Ever since New Years Day when I took a trek with the intention of visiting New Hampshire’s high point and some surrounding rock massifs, I thought about making a return trip. The thought of this ruminating in my mind so frequently day after day until giving in, I decided against any freshly dusted local mountains and opted to get outside once again in the peaks named for Presidents.
I wanted to get high. I needed my focus to become so myopic that the seconds passing before me twisting with the given conditions were the only bits of information surging through my thought patterns.
In other words, an escape into an alpine world is just what I craved.
The weather leading up to my climb was looking good: being a day or so after nearly a foot of fresh powder had fallen, the skies were looking clear enough for the morning, wind speeds were down and my spirits were high!
Upon mentioning my intention to climb back up alongside the Cog Railway I was greeted with many crooked heads, confused looks and “why on earth would you want to do that? that’s a terrifically boring trail..“, I listened on and on. I knew it was a very straight forward trail..and probably one that would be frowned upon as “not technical”, or not challenging enough to be considered a “real trail”.
Oh well.. my day, my trail. I thought to myself. In the weeks leading up to my winter ascent of Mount Washington, I had picked up some new snowshoes as my old trusty running snowshoes were just not up to the task anymore, the traction had become terrible, I kept snapping rivets, day by day I considered it to be a miracle that they even survived the hills and made it back to my car at all.
Today, I wanted a playground to really test out the Tubbs Flex Alp.. so that is where I went! Some variables got traded for a straight forward “this is your ascent, this is your trail.. now climb and let us know how the Tubbs perform”, is basically how I looked at my line scarred into the shoulder of New Hampshire’s mightiest.
I came prepared with, I suppose, a little bit of everything for the day, not really knowing what conditions I would encounter following the previous day’s snowstorm: Hillsound spikes, full crampons, Asolo boots, ice axe (which really could have been used, but my trekking poles did the job a-okay), I even brought along a balaclava despite the weather experts calling for low winds atop the mountains.
Anybody awake for sunrise (I was driving..) was greeted by a most majestic color display: reds mingling with yellows and oranges off in the distant sky, illuminating the surrounding frosted hilltops. My anticipation was growing palpable and I longed to be up on a ridge watching the sunrise glowing warm through across winter wonderland.
Soon enough I’d be among the clouds.
Two hours passed rather quickly and before I knew it: I had placed my National Park Pass into the window of the Subaru, geared up and headed out of the Ammonoosuc Trail Head parking lot (which I had to myself this fine morning!).
Rounding the first corner – my objective finally came into view. Such a clear morning, so unlike my previous excursion on New Years Day with 50mph winds, 85mph gusts, zero visibility with white-out conditions – I could not ask for a better day to be with nature so far today!
I was greeted at the Cog Railway parking lot by an employee who I assumed was on a smoke break, turns out she was standing in below zero temps just to say hello! She warned me that if I wanted to pass through their parking lot ever again then I would be forced to pay the $10 parking fee, I respectfully declined – asking her if any of the $10 I had just paid the previous weekend could be rolled over to today’s fee, by the look on her face.. I think I was the first person to inquire of this.
Finally, I thanked her graciously for awareness on the subject, wished her a fantastic day and proceeded to put feet into snowshoes – she was overall pleasant and probably just doing a job that her boss asked of her.. pesky hiker trash such as we!
Zero wind had me opting for a simple fleece jacket, which helped to shed my perspiration as I placed foot in front of foot, slowly slogging my way up the second steepest railway grade in the world. Passing the water tower at 3,800′, I said “good morning!” to a fellow hiker who had stopped to take in some sustainable – turns out I was not the only crazy one playing around on the Cog railway trail this morning!
In what seemed like minutes (actually about an hour..), I passed the location at treeline where I made the call to descend last time – I was now in new territory for the remainder of the hike! The snow was completely packed solid for the first 2 miles or so, thanks to the snowcat who tore a trail up the slope earlier in the morning; the climbing was surely steep, but easy going thanks to the beefy crampons and side rails of the Tubbs Flex Alp.
