Chaos on the Cohos - The First Winter Thru Hike of N.H.'s Most Remote Trail

Mar 18, 2016

This past winter four New Hampshire friends set out for a 12 day thru hike of the Cohos Trail -  170 miles from Crawford Notch to the Canadian Border.  When they began their hike in early February they had no idea that if they finished they'd become the first hikers to ever complete the trail in winter.  NHPR's Sean Hurley has more. 

It was mid January, Gator Miller remembers, as he and his three friends, the Hart brothers - Ian, Ryan and Collin - set up their tents for a cold winter night on Mount Moosilauke, that Collin Hart brought up the idea of thru hiking the Cohos Trail. "And he had mentioned he knew about it and that it went through the most remote parts of NH," Miller says, "and it grabbed all of our attention."

Two weeks later, Collin says, they hopped in a car and headed for Crawford Notch, "It wasn't really like a long planning process. It was kind of - "

"Let's do it!" Gator Miller interjects.  

"We get real excited," Ryan Hart explains, "and then we just do stuff. "

A quiet almost snowless start - Gator Miller up front with Ian Hart to his right. Back left is Ryan Hart - and Collin to his right.

Rash maybe, but all four had recently thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail - and the Cohos is described by trail founder Kim Nilsen as a kind of "walk in the woods."  So how hard could it be?

"Every single day on the Chaos Trail - is what we like to call it now," Gator says, "was harder than any single day on the Appalachian Trail."

Ian Hart explains the origins of that name. "In the first two days nothing had gone as planned.  It was raining, we almost died on the ridgeline...so it was just like, 'This is chaos'- and then we were like, alright that sounds pretty good. Chaos on the Cohos!"

Sitting on the ledge.
Credit Ian Hart

Gator Miller, who documented his AT thru hike on YouTube, decided to do the same with his thru hike of the Cohos with the Harts, "And the trail begins!" he bellows in the video as Ryan Hart adds, "Microspikes off, snowshoes on."

More ledge!
Credit Ian Hart

Ian Hart says they had no idea what to expect. "The trail itself, we didn't really know what we were getting into.  So it was more just kind of winging it day by day." 

On their second morning they woke with the intention of taking a spur path up to the summit of Mount Washington. As Gator narrates in the video, "We're getting pretty high close to tree line but it's pretty calm right now which is a good sign for going up Washington today."

Colin Hart details the attempted ascent. "We got to the Dungeon under Lake of the Clouds, it's like an emergency kind of bail out shelter." 

But after gearing up and heading for the summit, Ian Hart says things went from bad to worse.  "You just hear those stories and you're always like, how do people get in those situations?  But all the sudden it went from like being  pretty rough to within a few minutes it was almost white out and the wind was just - I mean we were literally getting blown to the ground." 

The attempted ascent of Washington broke two trekking poles and high winds threw them all to the ground.
Credit Ian Hart

They lost the trail, but eventually made it below tree line where the sleet storm turned into a rainstorm. But they got lucky, stumbling upon an unoccupied Yurt in the woods.  

The luckily found Yurt.
Credit Ian Hart

They woke the next morning and walked along the Amoonosuc River until they spied the Mount Washington Hotel.  "We thought we were gonna get turned back at the door," Ryan Hart says in the video, "but we met this really chill dude, Melvin, and we're about to go do some laundry." 

Shortly after that - dry, back on the trail, and happy to be alive - Gator Miller came up with the dance off idea. 

Gator danced the first summit, Ryan and Collin the second and third and Ian Hart says he went last, " I had three days till I ended up going so the whole time I'm thinking like what am I gonna do?"

Was that enough time to practice? I ask.  "No," Ian says, "no practice."

But Gator makes the correction, "Well no.  I caught him once.  At night he said he was going to the bathroom and I shined my light over and he was practicing his ballerina moves!"

Ian Hart's Ballet moves.
Credit Ian Hart

Ian shakes his head and says "No" like this never happened.  But Gator continues to reminisce about the sighting, "What are you doing over there?!"

After 12 days, the four friends found themselves at the Canadian Border.  But somewhere along the way, they'd gotten word of their potential accomplishment, as Gator says in the video, "So at the beginning of our journey we all started out to just have fun, be wild and then Kim Nilsen actually, founder of the trail, he told us that if we completed it we'd be the first ones to ever winter thru hike the Cohos Trail."

At the border, the first thru hikers of the Cohos Trail celebrate.
Credit Ian Hart

Like everything else on the Chaos Trail - foreknowledge played little part in their experience -  but Ryan Hart admits, "I think it humbled all of us. We're going to do a lot more hiking in our life but I think we're going to be more careful at the same time cause we could have gotten into a lot of trouble."

For more information about the Cohos Trail, visit the trail's Facebook Page

Gator Miller's Youtube video of the thru-hike is pasted below.