A few weeks ago, my friend
told me that she and her friends had just attempted a winter Presidential
Traverse. I thought it sounded like a
miserable undertaking – low visibility, high wind, general exposure, and just
plain cold. Then this week rolled around.
I found myself with no plans for my one
full day off for the week, and the weather forecast was fairly reasonable by
mountain standards. Winds below 50 miles
per hour and temperature above 20 degrees.
So I got to thinking. Maybe that
could actually be enjoyable. I’ve done
the traverse in perfect summer conditions, but it would be neat to experience
it in an entirely different light.
|Southern Presidentials. Reasonable enough, at least to get to the hut.|
As Thursday came closer and
closer, two nagging details popped up in the forecast.
A couple inches of snow were expected
Wednesday night, and fresh powdery snow and wind would lead to low
Worse yet, both the National
and the Mount
started mumbling about thunder…
Snow showers will become convective in
nature Thursday afternoon and evening with a rumble of thunder possible across
the higher summits.
A 30 percent chance of snow showers, mainly
after 2pm. Some thunder is also possible. Partly sunny, with a high near 30.
Very windy, with a west wind 35 to 40 mph.
|Valley Way: partially mud.|
Still, I packed my bag
I was consciously not
thinking of it as a “traverse or bust” type of trip.
In my mind, the plan was to get up early and
peek above treeline.
If things looked
reasonable, I would visit a peak or two and then reevaluate.
If I continued along the Presidential ridge,
I would keep the numerous bailout routes in mind: Valley Way, Lowe’s Path, and
other trails in the vast network managed and maintained by the Randolph Mountain Club
options offered by Caps Ridge Trail (leading to a road that is closed in the
winter) or Six Husbands (just look at the elevation contours on a map); Sphinx,
Jewell, Tuckerman/Lion Head, Ammonosuc Ravine, and so on.
|Valley Way: partially ice.|
Thursday morning, I drove to
the Appalachia trailhead, had some instant oatmeal in my car, and started up
Valley Way shortly after 6 am. It
was probably 30 to 35 degrees, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was mid-March
based on the first couple miles. There
was no snow or ice on the trail and it looked like mud season. Then ice suddenly appeared. Steep, dripping wet, spanning the width of
the trail. I put my crampons on, only to
find mixed conditions farther up the trail.
Ice, mud, ice, mud. Eventually,
the ice became consistent. It looked
like someone else was on the trail ahead of me.
Just before treeline, I changed into a dry shirt, eyeing the clouds
surrounding Mount Madison and listening to the wind.
At Madison Spring Hut, the
footsteps ahead of me turned to the left, headed up Mount Madison. Visibility was low due to clouds but not terrible – I could
see two cairns ahead of me – so I decided to visit the summit as well. I reached the top without much trouble, found
enough cover to down a granola bar, and then scampered back to the hut. Conditions hadn’t changed, so I decided it
would be okay to summit Adams as well. I
took the Gulfside Trail to Airline and weaved my way up through the snowy boulders. At the top, I found shelter behind a boulder
again. Conditions were still manageable,
so I figured I would continue along the ridge.
But first, I put on my giant green marshmallow puffy jacket. I pulled out my stove and windscreen so I
could melt some snow and top off my water bottle.
By this time, I realized that
I had put the wrong insoles in my boots.
Namely, I was using insoles that afforded a bit too much heel lift. Feeling comfortable and warm enough in the
shelter of the boulder, I pulled out my first aid kit and cut out some moleskin
patches. I pulled off one boot at a time
and slapped a patch on the back of each heel.
I was starting to get slightly chilled, so it was time to start moving
again. I switched to my lighter puffy
jacket for the descent toward Thunderstorm Junction.
Visibility improved as I
descended Mount Adams. The Gulfside
Trail was fairly clean, not much snow covering the rocks. I took my crampons off as there was no need
for the traction. Plus, I would be able
to avoid scratching up the rock, move faster, and worry less about catching a
point and taking a fall. Also, being
sufficiently warmed up, I ditched my puffy jacket. This worked out well, as I was soon past
Edmands Col and starting the climb up Mount Jefferson. Looking over Jefferson Ravine and the Great
Gulf Wilderness afforded more of a shoulder season view.
|Looking over Jefferson Ravine.|
The summit of Jefferson itself
was in the clouds, but I was back in the clear when I descended to the Gulfside
Trail on the other side of the summit. I
passed by the Sphinx Trail and Sphinx Col, where I decided to skirt around
Mount Clay. After all, it’s not named
for a president, and isn’t technically a standalone peak. I continued on Gulfside, which gradually climbs
around the west side of Clay. Visibility
decreased back to that two cairn distance as I climbed higher, the wind started
picking up, freezing rain started to bite at my face and neck. I pulled my hood up and pressed on.
