West-Skyline Traverse: Baldfaces, Eagle Crag, Meader, W. Royce | 6/22/23
Updated: Aug 23
Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting the 2022 Cold River Camp Croo. The bunch, a cheerful, and hard-working group of individuals, immediately became so important to me. Though we are still in touch, I unfortunately had to leave Croo due to a bout of personal and physical complications that arose just 9 days into the summer. But, despite my rapid absence, these individuals kept me in the loop about their hikes and day-to-day happenings.
Perhaps most notably, some of the Croo did this loop called “Skyline,” best known by Croo vets who have completed the daring 26.26-mile loop, gaining about 8,000 feet of elevation as one walks atop every mountain you can see from the front rocks of camp. The loop starts up Slippery Brook, crosses the Baldfaces, Eagle Crag, Mt. Meader, Ragged Jacket, the Royces, Speckled, and Blueberry, and then connects back to the front steps of the lodge via Leach Link. Last year, 4 Croo members completed the loop. Meredith, Emma, Patrick, and Adam all took on this challenge during the summer to add to the tradition. While I couldn’t compete with Adam’s giant smile he kept all day, Meredith & Emma’s vlogging, or Patrick’s mind-boggling FKT, I felt that I owed it to last summer’s version of myself to go back and crush what my injury and circumstances didn’t allow me last summer. I was going to complete what I spent my 19th birthday looking at from below.
About a month ago, Megan and Ryan took some time off work to join me for a single-night camping trip in Evan’s Notch for my 20th birthday. On the trip, I hoped to complete some sort of modified Skyline, to obtain the most trace miles in 15-25 miles. As we got closer and realized all three of us had work the day after in three different states, I gathered that doing a West-East Skyline wasn’t a bright idea, especially considering Ryan & I had already done Speckled and Blueberry. So, we boiled it down to the western side of the route, ascending Slippery Brook, taking Bald Knob to Baldface Circle Trail, cruising Meader Ridge, hopping on Basin Rim, then carefully descending the Royce Trail, which Ryan and I had purposely skipped when we did East Royce last week. I had estimated it would be around 15 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain.
The 6:30 alarm got ignored when it rang from the other side of our tent at the Basin Campground. I lay watching a spider crawl around the mesh on the outside of a tent for a while, dreading standing up, until some twenty minutes later the spider found a hole in the mesh and we evacuated real quick. With the sudden jolt, I got going on breakfast and everyone dispersed to different chores so that we could make up for lost time.
It took about an hour for us to get out of camp, resulting in an 8 am car drop at Brickett Place at the base of the Royce Trail and an 8:10 start time from the Baldface Circle Trail parking lot. Note that these lots are paid sites and have very nice bathrooms. If you don’t already have it, the WMNF or America the Beautiful Pass is recommended for year-long access.
The start-up Baldface Circle Trail was brand new to Megan, a repeat for myself as I’d been to Emerald Pool, and a recent repeat for Ryan since he skied South Baldface over the winter. The 0.9 miles up to the intersection with Slippery Brook is wide and essentially flat. It’s pretty great! We made a brief side trip to Emerald Pool since Megan hadn’t been, but otherwise moved efficiently towards our biggest single gain of the day. Going into Slippery Brook, it first off, wasn’t slippery at all (haha) and was super gradual. This entirely wood-contained trail gained much of the elevation towards South Baldface as just 2.6 miles awarded 1900 feet of the roughly 3000 feet gain towards the peak. Though the Baldfaces are far from being 4000-footers, the gain is more substantial than many of the 48- these 3600ish feet tall peaks have a starting elevation of just 500 feet!
Just beyond the junction with Baldface Knob, we acquired view after view of the South Baldface as well as surrounding features ranging from the walls of White Horse Ledge to the sharp summit of Chocorua poking out towards the southwest. And even when it seemed like the views couldn’t get any better, the higher we climbed towards the Baldfaces, the more expansive they got.
