AMC Outdoors, January/February 2005
Ya gotta love winter in the Northeast. The fourth season transforms our highest peaks into wind-scoured alpine islands of snow and ice, as spectacular as they are challenging. Stepping into the arctic above-treeline world provides great adventure, bringing you into the domain of some of Nature’s most primal forces. Trails sheltered below treeline can be equally thrilling as they clamber over icy boulders and ascend steep snow-covered slopes.
With proper preparation and respect for the winter weather and terrain, a visit to the Northeast’s highest peaks can be done safely and comfortably. The first step is outfitting yourself with the basic mountaineering equipment that most high peaks demand, and that many challenging lower-elevation trails require: crampons and an ice axe.
Crampons, those wicked metal spikes on the bottom of your boots, are necessary to avoid slips and falls when hiking on firm snow and ice. The Northeast climate—with generally “wet” snow (high water content), strong winds up high, and wide temperature swings from above freezing to far below—tends to create ice and hard-packed snow cover on the ground above treeline. At lower elevations, rock-solid ice flows can fill many steep sections of trail and make climbing without crampons treacherous, if not impossible.
Crampons are not necessary for travel in soft snow, however, and can be dangerous to wear in some situations. Numerous accidents occur each year when hikers wear them at the wrong time.
Crampons become a detriment and potential hazard once the snow underfoot becomes soft enough that you can sink a boot toe (going uphill) or heel (going downhill) fairly deeply into the surface. In these conditions, snow will usually pack into a baseball shape under crampons, which can cause you to slide, trip, or turn an ankle. Anti-balling plates—small sheets of plastic or latex that attach to the underside of the crampons—will help prevent snow from accumulating, but it’s better to just put the crampons away at these times.
Remember to always remove crampons when glissading (also known as sliding downhill on your rear end). Otherwise, you risk catching a crampon point, being violently flipped forward, and breaking your ankle.
In order to wear crampons, you will need rigid boots with a stiff sole. Plastic mountaineering boots that come with an insulated, removable booty are the best—and warmest—footwear. They are ideal for winter travel, and all but essential above treeline.
Crampons attach either with a tension lever that snaps easily into place on the raised heel welt found on plastic and heavy leather mountaineering boots; or with straps, which provide the most versatility and can be used with a wider range of footwear.
While it is possible to use crampons with regular hiking boots, it is not recommended. The flexible sole found on most boots makes it difficult to securely attach crampons, and will stress the metal (and your feet) as you hike. Also, tightening the straps across the soft upper can cause discomfort and restrict the blood flow essential for warm feet.
With the recent boom in ice climbing, gear shops usually bristle with a range of wildly fanged, specialized crampons. For general mountaineering and winter hiking, though, your best bet is a classic, semi-rigid 10-point crampon like the Grivel G10 or Black Diamond Contact Strap. These are versatile enough to use with a variety of footwear, and perfectly adequate for the majority of conditions encountered in the Northeast.
Most crampons are made of steel, which is durable and stays sharp, but is heavy. For basic winter hiking, lighter weight aluminum models are often sufficient. Check out the Kahtoola Traction System, whose 10 points all angle downward (no front points). Their short points allow a more natural gait and are less tippy on wind-scoured alpine terrain, such as in the Presidential Range.
Take your pick
The primary purpose of an ice axe is to prevent a long, dangerous slide down a steep, snow-covered slope. A lightweight, straight-shaft ice axe is most suitable for general mountaineering, though the appropriate length will vary depending on your height.
To gauge the size you need, stand up straight, hold the ice axe head loosely in your hand, and hang your arm and the axe straight down the side of your body. The spike at the bottom of the ice axe should be level with the round knobby bone on the outside of your ankle. For most people, a length of 60 to 70 centimeters is ideal.
An ice axe is a common accoutrement for winter hikers, but is often unnecessary on lower-angle winter routes. On many hiking trails—like the popular Lion Head Trail on Mount Washington or Mount Lafayette’s Old Bridle Path—most of the time an ice axe functions more as a glorified walking stick. On these routes, consider using adjustable trekking poles for balance rather than carrying the weight of an axe.
On steeper routes, like headwall snow climbs out of the Great Gulf, or in Huntington and Tuckerman ravines, you’ll want an ice axe in hand and the knowledge of how to use it. Tackling these steeper routes requires some basic mountaineering skills, especially the ability to self-arrest—using the ice axe to stop yourself from sliding in the event of a fall. Knowledge of the proper methods for travel will prevent yourself from falling in the first place.
These techniques, along with other mountaineering skills such as belaying, building snow anchors, roped travel, and evaluating avalanche hazard, can be learned in AMC workshops (see page 36) and from professional guide services.
In winter, the peaks of the Northeast provide some of the best training grounds for mountaineering anywhere. Hone your skills here, and you’ll be ready to travel virtually anywhere.