Old Man on Old Speck

The parking area was plowed when I arrived at the trailhead for Old Speck Mountain in Grafton Notch State Park. Located in a remote alpine region about a dozen miles north of Newry, the cleared lot was much appreciated as shoveling out car space beside the road is sometimes an unwelcome necessity.

Typical of long winter hikes I left home before dawn and anticipated returning in the dark. Poor night vision is one of my many elderly afflictions, so driving in the dark is not on my happy list. The temperature was five degrees and my expected companions had yet to arrive. While waiting, I decided to inspect trail conditions. Scrambling over an eight foot mound of plowed snow, I was encouraged to find the trail packed by previous hikers leaving the possibility that snowshoes would be unnecessary. A group decision would have to be made on whether or not to carry them. The trail sign stated it was 3.8 miles to the summit. I had read a trail description indicating the actual distance was 4.05 miles. Involving significant elevation gain to the 4,180 foot summit, Old Speck is Maine’s fourth highest peak and the tallest mountain in the Mahoosuc Range.

Returning to the car, fellow trekkers Gary and Suzanne Cole arrived. To say that we frequently hike together would be a substantial understatement. Over the past thirty years, we’ve teamed to climb all of the one hundred highest peaks in New England in the winter, most more than once. Despite many challenges and adversities, we’re still avid enthusiasts. The secret is an enduring love affair with the mountains in winter.

The Coles had discovered an informative online report indicating a team of hikers had recently reached the summit, so we agreed to gamble leaving snowshoes behind. Micro spikes would be our footgear of choice while recognizing that if the path was inundated with snow at higher elevations, we’d regret the decision.

The forecast was cold temperatures throughout the day with gusty winds from the northwest ensuring subzero wind chills on a long ridge approaching the summit. Packing my warmest down parka, I activated hand warmers inside hiking mitts. Starting out with three layers of polypro and fleece under a breathable waterproof shell and wearing a stocking cap over a balaclava, I felt adequately attired for the conditions. Included in my pack was a bivy sack, heavy duty fleece pants, two emergency blankets, face mask, goggles, ice fishing mitts, headlight with spare batteries, fire starter, map, compass, food, water, extra clothes and lots of hand warmers. Although a disagreeable eventuality, I was reasonably confident I could survive a night on the mountain or assist someone else with the same. My counterparts were similarly outfitted.

At the outset, we experienced easy traveling on a hard packed snow surface past a junction with Eyebrow Loop Trail. Soon after, we began ascending steeply in a dense conifer forest. Most of the trek would be on the Appalachian Trail (AT) which traverses the Mahoosuc Range, reputedly the most difficult section of the 2,200 mile footpath. A well-defined trail, the AT has a winter disadvantage, white blaze markers are often camouflaged by snow.

Layering down to avoid the perils of excessive sweating, we persisted steadily upward to an exposed bluff with expansive views. Observing the summit high above, it seemed a peak too far. Passing the upper terminus of Eyebrow Loop, the trail continued climbing abruptly until reaching a more gradual sparsely forested ridge.

The blustery ridge brought additional challenges; severe wind chills and drifted snow. Halting to don extra layers for protection from the piercing cold, a young solo hiker passed a reminder of how much my pace has slowed in recent years. Narrowing as we progressed, the ridge revealed periodic views north and south. Particularly rewarding was a glimpse of picturesque Speck Pond situated in a col between Old Speck and Mahoosuc Arm. A friend and I spent a memorable chilly late fall night in a lean-to at the secluded tarn about 30 years ago.

Just beyond, the AT plummeted precipitously to the pond while we persevered on the Grafton Loop Trail to the summit. Hurriedly adding down parkas on arrival, we enjoyed a frosty abbreviated lunch with the fleet footed trekker while savoring an exceptional panoramic vista of the northern Mahoosucs.

The well-packed trail facilitated a rapid descent. While sporadic post-holing had been encountered, overall we were satisfied with our decision to leave snowshoes behind. Completing the journey in a little over five hours, our swift mountaineering acquaintance had departed before we reached the parking lot.

Cautiously peering into the dark on my drive home, this senior citizen contemplated his next 4000 footer. The days are getting longer!

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.