The White Mountains Death March That Is the Carter-Moriah-Wildcats Traverse

A White Mountains death march you say? I’m intrigued…

I’m currently trying to summit all of the Northeast 115 high peaks and the 48 White Mountain high peaks are included in that list. There is a traverse, along the Appalachian Trail, across from Pinkham Notch, that every hiker has to accomplish in order to knock off both the 48 White Mountains and the Northeast 115s; the Carter-Moriah Traverse.

You can also add the Wildcats to that to have a nice, long, 20-mile hike. Normally, people do this as a backpacking trip, but why be normal, when you can be insane?

First Attempt Failure

We decided to try this traverse in late winter/spring (April 2017), after New Hampshire got a ton of snow (great idea). Oh, and we decided that we were going to camp out and brought full backpacking packs.

After about 1 mile into the trail from Pinkham Notch, we began to ascend rapidly and soon come across switchbacks on a cliff with sheer ice faces and had to put our crampons on (first of several panic attacks of the day). Then, as the story goes, we proceeded to post-hole and limp up the mountain, eventually following footsteps that absolutely went off the path, having to bushwhack through the trees to find the trail again, probably a 0.5 mile later.

It took us about 6 hours to go about 2 miles that day (probably a personal worst for us). We got finally got close to the summit and found ourselves at the top of a ski mountain. We all looked at each other; one of us was very very cold, one of us was feeling nauseous and myself, well, I was feeling very nervous about the rest of the day.

We decided then that we would finish this first mountain, Wildcat D, and then bail off the mountain. We walked down the mountain on the ski slopes with our tails between our legs and went straight to the brewery for recovery.

Second Attempt & Ultimate Success

During Labor Day weekend 2017, we decided we would give it a second shot. During the week leading up to it, I didn’t do much research, I just knew it was going to be a long day and was okay with that. But I was not prepared for the extent of what this long day would entail.

We started off from Glen Ellis Falls Trailhead to take on Wildcat D, the mountain that shut us down (very hard), in the winter. We were pleased to get up the mountain in 1/6 the amount of time last time, 1.25 hours. Feeling excited and accomplished that we were able to cruise up it so quickly, we set off for the rest of the Wildcats.

There are technically Wildcat A-E, but only Wildcat A and D count for the New Hampshire 48 High Peaks. Reaching Wildcat A, we didn’t find a bald summit, but instead a great view down to Carter Notch Hut and the surrounding ponds (in fact, the entire back side of this range is incredibly beautiful because is not touched by human civilization). After a quick snack, we’re off again, headed for that beautiful hut.

Looking out upon the wilderness.

The Carter Notch Hut and the surrounding area proved to be beautiful. A bunch of small lakes in this steep valley, coming up to a clean, newish hut. You can buy snacks and coffee there for a small fee (and, of course, can stay there if you are backpacking). We were able to refill our waters and use the bathrooms, stopped to have a snack and headed for Carter Dome.

After having come down to the valley where the Hut sits, we had to gain 1,000 feet again of elevation in 1.2 miles. We set forth, sweating it out during the hottest portion of our day, and we arrived at the summit to find it surrounded by trees. However, tons of grey jays live up there and we were able to feed them and that was a fun little treat! The crew kept moving to Mount Hight, which is not technically a high peak, but had one of the best views I’ve seen in the White Mountains (highly recommend taking this route).

We started singing the theme song to The Lord of the Rings (as we often do when we think the landscape reminds us of the epic nature of the Lord of the Rings movies, don’t judge us) and decided we should keep moving, with the late afternoon approaching and still so many miles ahead of us. We cruised through the rest of the Carters as the sun continued to head down.

The view from Mount Hight.

By the time we got to North Carter, we were wiped. The sun was starting to set and we were running out of water and food, and most importantly, energy.

We made it down to the Imp Campsite (which honestly, just made me think about Game of Thrones), to find a sign that said there was water there. We (stupidly) thought there was a faucet-like set up and headed off the trail for .25 miles just to find that there was just stagnant stream.

We didn’t bring any filtration systems with us, so decided to just make due over the next 6 + miles back to the car, and most importantly, victory beers.

The golden hour on the way to the Imp Campsite.

As we started to ascend on our final mountain, Mount Moriah, the sun began to set. We had the fortunate timing of being on wide open, bald rock slides to catch the beginnings of what looked to be a beautiful sunset.

This was a magical time – we had the whole trail to ourselves, the sun set slowly and beautifully, adding so many colors to the fall day. Although I was hurting and ready to be done for the day, this sunset made it all worth it.

As we were almost to the top of Moriah, we saw both the full moon and the sun setting from the same vantage point. These are the moments that make these grueling days worthwhile.

The sunset from Mount Moriah.

We summited Mount Moriah in the darkness and shared a moment of crisp, clear silence before getting back on the trail to finish the 4.4 miles to the car. Usually nervous going down rock slides, the lack of energy was on my side.

I started to cruise down these slides quickly and with ease (there’s a lesson about fear in here somewhere). We were all at the end of our ropes when we saw the house-lights near the trailhead. I was so thankful to be done – but even more thankful to my legs for having carried me so far that day (and everyday).

We slowly and painfully got into the car and drove to the nearest open diner and slammed food into our mouths with an animalistic vigor. At this point, we didn’t want to set up camp and decided to park on the road and sleep in our cars. I don’t think I’ve ever fell asleep faster.

The adrenaline and lack of energy simultaneously showing on my face.

Although at the time, I never seem to understand how fortunate I am to actively pursue these moments, this was a nicely timed lesson for me. I had become a bit complacent in my hiking, in my climbing, in my training. And when you get complacent, you’re doggie-paddling through life and never progressing, which is a terrible feeling.

This was the ‘kick-in-the-ass’ that I needed to get back on track and stoked on new, more audacious goals. We all need these types of experiences sometimes to get us moving forward and I’m glad this experience came just as we move into the best season in New England, autumn.

This certainly was a death march, but I came out of it much more alive.

You can follow all of my adventures on my Instagram (@e_hollz).

 

Emily Holland
Emily Holland

Lover of all things outside. Mountains, rocks, running, dogs, fitness, music, Boston.

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