Conway — November 28, 2009 — Part of the reason to climb a mountain is to get a wider perspective on the earth. Yet, as in other aspects of life, sometimes that which is closest to us becomes obscured. The view from Mount Chocorua is not of Mount Chocorua. Climbing a subsidiary peak is a great way to stand back and get an accurate perspective of a mountain, and Middle Sister (3,340 feet), located on the northern ridge of Mount Chocorua between the First and Third Sisters, is such a peak, and a nice destination in itself.
The view of the rocky summit of Mount Chocorua from Middle Sister is unique. In my opinion, one of the most striking paintings of current Conway artist Robert Gordon, who is an avid hiker, is of the summit of Mount Chocorua from the top of Middle Sister. The bare summit of Middle Sister is exposed to the wind and weather from the west. Since very little of the trail is above the trees, it is a good summit for wild days any time of year — days when it might be wise to avoid the more lengthy exposure on the summit of Mount Chocorua.
I remember some cold and windy visits to Middle Sister, and have heard accounts from others of the same. The trails most often taken to Middle Sister are the Champney Falls Trail and the Champney Falls Cut-Off. From the Champney Falls Trail parking lot on the Kancamgus Highway, the trail follows Champney Brook and in 1.4 miles, a left hand turn will take you on a short loop past the beautiful Champney Falls and Pitcher Falls. Then care must be taken on the short steep section that rejoins the main trail, especially in icy conditions.
The trail then continues up the mountain, and in 3 miles from the highway, after a few switchbacks, the Champney Falls Cut-Off leaves on the left. This trail traverses the west side of the ridge for 0.3 miles. A short way along it is a great vista from an open ledge, then, as the trees thin, the views from Middle Sister start to unfold, including the striking summit cone of Mount Chocorua to the south.
On top of Middle Sister, there is an old stone foundation of a fire lookout. According to Steve Smith’s book “Chocorua- A Guide and History,” the lookout station on Middle Sister was built in 1927, replacing an earlier station on Mount Chocorua (the station on Mount Chocorua, built in 1911, consisted of a hut below the summit, and a simple metal table on the summit block, where a map and measuring instrument could be used).
The Champney Falls Trail was used as a pack horse route for re-supplying the Middle Sister station. For the fire seasons in 1943 and 1944, the station on Middle Sister was manned by Elizabeth Sampson, a wartime “Woman Observer on the Forest,” or WOOF. The station was closed in 1948. Today, a solar powered radio repeater pokes out of the gaping stone foundation.
A few weeks ago, on a sunny and cool November day, my friend and I climbed Middle Sister. As occasionally happens, we got off to a late morning start. Although I don’t recommend to others starting out late on a hike during the shortest days of the year, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area, something special can occur.
Sometimes we reach a summit in the golden light of late afternoon — something that never happens when you are up early and hit the trail first thing. Our togetherness is enhanced by the golden light and shadows, and the excitement of being out in the wild at that time.
On a descent, sometimes we need to switch on our headlamps for the lower part of the trail, and that is fun too. But coming down from Middle Sister on the Champney Falls Trail a few weeks ago, we only needed our headlamps for the last three quarters of a mile. We had started out on the trail that late morning, soon reaching the bank of Champney Brook. Climbing a small esker and then continuing up the west bank, we reached the turnoff to the falls and soon were looking past Champney Falls towards the tall spout of Pitcher Falls.
To clarify the geography, I told my friend that the stream that runs into Pitcher Falls was not Champney Brook. It originated in a small ravine to the east, and was diverted west by the rocky ridge just above the falls to the north. Above the main waterfall of Champney Falls we climbed the steep stone steps next to the narrow upper falls and were soon back on the main trail. The next section of trail angles up into the wide ravine of Champney Brook — a classic entry into the mountain realm.
We reached the switchbacks, and climbed gradually up to the junction with the Champney Falls Cut-Off. Heading that way, we traversed the mountainside and soon emerged from the shadowy ravine into the intense and warm afternoon light. We hit the first good lookout on a flat ledge, and the mountains to the north spread before us in perfect clarity. I pointed out the cliff on Mount Willard at the far end of Crawford Notch — where we had stood before on another hike, looking south — and the also distinct shape of Carter Notch to the east.
A chilly wind hit us in the face, cancelling out the warmth of the sun. We wound up the trail in shrinking spruce, and hit the Middle Sister Trail in the slight saddle between the First and Middle Sisters, and bore left for the last rise to the summit of Middle Sister. The foundation of the old fire lookout station appeared above. A strikingly smooth herringbone wind cloud, high in the sky, seemed to trail off from it. Turning to look south, we saw the sharp summit of Mount Chocorua rising above the First Sister, and as we climbed, it came into full view.
Having lived in the Bearcamp Valley for some years, but not having climbed Mount Chocorua yet, my friend was moved by this dramatic profile of the summit of Mount Chocorua, shaded by the mid-afternoon sun. I mentioned that many of the people who climb Chocorua don’t get to see the mountain from this dramatic perspective. We climbed up the stone stairs of the foundation, felt the full impact of the wind in our faces.
To the south, the Sandwich Range marched away. Descending the stairs, we noticed some white paint lines sprayed in one spot on the bumpy ledge. I explained to her that it was a crude helicopter landing pad. I had actually seen a chopper sitting atop Middle Sister once, many years before, while looking over from the top for Chocorua. That day I heard rumor of a movie crew up there, but later heard nothing more about it. Today, the landing pad is likely used by those checking the radio repeater.
We found a spot out of the wind a few feet down on the south side, and ate lunch, with the shadowy profi le of Chocorua as our companion. Then we scrambled back up and headed down in the windy late afternoon brightness, grateful to have had the opportunity to come up here and touch the sky. Later, back in the shadowy ravine below the switchbacks, we looked up above the trees as two big black ravens flew by, heading up the ravine into their own mountain realm.