Saturday, October 13th 2018
The Belknap Range Traverse – Gilford, NH
The Belknaps are a small mountain range overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. They are short compared to their northern neighbors in the Whites – with the highest of them being Belknap Mountain at 2382ft. The Belknap Range Trail (BRT) extends 12.5 miles from the Gunstock Mountain Resort trailhead in an arc and ends at the Mt. Major trailhead. Using this trail alone will not grant access to all 12 peaks considered part of the range – you will need to do an out-and-back to bag Piper and Whiteface Mountains, as well as get creative to bag Rand Mountain and the Quarry’s between Mt. Klem and S. Straightback Mountain.
Returning back to the mountain running game after a diagnosis of hallux limitus and bone spurs in both my feet has been an arduous journey this past summer. There have been some amazingly high moments as well as some incredibly dark ones. Deciding to tackle this range – with the aid of some orthotics and a new style of shoe (hello, zero drops!) – was, for me, a culmination of all the hard work I have put in with PT, trial-and-error with several different types of shoes with/without inserts and custom orthotics. I viewed the challenge as a way to gauge whether or not my feet would be able to withstand some of the races I had hoped to run in the future so that I might qualify for the CCC. The Belknaps certainly aren’t as a hard as the Presidential Range or the Pemigewasset Loop, but would be a great stepping stone for me to build my confidence of getting back to run/hiking such mountain ranges.
I managed to rope a good friend from my Tribe family into coming along for the trip. Having Greg along with me helped ease some anxieties I was having about doing this test piece solo: in general, being alone on unfamiliar trails as a woman is nerve-wracking, but also should my feet literally fail me, I wouldn’t be alone trying to navigate my way back to the car. I admit that trying to challenge myself on trails that I’ve never stepped foot on is perhaps not ideal, but GO BIG!
Since we were two instead of one, we decided the best plan would be to attempt the range as a point-to-point and shuttle cars. We met at the Mt. Major parking lot around 7AM, geared up and headed off to Gunstock Mountain Resort, leaving a car behind. Figuring out where to park/where the trailhead was at Gunstock proved to be a little more confusing than we had anticipated, but eventually we found our way to the base of the “Mountain Coaster” where the BRT starts up a gravel fire road.
The road continues almost all the way to the summit, and then you get a short, exposed section with fantastic views of Gunstock, Belknap and beyond. It was misting, and we could see more fog rolling in, but we still had visibility of the lake and the ridgeline.
The trail from here turns to single track, and by the time we summited Gunstock we were completely socked in with fog and rain.
The trail off of Gunstock was soft and covered in pine needles, and a complete joy to let ourselves run down and get our legs turning over a bit. Gaia was super helpful in keeping us on track through this section as we got up to Belknap Mountain. There are no views from here unless you climb the fire tower, but with the rain we decided against climbing several flights of wet, metal stairs and moved on. On the way down there is some exposed sections of trail where you would have some great views, but we were staring at the inside of a ping pong ball.
The trail down Belknap is mostly runnable, and then you reach a trail junction for Piper Mountain. We did Piper and Whiteface as an out-and-back, along some very muddy trails. The summit of Piper though is lovely exposed rock with fantastic views (I assume), and would be a great place to sit and have lunch if it weren’t raining. I’ll admit that running down the slabs of Piper was torture only because I knew we would have to come back up them later. Lots of mixed emotions running down to the Whiteface trail intersection! The trip out to Whiteface is a real change in scenery as the trails become wide 4-wheeler trails with large, deep puddles (small lakes, really) along the way. It’s grassy and has an exposed summit area, but again we were still getting rained on and were stuck in the clouds.
The hike back up the steep slabs of Piper were calf burners! And also just a taste of what was to come later. Knowing we had no views, we ran straight through the open section of Piper’s summit and back down to the Round Pond-Piper link trail. The first half of this trail was gnarly!!!! I imagine it’s just as hard when it’s dry as when it was wet. Steep descents and a traverse on extremely rocky terrain made for a very slow descent. After about 3/4 of a mile of slow, downward hiking we hit a point where the rocks became more and more sparse and we were able to run again. The rest of the trip down to Round Pond was a delight, and a much needed mood lifter as we neared the halfway mark of our traverse.
The foliage down by the pond was on point, and we decided to stop under some tree cover to eat lunch. I’m not sure if the temperature actually did dip at this point, or if stopping when being soaked through just made my body temperature plummet, but regardless after 5-10 minutes of eating I was shivering and my fingers were feeling numb. I put on every layer I had brought with me and started doing jumping jacks until Greg finished eating!
A ways around the pond and we took the Klem-Mack loop trail up Mt. Klem. This was a lovely slog uphill for a mile or so before you gain a shoulder on Klem that was just wonderful. We could see the clouds starting to break up a bit!
