The car thermometer read two degrees as we pulled on gloves, strapped on snowshoes, and set out on the Coppermine Trail to Bridal Veil Falls.
The trail began flat and easy on a road transformed into tunnel of trees and snow, and then began to climb uphill at a gentle grade.
Although the cold was deep and unrelenting, the sun provided an illusion of warmth, unlike the day before, when bitter winds had sliced through the sky. I expected a crowd of cars and a well-packed trail and was surprised to see only one vehicle in the trailhead lot on this President’s Day Monday. Winter hiking has become so popular in the White Mountains that I assumed the Coppermine Trail would be busy with enthusiasts, but perhaps the relatively easy nature of the hike keeps the hard-core away, as they hike 4,000 footers and climb walls of ice. Or maybe it was just too cold.
But I know that “easy” in summer, when thousands walk on the Coppermine Trail, can be deadly in winter. I hadn’t hiked in real winter conditions in many years. Although we were adequately supplied for this short hike, with plenty of layers, food, and drink, we weren’t equipped with full winter gear, including ideal footwear, sleeping bags, and hot drinks. Although I didn’t know it then, the previous night a woman had died not far away on Mount Adams, where the high winds had generated extreme cold and whiteout conditions.
For many years, parenthood had kept me off northern trails in the winter. As a family, winter has meant skiing. Hiking in the backcountry seemed too risky, because I know that kids have trouble regulating their needs or even understanding them until the need has become a harsh scream – “I have to go to the bathroom NOW.” I couldn’t take a kid out in the backcountry who might become immediately hypothermic because he hadn’t understood that he was cold until he was freezing.
But now the kid was a teenager, and taller than I. So up the trail we went, walking in the footsteps of a snowshoer from a day or two earlier, and at times breaking trail. Someone also had skied in, and we tried to avoid the tracks.
Along the way, I looked for the plaque on a boulder that pays tribute, so the story goes, to Arthur Farnsworth, the Vermont guide who became the husband of movie star Bette Davis. Back in 1939, legend has it, Davis strayed from a group hiking on Coppermine Brook because she knew that Farnsworth would set out to retrieve her.
This unlikely pair married in 1940, and lived together happily in Hollywood, with an occasional visit to the White Mountains. But three years later, in 1943, Farnsworth died from injuries sustained in a fall at their Sugar Hill home. Sometime around 1961, after Davis sold her New Hampshire home, the memorial plaque to Farnsworth, “the Keeper of the Stray Ladies,” appeared on a boulder near the brook.
As we climbed, I could see the outline of Coppermine Brook, silent as it passed through the forest under the deep blanket of ice and snow. I spied one boulder on the side of the trail – the only recognizable boulder on the trail– but no plaque. That discovery will have to wait another day. (The boulder, I’ve since read, is on the bank of the brook about a quarter mile in from the junction of the trailhead with Coppermine Road).
The trail remained flat and easy. Now I remembered what I had forgotten: the pleasure of walking without having to consider rocks and roots. About a mile in, a young woman in trail shoes came running down: the driver of the other car. Maybe a little crazy, out here running, with no gear except the clothes on her back. A quick hello, and then we were again alone on the trial.
My son pushed on, looking a little grim, probably wondering when it would all end. I enticed him by telling him we could rest at the Coppermine Shelter, although I knew it wouldn’t warm there, just a dry place to sit and eat some cookies.
I plunged ahead of the team, hoping to keep up spirits with an announcement that we had arrived. And then we came upon the shelter, a small sign of humanity in a white wilderness world.
After resting for a few moments in the bitter cold, we pushed on to the falls, 100 yards or so further up the trail. Here, the “trail”— probably slippery slabs of granite in summer — climbed steeply up to a level spot, probably a frozen pool of water
At Bridal Veil Falls, granite and water merged into one snowy panorama.
The falls were a dramatic wall of ice, more like a thick jagged curtain than a veil. A sublime site, in the sense presented by 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke as he attempted to describe those experiences, especially in nature, that inspire feelings of astonishment co-mingled with awe and terror.
Now, very cold, we headed back to the shelter to warm up – not in the shelter, but in an expertly constructed ice cave we had discovered nearby. At about 32 degrees, the cave was not warm, but definitely much warmer than outside, and large enough to comfortably sleep four to six people.
After snacking inside the cave, we crawled out, strapped on our snow shoes, and headed down the trail at a good clip since we didn’t need to worry about roots and rocks. The silence was deep and beautiful.
About 45 minutes later, we arrived back at our car and set off on the trail towards hot chocolate. Already, I was studying the map, looking for another opportunity to return to this silent winter world.
Sources and resources
The Coppermine Trail departs from Coppermine Road, off NH 116, in the Franconia area. The hike to Bridal Veil Falls is about 2.5 miles one way, including a portion on a dirt road. For hard-core adventures, a couple of unmarked backcountry trails off the main trail head towards Mittersill Mountain and (in the other direction) towards Kinsman Ridge.
For more details about the Coppermine Trail and its landmarks, see Robert Buchsbuam’s Nature Hikes in the White Mountains (AMC, 2000), a great source for many wonderful family hikes.
Although I don’t wish to sensationalize a young woman’s death by drawing attention to it, Nestor Ramos’s Boston Globe article about the search for Kate Matrovosa, “The Young Woman and the Mountain,” (February 22, 2015) offers important lessons about winter preparedness and the limits of technology.