Finally, the trail curved southwest
for the final push up to the Mount Washington summit.
I had to guess where the trail led at one
point, but guessing uphill worked well.
on track, I crossed the Cog Railway
Suddenly, the back corner of the
Tip Top House appeared through the gray, much larger and closer than I
I looked from side to side,
but couldn’t see any of the towers or masts.
I made my way to the summit sign and looked around again.
I saw blobs of blue and red to my left, so I
wandered toward the observation deck.
found a group of people from the Mount
and said hello.
I asked if there had been any changes in the forecast, namely if thunder
was still a possibility.
One of them
said that thunder was still a possibility, so I figured I would head back down the Lion Head Summer Route (the Winter
Route is closed now) to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Besides, I’d already done the harder half of
the Presidential Traverse.
And I could visit my caretaker friends at Hermit Lake and the Harvard Cabin on my
|Winter isn't totally gone yet...|
Before that though, I sat down
to have a snack. As I ate, the cloud
cover dissipated. The sun appeared in
full force and I could see blue sky to the south and west. It was beautiful, and I started to get a
second wind. What if I went on? I had dry layers, enough food, and could
continue making water. Conditions were
great just then, and I didn’t see any ominous clouds to the south or west. Maybe the thunder wouldn’t happen. But if thunder happened soon? It was a mile and a half to the Lakes of the
Clouds Hut, where I could take the Ammonosuc Ravine Trail down the ridge. If it happened later, that would be less
ideal. Established trails are farther
apart than in the northern Presidentials, but I could escape the ridge by bushwhacking
down one of many drainages. Well, one
step at a time. Lakes of the Clouds, then
reevaluate. I boiled some more snow and
I put my crampons back on and stepped
out from behind a building, only to realize how hard the wind was blowing.
I took a couple steps back, put on my
balaclava and goggles, and moved forward again.
The way down to the hut looked far different from last March.
Last year, large portions of the Crawford
Path were broad, blank slate snowfields as in the last picture from this
This year, rock poked out of
the snow everywhere I looked.
|Not pictured: thunder. Time to go.|
For the first time all day,
conditions deteriorated as I descended from a summit. Although I was dropping 1200 feet in elevation
pretty quickly, the clouds beat me there.
Visibility went down the drain, and the freezing rain started
again. I was thankful for the balaclava
and goggles, as the wind was blowing the freezing rain straight at me. By the time the trail leveled out next to the
hut, I was down to single cairn visibility.
And the thunder started. Now it
was really time to bail. I curved around
the hut and hurried down the Ammo.
A couple days earlier, the
Pinkham Info Desk had gotten an email from a local guide. The guide had informed us that the Ammonosuc
Ravine Trail was extremely icy, and that their group had used ropes to get up
the trail. Knowing this, I kept my
crampons on, and was very glad for it.
At times, I found myself facing into the trail and downclimbing solid ice
on my frontpoints. This is, of course, typically
not necessary. After a few icy sections,
I made it back down to Gem Pool and flatter trail.
|Gem Pool is a gem.|
The rest of the trail was a delight. The trail follows the river, which made for
very peaceful walking. There was enough
snow and ice on the trail for me to be comfortable keeping my crampons on all
the way to base station of the Cog. When
I got down to Base Station Road, I looked up at Monroe, Eisenhower, and
Pierce. The summits were in the
clear. Oh well. Maybe I’ll try again next year.
What I wore (at the start):
- Mountaineering boots
- Wool socks
- Synthetic baselayer bottoms
- Light softshell pants
- Wool baselayer top
- Liner gloves
- ID bracelet
In my pack:
Visit us at the Pinkham Notch Visitor
Center to chat about the Presidential Range. We are here every day from 6:30 AM
to 9:00 PM. We are also available by phone at (603) 466-2721 or by email at email@example.com. To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts,
please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm.
- Photo ID
- Extra headlamp
- First aid kit
- 2 lighters
- Canister stove
- Pack cover
- Extra liners and gloves
- Extra baselayer bottoms
- Extra baselayer top
- Fleece hoody
- Lightweight puffy
- Giant puffy
- Water bottle
- 3 turkey/hummus/cheese wraps
- Granola with almonds
- 2 granola bars
- 1 pop tart
- 2 oatmeal packets
AMC Backcountry Information Specialist
Labels: 4000 foot peaks, Alpine Zone, AMC Huts, Appalachian Trail, hike safe, Hiking, ice climbing, lunch, Madison, Mount Washington, New Hampshire, northern peaks, Pinkham Notch, Tuckerman Ravine, White Mountains