Hut Checks and High Peaks

Washington and Jefferson from the summit of Mount Adams on a fantastically clear day
A couple Fridays ago, Dylan, one of the winter caretakers, stopped by the front desk and asked me if I was interested in doing a hut check with him.  The forecast from the Mount Washington Observatory was calling for a sunny day with moderate winds (by our mountain standards).  “Will I get paid?” I asked.  “Never mind, it doesn't matter.  I’m in.”

Saturday morning, with our bags packed, we picked up our trail lunches at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center – bagged lunches with hefty sandwiches, granola bars, trail mix, and a piece of fruit.  We arrived at the Appalachia trailhead half an hour later.  Dylan and I greeted a college outing club group in the parking lot and headed up the Valley Way Trail.

Madison Spring Hut, locked and shuttered until summer

The Valley Way Trail is one of numerous trails maintained by the AMC, but has junctions with numerous trails maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club.  The RMC maintains over 100 miles of trail in the northern Presidential Range and Crescent Range, as well as a handful of cabins and shelters.   The Valley Way Trail is among the most popular trails in the area, as it is sheltered from the weather and provides quick access to the northern Presidentials.  The trail was easy to follow and well-traveled – I hiked in bare boots all the way to the hut.

I waited a little too long before pulling off layers, so I got a little more damp than I wanted on the way up.  I find temperature regulation to be the most difficult aspect of winter hiking, and readily admit that I’m still trying to get the timing down.  The best advice I've gotten, and which I will pass on, is to stay ahead of the game.  Take off layers before you get warm; replace them before you get cold.  Replenish fluids before you’re thirsty; eat before you’re hungry.

We broke out of treeline and made it to Madison Spring Hut by 1:30.  A handful of people and another college group were milling about the hut and snacking, so we talked to them about conditions and the AMC.  Dylan and I then went into the hut to make sure everything was in a good state inside.  With that done, we put on our insulated jackets to sit outside in the sun to have lunch.  Refueled and reenergized, we looked back and forth between the peaks of Madison and Adams.  With only enough time to hit one summit comfortably, we decided to go for Mount Adams.
Treeline on Mount Madison is very distinctive

Dylan and I donned our crampons, pulled the mountaineering axes off our packs, and jumped on the Star Lake Trail.  Just a few minutes later, we noticed that the moon was visible above the lake.  We both pulled out our cameras to take pictures, knowing full well that the pictures would never capture the magnificence.  We passed the intersection with the Buttress Trail and began climbing.  Following in someone’s tracks, we soon realized that we were well off the trail.  With the opportunity to do some mountaineering though, we decided to keep following the tracks – even when they stopped.  We worked our way upward, fully utilizing our crampons and axes.  When we reached a ledge, we planted our axes in the snow, anchored our packs, and sat down to take in a great view of the Great Gulf Wilderness and Carter Notch.

Looking over the Great Gulf Wilderness and through Carter Notch.  Photo: Dylan S.
With another push, we reached the saddle between J.Q. Adams and Mount Adams.  We hiked a little bit farther north to jump onto the Air Line Trail and continued our climb, weaving in between rocks and boulders.  The wind became more and more apparent as we climbed toward the summit.  Before long, the weathered wooden sign came into view and we found ourselves at 5799 feet.  Powdered mountaintops for miles, clear skies, sun shining bright, wind whipping around 30 miles per hour.  Beautiful.


It was 3:45, so we didn't dawdle.  We reveled briefly, snapped a few pictures, and scampered back down the Air Line Trail.  Back at Madison Spring Hut, we talked to a couple about camping options in the area and headed back down Valley Way.  We reached the parking lot around 6 and went straight to town for some grub.

Later that evening, we stopped by the front desk to check in.  Becky, another caretaker, was working that night.  She asked if either of us could do another hut check the next day.  I was tired and sore, so naturally, I said “I’d love to.”
The Ammonoosuc Ravine, on the western side of Mount Washington.  The Cog Railway climbs up the spine of the nearest ridge.

The next morning, Becky and I picked up trail lunches and drove over to the parking lot near the Mount Washington Cog Railroad.  The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail starts near the end of the road and follows the Ammonoosuc River up to Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  We hopped on the trail and headed up.  This trail also gets a large amount of use as it is the quickest route to the hut, and the shortest path to the summit from the west side.  Ditching layers early, we also decided to strap on our crampons. 

After a couple miles, we passed Gem Pool.  The White Mountain Guide describes it as a “beautiful emerald pool at the foot of a cascade,” which unfortunately isn't the case in the winter.  We saw a clean white patch below what might have been a cascade if it weren't frozen and covered with snow.  It still served as a landmark though, and as promised, the trail got steep immediately afterward.  We climbed and climbed, passing the stream crossing and breaking into the alpine zone.  The towers on the summit of Mount Washington were clearly visible, but clouds were starting to creep toward the summit.  