The walk from Slippery Brook to the Baldface Circle Trail was magical, relatively easy, and slowly revealed our final climb. Once we got on the Baldface Circle Trail, intersecting with those who had just conquered the south ledges, we gained a couple hundred more feet as the sun began to compliment the already sweat-boiled skin on my arms. Despite my fatigue and increasing body temperature along this incline, I pushed as fast as I could to get to the 360-view atop the South Baldface.
When we arrived at the summit, we met a couple from Southern NH that didn’t seem much older than us and chatted for a bit as we took in the surroundings. The peaks I'd already climbed and the ones we'd do later in the day along Evan’s Notch stood proudly beneath us to the east and the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range, separated by the vast Wild River Wilderness between us, stood tall in the west. I could have stayed up there for a long time, but we had a big day ahead of us.
Pushing on towards the North Baldface, which stands slightly taller than South Baldface, we descended about 300 feet into the col then sharply rose again towards the summit, which had what I would consider to be the most challenging ledges of the day.
My favorite part of this view was surely the angle we viewed the South Baldface shoulder- its size is remarkable compared to its appearance from the road. We kept similar views from the South Baldface, yet noticed more this time. One of my favorite sights was the deep ravine that channels Charles Brook down the rugged South Baldface shoulder. We spent more time observing the obscured view of the Presidentials, picked out Iron Mountain which we climbed last week, and looked at the notch that Hurricane Mountain Road travels through to conceive how crazy that road is.
Our trio kept on to Eagle Crag, whose sharp cliffs grew more and more remarkable as we got closer. We crossed a series of bog bridges and around many fields of wildflowers as we worked through this section, which was the steadiest in terms of exposed elevation, of the entire day. Once we proceeded straight along the ridge to Meader Ridge Trail, we enjoyed a substantial stretch of forest walking, where we were lucky to come about the nicely flowing brook, which the WMG guide refers to as unreliable. Good thing all it’s done is rain this month! Despite the iced tea hue the iron-rich water had, it didn’t have a weird taste after we filtered several liters of water. At this point in the day, I’d had 2.5 liters, Ryan had 3, and Megan had barely had 1- can you tell which one of us is the collegiate runner who does half marathons without nutrition or hydration?
Like all good things, this gentle walk came to an end as we approached Ragged Jacket, where we dropped sharply over inconveniently located rocks on steep grades. When I realized how much elevation we’d lost, yet the elevation of West Royce remained unchanged, my eyes widened at the realization that my legs still had to work for a whole lot longer. Pushing that aside, momentarily, even though we were at 1800 feet and West Royce stands at 3166, I tried to clear my head which was a massive fail because before I knew it I was standing at the height of the Basin Trail. Where, last summer, was the place I heard my ankle snap in a way I still cringe to recall almost exactly a year later. I didn’t think I was in my head as I climbed Basin Rim Trail towards West Royce, but I was wrong.
Once we got to about 2,400 feet, along a section of trail that screamed a lack of use and alternated between really steep and pretty mellow but was never truly “hard,” I started to get a nosebleed. It wasn’t a big deal, but I started telling myself I shouldn’t be doing this. I started telling myself that my struggle in breathing compared to my partners, a D2 distance runner and ski & rock guide, was a sign I shouldn’t have undertaken such a bold route so early in the season. A literal nosebleed, for a moment, crushed my morale. It was enough to make me negatively compare myself to my team and somehow convince myself the nosebleed was a sign of bad luck. I was already being irrational, but only got more frustrated as my blood ran down a paycheck-costing Arcteryx jacket in my bag and all my clothes. I was so taken up in my insecurity of the moment, that I didn’t even handle the situation at hand until I’d gotten blood on every item in my backpack.
As tempting as it was for me, in an irrational state, to just be a bummer, I realized it wasn’t going to help anyone and apologized. I called it the big girl moment. But it was still going to be a long time before we were done facing all our battles. As beautiful as this section of Basin Rim was, our physical states weren't taking it in as well as we should've.
