South Carter: Learning to Bail When You're Running Out of Daylight
Knowing when to bail is one of the hardest things for me about hiking. You go out there with a plan, a goal that you're trying to reach, and when things go differently than you hope it can be difficult to change that. I've never been one to give up or quit, but sometimes in the mountains you have to make these decisions to keep yourself safe. The plan was to hike Middle and South Carter mountains via Nineteen Mile Brook trail out and back, but we ended up turning back after the summit of South Carter because of timing. It was hard looking at the mountain I wanted to climb and turning around, but looking back it was the right decision.
Yesterday was a gorgeous day of bluebird skies in the Whites. It was a bit chilly at about 10 degrees, but the weather was so nice that not hiking wasn't an option. I met up with a friend at the trailhead around 8:00, and we were on the trail by 8:30. This was a late start for me, but I had skied at Cannon the three days before this so I desperately needed the extra hour or two of sleep. The last few mountains I have to climb for my NH48 are all in the Carter range, about an hour away from my parents ski house so they're not the most convenient to get to.
Nineteen Mile Brook Tr was broken out and hard packed from all of the traffic it gets with guests going to and from Carter Notch Hut. It was pretty easy going to Carter Dome Tr with the icy, hard packed snow crunching under our microspike-clad feet. The trail was flat and peaceful with the sounds of the brook to our right.
Carter Dome Tr was equally broken and packed from lots of traffic up to Mount Hight and Carter Dome in the past few days. I had seen a good number of trail reports of people ascending the neighboring peaks recently, so I wasn't surprised that the trail was well packed down by now. There hadn't been significant snowfall in a while so it was pretty easy going. After the single tricky stream crossing it was pretty easy going. The trail didn't feel steep at any point during the climb up to Zeta Pass due to the many switchbacks making for a gradual ascent.
When we got to the pass we stopped for a quick snack and then changed to snowshoes for the hike up to South Carter. There was only one set of tracks in the hard, crusted snow, but it was visible enough for me to follow all the way to the summit. For a large part of the trail I didn't even break through the surface crust of the snow, making it pretty easy going. There were a few blowdowns in our way, but nothing impassable. Once we got there we sat down for another quick snack and then checked the time and the map. It was 12:30 and 1.3 miles to the summit of Middle Carter. After hiking ten more minutes towards Middle Carter, we decided to cut our losses and turned around.
The odds we would be fast enough to get there, come back over South Carter, and then get back down to the car before dark were slim, and neither of us wanted to be out after nightfall. This was a really hard decision because we were so close to the other peak, but ultimately we made the right choice. Trying to go back over that stream crossing in the dark would have been really difficult, and it being a weekday there were no other people on the trail to give us piece of mind. I'm not good at making these types of decisions, so I'm glad my friend was with me to help me see why we shouldn't keep going.
We ended up finishing the hike right around 4:00pm, just before sunset. This further confirmed that we made the right decision by turning around when we did because even as it was we barely made it back before it got dark. This being said, the way that the sun hit the trees around us on our way down was really beautiful and it ended up being a nice hike for one 4,000 foot peak. So the big lesson I learned today is that there's no shame in turning back and you're better off safe than sorry when it comes to the Whites.
#44 South Carter Mountain (4,430 ft) via. Ninteen Mile Brook Tr, Carter Dome Tr, and Carter-Moriah Tr [9.4 mi, 3,435 ft, 7:38].
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