When I parked in the Wildcat Ski Area at 8:00 am, the first thing I noticed was the wind shaking the car. I crawled into the back and changed into some heavier layers before I even got out.
I’d be hiking solo today, and I knew there would be high winds, which was part of the reason I chose a mountain with a ski area – there would be people around at least a portion of the hike, and I could make a fast descent down the trails (or the lift) if I needed to.
After making my way across the icy lot, I got in a short line at the ticket counter to buy an access pass ($10). I wasn’t thrilled when I was told a manager needed to decide if they could issue it because of the high winds, but I smiled, said confidently “I like it this way”, and hoped for the best. The manager came out, thought for a moment, and said I could go. It didn’t seem like a very scientific process, so I grabbed my pass and left before he might change his mind.
After a 2nd breakfast, a repacking (for faster access to wind resistant layers), and unfortunately a few emails, I was on the trail at 9:15. Hikers using the ski slopes are supposed to stay on the Polecat series of trails, which works out nicely as these cut a nice, steady, switchbacking path across the north side of Wildcat’s 4,064 foot “D” peak. That being said, ascending ski slopes is a grind – no flat stretches, or even level footing, which makes perfect sense as that wouldn’t be much fun for the skiers.
Much of the Polecat trail, and the entire top half of the mountain was closed to skiers due to the wind, so I didn’t have to dodge or even see many people on the way up to the col between “D” and “E” peaks, where the lift ends. Here there is a great view of Mt. Washington and some of the other Presidential Range peaks, as well as a look west to South Baldface Mountain, south to Mt. Chocorua and Mt. Passaconaway, and everything in between, including North Conway.
Behind the lift there is a small plaque with a drawing of the view with the peaks labeled. I don’t always like manmade objects on mountains, but I love these things. Besides, this little diagram pales in comparison to the lift and the two buildings that surround it.
After a quick rest, I struck off for the summit of “D” peak. I love the first few yards of the Wildcat Ridge Trail from this spot because it’s an immediate reminder that Wildcat is a rugged mountain (if you don’t use the Polecat ski trail, and come up from Rt. 16 or Carter Notch, you realize this from the start).
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the condition of the trail after a rain and wind storm a few nights before, but I never saw bare ground, and the snow was crusty with good grip for either snowshoes or MICROspikes. I went with snowshoes the entire day, for more of a workout on Polecat, and to avoid the occasional but guaranteed postholing on Wildcat Ridge Trail.
The summit of “D” peak is just a minute or two from the top of the ski area, with a nice wooden observation platform. It’s another view over to the Presidentials, and a little glimpse of the Carter Range to the north, as well as some of the other peaks on Wildcat.
From here the trail heads west and then north over the “C”, “B”, and “A” peaks and down the ridiculously steep south side of Carter Notch. Many mountains in the Whites have more than one peak. After you’ve been hiking here for a while, the journey from one peak to another on the same mountain doesn’t usually feel like much, and when you reach the first one, you sometimes feel you’ve done the hard work for the day.
Wildcat is an exception. It has five peaks, and to me at least, it feels like you’re climbing another mountain entirely as you move from one to the other – especially between “D” and “C”. Today between “D” and “C”, it wasn’t just the deep drop to the col and then the steep climb up “C”, but the amount of trees and limbs blown down by the recent storms. These were some of the most annoying blowdowns I’ve encountered – like the wind took care to place them across the trail in spots that were tough to go around, at heights that made them awkward to go over or under, and then froze them solidly in place. Good one, wind.
Between “C” and “A”, though, the trail was in good shape – few blowdowns and great snow. There were no tracks, but the trail was easy to follow and the snow was firm enough to not feel like I was “breaking” trail.
Near the 4,422 foot summit of “A” is one of my favorite views in the White Mountains – a look down into Carter Notch at the AMC Carter Notch Hut, Carter Lakes, the Rampart, and mighty Carter Dome. Some day I’d like to thoroughly explore the Rampart, a giant field of boulders that have fallen from Carter Dome and Wildcat. I’ve been meaning to do this for years, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe in 2015.
After “A” peak and the view into the notch, it was time to turn around. I don’t know why, but on the hike back to the col between “D” and “E”, I felt like a machine. Maybe it was my gourmet lunch of salami, pepper jack cheese and crackers (for me this is fine dining). I made it back in about an hour, and then made a quick stop on “E” peak. No view here, but a good place to kill most of the rest of my water and food. Easier to carry it in the stomach than the pack.
The trip down Polecat was fast, although the crust on the snow didn’t allow for much sliding. The top half of the mountain had reopened, probably when the wind died down around noon, so there were more people using the open sections of trail. I love watching (or taking) a good fall, but unfortunately, I saw no hilarious wipeouts today. Disappointing.
Someone on patrol did ask to see my access pass, so I wouldn’t recommend rolling the dice on that one.
I was back at the car by 3:00, and that was the end of my first trip over the Wildcats in calendar winter.