- Getting Started
- First Day: Mount Washington
- Second Day: Mounts Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce
When I started hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in 1995 I often said "I will never do winter hiking" and, more emphatically, "I will NEVER!!! do winter backpacking". There is magic in having younger friends who push you to extend yourself, and by January 1998 I did my first winter 4000 footer (Mt. Liberty), and in April 1999 did my first winter overnight.
I had planned a backpack to the Bonds, the most remote peaks in the White Mountains, for the last weekend of calendar winter 2000. It would be an adventure, and one of my friends, Gary, "needed" Bond and West Bond. (For those of you who are not peakbaggers, the phrase "I need Mt XXX" means that Mt XXX is on a list of peaks that I am trying to complete, and I have not yet done it.) As usually happens with informal group trips the group size shrank as the date approached, and Gary dropped out. I informed my remaining two companions that we no longer had to do the Bonds, and said that I was open to suggestions. It is probably time to introduce the group.
Larry is a real mountaineer, who spends most of his summer vacations outside the Lower 48, either attempting Denali (twice, unsuccessfully) or in South America. In spite of his great skill he is always happy to teach and inspire those who want to learn, and he is completely responsible for my dreams of climbing Mt. Rainier one day. We took the AMC Leadership Training together in the fall of 1996.
Jeanne was at that time new to our group. She had done a lot of hiking, and that winter had started ice climbing. Like Larry she was both very fit and very comfortable on rock, snow and ice.
Mohamed (your humble scribe). I was in my early sixties, working half time as a prelude to retirement (I retired almost exactly a year later). While I had always been moderately active, walking a few miles every day, I had never done any strenuous exercise until 1994, when I started hiking in the Boston area. I liked it, started hiking regularly, and soon found my fitness increasing. By 1995 I was going on an occasional trip in the White Mountains, while by 1997 I was there every weekend. As I write this (September 2002) I am back from climbing Mount Elbert, Colorado (elevation 14,433 feet) and Mount Whitney, California (elevation 14,494 feet).
So when Larry suggested doing a "southern Presidential half traverse" Jeanne and I were ecstatic. A full Winter Presidential Traverse is a three day trip over the entire Presidential Range. It is probably the most difficult mountaineering trip in New England, as the weather on these small mountains normally varies from bad to atrocious. A half traverse is a much easier undertaking, especially the southern half, where you go up Mt. Washington, down to the area of Lakes of the Clouds or a bit further, and set up camp. Next day you hike out over Mounts Monroe, Eisenhower and Pierce. Tough, but doable, especially with an experienced mountaineer in the group.
We met at my NH home on Friday evening (March 17th). The weather forecast was very good (warm temperatures and almost no wind), but one has to be skeptical. We split the gear amongst us, including Larry's three person mountaineering tent. Next morning we woke up early, as we had a long car spot to do before hiking. While having breakfast I noted a tickling sensation in the back of my throat, as often as not a precursor to a flu. I mentioned it to my companions, uttered a short curse, and continued with the preparations.
Here is a Topozone map for those not familiar with the area. The Lion's Head trail up Mt. Washington is marked but not labelled, it is the trail just south of the text "STATE PARK".
We drove to Crawford Notch, where the trip would end, and left one car there. We then all went together to Pinkham Notch where we started the trip. The first 1.7 miles are up the Tuckerman's Ravine Trail, a major hiking highway up Mount Washington all year round. The trail is wide, but it rises at what the White Mountain Guide describes as "... its moderate but relentless climb ...", rising 1,400 feet in those 1.7 miles. We then went along the fire road for a short distance, and reached the start of the winter route of the Lion's Head Trail. We stopped, had a drink and a bite, and put on our crampons.
Both Jeanne and I had been up this trail with Larry the previous month as part of a course on Above Treeline Travel in Winter, so we knew the trail. The lower part is steep, actually very steep, but in the trees, so there is no danger. The snow was well packed, so our crampons bit well into it. There are a couple of "difficult" spots, which require some thought, but really are not even minimally dangerous. The questions is "What do I do to get over this?" rather than "Good Lord, how can I possibly get over this?", a big difference!
Once we got out of the trees the trail became a bit less steep, but remained steep. Half a mile after getting out of the trees we reached Lion's Head, a collection of rocks overlooking Tuckerman's Ravine. We stopped there for a brief drink plus snack. The weather was indeed just what the forecast had promised, reasonable temperatures and almost no wind at all. The good forecast, plus the fact that this was the last weekend of winter, brought out large numbers of hikers, including a half dozen groups of guided hikers, led by staff of the North Conway guide services.
