Let’s get one thing straight. Winter hiking sucks. Whoever says any different is a liar. Sure, the quiet solitude that winter provides is awesome. But at what cost? Everything is cold. Everything is slippery, no matter how sharp your crampons. Everything gets wet because snow is actually just water apparently. Camera equipment is constantly in jeopardy. The list goes on and on. I hate winter. If Key West had mountains, I’d be there.
Anyways, I went winter hiking yesterday, if you couldn’t tell.
I got out the door at 5:30 am and ended up in the Crawford Notch area of the White Mountains around 7 am. By the way, Conway, New Hampshire is one of the coolest towns in New England. Featuring a backdrop of the most picturesque mountains this side of the Mississippi and containing enough little shops and boutiques to keep even the most ardent antique and local art shoppers busy for quite some time, Conway is simply awesome.
Today I was going for three 4,000 footers in one hike, my first big time solo winter hike. I was going to attempt to go over Mount Tom, Field, and Willey, a distance of 7.2 miles roundtrip.
I got out of the car at the Highland Center Lodge at the northern edge of the Notch, and set off at about 7:15 am. By 8:00, I was 1.3 miles in, at the junction of the Avalon Trail, which takes you 0.5 miles up to Mount Avalon, and the A-Z Trail which takes you in the direction of the 4,000 footer Mount Tom. Since I’m in the business of peak-bagging, as I make a dent in my list of the 48 4,000 footers in the Whites I’m trying to complete, I headed up the A-Z trail.
Another hour goes by, and I’m at the start of the Mount Tom spur. A “spur”, for the uninitiated, is a hiking trail that leads off the main trail, up to a peak, then leads right back to the main trail. I’m about 2.3 miles in now, only felt like throwing up twice, and the weather was absolutely horrendous, so in good spirits, I set off for Mount Tom’s summit.
The 0.6 miles up to the summit took about thirty minutes. The only problem was, I couldn’t find the summit marker. To make matters worse, the trail is unmarked and the cloud cover is making it impossible to see more than ten feet in front of you. So I’d branch off about twenty feet from the trail, search, go back to the trail, branch off a different direction, search, and repeat and repeat. Didn’t find shit. At some point, I lost the trail, and kind of started to sweat a little (an impressive feat in 20 degrees) as visions of “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” started to flash through my head.
Suddenly I hear a growling noise. And promptly soiled my pants. A huge German Sheppard came bounding out of the woods on my left and ran right after me. Luckily the owner was right behind it, otherwise, I might’ve karate chopped that dog in half. She asked if I was lost (the owner, not the dog), to which I lied and said I was just following a Grey Jay I saw fly this way. Because what’s worse, dying in the woods because you lost the trail or embarrassing yourself in front of a stranger you’ll never see again? Exactly.
I made it back to the trail at some point and even did see some beautiful Grey Jays on the way down.
I made it back to the start of the Tom Spur and settled in for a nice cup of hot cocoa and oatmeal, courtesy of my awesome Jet Boil Zip Propane Stove System. But of course, I forgot the burner piece of the setup, rendering the other components useless. It was probably sitting in the Blazer next to my GoPro, which I also forgot. So the little fuel canister and stove top piece, along with some oatmeal, ramen, tea, and cocoa got a free ride across the Willey Range.
In just the dandiest of moods, snacking on frozen trail mix, I set off on the .9 mile trip over to Mount Field. I was greeting with a shockingly quick ascent, which rendered all my legs mostly useless for the rest of the trip. I got to the summit at about 10:45. So that one mile took close to an hour, a pretty slow pace for me. However, the weather finally started to break as the sun came out. This was the literal high point of the trip, as Mount Field sits at 4,340 feet.
After a quick five minute breather, it was off on the 1.4-mile jaunt over to Mount Willey. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. All three summits on the day were wooded, so you couldn’t see jack. But the section between these two offered beautiful vistas of both the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the west (you can read about my hike of the infamous Pemi Loop last summer here) and the Presidential Range to the east.
At this point, it was decision time. I really, really didn’t want to hike up and over all that elevation change to get back to the Blazer. So I made the decision to keep walking along the range and follow it 2.4 miles down to Route 302 and hopefully catch a ride back around to the Highland Center where my car was parked.
The first 1.1 down Willey is a straight drop. If I had done this hike in the opposite direction, I probably wouldn’t have made it. So I got to participate in one of my favorite winter activities.
“What’s glissading?” you ask?
Honestly, glissading has a lot of risks involved, but after going up and over all that ground today, I was willing to risk it. So I slid on my ass for about a whole mile of a mountain. As you can see in the video, it’s pretty hard to control your speed and direction, so don’t try that at home. Or in the mountains.
I made it down to where the Willey Range Trail meets up with the Appalachian Trail and followed that for about ten minutes before breaking off and following the Kedron Flume Trail down to Route 302.
From there, I walked north on the 302, trying very hard to bum a ride. It’s pretty hard to hitchhike in 2016, and I didn’t have success on the first two dozen cars. Damn Internet ruined everything.
Finally, a dude named Javy picked me up on his way to the Mount Washington Hotel to visit his girlfriend. Javy is here on a one-year work exchange program from Columbia and was a pretty nice dude. I told him if he was ever in Maine and needed anything let me know. He replied, “I don’t even know your name.” Thanks, Javy.
I made it back to the car around 3 pm, found the burner for my stove, and had the hardest earned hot cocoa in the history of man. In the end, I only hiked about 9 miles. It was a tough nine miles, though, as I was probably the first person in at least a week to use some of these trails.
I originally planned to sleep in the Blazer and hike another mountain the next day, but what I really wanted to do was go see Colleen and eat doughnuts, so I did just that. Colleen surprised me by having four doughnuts for me when I got home, which I ate and then promptly fell asleep around 6 pm. I’m sure she was thrilled to have me back.
I know I said winter hiking sucks, but that’s just my opinion. I know a lot of people who love it, camp out and everything. Good for them. I prefer to use winter for short hikes to unique natural features, ice fishing, and for getting better at Mario Kart on the Nintendo. To each their own.
If you do go for a big hike in the mountains during winter, you have to understand and be prepared for the dangers that present themselves in the winter. Falls are two-hundred percent more likely, a statistic I just made up but I think is true-ish. The weather, especially in the Whites, is incredibly fickle and forecasts aren’t something to rely on blindly. Know how to see a storm coming, know how to turn around and call it quits if things get hairy. Don’t go summit-blind and focus so hard on getting up, that you forget that you have to come down. Also, tell people where you’re going. I’m the absolute worst at this, as my parents continue to remind me. Sorry mom and dad.
Until next time friends.
Complete unedited photo gallery below! Close to 50 images form yesterday!