By now, I think it’s safe to say that you have noticed that I enjoy running. I’ll take any surface and make a good time out of it! But, by far my favorite place to run has to be on a trail, anywhere on a trail in fact. A trail with a high chance of running nose to nose with a big ol’ moose rates quite highly in my book, if I had a book that is! That’s why I wanted to get back to Cannon Mountain for such a long time – and today, I could not have deampt up more stellar conditions!
I know what you’re saying after reading the first paragraph.. he wants remote trails.. so why go to Cannon Mountain – it is a ski resort and huge tourist trap after all! This is true, and Cannon was still open for business – that’s why I decided to start my day super early and beat all of the folks sleeping in on this “should-be-crummy-weather” Saturday! For those who don’t want the detailed report that I am going to provide – I set out around 5am from where I reside in New Hampshire with the intent of hiking/running (traveling as light as possible) and summiting Cannon Mountain, traversing the Cannon Balls via the Kinsman Ridge Trail and ending up on South Kinsman after passing over North Kinsman (which really is a lookout..and before you know it you passed the minor hump that is the summit!) and then retrace my steps. That was the plan anyway. Of course, I had heard of this being done, and aside from the area containing the Balls, had traversed these trails only 1 year prior.
Heading out just as the sun was making its daily appearance, I wanted to arrive at the Aerial Tramway parking lot as early as possible without the need to begin in a headlamp. The sky looked promising with some peach and purple hues along the horizon, growing brighter as the minutes ticked by. The day called for moderate temps in the upper 30’s with a brief window of clear skies in the morning, progressing to decent cloud cover in the afternoon, “I can make it!” I thought to myself.
Ciara and I had hiked this several times – or I should say attempted once but retreated when we put in almost 2 hours to trek one third of a mile from our car in chest deep snow, the second time ended much better, summiting in the clouds with winds that could have taken the beard off my face, ever since I had wanted to return to these hills!
I arrived at the lot around 7am only to find that I had the trails to myself – a highly rare occurance on any pathways around Franconia Notch! A quick trek to scope out the conditions of the trail and I was packed a ready to go, hoping that the upper trails were as rock solidly frozen and packed as they were down below. Knowing that the weatherfolks called for a decent day, and also anything can change in 1/4 mile time up above 4000ft, I dressed expecting a rain storm, but hoped for the best!
This was the second hike that I felt comfortable enough breaking out the 12liter Salomon trail running pack, this is really a gem in my gear closet when I don’t need the volume of a 75liter pack! It was Gore-Tex layers up above, and those Salomon running pants that you’ve probably read too much about in my posts; perfect set up, breathable yet water-proof! The Gore-Tex Marmot jacket went along for the ride today, finding that some light gloves and a Gore-Tex running jacket kept me (mostly) dry and totally warm all day.
The trails I had hoped for soon became a reality as I began, steep straight out of the parking lot. I had brought my Dion racing snowshoes, but once I stepped out onto the trails, hoped that the spiked Salomon running shoes would cut it for the day! The spikes easily gripped into the stable, rock-hard surface – it must had refroze (temps rose to 26 degrees at my start) over night after the onslaught of snowshoers the previous day!
Treking poles and spikes made quick work of the initial quarter mile, shocking my lungs into a lively steam-engine-like rhythm, motoring up the incline further with each inhale and exhale – I thought of it as “training”, as I power hiked. As expected, after the initial warm up over 10 minutes or so my body sunk into a familiar cadence of knowing the work would not end anytime soon, reminding myself all the while that “slow and steady will go further in the end”.
I tried to remember the trail from the past trips up here, each twist and turn reminding me of times spent with Ciara and the pups, but this late winter appeared like a new world from the Christmas-time hike of two years prior. I remembered the ski slope actually crossing the hiking trail from when I stopped to talk with a snowboarder last trip, perhaps the slope was more hidden on our last outting – I certainly did not remember walking up the ski slope for as long as I did today, it sure did help make quick work of the ascending though! While I was cruising up the slope, I still took the time to grab some lovely morningtime photos toward Artists Bluff with the GoPro, so I was in no means out for a Fastest Known Time record of this jaunt!
In just under 30 minutes, I found myself on what some know as Cannon’s East Peak, where the epic views begin to take shape like an artists canvas. The clouds were sparce and I was growing extremely hopeful for a bit of sunrise as I stood just before 8am staring in awe, east at the whole Franconia Range with a speck of sunlight illuminating from behind, I wanted to be bathed in all of those sunrays!
