Published Date Written by Ed ParsonsI regularly read Steve Smith's hiking column, which appears every other week in the Mountain Ear newspaper. Steve's encyclopedic knowledge of the White Mountains benefits many, whether in his hiking column, in both the AMC White Mountain Guide and the AMC Southern New Hampshire Guide, where he is co-editor, and his books.
In the June 21 edition of the Mountain Ear was an interesting article he wrote on a new landslide on the slopes of West Sleeper (3,881 feet) in the Sandwich Range. I was curious, and visited the landslide myself. Afterward I contacted him. "He was glad that I went, and said he looked forward to my article on this display of nature's power." He filled me in on some details.
In his article he said that he first noticed the new slide from the top of Table Mountain, and then got a closer look from Mount Potash. He suspected the slide occurred when Hurricane Irene hit the area, last Aug. 28.
His next step was to go there — to hike in the Sabbaday Brook Trail (off the Kancamagus Highway) for three miles and bushwhack south up a stream into a valley between East and West Sleeper.
He was not disappointed. Signs of the slide began as uprooted trees clogging the brook almost a quarter mile below it. Walking in the rocky brook bed became easier as he got closer, because the uprooted trees had been forced downstream. He approached the base of the slide, which rose at a 90 degree angle to the right from the brook. So, there was a dramatic moment in his scramble up the brook when the landslide was revealed. At that point, to his left across the brook, the slide had slammed into the opposite slope, ripping up a half circle of forest like pulling Velcro, while at the same time turning downstream. He was impressed with the scale of the destruction.
It was not his first time in that particular valley, as he had previously snowshoed up it with a friend, eventually reaching the Kate Sleeper Trail on the ridge above. There had been no slide there then. Later, in his efforts to find out when the slide actually happened, he checked Google Earth, but the photo had been taken before the slide. Finally, he saw a slide show by his hiking partner John Compton, and in it was a photo of the valley in question from a distant peak that was taken in September 2011. The landslide was there. Irene was surely the cause.
Like many, I have been interested in the impact of Hurricane Irene on the mountains. Last Saturday morning, it didn't take me long to figure out where I was going for a hike. I headed for the Kanc, and soon was walking up the peaceful Sabbaday Brook Trail, and enjoying the frequent river crossings on the lower section.
As I continued up the trail next to the stream, the peak called the Fool Killer grew closer on my right. When the gentle trail swung around to the right and the Fool Killer loomed larger, I began keeping an eye out on my left for the stream that emptied the valley between the Sleepers. That would be my bushwhack route. I was also aware than an early 20th century logging camp owned by the Conway Logging
Company was located in the area, and frequent artifacts would likely be encountered after I left the trail.
I picked a decent sized stream, left the trail and started up through the woods on the right side of the stream, immediately finding some old rusty barrel hoops. I felt confident about the stream, but after a half mile of uphill bushwhacking, it disappeared into the slope and was gone. Looking at the map, I decided to traverse the slope to the right, looking for the correct stream. As Steve Smith had reported about the general area, a thick stand of hobblebush covered the ground. I tried to avoid it, but often couldn't and it lived up to its name.
My first view of the new landslide was a glimpse — a flash of pastel light brown between trees — as I traversed downhill to the right. I saw that I was descending into a steep walled ravine. Finally I came out on a wide rocky stream bed. I knew where I was because some full grown trees — mostly golden birches — had been plucked like matchsticks and strewn about the stream bed in tangled bunches. Looking upstream, I realized that I was only a hundred yards below the landslide. Though I couldn't see it, I saw where it had surged up the opposite slope of the stream.
Relieved to be in the open, I made my way upstream and soon the big landslide came into view on my right. It was impressive. It looked new, though was almost a year old. Because of that, it looked stable enough to climb up to the top.
I slowly made my way up the slide, which was a combination of fine gravel, loose rocks and ledge. Footing was never sure, and I occasionally swore quietly when what looked like a good foot grip simply collapsed. I wove about, finding a less steep way. For a while I followed a more stable line of exposed ledge. Yet the ledge was cracked and broken by the force of the slide.
The view behind me started to open up, first of Mount Potash and beyond, then, as I climbed, the pyramidal top of Mount Passaconaway rose above the opposite ridge. It was comforting to see that this place of destruction was connected with the surrounding mountains.
Reaching the top, where a few feet of dark topsoil overhung the bare slope, I wondered if the slide had started there, or if the whole thing had gone at once. Visualizing the sheets of soaking rain during Hurricane Irene (which I had experienced myself on a short hike on the afternoon of the storm) I was inclined to believe the latter.
After lunch perched on a rock, I headed down the slope. It was a little easier descending, and it helped knowing the slope from the climb up. Finally at the bottom, I headed downstream. At a major stream blockage of trees, I took to the woods and found an old logging road that wound down most of the way to the Sabbaday Brook Trail. Finally back on the trail, I saw that the stream I had begun bushwhacking up was only around a short bend in the trail from the larger, correct stream. That's good to know, as there is a good chance I'll be back.