“You’ll die out there,” the locals warned. I was headed into the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a week of winter hiking and camping. Ideally, I wanted to summit all the highest peaks during the harshest conditions of the year. Nobody else liked the idea. Every time I mentioned my mission, a New Hampshire native would look up toward Mount Washington and respond in an ominous tone: “It’s not about the summit, bro, it’s about the journey.”
B.S. It was all about the summit. If I wanted a mere stroll outside then I’d have taken the subway to Central Park instead of borrowing my mom’s car and driving six hours to upstate New Hampshire. Of course, the following day when my crampon unclipped and I nearly slid down an ice flow to my death, and three days later when I was nearly stranded atop Mt. Jefferson in 95mph winds, both the journey and the summit didn’t seem like such great undertakings.
Even before setting off from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, with Mt. Washington looming overhead and an arctic wind whipping so furiously that my car physically heaved back and forth, I was taming my goals to summit at least one peak and not put anyone else in danger while doing so. That included Jeff, who had followed me north on a whim. “I’m doing some winter hiking next week,” I’d told him in-between belays at Brooklyn Boulders climbing gym. “Sweet!” he said. “You should come!” I said. “Dude, I think I will,” he said, and that he did.
Winter hiking takes a bit of preparation, though. Along with planning an itinerary for provisions to cook on a portable camp stove, one must factor in weather conditions for a mountain rage with winds of 0mph to 130mph and temperatures from -19 to 27 degrees F. Along with the basics of a winter-rated sleeping bag and parka, you need waterproof boots compatible with crampons for icy conditions and trekking poles for balance. I borrowed a lot from my buddy Steve, including a bivy sack to crawl inside in case I broke a leg and needed to sit tight on the mountain until rescue hopefully came. Then there’s the recommended gear I did not have: ice axes for steep descents, micro-spikes for icy rocks, ropes for precarious trails, snow shoes for trail-blazing, extra carabingers. Hell, I did not even have a decent MAP.
Hence the trepidation.
ONWARD! Jeff and I loaded up. Before even getting out of the parking lot I’d already broken a trekking pole in a door. Fortunately I’d come with an extra set, but it was an ominous sign. In any case, onward! Within two miles of trekking up the Tuckerman Ravine trail, I’d already fallen through chest-deep snow into a river and Jeff was growing faint from dehydration. And we were lost. Well, not totally lost because we knew the way back, but we did not know how to get to Harvard Cabin. The cabin wasn’t even marked on my 1983 map. Fortunately we bumped into a family also hiking there, and their 5-year-old (who was carrying her stuffed bunny rabbit) showed us the way. Onward!
It was nightfall as we stomped into Harvard, a cabin loosely operated by the Harvard Mountaineering Club since it was built in 1963. The caretaker, Rich, is an ice climbing/alpine skiing dude who welcomed us inside with a snarky jest about us having attempted to blaze a new trail to the cabin. “So what’s yur i-tin-er-ar-y dudes,” he said in a surfer’s drawl. “We’d like to trek over Washington to Grey Knob cabin on the north side of Mt Adams,” I said. Rich asked: “You got an ice ax? You know these trails?” No and no, I said. He shook his head and mumbled something about us turning back the way we’d come.
Hmm. We’d come too far to turn back. And wouldn’t my buddy Steve — a veteran hiker and hut caretaker in these mountains — have warned me if I needed any additional equipment? Looking a bit concerned, Jeff took out his bottle of Scotch and attempted to drown out some of his fears. We ate our nightly dinner of couscous and cured meat, then rolled out our sleeping bags in the rodent-infested cabin for a restive sleep.
FEB 19: TUESDAY was beautiful. We took the Lions Head Trail up to Washington and summited easily, no ice ax necessary, then trekked down to Lakes of the Clouds Hut at the base of Mt. Monroe. To get there, we balanced over a sloping sheet of ice. No big deal when wearing ice-gripping crampons. But a very big deal when one of your crampons comes unbuckled and you begin sliding down a 400-foot ice flow into a field of rocks. Lucky I had those two trekking poles to gain my balance. Adrenaline shot up my spine. I gingerly crawled to a rock where I sat and strapped back on the crampon.
