Date: June 14th, 2015
Location: Carter Moriah Range in New Hampshire
Adventure: 17.5 Miles, 6 summits over 4k, 8,000 feet elevation gain
Last year, all of us New England mountain runner folks were lucky that Mike Robinson finally started some FKT activity on the Carter Moriah Range. The Presidential Traverse and the Pemi Loop are great, but there are plenty of other worthy trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Wildcat-Carter-Moriah ridge (it doesn’t seem right not to include Wildcat) is a dominant feature in the Whites, and includes the Wildcat Ridge trail, which is one of the toughest climbs on the Appalachian Trail. The FKT route starts in Pinkham Notch on the Wildcat Ridge Trail and follows the Appalachian Trail over 6 official 4k summits: Wildcat D, Wildcat, Carter Dome, South Carter, Middle Carter, and Mount Moriah. At Moriah it leaves the AT to finish on the Carter Moriah Trail. After Mike set an FKT of 5:40, Adam Wilcox proceeded to cut that down to 4:46. Everyone had great things to say about the traverse, so when the weather looked good this weekend, I decided to try and take a run at it.
Kevin Tilton was nice enough to drive me from the northern terminus of the trail in Gorham down to Pinkham Notch after my 3 hour drive up. The start of the traverse is all business; I was using my hands within a few minutes on the Wildcat Ridge. It was actually very similar to what my 2 year old Aiden was doing on Pack Monadnock the day before, just slightly larger rocks. From looking over Adam’s track, he made very good time up Wildcat, and between that and my excitement for the route, I was about 2-3 minutes ahead of FKT pace at 1 mile. This seemed a little aggressive, so I backed off. While I understood why most prefer to run it in this direction and descend Wildcat, much of the trail has great footing which would make for a fun downhill, just maybe not after 4 hours of running. Somewhere in the middle of the climb, the Wildcat bit me with a boulder to the knee. It was a hard hit, and I looked down out of the corner of my eye, hoping it wasn’t too bad. There was some blood, but no major flesh wound. Like a football coach, I just told myself to run it off, which actually worked.
The trail over the top of the Wildcats is runnable but technical enough to make it hard to maintain any sort of decent speed. The descent into Carter Notch makes the lengthy stairs at the Cayuga Trails 50 mile seem like a set a back porch stairs. You drop 1100’ in 0.8 miles, and the never-ending natural stone stairs made me feel like I should have had a top hat and cane like Fred Astaire. I was surprised to see that I was 7 minutes ahead at the bottom of Carter Notch as I headed to fill my bottles at the hut. I decided to go more natural with my nutrition, and instead of Coke, I was fueling with double strength Lipton ice tea mix, with a slice of lime in each bottle, real organic, hand washed lime. Teammate Ryan Welts had warned me about the climb up Carter Dome, and while it is not that bad compared to Wildcat, apparently it has more climb per mile, gaining 1500’ vs. 1300’. I was still 7 minutes ahead of Adam’s pace at the summit of Carter Dome, and greatly enjoying the lime and weather, which was perfect.
I had already been treated to some nice views on Wildcat and Carter, but the expanse of the Presidentials from the exposed summit of Mount Hight stopped me in my tracks. This was followed by unexpectedly challenging descent. I had heard about the steep ledges off of North Carter, but the footing coming down Hight was worse and I had a couple close calls when my feet struggled to keep up with the rate of descent and all the roots and wet rocks. The terrain over the Carters reminded me of the Mahoosucs, and I pushed the pace up the gradual inclines and across the zig-zagging log bridges. Similar to trails in the Adirondacks, even when the ground is flat, the narrowness and incessant turns on this ridge make it difficult to develop substantial momentum. In many ways, the route is like a 4 hour workout that combines hills and intervals with short rest periods. By the summit of North Carter I was 13 minutes ahead of FKT pace.
The descent down North Carter did not disappoint, and induced the same level of thrill (more like terror) as the Devil’s Path. My back took a beating as I hopped down the mountain in 5’ drops, and I started to wish for a mouth guard to prevent my teeth from chipping each other. The necessary technique for getting down quickly could be described as crouching tiger, flying dragon. A major fall on this trail would probably get you a free trip on a helicopter. Oh, wait, I think you would get billed for that these days. While I started early, I was still surprised to see so few people on such a nice day. The solitude was nice at times, but there were also some poorly marked sections where I would have paid to see a thru hiker. Over the entire traverse, the AT blazes were very sporadic. I was 19 minutes ahead at the base of the final thousand foot climb up Mount Moriah.
This a great climb to have at this point in the run. The grades are much more gradual than the previous 40-50% walls of boulders, and the trail is an interesting mix of tight forested singletrack and exposed rock. After one last hard uphill effort, I added another 4 minutes to my lead as I began the long 4 mile drop to the Gorham trailhead. As with Mount Hight, the views of the Presidential range from Moriah were stunning, especially the ravines, which you really can’t see much of when you are hiking on the Presidentials. I paid the price for pushing the pace down North Carter, as my quads were about done. The upper two miles of the trail were an alpine playground with alternating exposed granite fields and thick evergreen forest. At some point after halfway, the forest suddenly changed to deciduous trees as if someone had flicked a switch. The trail became softer and more runnable, and I tried to take advantage and increase my turnover as much as my tired hip flexors would allow. The last mile passed quickly and I was at the trailhead a few minutes faster than I had estimated, with a time 4:15:59, a new FKT by about 31 minutes. Minutes after I broke Adam’s FKT, he started a Pemi Loop run a few miles away and ended up breaking my FKT! It was a good day for a run in the mountains.
I highly recommend this route to anyone. It is short enough for most to be able to do it in a day, or two, and it is not as nearly as exposed to harsh weather as the Presidential Traverse, with several good bail out options. It also has a wider variety of trails and can be done easily without a car shuttle if you bring a bike. While most of these runs require good downhill ability and work well with a solid shoe with ample cushioning and excellent traction, this is especially true for the Carter Moriah trail due to the numerous steep, rocky, and often wet descents. Thanks to Mike and Adam for setting the bar, Ryan for info on the route, Kevin for the ride, Steph for watching the boys (it would have been hard to break five hours with Aiden riding lookout), and my MPF RNR teammates for the continued inspiration and encouragement!