Foiled by Webster... Again

Breaking trail and icy cliffs.

Webster (3,911') ATTEMPT
US 302 0.3 mi north of the entrance to Dry River Campground, 2.6 mi south of the Willey House site (where the AT crosses).
Webster Cliff Trail
Total Distance
6.92 miles, 3,751ft elevation gain
Start: 10:00am, 5:17 Round Trip
Warm (high 20s moving into 30s), windy, freezing rain on the descent.
Trail Conditions
Lightly broken to first cliff, then unbroken deep snow.
Partners in Crime
Cody, Rye
Breaking trail
Breaking trail

This was the second time we attempted this route in a few months. I think we always pick it when the weather’s not looking hot, which leads to it being pretty unpleasant through no real fault of its own. This was another one of those times.

We set out thinking we’d try a fun (and overly-ambitious) loop up Webster Cliff then up to Jackson, Pierce and maybe even Eisenhower, and cut down through the Dry River Wilderness. After a moving at an incredibly slow pace and the summit of Webster seemingly always one more knob ahead than we expected, we started readjusting our expectations saying “Well, maybe we’ll just make it to Pierce and do an out an back”, “Maybe just to Jackson then”, “Well, we can’t be foiled again by Webster, so we’ll get there and then turn back”. In the end we didn’t even make it that far.

The parking area off US 302 had a couple of other cars there, and it was plowed enough to park easily. We crossed 302 and were barely able to read the signs due to the amazing amount of snow we got this week. We were happy to see that the trail was lightly broken, presumably by one hiker doing an out and back.

At the junction where Saco River Trail splits off (0.4 mi) we got a little turned around and made some tracks off to the left that could be ignored. Though we agreed we probably were breaking the correct trail (due to the white blazes), an easier already-broken (and now broken a few times by us on the way down) route goes more to the right.

The forest was very beautiful all covered in feet of fresh white snow. I enjoyed seeing all the little rolling snow tracks that looked like mouse footprints. At this point it was still cold enough that the snow was fluffy and light. In just a little while, it would get heavier and wetter as the temps warmed.

1 hour: We managed to cover 1.4 miles and were starting to get into the steep bit. The trail takes a sharp turn left and begins to climb. We had some tricky pushes with our snowshoes up steep snow-covered ice patches on top of rock and were happy to have two poles each along.

1:34, 2.1mi we made it to the first cliff and the spot where we turned around on our first attempt. There still wasn’t any precipitation and the winds weren’t so terrible for a very short pause to take in some grey foggy views down Crawford Notch and over to the mountains I climbed just last Tuesday. Once we ducked back into the trees we saw where our trail-breaker decided to turn back and had the fun of breaking through feet of fresh snow to ourselves.

Cody led for the first while. There were some pretty difficult steep sections where he was sinking up to his hips trying to make some footholds in the cliffy parts. I went right along after him and slid undid any effort in my own back-sliding. I took over breaking trail during a flat and beautiful section through the trees. It was slow going but so beautiful and wild feeling to know you are the first thing walking this path for at least a couple weeks, if not months.

I thought we had hit the summit by the looks of the mileage on my watch and the huge pile of rocks on top of the cliff at 3 miles, but upon checking the map, we realized we were only at one of the false summits and the real summit was still quite a ways away. We pushed on. I was still in front breaking trail, determined to be the one to break the trail to the summit (still under the impression we were really close).

One highlight of our day: I had a tumble down one of the steep bits off a false summit back into the woods and Rye, who mostly acts like we’re cramping her style when we hike as she’s clearly so much faster and more adventurous than us, rushed over to me, tail wagging, and licked my face. Though it cost me some pride and snow up my shirt, I was glad to see the Lassie come out of my pup.

I let Cody take the lead again as I was growing too frustrated and a little while later even he was cursing the deep and slippery snow. At 3.7 miles (according to my watch), we turned back, probably less than 0.5 miles to the true summit, if that. We hit a section of cliffy rock that was so steep it didn’t have any snow on it and was covered in ice. We didn’t have our crampons with and knew we wouldn’t make it up there (easily) with our snowshoes. We also knew the weather was only going to get worse as the freezing rain moved in.

Disappointed, we headed back, foiled by Webster once again. I claimed that Webster was my least favorite hike, but even in the moment – freezing rain whipping my face through the exposed cliff sections – I knew I was being unfair. This is probably an extremely gorgeous and totally doable hike in better weather with less un-broken snow.

We made it down the wet snow in much faster time, taking many a fall and some rides on our butts to do so. When we got to the parking lot, a nice couple asked us how far we got, saying they were just up attempting Willey and also had to turn around due to exhaustion breaking trail. Ah well, at least we weren’t alone in our struggle. Plus, I had the center of a delicious cinnamon roll from The Maia Papaya waiting for me in the car, and we were shortly enjoying delicious beer, pizza, and brats at Schilling.


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