface and hearing their relatively upbeat intention to scale Passaconaway along with bagging Whiteface made us once again take pause. Should we go for it anyway? After some mild hand wringing, we stuck with our most recent decision and headed back down the trail which brought us up (how ironic that on the way up I told myself more than once "I am so glad I'm not going to have to descend down this thing"--guess that was premature).
Judgement is key when hiking and listening to one's inner guide takes time to honor, especially when scaling peaks is a goal and one awaits just a few miles away on a gorgeous afternoon. Make a plan. Prepare both physically and mentally. Pack appropriately. Be prepared to adjust your hiking plan and don't look back. The mountain will be there next week, next month, even next year. Enjoy the views, take pictures, and show gratitude for how far you got on any particular day, remembering it's a marathon not a sprint. And break in those new hikers.