Winter has come early, at least to the higher elevations. According to a New Hampshire Fish and Game (NHF&G) report, on October 24, Andrew Carlson from Madeira Beach, Florida was attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail through the Presidential Range when he was overcome by high winds and unrelenting snowfall. According to Mark Ober, NHF&G, “Weather conditions in the area were brutal with a wind chill of minus 1 degree Fahrenheit, wind speed holding steady at 40 mph, and snow accumulation approaching 3 feet in the higher elevations”. Fortunately for Mr. Carlson he was able to find shelter under Madison Springs (AMC) Hut, and used his SPOT Generation 3 (emergency beacon device) to signal his location. A search was initiated by NHF&G and with the assistance of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR) they were able to locate the stranded hiker and assist him off the mountain. Yes, winter has come early and with it the need to transition to winter hiking.
This past week Fran, Reuben and I hiked to the summit of Whiteface Mountain (4,020 ft.), ascending over 3,000 feet from the Whiteface Intervale in Wonalancet to the snow covered summit. We began our hike on the Flat Mountain Pond Trail. After a mile of hiking along the leaf covered trail we transitioned onto the McCrillis Trail which would take us to the summit of Whiteface. The McCrillis Trail, along with McCrillis Path, are named for the site of an abandoned farm located in the area. When we began our trek the trail was blanketed with leaves and in sections it was difficult to follow. As we ascended we began to notice traces of snow along the trail, and by 2,500 feet in elevation we were hiking in about an inch of snow. Climbing higher on the mountain the snow continually got deeper, with a heavy layer of snow covering the trees. We had entered into the snow zone and the first signs of winter. We weren’t really expecting to find this much snow as we made our way up the mountain. The snow and ice covering the trail made footing difficult. Nearing the summit we found ourselves having to scramble and maneuver over rock ledges, coated with snow. Even Reuben found the going difficult and had to be boosted up several rock outcrops.
With a sigh of relief we made it to the junction with the Rollins/Blueberry Ridge Trail. As we neared the clearing on the rock face I heard a familiar voice, that of Doug, a long-time hiking partner I hadn’t seen in years. It was just coincidence that we met Doug along with his two hiking partners, Liz and Steve. After a few words of greeting and retelling hiking tales we plowed through a foot of snow to the summit of Whiteface. Saying farewell to Doug and his companions, Reuben, Fran and I turned back to begin our descent on the Blueberry Ridge Trail. This was not a leisurely hike off the mountain, but a scramble down and over ledges covered with snow and ice. This trail can be treacherous in cold, wet conditions and without crampons I found myself sliding and skidding down the cliffs on my butt. Even Reuben, with his built-in crampons, was hesitant in some area and had to be escorted down the cliffs. We felt relief when the trail leveled off and we knew we were on sound footing. We followed the Blueberry Ridge Trail to the junction with the McCrillis Path, which took us back to Whiteface Intervale Road.
With this wakeup call from Old Man Winter. I realized I needed to transition my pre-hike planning and preparation from autumn to winter. At this time of the year we may be experiencing typical autumn weather, but in the mountains winter is closing in. Therefore, I offer a few suggestions for you to consider before you journey into the wilds of New Hampshire’s mountains.
Research the route or trail you plan to hike. Write down the trip itinerary (route, day/time start and end the hike) and leave this with a friend or spouse. Check the most recent weather report for the area you will be hiking. As most of us know, weather can change quickly in the mountains, so you need to be prepared for any and all conditions. In addition the conditions at the base of the mountain or the trail head are usually much different than at higher elevations, particularly on the summits. It isn’t rare to see flatlanders hiking up Mt Lafayette totally ill equipped for weather at 4,000 ft.
Proper clothing and layering are the most important part of any winter journey. Layering allows you to easily adjust your clothing to regulate body moisture and temperature. After you begin hiking your body will start to warm. You do not want to get overheated and sweat. Adjust your layers of clothing to prevent heat buildup and sweating. Three layers are considered normal: a liner layer against your skin, a fleece layer for insulation and a wind/waterproof layer. This is applied to both your upper and lower torso. You should also have additional clothing in your pack for further warmth and protection. None of your clothing should be cotton. As the expression goes, “COTTON KILLS”. Cotton clothing holds moisture when it gets wet, either from sweat, snow or rain. Wearing wet clothing will lower the body’s temperature and can result in hypothermia, a condition of reduced body temperature that results in shivering, weal pulse, drowsiness, confusion, and loss of consciousness. Wear only wool or a synthetic material. Over half of your body’s heat loss occurs through the head. A balaclava and cap will insure you stay warm. I was told, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat." Two pairs of insulated mittens or gloves with liners are also an important ingredient for a happy hike.
Your footwear should be of well-oiled leather or plastic winter hiking boots, with good insulating qualities, at least 200 grams. Do not wear summer hiking shoes. There is nothing worse than hiking in cold, wet feet. Snowshoes and trail crampons are also going to be needed depending on the conditions of the trail. Even though we are seeing grass around our homes, the higher elevations in the mountains could have 3-4 feet of snow and ice. Trekking poles are important for balance in snow or going over those icy spots. You also may want to consider wearing gaiters. They add extra warmth to your lower leg and keep snow and ice out of your boot
Bring plenty of food and water. I usually carry two liters of water in insulated bottle jackets or place your bottles in heavy wool socks. It’s very important to include plenty of carbohydrates in your food bag to provide fuel for hiking and for simply keeping your body warm. I like to bring two peanut butter and honey sandwiches made from Nancy’s home-made bread and our own home grown honey.
Other considerations: Being in good physical condition, hike with a buddy, carry a headlamp with extra batteries, bring a first aid kit, pack a map and compass and know how to use them.
One last point: Do not depend on your GPS, cell phone or other electronic devices for trail finding or to call home when you get lost. In the mountains cell phone service is not always available and batteries die in cold conditions. These devices can be helpful, but depending on them is not wise.
If you would like to learn more about winter hiking and backpacking there are several good books available from the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). Winter hiking websites also offer a wealth of information. The AMC offers winter hiking/camping workshops at Cardigan Lodge. Hiking safely and sensibly are the key words for any tramp in the woods. This takes on extra significance in the winter as there is little room for error. Plan your winter hike sensibly, so you can return to the trail and enjoy those crystal clear views that only winter can offer.
For questions or comments contact Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Tuesday, November 13, 7:00 p.m. at the Gordon-Nash Library in New Hampton, Gordon will be presenting a slide-lecture program, Hiking Historical New Hampshire. Gordon will be highlighting six historical sites he has visited via wilderness trails. The program is hosted by the New Hampton Historical Society as part of their lecture series on New Hampshire’s past. The program is free and light refreshments will be served following Gordon’s presentation.