A Christmas in the forest with Thomas Crawford, Darby Field, and Samuel Willey Jr.

Or perhaps better known in the White Mountains these days as simply: Tom, Field and Willey.

Mention one of these 4000 footers and we might as well bring up all three. Due to their close proximity to one another – the three are commonly climbed together in the White Mountains. Despite the boundless network of trails that spiderweb their way throughout the National Forest, the typical hiker, at least on their initial encounter with the trio will generally take the Avalon Trail, which departs the parking lot at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center at the Crawford Notch Visitor Center. The lot Looking back at where I came from: Mount Tom from the summit of Fieldhas generous amounts of parking even in the winter months, however, I still encounter cars parking up and down the west side of route 302 – so it never hurts to start your hike early!

My day began on Christmas morning

with not much traffic on my drive up to the trail head at 5am. The flurries had flown during the night in northern regions of New Hampshire, so I was greeted by a few crawling cars and one plow truck doing 20mph the entire length of Route 302, but that’s okay because we all made it safely where we needed to go!

Morning light was beginning to illuminate the clear sky as I pulled into the AMC Highland Center, the only other activity was a dozer clearing up spots for the mornings’ mad rush. I heard from the previous days’ reports that snowshoes were actually not recommended, the trail system had become a sidewalk from the steady onslaught of rain, sunshine and warm temps toward the end of the prior week. Being without my typical toe warmers (it was 12 degrees when I pulled in, really not bad if I can keep moving!), I had my dependable DarnTough hiking socks (these things saw about 400 miles or so on our cross-country trip of 2017 and still not stretched out!), Asolo TPS 520 boots, and this time opted for the Hillsound spikes (which I broke again for the 6th time, snapped another factory metal chain!) I brought the Dion 21″ racing snowshoes, which went along for the ride (just in case, right?), The clothes that kept me warm and dry all morning are certainly nothing to write fancy words about: a stinky moisture wicking base layer, my fathers old REI fleece over that, with my old (still works!) Patagonia waterproof shell. For the legs I went with the wintertime standard: running leggings, REI waterproof pants over those and Outdoor Research gaiters to top it all off!

Anyhoo.. now onto the bestest part: trekking these mountains!

During the initial three quarters of the first mile or so the trail was all chopped up with varying depths of post holes from the prior week of warmer weather topped off with 4 inches of the lightest, fluffiest white powder – just enough to ensure each step was blind. Swung a sharp right leading under a low hanging tree branch at the first main junction between Avalon and Tom. Spur Trail headed to Mount TomSimilar to my route from last year, I began ascending Tom because I remembered how much of a butt-kicker getting up to the ridge was, so I set my breathing to a steady ‘high’ and trudged on. I was grateful to watch the sun crest over Field behind me and light up the side flanks of Tom up in my sights ahead. I grabbed a few photos and finished the first hour and half with 2,300 feet of elevation gain to the summit of Tom.

The Tom Spur Trail cuts again right at the ridge-line and meanders through what I would suspect could be the finest, most lush fairy-tale forest that the White Mountains has to offer! The thick canopy (even in winter) dims any glimpse of daylight coming through the evergreen needles. Eventually there are some fine, expansive views of the Presidential Range to the east. As a side note – I was anticipating the astounding views east that I remembered from my trek to Mount Tom last winter, those views never came so I just wrote it off to the low snow pack encountered during today’s adventure. Where the trail I had been following leveled off a bit there are several paths heading generally north west. When I arrived at this lovely lookout nook, I recalled accessing this gem from a different direction, which I took on my return to the spur trail.

Mount Tom ranks among my most favorite White Mountain peaks

because it sits somewhat low (4051′) in the spectrum of New Hampshire 4000 foot peaks, yet it is a beast to scale from the Crawford Notch direction, and while the summit is not ‘bare’, there are plenty of fine panoramas in many directions (and enough to disperse any crowd that I have yet to encounter up there!), and – while I have summited Field only twice now, the crown of Mount Field seems to catch every torrent of wind that Mountain Forecast calls for, while Tom has always been enticingly mild – perhaps the direction that the lookouts face, perhaps due to its low altitude.

The awesomeness of trail goodness continues from the A-Z trail all the way along the Willey Range Trail,

the forest up there on the ridge spine has an almost indescribable feeling of intimacy up there, a ‘closed-in’ type of effect without feeling claustrophobic.

