When I announced a Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society mountain hike on either Mount Chocorua or South Moat Mountain in New Hampshire, my friends Shweta and Ryan Galway immediately agreed to join me. Frequent outdoor companions and young enough to be my daughter and son; they’re testament to the fact that not all my friends are old geezers like me. An added benefit of having young people around, they often look out for me. Rapidly faltering, I’ll take any help I can get. Unknown to me, the hike was on a special day for them.
Since the weather forecast was a good one, the initial plan was Chocorua, a longer more spectacular hike. The night before, the prognostication suffered a reversal with snow showers predicted. Evaluating our options, including cancelling the trip, the consensus was South Moat, a shorter lower elevation trek.
Located a short distance southwest of North Conway, the 2,749 foot open summit overlooks Mount Washington Valley and offers exceptional views of the surrounding White Mountains. The 5.5 mile roundtrip outing with over two thousand feet of elevation gain is one of my favorites and included in my mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. The guidebook features the 30 most scenic mountain hikes in New England. South Moat certainly qualifies.
Snowing when we met at the Passaconaway Road trailhead a little west of Conway, several cars in the parking lot seemed to validate our otherwise dubious decision to hike. Situated in White Mountain National Forest, a parking fee or a National Park Pass is required. A benefit of old age, I have a senior park pass acquired for a pittance and good for the remainder of my life. I’ve been paying federal taxes for almost sixty years and was conscripted into the Army at age nineteen, so this arrangement seems a reasonable exchange.
Despite steady light snow, the lower elevation trail conditions were good. Wet fallen leaves cluttered much of the trail while proceeding in a mixed deciduous and conifer forest. Initially advancing through a narrow hilly section, the path then widened and rose gradually. After declining to cross a tiny freshet, we climbed more steadily to a remarkably durable wooden bridge spanning Dry Brook. That’s when I learned my friends were observing their 20th wedding anniversary. Multiple photos of the handsome happy couple were taken at the scenic location.
At 1.5 miles, the trail turned abruptly left and steepened. Falling snow persisted while maneuvering precipitous ledges. Negotiating one particularly confusing escarpment, two descending older hikers informed us slippery conditions had turned them back below the summit. Since they were skeptically perusing me, I reassured them I’d be safe with my young friends.
Soon after, a series of long sloping ledges were encountered. On a clear day, this vantage point provides exceptional views southwest. Not on that stormy occasion. Carefully following cairns and sporadic yellow blazes in sparse stunted vegetation, the wet slippery ledges were guardedly traversed.
Emerging above tree line, a patchy blanket of snow covered the rugged terrain. Scrambling over and around large boulders and slick oblique ledges in thick clouds on the southern shoulder of the mountain, Team Stormy arrived at the summit. Instead of the usual panoramic vistas, visibility was limited to about one hundred feet. Regardless, the mountaintop enveloped in clouds had a unique funereal allure.
Completing an exploration of the murky summit area, our descent began. Two more intrepid hikers were encountered in the boulder garden just below the top. Cautiously navigating down treacherous ledges, a momentary view of nearby Eagle Ledge materialized. Swirling clouds quickly eclipsed the welcomed scene.
An area sheltered from the snow under a thick canopy of conifer trees was chosen for a lunch site. A pastry junkie, my reward for organizing the tempestuous excursion was a package of delicious Swiss Chocolate Rolls. The snow unrelentingly continued. Just before reaching the parking area, snow turned to light rain.
Notwithstanding the lack of views and inclement weather, all of us agreed our trek had been an exhilarating adventuresome escapade. Selecting the shorter outing was definitely the wiser choice. Their first ascent of South Moat, my companions resolved to return on a clear day. Had we known the actual conditions in advance, would we have chosen to hike? It’s doubtful.
Ryan and Shweta remained in the North Conway area to continue celebrating their special day. I returned home to find the weather had been partly sunny in Topsham.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is scheduled to be released by North Country Press in 2021. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.