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.
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 visibility. Worse yet, both the National Weather Service and the Mount Washington Observatory 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.
Still, I packed my bag Wednesday night. 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; mediocre 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.
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.
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. Back on track, I crossed the Cog Railway and continued. Suddenly, the back corner of the Tip Top House appeared through the gray, much larger and closer than I expected. 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. I found a group of people from the Mount Washington Observatory 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 way down.
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 continued snacking.
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 post. This year, rock poked out of the snow everywhere I looked.
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.
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):
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts, please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm.
AMC Backcountry Information Specialist