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut and Mount Monroe
 Before long, we had reached to the saddle and the back side of Lakes of the Clouds.  Becky and I talked with a few people who were around the hut, taking shelter from the wind, and then looked to the summit of Mount Washington again.  Still looked about the same.  We talked it over and agreed on a handful of decisions: we both wanted to try reaching the summit, we’d be better off making the attempt as soon as possible due to the incoming weather, it would probably take an hour and a half to get to the summit and slightly faster to get back to the hut, lunch and the hut check could wait until we got back.

Both on the same page, Becky and I began our bid for the summit.  Crampons on and mountaineering axes at the ready, we jumped on the Crawford Path at 12:45.  It was slightly unnerving at times, as the trail slowly climbed along the side of the ridge, with long blank slopes above and below us.  We climbed at this moderate grade until we got to the junction with the Davis Path and Westside Trail.  Continuing on the Crawford Path, the trail became steeper as we ascended the summit cone.  We passed a few groups of people who were headed down.  They all said it was a great day, but too windy to linger at the summit.  We wished them well and pushed on.  We followed the cairns upward and took the sharp turn at the junction with the Gulfside Trail.  We made one last push, passed the Yankee Building and Tip Top House, and found the sign at the summit.  We made it.
Low visibility, snowing, winds above 30 miles per hour…relatively decent weather.

 Sure enough, everyone was right.  Not a good day to hang around the summit.  We took the typical summit pictures, turned tail, and scampered back down the trail.  On the way down, the day had turned overcast.  We turned back to look at the summit.  The clouds had surrounded the cone and the towers had disappeared.  Ahead of us, a ray of sun had broken through the clouds, shining a spotlight directly on Mount Eisenhower.  It was a magical sight.  We continued our descent toward the hut, and more importantly, lunch.

We got back to Lakes of the Clouds Hut at 3:15.  Nobody was around to chat, so we unlocked the building and peeked inside.  Becky and I walked through the hut to confirm that all was well inside, then opened our trail lunch bags and feasted on the fantastic sandwiches and snacks.  Nothing like a well-earned meal.

After our late lunch, we headed back down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.  I figured it’d be a good time to practice self-arrest.  I slid down a few times on my back, practicing the motion of flopping over onto the shaft of the axe, pressing the pick into the slope with my body weight.  I tried this with the axe starting in my right hand, then my left.  Then I flung myself headfirst down a slope, pivoting my body around the pick so I was facing uphill, and then replanting the pick under my body weight – and getting a bit of snow down my shirt.  I took that as my cue to stop, and we continued down the mountain the normal way.  We said goodbye to the ever-descending clouds and dropped below treeline.
Apprehensively trekking down the side of the ridge toward the hut
Becky and I made it back down to the parking lot, and on the way back to Pinkham Notch, we stopped at the Highland Center in search of food.  It was past 6:00 by the time we arrived, which is when family-style dinners begin, but Kyra and Joey welcomed us for a splendid and filling dinner of turkey, vegetarian paella, rice pilaf, and a veggie medley.  Thanks again, Kyra and Joey!  Perfect way to finish an awesome day, and an awesome weekend.

You may have noticed that I didn’t share any pictures from inside the huts.  Curious to see what they look like?  Hop over to the huts webpage to check availability and make a reservation for your stay!

Self-arrest is a critical skill for traveling in steep terrain in the winter.  It’s a good idea to practice often, so the motion occurs intuitively and immediately when necessary.  Check out the introductory article How to Use an Ice Axe in the January/February 2015 issue of AMC Outdoors, the magazine for AMC members.  Join now to get tips like this delivered to you every two months, along with great mountain stories and schedules for AMC adventures, trips, and training!

Go on Mount Washington Observatory for the latest weather conditions and be sure to check in with Mount Washington Avalanche Center for avalanche bulletins. As always you can check AMC Conditions for the latest report from the snow stakes and/or call us here at Pinkham to see what we're seeing out our windows and for the best trail advice we can give you!  
The AMC also offers classes and chapter trips for ice climbing, skiing, snowshoeing winter mountaineering and avalanche classes. All of our programs for the '14/'15 season can be found on our Activities and Events PageFor any general questions, conditions information, or trail advice, please feel free to contact us here at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center front desk.  We are available by phone at (603) 466-2721 every day from 6:30 AM to 9:00 PM or by email atamcpinkhaminfo@outdoors.orgTo make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts, please call (603)466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm. 

Happy winter adventuring! 

Chris W.

Backcountry Information Specialist

AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
(603) 466-8116
amcpinkhaminfo@outdoors.org  

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