I was now following a solo hiker who was bare booting their way up the side of Mount Washington, leaving four inch deep ruts with every boot step, I tried to soften over the prints over with my snowshoe tracks. Finally, I saw the owner of the aforementioned boot tracks – standing up at the top of the slope, I was able to grab a few iconic photographs before they too continued over the crux and north, onto the spur trail heading to Jefferson.
This too, was my original plan: to trek over to Jefferson and back – but when I took a few steps onto the solid ice flume trail, I decided today was not the day and that I simply did not want to deal with a frozen river of rock and ice; in hindsight, I can honestly say this was the best decision that I made all day. Had I actually gone over to the third highest in the state, I would have put myself several hours behind and been trapped by the incoming snowstorm delaying my drive home – very content with my decisions to keep climbing!
Continuing up along the Cog tracks, I tried to follow the windswept crusty snow that the snowshoes bit into with ease. I peered to the left (NE) now and immediately recognized a little mount that I had read about. Crossing the frozen auto road to access this added bonus, the boulder field leading to this pile of rock was completely swept with inches of rime, some of which grew to a foot long, sideways facing stalactites jetting off the summit rocks – needless to say, I was treading very carefully and lightly among these incredible formations!
I saw this mound on maps in the past, it took one more check to remember that I now stood atop the ‘Ball Crag’ and planned my next moves toward the summit cone of Washington. Up along these lawns of Washington, the wind finally made an appearance, as did my outer shell to retain any bit of warmth in the fleece layer. Although, the hazy sun did a fine job of warming any darker layers – such as the gloves.
All was eerily quiet atop the states highest: not a soul was in sight despite the idling snowmobile engine off behind one of the sheds. The wind continued shaping and re-shaping, tossing snow crystals constantly into an evolving sculpture tight to every window and door of the visitor center until the vertical walls no longer showed, just sloped snow up to roof top.
Still. All was quiet, masked by the rush of the wind swirling, dipping and dodging around each structure, curling feverishly around the sign posts. Still, I was alone up on this peak – not a person around as I made my way to the infamous brown Mount Washington summit sign, this was my chance to snap a photograph without a line of tourists wrapping off the summit.
My intuition told me that about two minutes was all my quickly turning beet-red fingers were willing to be bludgeoned with before I had to plunge them back into the warmth of super thick OR gloves.
There was really no need for map and compass as I departed the shelter of the final outbuilding, heading down Southwesterly. The Lakes far below were hidden well under a layer of blue/green ice, the hut clearly visible and my next major destination thrusting steeply into the sky just beyond.
In a sense, I was also doing a recon mission – constantly checking snow conditions for a potential winter presidential traverse coming up soon – when the conditions are favorable!
Descending the peak of Washington, somewhat still in disbelief that an objective such as this could be accomplished and now over so quickly, I was truly all laughs and smiles as I bounded down the windswept slopes. In sections, all of the typical ankle-snapping rocks had been tucked away behind a layer of crust – what I imagine glacier travel to be like, and sure as hell I want more of it!!
It was easy to see the half-buried rock cairns, which I continued to kind of follow, keeping them in the back of my mind but really quite lax in trying to actually follow the true trail – as long as I stayed off grass and mushy things that were not rock, snow or ice, I was content!
With each step I was able to look back at the towers adorning the reaches of Washington’s summit, thinking out loud “yikes.. came that far, already!”
Just prior to reaching the beautiful lakes down below I encountered the first instance where I thought a hand on my axe would have put my mind at a bit higher ease – the side of the ridge just sloped right away, and one misstep would have a hiker careening many hundreds of feet down to the trees waiting below. While probably not a fall to one’s death, there absolutely would be the possibility of catching a crampon spike and twisting an ankle, or worse – with care I traipsed through, leaning up-slope and into my trekking poles, it was really “no problem!“.
The hut was bounding with life now from groups of trekkers taking a snack break after the 2,300 foot climb out of the ravine below. I tried to ask one of the crampon enthusiasts if that was actually sufficient or if they would have preferred to ascend with snowshoes.. all I got in response was snickers and snarls, laughing at the sight of me trekking through these parts wearing only Hillsound spikes, which were admittedly not great – but the 3/4″ spike was better than nothing, that’s for sure!
