Recently, I climbed Mount Chocorua and neighboring Middle Sister on my own. It was a gorgeous, calm-before-the-storm day. I had the mountain to myself and met one couple on the way down.
I took the popular Champney Falls Trail up to the ridge and continued to the summit of Mount Chocorua on the Piper Trail. On the way down, I took the Champney Falls Cutoff over to Middle Sister, site of the foundation of an old fire lookout. Then I returned to the Champney Falls Trail for a pleasant 8.2-mile round trip.
Although I had snowshoes attached to my pack, I never took them off to use. The trail was packed down well. Even the side trail over the Middle Sister had been beaten out by snowshoes before me. Though not many had been that way, one or two passages of snowshoes made for fairly solid footing on a trail.
That morning, I drove 10.5 miles out the Kancamagus Highway from Conway and parked at the Champney Falls Trail parking lot. I was the first one there, which seems to happen when hiking on my own.
I put on foot traction, grabbed my trekking poles and headed up the trail. There was a lingering chill in the valley despite a forecast of temps in the 20s. But within the hour, I was down to a vest.
In 1.4 miles, I turned left on the Champney Falls Loop and in another 0.2 miles walked over to the base of Champney/Pitcher Falls. The hanging ice of Pitcher Falls was dramatic. There were no ice climbers that day.
I continued on the loop trail back to its upper junction with the Champney Falls Trail, and continued upward.
Have you ever hiked the Sturgis Pray Trail? Sometimes a name is just awkward for a common location and needs to be changed. In 1898, an AMC committee member named Sturgis Pray cut the Champney Falls Trail. It was named for him, and later the name was changed, I’m not sure when.
The responsibility for upkeep of this trail was passed around in the early days. In 1915, a forest fire in the valley between Chocorua and Mount Paugus burned 1,400 acres, obliterating the Bolles Trail in that valley, and the upper Champney Falls Trail. In 1919, a forest service employee relocated and reopened the Champney Falls Trail for the AMC. In 1921, the AMC turned the trail over to the Chocorua Mountain Club to revitalize. Finally, in 1924, the forest service took over the trail as a horse route for packing supplies to a proposed fire lookout station. The lookout tower was built on Middle Sister in 1927.
One of the beauties of the White Mountains today is the ease in which you can still find solitude, even on a popular trail. I was alone but followed a well-packed trail. I wound up to the ridgetop, where direct sun hit the snow covered evergreens around me.
I hit the Piper Trail and descended into a shallow saddle before climbing up to tree line. The summit rocks were all covered with an inch of ice, but there was plenty of snow as well, making for a fun cautionary scramble to the top. My foot traction held well.
There was a chilling breeze on top. I took shelter on the east side of the summit for a quick snack. But not long. I headed down and paused a few times on the way down the summit cone to admire the crystal-clear panorama of the White Mountains.
I turned left onto the Champney Falls Trail and soon a right on the Champney Falls Cutoff. It looked like one party had been that way and back on snowshoes, but it was enough to pack it, and I walked up 0.3 miles to the top of Middle Sister,.
The view from the top of Middle Sister back towards the rocky summit of Chocorua is classic, and unlike any other view of Mount Chocorua (I own a painting of this view by Conway artist Robert Gordon, which I treasure).
I climbed the granite steps up the foundation of the old fire lookout and checked out the deep basement within, which must have been for storage back in the day.
This lookout is best known for the time during World War II, when women took over the job of fire lookouts. There were nicknamed WOOFs for Women Observers on the Forest. In the summer of 1943, Middle Sister lookout was occupied by Elizabeth Sampson of Quincy, Mass.
According to her, the toughest part of her stay was her initial ascent of a snow laden Champney Falls Trail in the spring. Carrying a heavy pack of supplies and wearing snowshoes, it took her 6½ hours to go 3 miles.
Once at the lookout. she got into the routine easily. Fire checks of the surrounding landscape had to be made every half hour during the day starting at sunrise. Repairs were made, water hauled from a mile away, firewood cut, meals made and much more.
Thunderstorms took a while to get used to. When they approached, she had to throw a switch that grounded the telephone system, then stay away from the windows that surrounded her 14-foot-by-14-foot space, plus stay away from all metal.
She got used to it, and like other forest lookouts at that time, she took pride in her job.
In 1948, the lookout on Middle Sister was abandoned. All that is left now on the summit is the foundation, plus a substantial new radio repeater tower that was flown in. Middle Sister remains of practical use to man.
Leaving the summit of Middle Sister, I lost the snowshoe tracks in a wind drift, not for the first time that day. But this time, I sank in a spruce trap. Thankfully, I didn’t have snowshoes on.
Still, getting out of it was rather humorous. For a while, each step I took went all the way down in, and my chin remained at the snow surface level. After a pause, it took a twisting roll that I could never repeat or describe to finally roll out of it, return to the snowshoe tracks and head down.