Knowing better views and more elevation lay ahead in my path, I relucantly continued on with my trek, a brief descent back into treeline before being jammed onto the wild open shoulder of Cannon, with views of the radio towers that seemed within arms reach. Admittedly, there were several icy spots on these switchbacks that I determined Hillsound spikes would have been the best traction, but I did not have them today – I dug in harder with my steps and leaned into the trekking poles – “No Problem!“, I thought to myself at each step!
This is where Ciara and I had lost the trail on our prior hike, simply heading in the direction of “up”, with several other hikers following our prints – oh heck, we made it at least! Amazing how following the actual trail would seem faster and a more direct route to the next junction – I assumed I had at least another 1/4 to go when I broke through the trees and found the tourist scenery viewing thinger sticking out of the snow pack, reaching the signage describing the Kinsman Ridge Trail – almost there!
With a quick nod as if to say “I’ll see you soon”, I said good morning to the tower atop Cannon, contemplated a quick ascent but decided to leave the fun climb for my return trip, and slipped by back into the forest along the KRT (Kinsman Ridge Trail). Passing another fellow trail runner with a hand wave to say hi, he went up while I went down. I had read about the trail having a ladder or it being extremely steep in a section, I think I had hit it here. Some folks hiking in the days prior had graciously kicked steps into the side of the mountain snow which I craftfully utilized with my heel, as to not destroy them for my return trip in several hours.
As quickly and steeply as I descended Cannon, I was not huffing and puffing my way one step at a time up the first Ball, the view of Cannon quickly taking shape in the near distance, “I came down that?!” was the thought every time that I glaced back to see where I had come and what kind of progress I was making.
The packed snow really was making quick time traversing these trails, the only aspect that continued to bring out the moans, groans and the occasional curse word under my breath were the low-hanging evergreen branches that I would gracefully smack into with every push forward. I read that folks hiking yesterday had rain showers in the afternoon, while today was calling for a good chance of no rainshowers, I found all of the droplets isolated to the branches in front of me. Before long my pack, my head and beard were all dripping from all of the water contained on the evergreen needles. I stayed warm in the Gore-Tex jacket of course and focused on not taking a branch to the eye, all the while reminding myself of the fact that I was still hiking on over 6 feet of packed snow, most folks in the summertime would never know the struggle these branches provided here today.
One Ball down. Remembering the course of the trail from the topo map that I had studied in the hours prior to leaving, the trail skirted right around the summit of the second Ball. Following one set of snowshoe prints now, I had my first thoughts of retreating. I did not sink more than 4 of so inches past the depth of the snowshoe track, but in the back of my mind I just did not want to be “that guy”, write up my report and then have someone email me later saying that I was “that a-hole for leaving the trail destroyed and not wearing snowshoes”. But naturally in my stubborn ways, I pressed on, reminding myself that we are officially in Spring and soon enough the snow will melt down and there would be no record of my minor post-holes.
It was as if I turned a corner and entered full-on moose country as I rounded the second Ball. Places like this always cause a nervousness in my heart, I can almost feel the electricity course my veins in new forest such as this. The ‘not-knowing’ of who may reside in these hills, even though I just came off a major ski resort – I always assume the bears and moose and big cats call unpopulated forests their home until I know otherwise! It was absolutely beautiful through this area, going between 3000 and 3700 feet – a place I will need to return during kinder weather and despite the ‘in your face’, eye jabbing branches at every turn, I thought I was making decent time.
I just kept following the snowshoe prints, which on occasion split into three tracks – only one proving to be the correct direction of travel. Before long I found myself at the next junction, straight ahead would lead to Kinsman Pond, the shelter and likely cause of the ruckus of mens voices that I could hear over the prior 1/2 mile as I swiftly jogged down what is labeled on some maps as the Kinsman Northeast Peak.
Stopped, looked around at the trail and the ultra-old signs that I loved here in the forest, back to the trail and thought “heck yeah, it’s a highway!”. The snow along the Appalachian Trail now was packed by so many boot prints that it was completely smoothed over, with no signs of ice, just 100% traction all the way.
I took off! Now was my time to run, opening up the hips and stretching my quads and hamstrings in ways that I was just unable over previous segments of trail, this felt real nice! All of the thoughts of bailing now left my mind – I was truly in heaven, flying up and over minor topographical anomalies in the hillside. Passing the official Kinsman trail that Ciara and I had taken in the past – I was now on familiar terf! I remembered this was where the AT got steep, instead of wishing the gains away, I enjoyed what lay ahead as I was warming up and getting the blood pumping hard.
As I continued to climb, passing several more friendly hikers, the sopping wet branches turned into wind swept hoarfrost covered evergreens, once again it seemed like I instantaneously entered a world not of this season. I literally leaned into the turn as I crested the summit of North Kinsman, glanced at the overlook and proceeded on without slowing my pace. All the while running through here, I was reminded of when Ciara and I were back here last year, when the focus was on butt-sliding and I would film her flying down these hills with the two pups out front, as if trying to not be steamrolled.