It’s just about another half mile into the col and I had tracked a descent of just over 400′, followed by a 700′ climb over the ensuing mile or so, steeply rising to the summit of Mount Field. There is what I will call a cozy ‘picnic area’ toward the middle of the peak that is devoid of any trees and out of the wind enough to warm those fingers back up!

There are two Views from Mount Field to the Presidentialsincredible overlooks;

the first can be found just on the right as I made the final icy ascent (almost didn’t see it as my eyes were fixed on the icy crust that I was attempting to stay adhered to), the other being ahead to the left once the final summit push is made, which peers toward the majestic Washington and the other Presi’s strewn adjacently. I would love to do this hike in another season such as autumn because over the course of this trek along the ridge there are countless views (probably 360 if one were counting the angles..).

I glanced around toward the direction of where I plunged last winter up to my chest (yes, with snowshoes), I did not see any evidence of a trail leading to Willey – which I thought to be odd, even with the gusting wind I thought I would see something! I made one final circle around the picnic area while I was out of the wind and thought “what’s this what’s this??” to myself, I had found the dip in the trees where the trail progressed over to Willey!! (anybody reading this is probably shaking their head, recalling just how easy it was to find where this Blue blazed trail continues south, what can I say – I missed it, could not locate it and when a snowshoe became stuck in a spruce trap last year I decided to call it a day – I was alone in the winter, not worth putting myself along with anyone that attempted to rescue my sorry ass in jeopardy! But today, I found my trail!)

The trail off Field was steep for a few pitches, definitely icy..

but not that bad as it seemed like the previous folks had generously kicked steps into the frozen mountain side that I kindly thanked for being there and before I knew it, half a mile past the tippy-top of Field I had reached the bottom of the 380′ descent, just in time to begin glancing up to start re-directing the plumes of snow off the evergreen branches (I forgot that I was wearing a pom pom beanie today, until it would catch a branch and I received a real dumping of snow down my neck – up went the hood!)

There were quite a few gorgeous areas to be found along the ridge to the summit of Willey, a few spots that looked as if hurricane force winds had blown through, not much blow down but just tipsy, leaning trees. I had to consult my GPS once I Found some views on the trek over to Mount Willeyarrived at what I thought could be the summit of Willey – as the main path crests, then with no views to be found, continues straight around the summit cone and down toward the cliffs, so I headed back to where I had a brief sighting of a spur trail that appeared to have old snowshoe tracks. I followed this about 20 feet or so until any foot prints dissipated and I would have assumed I had just stumbled upon a lovely tent-site, out of the elements, within the trees.

This was the high point of Mount Willey at 4255′

Time to retrace my steps, which was welcomed because there were quite a few snow drifts where, on the trek in, I really had to stop and judge where I thought a path would be – sometimes it was obvious, other times not so much! Similarly to descending Tom earlier in the morning, my pace quickened, stride lengthened, and one might even describe my legs as “running through the snow”, but boy ohh boy was it a freakin’ blast cruising through the forest, dipping and dodging the low hanging branches.

Turns out a snowshoe enthusiast had made it from Tom to the summit of Field and made the call to abort, descending down the Avalon Trail. I basically did some more jogging/boot sliding down the trail, this is a decently steep pitch down to the junction of Avalon – the trail was still super compact with a few inches of the fresh powder, snowshoes would not have helped on this trail at all under these conditions – so on I jogged out the miles!

Overall, this was a fantastic day – I mean, it is winter hiking and it certainly felt like winter hiking.

Blue skies, deafening wind, this is why we dress and prepare for the White Mountains above treeline in winter, because up here the conditions are – more days than not – a 180 from what the trail head weather is like. Not too many people out on the trails today, but everyone I saw had it in their big holiday hearts to exclaim “Merry Christmas!!”

I’ll be posting these trail reviews on the regular, so be sure to check back often. Send me a comment with any questions, or hiking recommendations if you would like! And hopefully I’ll catch you out on the trails!

Keep eating all the plants and trekking to new heights!!

Much love, and happy trails!!

-Erik

 

 


Overall stats for the day:

Recorded with my Coros Pace watch
  • 9.79mi
  • 4hr 18min
  • 3963′ total ascent

 

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