A Special Day on Stormy South Moat Mountain

Freeport residents Shweta and Ryan Galway make their way through the blanket of snow covering the summit of South Moat Mountain. Photo by Ron Chase

When I announced a Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society mountain hike on either Mount Chocorua or South Moat Mountain in New Hampshire, my friends Shweta and Ryan Galway immediately agreed to join me. Frequent outdoor companions (and young enough to be my daughter and son), these two are testament to the fact that not all my friends are old geezers like me. An added benefit of having young people around: they often look out for me. Rapidly faltering, I’ll take any help I can get. Unknown to me, the hike was on a special day for them.

Since the weather forecast was a good one, the initial plan was Chocorua, a longer, more spectacular hike. The night before, the prognostication suffered a reversal, with snow showers predicted. Evaluating our options, we considered canceling the trip, but the consensus was to go instead to South Moat, a shorter, lower elevation trek.

Located a short distance southwest of North Conway, the 2,749-foot open summit overlooks Mount Washington Valley and offers exceptional views of the surrounding White Mountains. The 5.5 mile round-trip outing with over 2000 feet of elevation gain is one of my favorites, and is included in my mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals—New England. The guidebook features the 30 most scenic mountain hikes in New England. South Moat certainly qualifies.

It was snowing when we met at the Passaconaway Road trailhead, a little west of Conway. The presence of several cars in the parking lot seemed to validate our otherwise-dubious decision to hike. Because Southern Moat is situated in White Mountain National Forest, a parking fee or a National Park Pass is required. I have a senior park pass, a benefit of old age, which I acquired for a pittance and which is good for the remainder of my life. I’ve been paying federal taxes for almost 60 years and was conscripted into the Army at age 19, so this arrangement seems a reasonable exchange.

Despite steady light snow, the lower elevation trail conditions were good. Wet fallen leaves cluttered much of the trail while proceeding in a mixed deciduous and conifer forest. Initially advancing through a narrow hilly section, the path then widened and rose gradually. After it declining to cross a tiny freshet, we climbed more steadily to a remarkably durable wooden bridge spanning Dry Brook. That’s when I learned my friends were observing their 20th wedding anniversary. Multiple photos of the handsome happy couple were taken at the scenic location.

 At 1.5 miles, the trail turned abruptly left and steepened. Falling snow persisted while we maneuvered precipitous ledges. As we negotiated one particularly confusing escarpment, two descending older hikers informed us slippery conditions had turned them back below the summit. Since they were skeptically perusing me, I reassured them I’d be safe with my young friends.

 Soon after, we encountered a series of long sloping ledges. On a clear day, this vantage point provides exceptional views southwest. Not on that stormy occasion. Carefully following cairns and sporadic yellow blazes in sparse stunted vegetation, we guardedly traversed the wet slippery ledges.

 Once we emerged above tree line, a patchy blanket of snow covered the rugged terrain. Scrambling over and around large boulders and slick oblique ledges in thick clouds on the southern shoulder of the mountain, Team Stormy arrived at the summit. Instead of the usual panoramic vistas, visibility was limited to about one hundred feet. Regardless, the mountaintop enveloped in clouds had a unique funereal allure.

 Completing an exploration of the murky summit area, we began our descent, encountering two more intrepid hikers who passed us in the boulder garden just below the top. Cautiously navigating down treacherous ledges, we caught a momentary view of nearby Eagle Ledge which materialized. Swirling clouds quickly eclipsed the welcomed scene.

An area sheltered from the snow, under a thick canopy of conifer trees, made a good lunch site. My reward for organizing the tempestuous excursion was a package of delicious Swiss Chocolate Rolls. The snow continued unrelentingly. Just before we reached the parking area, snow turned to light rain.

Shweta and Ryan stop at Dry Brook Bridge on South Moat Mountain. Photo by Ron Chase

The lack of views and inclement weather notwithstanding, all of us agreed our trek had been an exhilarating escapade. Having enjoyed their first ascent of South Moat, my companions resolved to return on a clear day. Had we known the actual conditions in advance, would we have chosen to hike? It’s doubtful.

But in one way—a metaphorical way—the hike was perfect.  It allowed me to reflect on how in a marriage, not all paths are smooth, not all vistas clear.  Rough stretches and stormy weather are inevitable, part of a journey taken for better or for worse.  Cheerful and supportive of one another throughout our arduous excursion, my young friends epitomized the benefits of a warm and caring relationship.  Working together, the hard or tricky passages can be navigated, becoming a shared challenge, an adventure, and soon a valued memory.

Ryan and Shweta remained in the North Conway area to continue celebrating their special day. I returned home to find the weather had been partly sunny in Topsham. 

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