Today provided no views for as soon as I began the climb from Kinsman Pond, I had entered the cloud cover – which always provides a sense of eerie, closed in forest in its own way. The trees now drooping with frost as they thinned giving way to the summit rocks and far off in the distance the lone rock cairn could be seen, my last destination on my trek away from my car.
Thirty seconds to relax. The wind was minor, warm enough to tolerate for my time among the peak. Glancing to the slight northeast, thinking “over there is the Franconia Ridge..”, the views let me see maybe 50 feet ahead in this pea-soup thick cloud cover. Off I went to retrace my steps, “half done”, I thought to myself.
Back in the treeline I ran into an elder who I will call ‘Norman’. We talked for a bit about hiking in the area, how he had spent years doing the NH48 several times over, got bored with all the ‘average trails’ and took to climbing slides and researching the abandoned trails of yesteryear.
I wanted to stay and chat with Norman but the cold of previously snowrunning and now standing was beginning to creep in, I wished him a most excellent rest of his hike and took off. It was just about noontime and the crowds were making their ascent while I zipped and zapped down the AT.
Within what seemed like minutes, back at the junction for the pond “I need to do this more often!” I exclaimed to myself! This was definitely the time to be out on the trails – no bugs, minimal other hikers, no rocks to hop over, soft trails with packed snow totally able to run a good majority of it (aside from those pesky evergreen branches up at higher elevation!), I had found my happy place for the day!
I assumed that I would be retracing my steps cautiously as to not post-hole worse, since the day would only be getting warmer – but after I passed three men in full backpacking packs and another couple on the trail, completely new trail conditions appeared before me – post-holes up to someones waist. Well, I could officially not worry about the ankle-deep destruction that I had caused to the trail because now I was following a four foot spruce-trap causeway all the way to the peak of the first Cannon Ball. But it was still beautiful of course! I could glance back at the Kinsmans, still shrouded in cloud cover and slowly see it whisping away in the early afternoon breeze.
Glancing down the trail from much earlier in the day, my thought resounded that of many other climbs: “I came up this?!“. The only way to manage this slick descent now was one step at a time, which had a neat slide of several feet per footstep, I was having a ball making super quick time of these miles!
Down in the col, I passed the junction for Lonesome Lake (another spot on my list of places to visit in the White Mountains) glanced back to see the mound of Cannon Ball that I had just cruised down thinking “I just came down that?!”
The time was here for my final ascent of the day, and possibly the biggest, and baddest of the day! The slope was basically down to ice and crusty snow on my descent, treacherous descent which involved a combination of sturdy trees and treking poles. One spiked shoe at a time, not much of a spike to kick in, but nonetheless, I kicked in as hard as I could and motored back up the slope. Remembering a set of kicked in prints to the right of the bare ice slope, I used those ladder-like boot prints to ascend as another group made their descent down the face, one of the members losing traction and flying out of control on his bum into the treeline below – he was totally fine despite being a bit shaken!
Within minutes I had this climb behind me, taking photos of the rustic WMNF sign atop Cannon’s shoulder. One final stop to make before my day would taper to a close: the tower!
The GoPro was running as to bring a taste of the open mountain breeze back to Ciara, the entire tower now encased in hoarfrost, resembling my beard on the coldest of climbs. Once again Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty and Flume were all visible across the street and looking lovely as ever!
From the summit tower to my car, it was a (mostly) non-stop, slow breathing jog down the side of the mountain. Breaking and getting off trail for several skiers, carrying their gear up and huffing their way up the hill. I even managed to gain one eye roll from someone who asked me if I actually made it to the top – I humbly gave my run down for the day – reporting my run over to North and South Kinsman, and what a run it was!
I could smell the highway, see my car and sense my finish as I was coming down the final descent to the Tramway Parking Lot, where my ankle plunged shin-deep beyond the top layer of snow, catching my foot and taking me right down. A quick reminder of what could happen in the backcountry despite all of the careful measures we try to take – one just never knows what could happen in the blink of an eye, one step could snap a knee in a second!
Close call indeed – shook it off and carefully finished out my day!
Be sure to follow along, you never know – it might actually be t-shirt weather next time!
Have an awesome day, epic travels!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with my Coros Pace GPS watch
- 12.52 miles
- 5hr 21minute
- 6,158′ elevation gain
- Cannon Mountain – 4080′
- Cannon Balls – ~3770′
- North Kinsman – 4293′
- South Kinsman – 4358′