While most people park at the Pinkham Notch Visitor center to reach Mount Washington, Andrew Drummond wanted to park at the Dry River Camp Ground. Traveling via the Dry River Trail through the wilderness area we would eventually reach the base of Mount Washington. The Dry River Trail wanders along the Dry River in the wilderness area between Crawford notch and Mount Washington for about 10 miles. The plan was to take the Dry River trail into and out of Oakes Gulf. The objective was to simply travel through the wildness area to reach Oakes Gulf on the western side of Mount Washington. If you are not familiar with the area, there are much shorter routes to Oakes Gulf from a road access point. We would take the Dry River hiking trail from the Dry River campground through the wilderness area in order to reach Dry River Shelter 3 before daylight. The next day we would hike further up the trail to Oakes Gulf on Mount Washington.
We received beta that the Dry River trail took a hit during hurricane Irene in 2011 and has yet to receive any rehabilitation. Considering that the Dry River trail is rarely traveled during the winter months and the poor trail conditions, this mission would certainly be an adventure.
At 7:45 pm on Sunday night the crew assembled at Grants Shop ’n Save in Glen, NH. The Dry River Campground is only open in the summer, so the trailhead would not be directly accessible. We found a semi-plowed pull-off further up the road. We backed the trucks into the frozen slush and hoped the forecasted warming temperatures wouldn’t immobilize the vehicles. Andrew Drummond, Chris Shane, and Jake Inger made final adjustments and trades to fit all the necessary tools. On top of all the winter camping equipment, we carried ski gear, avalanche instruments and a professional camera set up. Once loaded up, the crew bushwhacked through the woods to reach the Dry River Trail. From this point on we would have no cellular connection except for Andrew’s GPS phone. There are not many places left that you can disconnect from the internet which would make the trip even more special.
For the first few miles, the going was easy. The snow was firm, the incline was gentle and the trail was wide. But soon, everything changed. The trail along the riverbank became a roller coaster. Strapped up with backpacks that towered over our heads, we descended and ascended on steep single-track. With backpacks weighing in around 50 pounds, it was hard to stay standing up right on the fluctuating steep pitches.
At 11:00 pm the Dry River trail increasingly became more difficult to travel on. With large fallen trees creating chest-high barriers, the going got even slower. With bags towering over our heads, we had to take off skis and backpacks in order to squeeze under the fallen trees. At multiple points the trail was completely washed out creating large snow chutes that were pretty much impassable on skis. After taking our skis and packs on and off many times we decided to attempt traveling via the frozen riverbed. Increasing our average speed from one mile per hour to almost one and a half miles per hour it felt like we were flying; everything is relative. The false flat grade of the river would be slow to ski out on, so we made sure to pack in a skin track for the most efficient exit. As we continued further into the night more snacks were pulled out and passed around. The calorie, sugar and protein potency of snacks became the topic of conversation as we slogged through the night.
At 1:52 am everyone was starting to feel tired. The exact location of the lean-to was not clear. Andrew decided to head into the woods to find the trail with the hope that the lean-to would be in the next hundred yards. Miraculously, no less than twenty feet from where Andrew stepped into the woods was Shelter 3. The open side of the lean-to was almost completely covered by snow creating a generous wind barrier. We gave Andrew our water bottles and started to dig out a set of stairs to get down into the lean-to. The shelter made setting up camp quick. With water boiling, everyone quickly changed into dry clothing. Bottles filled with boiling water were our life-line as we crawled into our sleeping bags for what was left of the night.
At 7:30 am the cold work the crew up. Quickly stripping down multi day packs into day packs. Unfortunately for our filmer Chris, his pack did not become much lighter. We traveled further up the river hoping to make some good turns. We reached the hiking trail that would bring us to the floor of Oakes Gulf. Much of the trail was overgrown. We bumped into over grown tree branches, causing slabs of snow to cover us. Everyone in the group worked on their swim stroke as we shwacked our way through the overgrowth. For short sections, the woods thinned giving us a view of Oakes Gulf. However, Oakes never seemed to get closer.
At 11:15 a pit was dug a pit to assess snow stability in Double Barrel. The top layer was some of the best snow we had seen this year in the alpine. The snow sat upon solid layer for crust that we were a little wary about. However, after a few more tests we decided it was safe enough to travel further up. We strapped up skis, threw crampons on and headed for the rim while Chris set up cameras at the bottom. With skis on, Andrew dropped into the lookers left slide in Double Barrel and I dropped into the right. Skiing untracked east coast powder in the alpine is one of the best feelings. We quickly transitioned to head back up.
After a few laps in the Double Barrel chute we traversed over to the Buttress. We booted up and skied down until food and light started to run low. It was time to do the breaststroke through the trees and get back to the lean-to. We skinned the flats, working on our classic skiing form. As more moisture built up, skins started to fall off skis. The light began to get even flatter and we grew even more tired. We kept our tinted goggles on, for almost no light was better than loosing an eye.
At 6:20 pm we were back at the lean-to and starting to make dinner. Andrew went to fill water containers and I collected birch bark. We lit a small birch bark fire in designated fire. It had been a while since had been around a large source of heat. We had a lot of food and beer left which is never a bad thing, but meant we had to eat our way out. After eating mac and cheese, quesadillas, pad thai and consuming many different forms of chocolate we got closer to satiation. It is crazy how many calories the human body burns when kept in the cold. Our our last calorie dense substance (beer) was frozen but needed to be consumed. We threw the last 6 beers into a boiling pot of water to thaw them out. With boiling hot water in our bottles we crawled into our sleeping bags and looked through content from the day. Exhausted and cold but in good spirits we headed to bed.
At 7:35 am we woke up and started to pack up. Bagging up trash and packing up crusty frozen gear, our packs quickly gained weight. Putting on half frozen snow pants and sweatshirts felt like sliding into damp wetsuits. We started with skins on, however quickly discovered how much faster it was to not use skins. We pushed and skated down the river bed avoiding gaping holes of water. It was satisfying to traveling about twice as fast as on the way in. We glided down the last parts of the hiking trail and then bush-whacked over to our trucks parked alongside Route 302.