Hikers assemble at the summit of Mount Pisgah in snow and clouds. (Contributed photo)

More than 30 years ago, my wife Nancy and I began celebrating the New Year sharing outdoor adventures with friends. The first escapade was a backpacking trip to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Carter Notch Hut deep in the White Mountains. On that occasion we were accompanied by two friends and five live lobsters. Fellow hut occupants appeared skeptical of our assertion that we had herded the contrary crustaceans up the Thirteen Mile Brook Trail.  The truculent critters didn’t make the return trip. 

Ensuing episodes included treks to AMC huts at Zealand Falls and Lonesome Lake. No lobsters were interested. Later, we pulled sleds to cabins at Chimney, South Branch and Daicey Ponds in Baxter State Park. As years passed, skiing and mountaineering trips were organized in Quebec, Mount Desert Island and other playgrounds. When many of us were infected with peak bagging fever, the high summits of Vermont became the destination. I have fond memories of first nights in Rutland and St. Johnsbury interspersed with winter climbs of the local New England 100 highest mountains. 

Most of us have aged into retirement and some former regulars have passed on. However, getting together on New Year’s Eve is still an essential part of recognizing that annual passage. This year seven of us decided to revisit first night in St. Johnsbury combining mountain hiking and skiing. Since we were located in Quebec, New Hampshire and Maine, meeting in St. Johnsbury seemed a logical plan. 

Taking advantage of our ancient semi-retired status, Nancy and I traveled to North Conway, New Hampshire for a couple of days of playing in the snow in advance of meeting the gang in Vermont.  Climbs of Peaked and Middle Mountains were first on the agenda. Located just east of North Conway, a well-maintained trail system leads to the two sub-two thousand-foot summits with excellent views of the White Mountains. Five miles in distance, the trek was easily completed during the afternoon of our arrival. 

Northern New Hampshire has an abundance of outdoor opportunities. We continued our excursion cross country skiing at Jackson Ski Touring Center. As a result of recent rain lower elevation trails were substandard or closed. However, upper levels originating from Prospect Farm Trailhead were recently groomed and in excellent condition. Journeying northwest, we stopped in Crawford Notch for a hike to the summit of Mount Willard. The three-mile jaunt to an overlook with a phenomenal view of the notch was a popular objective as cars were parked along Route 302 for at least a half mile. Separating from the crowd, we escaped early trail congestion and enjoyed a quality wilderness experience. 

For a small town, First Night North in St. Johnsbury is an exceptional event. A celebration of the arts, over 80 shows with more than 200 hundred performers were on the schedule. Woefully lacking in artistic aptitude, I enthusiastically ceded decision-making to the cultivated half of the family. Nancy’s first selection turned out to be the choice of our entire group; a trio called Va-et-vient entertained with a variety of music from several French cultures using guitar, mandolin, fiddle, flute and percussion for accompaniment. Although we subsequently attended several excellent performances, the talented threesome remained my favorite. Since a snowstorm threatened, we departed before planned fireworks announced the New Year. A confession, I rarely make it to midnight. 

Outlasting an early morning storm, our New Year’s Day began with a tasty breakfast at a local café. The primary topic of conversation was our first outing of 2019. Five of us decided to climb Mount Pisgah, located about twenty miles north of St. Johnsbury along Lake Willoughby.  

A new summit for me, I found the 2,751-foot peak to be an intriguing mountaineering undertaking. A southern approach began at a trailhead on Route 5A near Burke. The trail was covered with four inches of fresh snow over a substantial base packed by earlier trekkers. Snowshoes were the consensus choice for footgear.  

After traversing two narrow log bridges, we began a steady ascent with several switchbacks in a varied conifer and hardwood forest. A significant portion of the path parallels sheer cliffs overlooking picturesque Lake Willoughby. Enveloped by precipitous mountains, the lake leaves the impression of an inland fjord. Gaining elevation, feisty northwest winds hindered our progress. Angling away from the cliffs, we entered thick clouds in light snow. Alas, the much-anticipated views from the top were not to be.  

Completing the descent, we parted ways. Some remained in Vermont to bag loftier peaks while Nancy and I decided on another visit to Jackson Ski Touring on our return to Maine. Don’t know where we’ll convene to welcome 2020. No lobster herding. Been there, done that.  

The author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals — New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at [email protected] 

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