Mt. Carrigain: A Solo Sunrise Hike to Conquer My Fear of the Dark
Updated: Sep 1, 2018
I've been scared of the dark for as long as I can remember. I know it sounds silly, but being in the dark by myself freaks me out a little bit. Mt. Carrigain is known for its awesome views of almost all of the 4,000 footers, so I really wanted to do it at sunrise to take it all in. This meant hiking up to the summit in the dark by myself, which didn't sound fun.
This morning I woke up at 1:45 after just a few hours of sleep and immediately checked the cloud cover. The radar showed some clouds over Carrigain, but it looked like it was moving quickly to the northeast. I was hoping that it would be clear by dawn so I made the executive decision to go for it!
After a 45 minute drive through both Franconia and Crawford Notch, I got to the Signal Ridge trailhead just after 3:00. I sat in my car for a few minutes mentally preparing myself for the hike and building up the courage to get on the trail. I had seen four coyotes on the road, two of which were only a mile from the trailhead, so I was a little freaked out. I finally got out of the car and hit the trail at 3:15.
Signal Ridge Trail started out pretty flat and straightforward for the first mile but started to gain elevation slowly after that. I was a little worried about wildlife encounters, so I was playing my usual country hiking playlist to take my mind off of it. I kept my eyes glued to the trail the whole time hoping not to see any animals in the woods. Luckily the trail followed a stream which drowned out any suspicious noises.
About a mile and a half in, just after the trail broke away from the brook, I started to hear branches breaking and leaves rustling. I kept telling myself that their were no animals out there, but just to be sure I changed the music to my lifting playlist consisting of hard core rap and upbeat pop, sure to scare off any animals in the area. It sounds stupid but made me feel better at the time!
At two miles in, I came to the junction of the Carrigain Notch Tr. I had my Gaia GPS on which was telling me to go left to continue on Signal Ridge instead of bearing right for the Carrigain Notch Tr. This correlated with what I had read in my AMC White Mountain Guidebook so I went with it. Just looking at the beginning of the trail to describe it as rugged was an understatement. There were large downed trees right at the beginning and the path was hard to make out. The picture below shows the two trail options. In the dark I couldn't see how bad the one on the left was.
Boy was that a mistake. The only way to describe this stretch of trail (or what was left of it) was as an atrocious mess. Just 100 yards in there was a river crossing with no good way to go about it. I rock hopped over a few stones and luckily didn't get wet, but it could have been bad. I kept on following the trail, checking every 100 yards to make sure I was still going the right direction. There were massive blowdowns and large roots that seemed to reach up and grab my feet threatening to take me down. I came to a second river crossing and this one was really difficult. There were two big trees going across it, but they were rotting pretty badly so I was worried they wouldn't hold my weight over the rushing water. At one point I had to duck under and step over the logs simultaneously on a slippery rock, almost dumping me into the water. I knew at this point that this trail must either be abandoned or the worst kept trail in the Whites.
Right after the second crossing I lost the trail completely. I backtracked a little bit and found it again, but it was really hard to follow in the dark. At this point it was too late to turn back because there was no way in hell I was going to do those crossings again. I stumbled upon another small crossing which wasn't bad because there were big patches of sand separating the brook into two small streams. The problem was that the bed was so wide I couldn't find where the trail picked up again. I was getting pretty frustrated at this point, but I knew that I would soon be back on the official trail so I had to just stick it out and keep going. I swept the far bank of the stream looking for anything that resembled a trail a few times. Finally I found what looked like a herd path and followed it. About 100 yards later it joined with the rerouted trail and I let out a sigh of relief. Below is a bridge on the new path on the same stretch of stream that almost led to me going for a swim! It was much wider and more intimidating on the abandoned path.
With that experience behind me I continued on towards the summit. At this point you would think that I would be more comfortable in the dark. Unfortunately, I was still pretty nervous, jumping at every little movement or sound. Solo hiking is usually one of my favorite things to do because it's so serene. Not for me in the dark though! When I'm with other people I've been fine, it's just the thought of being miles from the nearest road with nobody around and a high likelihood of getting lost freaks me out. Did I mention that I have terrible directional instincts?