Near the summit there’s an intersection that becomes a “choose-your-own-adventure” game: based purely on mileage differences, we opted to take the spur trail out to Rand Mt. from here, as it is shorter than doing the extension from W. Quarry to Rand. What we didn’t know was how absolutely gnarly this spur trail is! It is a straight drop down on slabs and rock scrambles, across a small creek, and then right back up on a broken rock face. Having a rock climbing background came in handy here for sure, considering everything was still very wet and muddy. This was also the first summit of the day that was tree-locked, and a bit disheartening after the climb we had to get up to it. We then had the fun task of reversing the gnar back to Mt. Klem. It was slow, I fell down a slab and bruised my tailbone a bit, but onward we went to tag the summit of Mt. Klem. Tree-locked. This became a theme for the next few hours.
From Klem to Mack, while we were able to run a good portion of the trails here, I was starting to feel the cumulation of the mileage and elevation change. It’s been two years since I have run more than a half marathon, and we were at about that mileage on Mack (no views, just a sign at a trail junction!). The descent off of Mack and over to Anna was some of the darkest moments for me on this trip. It was slow going with the wet rocks and mud, and while we were able to stutter step down most of it, my knees were really feeling it. There was some long, quiet moments up to Anna between us, but admittedly we stumbled upon the summit way sooner than I had anticipated, which started to lift my spirits.
From Anna we decided we would snake over to the Quarry’s and then back to Straightback instead of doing the out-and-back over the Quarry’s after tagging S. Straightback. The Marsh Trail between Anna and W. Quarry was muddy (go figure! A marsh, muddy!) and we spotted some trees that had seen some gnawing from beavers! I was sad to not spot one of said beavers, though.
Once over the marsh, the trail ascends straight up a steep rock slab that again required us to call upon our rock climbing skills! I found myself tossing my trekking poles up onto ledges and then pulling a move to gain the ledge. Wild! The best part about this trail was that the sun started to poke through the clouds. We stopped briefly to close our eyes and just feel the sun beat on our faces, and this was the true turning point in our day. We were both getting tired, both had experienced some low points, but feeling the sun on our skin was an absolute game changer. We’d suffered through the cold and rain for most of the day, and now we were shedding layers, grabbing a quick bite and smiling as we set out for our final two peaks of the 12 (really 4 peaks, because we tagged E. Quarry and N. Straightback along the way)!
If it had been dry, I suspect much of the trail from W. Quarry all the way over to N. Straightback would be runnable. However, we were met with endless mud and boggy sections. I am so thankful we had the sunshine at this point because while it was annoying to get through all the bogs, we were still grinning wildly as the weather had finally turned. All the way to S. Straightback I was still feeling as though the summits had snuck up on me, we seemed to be “there” well before I had expected to be. When we hit S. Straightback, we were finally met with another open summit, with views of the breaking cloud cover. We laughed a bit maniacally, knowing full well we had just ONE more peak to tag! Victory was within our grasp!
Throughout the course of the day we hadn’t seem many other people on the trails. There was a small hiking group on Piper, and one other trail runner who passed us down by Round Pond. The remainder of the day we spent solo, which was an amazing and fortunate way to acquaint ourselves with these trails. When we turned off of S. Straightback to head to the finish line atop Mt. Major – and given the change in weather from rain to sunshine – we weren’t surprised to see dozens of people on this section. Families, dogs, small children…folks in jeans, sweatshirts, and regular sneakers littered the trail the closer to Mt. Major summit we got. We were so outnumbered, I began to realize the strange looks we were getting for having running vests, hydration packs, and being soaked to the bone and our legs and shoes caked in mud. Despite the looks and the general feeling of tiredness in my legs, we jogged up the last rocky bit of ascent in an overwhelming wave of stoke. We did it! 20+ miles, 5700ft of elevation gain, 8:01 to the summit of Mt. Major!
We hugged, I cried a little, and we frolicked back and forth across the summit in awe of ourselves, our accomplishment, and of the pristine landscape before us.
While we took some time to celebrate on the summit, we knew the journey wasn’t quite over. We still had to negotiate a steep descent back down to the parking lot. Less than a quarter mile down – my knees at this point SCREAMING at me – we stopped on a ledge to contemplate which way to go: to our left looked like wet and steep rock slabs that we would have to slide down on our behinds, and to the right looked rocky, but less steep and easier terrain. A woman had just come up the path to our right and must have read the looks on our faces, for she immediately stated that the way she had come up was much easier and still would get us down to the same parking lot. Trail angels are real, people!
We took her advice and after a few slips and slides due to my weak knees – and a few moments of double-checking the map – we made it down to the parking lot in style!
Previously, after a long and hard effort like the one we had just completed, it would take me at least a few days of recovery before I would entertain even the thought of going back and doing something like that again. But this time was much different. I’m completely captivated by the beauty of these mountains, and in the endorphin-fueled haze in that parking lot we were already plotting when we would come back and how we would do the full loop…
I’m in awe at my body’s ability to adapt to the new reality that is hallux limitus and bone spurs, and it’s resilience to the battering I put it through on this trip. A 50% increase in mileage from my last long run and I held it together and was still running right up until the end. I know now that if I want something bad enough, there’s no injury or illness that I can’t come back from. And while I have some new challenges to face in terms of my health, I’m not scared anymore. I’m not scared to take some time, let my body heal, and start the training process over again. I can get back to where I was before, and better yet I can come back stronger.