I was back in my element after leaving the party vibe surrounding the Lakes of the Clouds hut and made way over to the Monroe loop trail. Short and steep. That certainly did not change in the past year and a half since I stood on these slopes with Ciara and the pups, traversing this ridge during the summer months.
The 5+ inches of snow on top of flowing ice had me wishing I had made the switch into full crampons prior to ascending, I will certainly remember that one for next time and probably leave the Hillsounds at home, we’re in crampon country up in these hills!
Again, the wind remained mild upon reaching the final push to 5,372′; photos were snapped, but most importantly.. I stood. Not prepping gear, not eating nuts or drinking rusty water, I just stood absorbing the wind, letting it sway me around space momentarily. I stood staring back at Mount Washington in the far off distance, I had to take this time to sink into myself and just be, just taking up space; thinking about home, thinking about what it was like to be here in this very minute. Thinking of the decisions that I’d made which put me on this summit at 11:15am on January 18th.
The descent off of Monroe, again, reminded me that crampons would have performed ten-thousand times better than the mediocre spike depth that I had entrusted on my feet up to this point: the 6+ inches of snow atop ice flume on the slopes proved to be just a bit deeper than Hillsounds wanted to crunch into.. essentially, I had no traction.
I may have slipped around a bit, but eventually returned in one piece back to the hut below. Happy to see folks now making their way up in snowshoes, I hoped for a nice trek down – at least one devoid of postholes from the previous onslaught of crampons chewing up powder.
I also returned back to my state of snowshoe use, tipped my hat one last time at my friends the mountains, already eager to visit once again as I turned to take the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail down. The trees slumped over, still weighty with the recent snow clutching their boughs. This was postcard country. Possibly one of the most lovely winter scenes that I had hiked in yet, just what was needed to make this already epic day simply over the top, complete with a little bit of everything, now with all of the beauty!
Some ice, a bridge or two, some waterfall hopping, a lot of powder was what the ravine trail had in store for me on the descent. I assumed as a result of this amazing weather, that I would find a slow-moving highway of winter backpackers slogging their way up the hills; what I found to my surprise though were merely two men way down by the trail head, just beginning their adventure – packed to the gills, possibly in for an incredible winter camping experience! As usual, I wished them a fantastic time and scooted by with under a mile remaining.
All the while as I climbed down along the Ammonoosuc River, I couldn’t help but just stand in awe, once again staring – watching the clear water flow through partially frozen blue and green layers hidden in the depths of river water.
As I came out of the forest, I was immediately urged to return, to turn back and walk into the woods – I did not want to believe that my trek had come to a close already, such a perfect day could not be over so soon!
Another page of climbing had come to a close, this chapter of Mount Washington along with Mount Monroe in winter had
come to a close. I had learned so much all along this solo hike, from getting used to gear in winter conditions, becoming more comfortable with tools that I had at my disposal, to listening to my body, fueling it, pushing it, and resting as needed.
I hope this recount helped learn you a few things about winter conditions in the mountains, and with a bit of preparation, showed just how enjoyable life in the backcountry truly can be. While some would argue ascending in sub-zero temperatures could be too dangerous – I too agree, but we must take the knowledge and experience learned time after time, trek after trek into the wild and apply it to each new step in the forest. Learn to recognize what sounds daring in the mountains and dial it back just a notch or two; pushing one’s self in the hills while knowing what we are capable of, not comparing yourself to the dude in $700 mountaineering boots who, likely has not had the same experiences you have.
Be yourself in the mountains, climb strong, but always work at becoming stronger than the mountains will ever demand of you.
Strive to learn more than you will need to climb smart. Be stronger than you think you will need to be. Eat foods that your body can easily fuel itself on, decide to use real food, whole plant-based foods are without a doubt, better and richer for your body. Don’t think that because hiker dude over there slopping down a pouch of stale beef jerky that you too can excel with the same junk – be surprised with how far GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts) can take you, and bring a water filter.. always.
Did you enjoy my trip into the hills? Let me know!
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Have an epic trek, learn to be safe, have fun always and Happy Climbing!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with COROS Pace
- 9.72 miles
- 5hr 20 minutes
- 4,721′ elevation gain
- Mount Washington – 6,288″
- Ball Crag – 6,106′
- Mount Monroe – 5,372′