A Winter Attempt at Carter Dome: Another Humbling Experience in the Whites
Compared to mountains out west and in other parts of the world, the White Mountains are small, but man they really hold their own. I’ve never hiked a New Hampshire 4,000 footer that wasn’t a challenge, and this hike was just that. The first time I did Carter Dome it was the day after a huge snowfall, with a ton of fresh powder to break out. It was my first winter hike and I was solo, making it a very long, difficult day.
I thought this time it was sure to be easier. In late winter conditions, I was expecting a packed out trail with lots of foot traffic since the last snow. It was one of the last days of winter, and I was excited to check it off the list for my last 4K of the season. This was Lucy’s first experience in the Carter Range and the weather was gorgeous, so we were looking forward to the views from Mt. Hight. I remembered the steep descent down to Carter Notch Hut last time, so I decided to go up that steep part instead of coming down it because I thought it would be too difficult for Lucy. We would instead descend the more gentle Carter Dome Trail.
When we started up the trail a few weeks ago it was a mixture of hard packed ice and snow. We flew up the trail with gusto, especially because we had started later than we intended, around 10:30am. The sound of Nineteen Mile Brook babbling beside us was cheerful and serene. I love weekday hikes because they’re quiet. There are very few hikers and the ones we do see are usually locals and very frequent hikers who understand why we love to hike without all of the tourists.
At the junction of Carter Dome Trail I wondered if that would be the better option, but I stuck to my original plan to avoid the treacherously steep descent. As we walked along the rest of the relatively flat trail to Carter Notch Hut the taste of clean mountain air was soothing. When we got to the hut, I was expecting it to be closed and locked because of a sign at the trailhead, but it looked open. I didn’t go in because dogs aren’t allowed in the high mountain huts.
After a short water break, we backtracked to the junction of the Carter-Moriah Trail to start our ascent. The trail had only seen a few hikers since the new snowfall a few days before. There was thick layer of granular snow on top of the hard packed base, making it incredibly difficult to maneuver. Every step I took my microspikes slid down a foot or two on the almost slushy spring snow. Lucy was really struggling, stretching her whole body to try to make upward progress. I had to help her often, and with us both slipping down almost as fast as we were ascending it was a tedious climb.
After what seemed like hours, I found a nice tree for me to brace myself on and with Lucy whining in my lap I decided we would not climb any further. I could tell she was scared with all of the sliding, and I didn’t have a good way to grab her and help her up. Even if I did, I was so unstable that I felt it was too risky. I had crampons in my pack, but the snow was giving way so easily that I knew they wouldn't have helped with nothing to bite into. Lucy was no longer having fun, so instead of forcing her to climb we turned around. The difficult part now was getting down.
Lucy was a bit traumatized after slipping down about a few feet, so she was frozen in my lap refusing to move. Anyone who has burly mutt like Lucy knows that when they decide that they’re not going to move whether it’s because they’re stubborn, scared, or sleepy, they effectively turn into large, heavy rocks. I inched out from behind the tree on my butt and started slowly crab-walking my way down coaxing Lucy right behind me. Her chest was braced up against my shoulder to prevent her from gathering too much momentum, so I was very deliberate in my movements. I imagine we looked quite silly coming down. Luckily it wasn’t too much distance and before we knew it we were back on solid ground.
When we got back down to the hut, I was feeling quite defeated. It was the last full day of winter and I had been itching to knock off one last 4,000 footer before the season ended. Lucy however, was ecstatic. She bounced around in the fresh powder next to the pond chomping on snowballs and searching for sticks to chew on. Her enthusiasm put a smile back on my face as I sat down on the ice and took in my surroundings. It was a beautiful view with Wildcat A to my left and the elusive Carter Dome on my right. How could I be feeling down in such a beautiful place?
I decided to pop into the hut for a minute just to see if there were any baked goods, and luckily there were a few brownies and cookies for the taking! I only had a $5 bill with me, so I took a couple different treats and headed back out to snack in the snow with Lucy. I chatted with a couple other hikers who had come out to see the ramparts behind the hut, and I decided that I would go that way too. I had been to this hut a handful of times, but I had no idea that there was a giant boulder field just a few hundred yards away.
We skirted around the bunkhouses and right there before our eyes was a massive clearing with gargantuan rocks strewn about. It looked as if a giant had lobbed them from the summit of Carter Dome, watching them roll down the mountainside. I was a little nervous to go out into the ramparts because the thin covering of snow was precarious, hiding large gaps between the rocks. I followed the footsteps of others making sure to read the terrain carefully before gently placing my feet. Lucy was on her leash, following exactly in my steps. In that moment I was really thankful for all of the training that we’ve been working on to get us to the point where I can trust her to stay behind me and not stray from my path.
After climbing on top of one of the big granite boulders, we looked off into the distance at the expansive views. I had no idea how beautiful it was just a short walk from the hut, and I was so happy to discover this great spot that I was no longer disappointed about our failed attempt at the summit. The walk out was tedious, with the now sticky snow adhering itself to my microspikes making it feel like I was walking on tennis balls all the way out. It put a bit of a damper on the descent, but it was a still a nice hike out to complete what I didn’t know would be our last 4,000 footer attempt for a while.
I know that I say this a lot, but sometimes you just have to know when to say when especially if you’re accompanied by four-legged friends. I knew Lucy would have follow me to the best of her ability had I chose to go forward, and that’s exactly why I stopped. I didn’t want to put either of us in a potentially dangerous situation, so I had to make the executive decision to bail on Carter Dome. Either way it was a great hike, and I’m learning to care less about the summits and more about the experience, something that Lucy is an expert at. All in all it was a great day to be in the mountains, 4,000 footer or not!
Carter Notch Hut and The Ramparts via. Nineteen Mile Brook Trail [8.66 mi, 2545 ft, 5:20].