The trail was now getting steeper and more rocky. At this point they were mostly big, easy rocks to climb over so that was good. It then turned into a nasty section of ankle-breaking scree, but this only lasted for about a half a mile. Two hours into the hike at 5:15 I was at the 4.1 mile mark so things were going pretty quickly. Despite my decent pace, I was nervous that I wouldn't make it to the summit in time. The best part of a sunrise is usually the half hour beforehand when all the colors are streaming up from the horizon.
When I made it to Signal Ridge at 5:25 it was still pretty dark but I could see that the summit of Carrigain a half a mile up was completely socked in. I made the decision to stay on the ridge to watch the sunrise because I definitely wouldn't see anything from the tower at the summit at this rate. At this point I planted myself between two rocks to help shelter me from the wind and waited.
Unfortunately, the weather was not in my favor this morning. Sunrise was supposedly at 6:08, but you could have fooled me because I couldn't see anything through the thick layer of clouds. On a clear day, you can see 43 of the 48 4,000 footers from the summit of Carrigain. This morning you could barely see your hand in front of your face. I ended up getting some decent views from Signal Ridge, but I was pretty disappointed. I was also freezing in my Patagonia Regulator quarter zip and shell in the 45 degree weather. I waited around for an hour hoping that the clouds would lift to unveil the amazing view that I knew was behind the fog. I caught a few lucky glimpses of the remnants of the sunrise which was actually really nice.
At 6:30 I decided to go tag the summit of Carrigain and move on. I know it's a shame to tag such an awesome peak, but I was cold and my dog was waiting at home. I summited at 6:55 and climbed to the top of the tower just to see if maybe by some miracle I could see something. Nope! I quickly made my way back to where I had left my pack and started my descent. This was the view from the summit.
The descent was much more pleasant during the daytime. I could now see where I was going which made it a little bit faster. It was really interesting to see the trail in the daylight because there was so much that I had missed in the dark! I recalled some sections but most felt completely new to me.
I started seeing other hikers around 8:30 ascending and stopped to talk to a few of them. I think I talked to three separate groups of hikers for a total of almost an hour. I hadn't had any human contact since the through hikers on the Kinsmans yesterday, but they weren't eager to talk like these people were. There was one woman who was working on the grid which I admired immensely. The grid is when you hike all 48 4,000 footers in every month of the year. It takes most people many years to finish and it's pretty rare to find someone who's done it. I told her that this was #34 for me and I had started in June and she replied that I would have no trouble finishing the grid in the coming years. Not sure if that's a goal for me but I'm always open to new challenges!
I told this woman about my struggle with that one particular section of trail and she informed me that it had been rerouted and abandoned about four years ago. My copy of the AMC Guidebook that told me to go that way was published in 2003. I had found the biggest contributing factor of my mistake! I think it may be time to buy an updated version. The picture below is where I came out of the woods from the abandoned trail.
The rest of the hike was pretty flat and straightforward. Like Lincoln Woods only not as long! The brook running next to the trail was absolutely gorgeous with awesome looking swimming holes all over the place! I can't wait to come back on a hot, clear day and finish my hike with a swim. When I got back to the parking lot at 10:10 I was exhausted. Waking up before 2:00 had taken its toll on me for sure!
Overall this was a pretty nice hike despite so many factors working against me. I faced my fear of hiking by myself in the dark, and even though in some spots I wasn't enjoying myself it was still fun! I'm a little disappointed that the views weren't great, but hey, that gives me a reason to come back on a clear day to see what I was missing! I was originally saving Mt. Carrigain for my finish of the 48, but I'm honestly glad I didn't. I'm sure it's really beautiful, but finishing on top of a platform as opposed to on top of a mountain seems a little anti-climactic.
I think this hike also gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities as a hiker. Even though this is #34 for me, I only started my journey for the 48 in June so I still feel like a rookie. This hike made me feel more like a real hiker. I got lost which was only partially my own fault (okay I was being cheap and didn't want to spend the $30 on a new guidebook so it's probably all my fault), but more importantly I found my way, kept going, and figured it out all on my own. I've always thought of myself as a pretty independent person, but this trip really increased my confidence as an independent hiker. And just in time for my first solo backpacking trip this weekend! Even though things didn't go as planned, like I've said before my love of hiking grows with every trip, this one included.
#34 Mt. Carrigain (4,700 ft) via Signal Ridge Tr [10.4 mi, 3300 ft, 6:55]
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