FEB 20: WEDNESDAY we took Rich’s advice against hiking over the range to Grey Knob and instead trekked three miles back down to Pinkham Notch and drove to Randolph, where we parked and snowshoed four miles up to the hut. It wasn’t a matter of whether we could handle it physically. But technically we were at a loss without more trail familiarity and risk-reducing equipment such as ice axes. It was a prudent decision. Hiking over the range with our 50-pound backpacks would have put us in temperatures as low as -2 degrees F and 102mph winds that day (a few notches shy of hurricane force though still far short of the mountain’s record of 231mph), according to a weather report from the Mount Washington Observatory.
FEB 21: THURSDAY we woke in Grey Knob Hut, the newer yet less visited and thus colder of the two cabins at about 40 degrees inside (less bodies = less body heat). The caretaker, Caleb, told us that he was sick of the lonely job and wasn’t paid enough, which may be why he slept in until 8:30am and failed to record the 7am weather forecast. To be fair to Caleb, he’d had a tough winter, with no visitations from his friends/family and recently having pulled a dead hiker from King Ravine. Still, providing a weather report is a pretty simple task. Had we heard it, we probably would have been warned against venturing to the summits. Might be why we saw nary a soul hiking. They’d gotten the memo.
Onward! The trek started out well enough. We happily wore our new MSR snowshoes (picked up the previous day while down from the mountain) and lobbed over snow four feet deep with six-foot drifts. Things got sketchy when we emerged above tree line at Edmonds Col. The wind picked up and the visibility dropped as snow drifts swirled and our goggles iced over. The trail grew steeper, rockier, icier. We switched out of snowshoes into crampons. Onward to Mt Jefferson! I took the lead, squinting to see the next path-marking cairn. I was starting to lose sight of Jeff behind me, so I paused. When I looked back again, he’d completely stopped in the sub-zero weather to remove his jacket. The temperature was -10 degrees F before factoring in wind gusts of 95mph. “Let’s go!” I yelled impatiently. My voice disappeared in the wind. Jeff caught up. “I was so hot,” he said, “feeling a little dizzy.”
Onward the final 400 meters to the summit of Jefferson, where we crouched in the lee of a boulder. I took off a glove and rubbed icicles from my eyelashes. My eyes were freezing shut. “Let’s move fast before we get cold!” I yelled. We started back down, but it was quickly apparent that we’d wandered onto a different path. The trail appeared to split right and left but I couldn’t see more than 20 feet through the snow and fog. Suddenly, the wind picked up a blizzard of snow and it was suddenly a total white out. No vision. Only painful specs of sleet. The cairns had disappeared and I could barely see Jeff beside me.
Onward, but where? We couldn’t simply stop walking or hypothermia would surely set in. We couldn’t hope for another hiker to show the way, having not seen anyone else all day.
“What do we do?” Jeff yelled.
I pulled out my map. We were standing on the precipice of the Great Gulf Wilderness. We didn’t want to be there. A wrong turn and we’d fall into the ravine.
“I think we have to go that way!” I yelled, trudging into the whiteness.
A cairn emerged and my heart leapt. We were still on track.
“This is the way!” I yelled back.
This stop-and-go uncertainty lasted for another two hours over trail varying from ice to deep snow to sharp boulders as we trekked Gulfside Trail to Mt Adams and down Spur Trail to Grey Knob. Climbing over the ankle-busting rocks of Mt Adams, I lost balance and stepped sideways onto my trekking pole, splintering in two and breaking my second pole of the week.
“It was brutal out there,” I said to the cabin caretaker when we returned. “Welcome to the White Mountains,” Caleb dryly replied.
FEB 22: FRIDAY made up for Thursday. I woke cold and clammy. A layer of grime covered my body from not showering for five days. My hair was greasy and itchy with dandruff. I was tired of trudging through snow just to use the toilet in the outhouse.
“I’m ready to be done,” I told Jeff as we set out with our 50-pound backpacks.
I charged fast up toward Mt. Adams to fend off the cold. Clouds fell away as I peaked above tree-line. Atop Mt. Abigail Adams I rose completely above the clouds and took my first sunlit glimpse of the Presidentials. It was stunning. Jefferson and Adams with their craggy peaks, Washington with its imposing dome.
Hundreds of other trekkers were out, mostly day-hikers taking advantage of an unseasonably warm and sunny day in the Presidential Range. We could see clear across the range into Vermont, Maine, and Canada, when only a day earlier we couldn’t even see the next trail marker. I felt recharged by the mountains, ready to do it all over.