Still ascending West Royce, Megan started feeling leg pain for the first time all day, Ryan grew rapidly fatigued having burnt through every calorie he’d had, and I quietly began to worry about the hour. We didn’t summit West Royce until 5:20, when we were at about 12.5 miles, just 2.5 away from what my Caltopo-derived mileage said the route was. It wasn’t until we looked at the sign, that we realized Caltopo had once again acted merely as a reference rather than a reliable tool- the sign read, “Brickett Place 4.6.” We weren’t close to the finish line. We were going to end up with a 17+ mile day.
Though we didn’t spend too long atop West Royce, a recently delisted 52WAV that used to have a fire tower, we did take a moment to be thankful for what we'd done so far. The restricted views were no bother- the shade was pleasant and even this delisted peak had a lot to see.
Having all quickly come to terms with the difference in mileage, we consciously revamped our spirits to descend to the junction with Burnt Mill Brook Trail, where Ryan and I stood last week, and knew we had a nice flat section ahead of us. After the steep and often slippery descent off West Royce, I was thankful for this stretch and even more thankful we’d cut East Royce off the to-do list last week. We thought, mostly, that it wouldn’t be too long until we were cooking dinner as we turned onto the Royce Trail. But, the Royce Trail's descent from 2600 feet to 1800 feet said otherwise- this stretch was incredibly steep, wet, eroded, a massive leaf gully, and was the first time I’d seen every possible drainage full of debris. Megan fell maybe 5 times through this section, I went at a snail's pace, terrified I’d sprain an ankle, and we watched as it got darker and darker. Around the 1800-foot line, when I’d fallen behind, I came up on Megan and Ryan looking at the topography with frightened faces. Ryan thought we’d be out of the woods at ten, as the All Trails map made it look like the decent we just managed was ongoing due to the slant that dumb app has sometimes. I wasn’t sure about that, as we’d already lost so much and Gaia didn’t look that way, but Megan had never hiked in the dark before- those aren’t good words to hear and topography doesn't change that impending fear of nightfall when you don't expect it.
Trying to ease her worry while also not admitting I was nervous too, we waited as Ryan filtered another 2 liters before continuing alongside the Mad River. Soon, I gained the peace of mind that Gaia looked a lot more realistic than All Trails did- we only had to lose another 1100 feet, in some 5 times the distance for which we lost the first 800 feet. While I’d more quickly calmed down, I watched Megan ease with each waterfall we passed along the Mad River. The first notable falls had a wonderful outlook from the trail and was the first time we’d all stopped and smiled since the summit of West Royce. From there, I did my best to distract from dusk by starting a series of Disney movie conversations and went on to tell tales of poorly-planned college parties and things of the like to keep everyone entertained. Worked like a charm.
Once we got to Mad River Falls, our vibe change was so prominent that not only did we know we would get out before dark, but we also had nearly a dozen more cascades beside us before popping out onto 113. This trail turned into a never return, to a we can't wait to come back at a brighter time of day. We crossed the river four or five times, some hoppable and some not, but we didn’t waste too much time trying to stay dry. At our final stretch, we hit the wide part of the road, recently cut birch trees on either side of us, clearly depicting that the section of the trails up to Mad River Falls gets all the attention while the upper stretches receive none. Somewhere around here, I confidently proclaimed: “We’ll be out by 8.”
Just like that, 113 came into view and Ryan’s Jeep was right there at Brickett for us. We’d done it, over 17 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain, with a group of people that had never hung out together before. How’s that for sudden teamwork?
We beamed as we walked up to the car, quickly departed for the Baldface Trailhead to make pepper jack mac & cheese, and then said our goodbyes. Ryan headed back to Acadia while Megan and I headed back to Southern NH, stopping for caffeine along the way, and oddly enough, I had a hard time falling asleep that night. I couldn’t help but keep opening Gaia to look at the massive magenta line we’d drawn. I suppose that is a positive sign that I'd started my next decade the right way. Now, I have this report, lots of pictures, and a million bug bites to remember it by.
17.04 Miles (Gaia, AllTrails says 18)
4,889 Feet (Gaia, AllTrails says 5100)
6 named peaks
8 Megan falls on her butt