Recently, I did a hike that I haven’t done in more than a decade: the 5.4-mile Mount Morgan/Mount Percival loop in the Squam Range in Holderness.
I won’t let that amount of time pass again before repeating it. It is one of the most popular hikes on the southern side of the White Mountains and for good reasons — spectacular views for a moderate effort, an interesting ridge walk, and some exciting spur trails if you choose to take them.
Like other popular hikes, such as the Franconia Ridge Loop, to avoid the crowds, enjoy the conditions and meet like-minded hikers, it is fun to go there when conditions are more challenging than a warm summer day.
To get there, I had driven on Route 109 from Moultonborough to Center Sandwich and continued toward Holderness on NH 113, arriving at the parking lot for the trail on the right in 6.3 miles from Center Sandwich.
I took off up the 2.1-mile Mount Morgan Trail. On most of the hike, I used my MSR snowshoes because the trail hadn’t seen enough travel since the last storm. I had trekking poles as well. It can make such a difference in enjoyment level when you have the right equipment.
The cold snap was beginning to wind down but it was still cold and windy up in the notches and on the higher summits. Ironically, it was the windiest on Mount Morgan when I started out at the trail head. The closer I got to the ridge, the more it protected me on the south slope. Later, up on the ridge itself, the wind would partially die down, and combined with solar heat made for a delightful late winter walk.
One mile up the trail, I approached another uphill hiker. He was the only other person I would encounter that day. We would meet again on the summit.
Truthfully, I had never met a hiker like him. I called a greeting as I approached. He was silent. I spoke again, and he turned. He put a vibrator to his throat and spoke through his throat, saying he could only speak that way. Later, I would find out that he had been cancer-free for a year and a half, had quit his job in Meredith at age 60 and taken up hiking. He had done a dozen 4,000-footers and planned on more. He had a snowmobile jacket, non-hiking boots and no foot traction.
I continued upward past him. Soon, I reached the Crawford Ridgepole Trail. This 11.3-mile trail follows the whole northeast/southwest ridge top of the Squam Range from Sandwich Notch to Holderness. Mounts Morgan and Percival were about in the middle of it. I passed the junction on my left for the southwestern section and continued on a short distance where it combined with the Mount Morgan Trail. I was almost on top.
Before reaching the junction where the Mount Morgan Trail bore left toward a vista ledge and the summit, I paused at the bottom of a cliff at a trail sign. It was for a spur trail up the cliff — first on a ladder, then through a cave. Above that it eventually reconnected with the trail at the vista ledge.
I had been up the cliff spur in the summer but not the winter. One set of tracks plowed up through the deeper snow to the ladder. I decided to try it, attached my snowshoes to my pack, put on microspikes and started up the trail to the ladder. The first ladder was easy. The shorter upper ladder to the right of it was packed with snow, with no sign of being disturbed. The other hiker had turned around.
I decided to continue, grabbed the second ladder and made my way up into the cave.
At that point, my acquaintance passed by on the trail below. I yelled and told him I would meet him on top. He waved. The tunnel had an ice-covered floor and rock walls. Crouching, I managed to get on my feet for traction and continue, breaking a few hanging icicles to get by. I knew that any slip on the ice in the tunnel, and I might go flying back out the way I had come. Finally, I climbed out into the sun in a jumble of big snow-covered boulders.
I found the unpacked spur trail and continued up it to the vista ledge, where my acquaintance had already arrived. We looked out over Squam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee beyond, while he briefly told me about his journey from throat cancer to retirement to being cancer-free and his passion for hiking.
He stood to continue the hike. I could tell he wanted quiet time, though he had enjoyed the conversation. His story made sense. For most hikers, the mountains represent healing in one form or another.
He bypassed the summit of Mount Morgan and continued along the ridge toward Mount Percival. I ate my lunch, slowly packed and visited briefly the summit of Mount Morgan. I knew there was a bronze survey marker under the snow on the summit ledge placed by Brad Washburn, late director of the Boston Museum of Science who surveyed the Squam Range and published a map of it in 1973.
I descended to the junction of the Mount Morgan Trail and Crawford Ridgepole Trail and paused. I reattached snowshoes, put on outer mitts, grabbed my poles and headed across the wooded bumpy ridge, with occasional views south over the lakes.
After a pleasant traverse, I arrived at the wide ledge on top of Mount Percival, where the view of the lakes was broadest.
I dropped down the steep, well-packed Mount Percival Trail toward the valley and soon had to replace my snowshoes with Microspikes again, as it was just too steep and rocky for snowshoes, despite the snow. I decided not to take the well-known spur off that trail through a boulder cave. The snow there was just too deep.
Dropping down into the valley was descending into a quiet windless woods, aflame with the bright sun on snow.
I reached the junction with the Morse Trail, which is a half-mile connector to the bottom of the Mount Morgan Trail.
Back at the trailhead, my friend was just driving off, and he waved.