On December 28th 2015, I hit the road with plans to hike Mt. Moriah for #47 in my quest to hike all of New Hampshire’s 48 peaks over 4000 feet. Gung-ho and amped up I got my pack and clothing ready the night before. The forecast was finally getting wintery and looked to be around 10F degrees all day long with a chance of snow. As with most of my hiking endeavors I’d be making this trip alone.
I got a late start due to some family obligations in the morning and arrived at the trail head by 11AM on the dot. I quickly packed up my gear and headed up the Carter-Moriah trail into the wilderness.
The trail started out very gradual and dry, it looked more like a mid-fall day than a winter day despite the frigid cold temperatures. I was setting a good pace and looked forward to gaining some altitude to get into the wintery goodness I knew lay ahead.
As I gained elevation the trail began to get icy… I mean REALLY icy. A couple days before this area had substantial rain and warm temperatures, which quickly dropped into the freezing zone. This was a recipe for thick, slick, wet ice. Some sections looked like a cascade waterfall instantly froze over. All of the trees where encased in a layer of glasslike ice that was really beautiful.
Ice, Ice, and More Ice
First views from Carter-Moriah Ledges
I by mile 3 I decided to strap on my MicroSpikes for added traction. The ice was a mixture of slush, hard ice, and water making it difficult to walk in.
As I climbed higher the trail crossed over steep exposed slabs covered in a thin slick layer of wet ice. This made for a tricky bit of scrambling, clinging to trees and trying to find the dry patches of rock for traction. I saw a group of other hikers turn back here as it was just too difficult without the aid of traction devices.
Once past the slabs the trail went back to a gradual slope covered in ice and snow, Nearing the top of Mt. Moriah the ice thickened again and a long steep section came into view. I made my way up this slick section, stomping my feet into the wet ice hoping my spikes would stick. I was cursing myself for not packing my full crampons which would have made a cakewalk of this stuff.
Soon after I reached the top of Mt. Moriah. This made #47 in my quest to hike all of New Hampshire’s 48 peaks above 4000 feet. Only one left!
I spent some time to admire the incredible views from the top. It was a clear day with moderate winds, and a high overcast. The presidential range was sharply in view along with the Carter range. Everything frosty and encased in a thin rime ice. Another unforgettable view in the whites!
I was feeling strong and confident at this point. So far this day has been relatively easy despite some interesting ice to deal with. I trucked on, moving at a brisk pace down the trail.
Gaining confident footing on the way down was far more difficult than it was going up. Against my better judgement I continued to move fast, often sliding down sections of snow and ice like I was skiing.
That’s When It Happened
My right foot’s MicroSpike lost traction and my lower leg slid out from beneath me. I heard a loud popping sound and excruciating pain shot up my leg. I collapsed to the ground and slid down into some trees.
I laid there for a moment thinking “Did that really just happen? I’m OK right?”. So I tried to stand up… and again collapsed to the ground in mind numbing pain. That’s when it all set in… I’m seriously hurt and I’m alone 4.5 miles and 3,100 feet in elevation up a mountain. If that wasn’t enough to instill panic, it’s a Monday afternoon and the trails are empty, no one was here to help me.
I stared down at my SPOT Satellite Messenger “SOS” button and thought “I can’t press this… this isn’t a life or death situation right?”.
I sat there pissed off at myself yelling at my own leg for failing me for about 10 minutes. I began to get cold from sitting on the ground and not generating any heat from hiking. So, I collected my thoughts, added my emergency layers and gloves, and tried to come up with a game plan for getting myself back to my car.
How Bad is it?
First, I rolled up my pants to inspect the injury. My knee was swollen like a water balloon and warm to the touch. I took my neck gaiter out of my pack and pulled it up over my knee like a compression sleeve. I snapped some short twigs off of a near by tree and slid them in around the neck gaiter like splints. Then I tied a length of 550 paracord around the whole thing to try to stabilize and splint it. This helped a little… but not much.
Trekking poles would have been great to have in this situation, but of course I stopped carrying them years ago in an effort to shave weight and move faster. DOH! Instead, I found a downed tree with some long limbs, snapped one off and made a makeshift crutch. This worked as good as it could and helped me get back on my feet again.
It’s amazing how the perception of distance changes after you’re injured. 4.5 miles with good knees would be an easy jaunt for me. However, with an injury 4.5 miles might as well have been 20.
I started hobbling down the trail with the mindset of “one foot in front of the other”. It was hard not to stare down at my GPS watch and notice the distance barely moving. Every step was painful.
When I came across the first section of steep icy slab I stood and pondered for about 5 minutes how I would get down this without further hurting myself. I decided to slide down the rock on my butt and try to control the slide with the crutch I had made. This worked, but after 3 or 4 slides my pants had ripped open from being grated across the hard granite and I felt my back side starting to bruise.
It was a relief to get past the “hard part” near the top. But I still had a good distance to go. I was setting a very slow pace of over an hour per mile. I still managed to stop as the sun went down to enjoy one final view from the ledges and take a picture.
The Final Stretch
The final mile of trail was done in complete darkness by headlamp (glad I brought it!). I could see the lights from civilization through the trees, it was a welcome sight! I hobbled my way down the final slopes and saw my car… finally, my beautiful car!
The 3 hour ride home was a mixture of emotions. Happy that I made the summit of Moriah for #47, Angry at myself for moving too fast leading to an injury, and Sad that I had a potential long term injury that would keep me from doing what I love.
What I Learned
All in all, it was a humbling experience. I became overly confident, moved too fast, and hurt myself. It’s easy to take these mountains for granted when you spend enough time in them. In the winter months minor injuries like this can lead to big problems. Proper planning, equipment, and clothing can really save your ass. Having my SPOT satellite device kept me from totally freaking out… knowing I had a backup plan if all else fails. It 100% earned its weight this time.
I’m glad I was able to hold myself together in a potentially dangerous situation but I wish it never happened in the first place. I hope this story resonates with other solo hikers and climbers like myself. Accidents happen, so tell your family/friends where you’re going. Carry extra layers, food, water, and first aid. And have a means of communication be it cell phone, Satellite messenger, or PLB.
With one mountain left to hit my 48th 4000 footer goal I can’t stop now. I saw an orthopedic specialist and had an MRI which seemed to indicate a stress fracture in my knee cap, and some cartilage damage. I’ll be getting a second opinion soon. Needless to say I need to give the ole’ knee a break from my running and hiking lifestyle. But in no way is this the end, I’ll be back sooner than later and more cautious about my foot placement than ever! I just hope I don’t miss out on the rest of this winter season!