Sunday, August 2, 2015


With thoughts of moving someday and a desire to avoid repetitious ruts, I strive to visit new places or try new trails at familiar places each weekend. I don't want to miss out on anything good or end up bored doing the same rides over and over. Many weekends are planned by gazing into the blue web of millions of GPS tracks Strava calls the Global Heat Map. If more than a few people traversed a segment, it will show.

Something I've enjoyed for almost as long as I've been riding is linking multiple mountain biking areas together into a single ride using as little pavement as possible. This was exceedingly challenging before the internet gave birth to the many GPS upload sites. You'd start with published state park or national forest maps, which were always hopelessly out of date. Then you look at DeLorme state map books or Google maps online to see how to link places together with official roads. The problem was there's always so much more on the ground that is unofficial and always changing. There wasn't an easy way to build an off-road track to follow on a GPS either. I'd download GPX track files from the likes of Garmin Connect, then point-by-point build a track with road base layer shown in DeLorme Topo. Very tedious, and it didn't always match up with what was on the ground.

When Strava published the heat map and released the route builder tool based on it, this all became so much easier. It works in part because so many people use Strava. It may be something like Metcalfe's Law, which states the utility of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. Social networks might follow something more line a Nlog(N) law. Utility still grows fast with number of users.  In any case, the heatmap is updated periodically and is based on ground truth, at least as accurately as GPS units can measure.  By using Strava to design rides, one thing to keep in mind is others have gone before you. You will not be discovering novel linkages. But a collection of linkages part of a big ride may very well be novel. The heat map greatly diminishes the chance of boondoggles. In a way, that is too bad, as boondoggles always make for good blog fodder!

So on my off-Friday, I put a loop together that linked three riding areas, Franklin Falls Dam, Page Hill, and the Proctor Academy trails in Andover, NH. I've hit these areas before, but I wanted to check out the new machine built flow trail at Page Hill and a new connection between Page Hill and Andover. A 50 mile loop with moderate amount of climbing and very little pavement was the result.

Snowmobile Trail 11 heading north along the Pemigewasset River.
Soups would not have liked this three miles and would have been saying icky-icky,
in fear of picking up ticks. I checked extra carefully after showering.

View from Page Hill at the top of Shock Therapy, the new flow trail.

One of many jumps and berms on Shock Therapy. The trail ducks into the woods part way
down and gets more serious.

View along a Class VI town road in between Page Hill and Andover

Top of ski hill at Proctor Academy

The downhill trail at Proctor. More bermed turns!

The ride was a success. The Page-Andover connection would probably be best to avoid after wet spells. Lots of rutted unmaintained jeep road that could get very soupy. Some new gating and signage around the ski hill thwarted my attempt loop up the back side. Maybe the locals can carry over the gate, but I'm going to respect that.

The adventure didn't stop there. This was the final weekend of conditioning for the presidential traverse planned next weekend. This meant more DOMS inducing descent of steep terrain. I wanted to do a Franconia Ridge hike, but forecast suggested I'd be challenged by lightning if I did. So I had to settle for something further south with a better forecast. Mt Monadnock again, two weekends in a row? Why not.

A friend suggested I find the fabled Pumpelly Cave on Mt Monadnock. It was built as a secret place over a century ago. Many bushwhack off the main trails searching for it but leave all torn up without finding it. Those who find it are not supposed to divulge it's location. Some have even posted bogus directions or GPS coordinates. How hard could this be in this day and age?

Let's go back to the Strava heat map. I know how obsessed Strava users are about posting all of their exploits. "If you don't Strava it, it didn't happen," as the saying goes. So surely somebody posted their hike that happened upon this hidden treasure. I'm not going to tell you where to look, but I will share a few secrets of the process I used to find it.

In the heat map, there is a fuzzy area of tracks on Mt Monadnock. Hmmm, everywhere else people follow established trails, but this one area, fuzziness. That could only mean one thing: people bushwhacking looking for the elusive Pumpelly Cave. But in this haze of tracks, there was no clear indication of convergence. This area was exceedingly steep and exposed. You can't just get to any point from any point.

Then I recalled seeing photos of the cave from above. It has a unique roof that I thought would surely be visible in Google maps. So I used the Strava heat map to narrow the search area. Sure enough, I found it! Without knowing exactly where to look, you would never find it just by scanning the vast Mt Monadnock area.

So armed with exact GPS coordinates, I now only needed a route. The heat map didn't help much, as it was a maze of tracks. I guessed, created a route, then headed off to the mountain.

Despite a nearly 5hr MTB ride the day before, I was feeling pretty good. In no time at all, I was to my cutoff to bushwhack up to the cave. It was laterally 500ft away, but it might as well have been 500 miles. It was a shear cliff wall! I kept checking for ways to cut over, but every possibility required serious rock climbing skills if not ropes and gear. Well that really sucks. I continued up to the ridgeline trail. My route came back across much higher up. Maybe I could drop down to the cave with less risk.

After several false starts (cliff drop down), I found a promising route. It looked like others had gone before me. The route became formidable to traverse and clung to seriously steep terrain with lots of exposure. At one point, I was on my hands and knees trying to stay under fir branches when I almost stuck my nose in a huge pile of bear scat! I looked around and there was bear scat everywhere. Great, I just crawled into a bear's den and perhaps I was following a game trail and not a path to the treasure.
I was getting wicked close per my GPS though. I was maybe 200ft away, couldn't see more than 25ft through the brush, and for all I knew it could be hundreds of feet below me. I worked my way down, sliding on my butt a couple times to the next foothold. Then all of a sudden, there it was. Strangely, I heard voices.

There was a group of three in the hideout. The group leader found it on his third attempt, after getting some inside intel on how to find it. He knew about Google maps and could see it there, but without a GPS to guide you, it would be exceedingly hard to find. It sits on a ledge below a ledge in extremely dense vegetation. Turns out there is a much, much easier way to get to it, which I took to leave.

So that was a fun little micro-adventure. Now I had push to the summit, descend the other side on a trail I've never been on, then come back up and over again. Easy, right? All the trails on Mt Monadnock are superchunk. It's as if a city-sized dumptruck full of broken granite was dumped there, a 3100ft high pile of it. Going up is easy. Going down is scary as shit. There are thousands of opportunities to roll and break an ankle, catch a toe and face plant 10ft below, slide out and break your coccyx. Need that eccentric muscle conditioning though so I can finish the presi-traverse next weekend without injury.

Coming back over the mountain the second time, I was amazed by how many people were on the summit area. I'd say easily over 1000 people, spread out over 10's of acres of bare granite. Really cool to see so many people getting a workout on a nice day. There is no easy way up there, or down. I think I heard at least 7 different languages being spoken too. Pretty sure English was a minority.

Another new to me trail was taken down, the Red Spot trail. This was mostly giant slab hopping, hoping my shoes stick and I didn't get mud on them from periodic wet spots. My legs were noodly by the time I got back down to less steep terrain. Mission accomplished. About 4500ft climbed and descended.

Inside the Pumpelly Cave

The roof. It is metal, possibly 100+ year old tin. How about that view?!

The door. Wood and iron.

The summit on my first approach. A pretty good crowd is building.

Half of the time, this is what you are "hiking" on at Mt Monadnock. Parts are
near vertical. Not so bad going up. The going down sucks.

Part way down from summit away from the crowds. Rain cell on left narrowly missed.

Looking down the ridgeline part way down from summit. There is lots of above
treeline hiking on this mountain.