Beyond the Lion's Head there is a level section with great views into the ravine. Then the final 1,000 foot climb up Mount Washington's summit cone begins.
That climb is not really steep, but midway up it I once again felt the tickling in the back of my throat. It got worse and, far more seriously, I felt my strength fading fast. There was no doubt about it, I was coming down with a flu. The last 500 vertical feet were painful, one step at a time, but I made it to the summit. The warmth and lack of wind on the summit were remarkable, which encouraged us to have a long lunch stop. That allowed me to recover a bit, in any case it would be all downhill for the rest of that day.
We were not alone having lunch on the summit, in fact it was rather crowded. After lunch we descended by the Crawford Path, and suddenly found ourselves alone. The only two people we met on that segment of the trip were two members of the Observatory staff, who had decided to go down to Lakes to enjoy the exceptionally good winter weather. Though I was tired, and the load on my back seemed to increase with time, we were going down, and I managed to get to Lakes of the Clouds with little difficulty. But I definitely did not feel fit to try to go over Mount Monroe that day, so we set up camp to the east of that peak.
We had little difficulty in finding an area with deep snow (much more than the legally required two feet) and set up our tent. The weather was so good that we hung around outside the tent (after putting on lots of layers!). We watched the sun set to the west while the moon was rising to the east. (Full moon occurred the next night, I checked that with the USNO Astronomical Applications Department calculator). Then we started the traditional winter campers' ritual of melting snow, first for warm drinks, then for cooking dinner, then to fill our water bottles for next day. By the time we were through the moon was high in the sky, with its light reflected on the snow and ice that surrounded us. There can be few things as wonderful as a cloudless night with a full moon above treeline in winter!
We slept well, and woke next morning to another beautiful day. In spite of that we stayed in our sleeping bags and melted snow for breakfast in the large vestibule of our tent. Then we got out, packed the tent, and were ready to start. I was not feeling well, and wanted to bypass Mount Monroe. We soon discovered that the east slope of that mountain, where the Crawford Path goes, becomes a steep snow slope in winter, and is essentially uncrossable. On returning to Boston I looked in an old (1969) AMC White Mountain Guide and found, in a discussion of the Crawford Path in winter:
Do not attempt to pass Mt. Monroe to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.The Crawford Path slabs the SE side of Monroe; in winter this face is generally a sheer slope of hard snow, reaching far down into Oakes Gulf, and it is difficult and dangerous to cross.
Rather than go back down on the Crawford Path to the start of the Mount Monroe Loop we decided to try to head straight up to the summit. Jeanne had no problem, she went straight up the steep slope and had a great time. I struggled up with Larry's help, but soon decided I could not do it, so Larry and I returned to the start of the loop and went up the usual way. The climb is short (about 350 feet of elevation gain) and I had little difficulty with it. We found Jeanne waiting for us on the summit.
After that we started the long and gentle descent to Mount Eisenhower. The wind had picked up slightly, but still was exceptionally calm for a winter day above treeline. The climb up Mount Eisenhower was again an easy 300 feet, and I had little difficulty. We spent some time on the summit enjoying the views, and then continued our descent.
The final climb up the Crawford Path to its junction with the Webster Cliff Trail was pretty hard for me, as I was by then very sick and weak. Once we reached the junction I took my pack off and sat down, while Larry and Jeanne went to the summit of Mount Pierce. Both the distance and the elevation gain are minimal (about 150 yards and 60 feet), but I did not want to do any avoidable effort. Once they returned we went downhill at an easy grade to Crawford Notch and our car.
We drove a short distance to Fabian's for lunch, then a much longer distance to Pinkham where the other car was. From there Larry and Jeanne went straight back to Boston on Rt 16, while I returned to Thornton, a very long 1:15 drive.
It was an exhausting trip for me. The climb up to the summit of Mount Washington was around 4,250 feet with several steep sections. Doing it with a full winter backpack is always a challenge, add the beginning of a flu and it becomes that more tiring. But spending two winter days above treeline with minimal wind is something that happens very rarely, and the full moon over the Presidentials was a sight I will never forget. I guess that it is time to start planning a repeat trip!