There was little portent of just those things to come as we pushed off along Downes Brook Trail, just off the south side of the highway. Earlier users of the trail had fashioned a foot-wide trench in the snow which we gladly followed over the trail flatness. The pines, hemlocks, and birches along the trailsides hunched together to pull us into the preoccupation of walking.
The Mt. Potash Trail soon appeared, and we turned on to it, heading southwest. Crossing Downes Brook nearby, we stopped to gaze at the quiet surroundings of the stream. Rounded tufts of snow-covered stones and boulders sat at the edges of the bank, looking like a white carpet strewn with albino cannon balls. The scene remained in our minds long after we left the spot.
Potash Trail began to steepen in its curving southeasterly climb of this rounded mountain's jutting cone. Every once in a while one of us would hit an icy stone and skid backwards for a second or two. Usually, the stick jabbed into the snow just aft of the slide area would quickly arrest the descent without further sweat. All of this sliding didn't perturb the squirrels on either side of the trail. They only dashed up the beech trunks, curling around behind the tree boles to keep out of sight of our imagined pursuit of them. We only guffawed in emulation of the near-croaks of some raven off towards North Hedgehog Mtn.
At the top of one of the first flat stretches, a view opened through thinly-growing paper birches out towards Greens' Cliff, Mt. Tremont, and the Bartlett Haystacks. We had worked up the first trail sweat from steadily walking up that first slowly steepening pitch, and the tree-dotted view gave us reason to rest for a second or three.
Near here, the path dropped into and out of a now-dry stream valley, with rocks piled haphazardly in the old channel. The trail pushed on, and upwards, from here, past stretches of beech just now showering the snowy earth with the last of their crinkly brown leaves. We continued up through the edges of spruce and fir growth (taking over for beech and most of the maple here), and on past "Ike and Diana's" (letters in the snow..) Ledge and its view towards Passaconaway's slide-incised north slopes. The sky, graying up with lower altocumuli, showed the sun through as a faint golden orb over Mt. Whiteface. We gazed over a ledge lookout below us to the north. The snow gave the look of a brownish-white coat on the lumpy "body" of the prostrate topographical ursine of Bear Mountain. Green's Cliff and its two-tiered whitish ledges shined out further to the west. We looked a little longer at all of this, and then we looked at each other. We shook our heads, smiled, and then decided we had to pass on.
The summit would be reached in only one-half mile, but the climb up to it was hardly a mid-summer's carefree romp. The snowy underfooting rendered the steeper pull-ups, creep-alongs, and hand climbs over slanted ledge an eyes-open workout. We had to frequently bushwack around long ledgy walls by grabbing gnarly spruces and pulling ourselves on through to bypass the slanting snow fields over these ledges. The snow never lay at depths above ten or twelve inches, but on these ledges, it could have been one-hundred inches deep for all the trouble we had traversing the rocky expanses. A few slide-backs and pull-on-ups later, we finally gained the summit, and the views were truly magnificent, well worth the toll we had just cursingly expended.
To the south through the west, Mts. Passaconaway, Whiteface, the two domes of the Sleepers, and Mt. Tripyramid loomed above us relatively near at hand. The Fool Killer showed its advance billing here as its slope outlines blended almost imperceptibly into the bulk of Tripyramid's mountain mass. Kevin and I sat down on a windswept ledge and contemplated a hardwood slope on the east side of the Fool Killer. Here and there, slanted blowdowns broke up the otherwise perfect composition of straight dark trunks against a white field of snow beneath them. Just north of this patch of beeches, maples, and birches, a large stand of spruces and firs showed that diffuse dark green hue. Small tufts of snow sat in these evergreen boughs, and they created a beautiful pattern of white, almost like stars, against a dark-green "firmament".
We trudged a bit further over the north edge of the summit mound to get the best view of Mt. Washington and the Southern Presidentials. They were all frosted and splashed with a brilliant piercing white, from Mt. Clinton's ledges, up to Washington and Boott Spur. The mountains that provided a visual base for Agiochook were grayish white and beautiful in their buttressing bulkiness-- Mts. Hitchcock and Huntington to the northwest; Mt. Hancock and the Hoot Owl, Mts. Carrigain (a massive prominence from Potash Viewpoint), Lowell, Anderson, Nancy and Bemis to the north; Mts. Tremont and Bear and Bartlett Haystacks to the northeast; and Mts. Paugus, North Hedgehog and Chocorua to the east-- an impressive visual array for only about 2700 feet of altitude!
We contemplated the northern scene more closely over towards Washington while we ate. I pointed out where alpine cirque glaciers may have formed just before the Laurentide ice sheet swept over the area 20,000 years ago, there in Oakes Gulf and just to the west of the gulf's headwall. These icy relics only made the Presidential mounts seem all that much more rugged, more a product of the "northern climes".
After a spiritual encounter with all the hills, Curly Jack Allen's ghostly presence, and the memory of Metallak, we fairly skied down the slopes to descend. Glissading down rock faces with one foot firmly held beneath the body, we moved swiftly down the trail, making light of the ledgy "demons", all snow-covered and obstructive, which had held us up so on the ascent. It seemed like we hadn't spent that much time on the mountain, but when we arrived at the car on the quietude of the highway, darkness had begun to fall. We clopped the snow off our boots, slipped a David (The Dawg) Grisman tape on the machine, and then pushed off down the road to hit Freddie's for a couple of cool green bottles. Ahh! What these mountains can do for your soul!