I climbed Galehead (4024′) and South Twin (4902′) Mountains last weekend together with 10 other hikers from the Appalachian Mountain Club. This was a long hike, just over 14 miles in length in winter conditions, and with sunset at 4:15 pm, we hiked out for several hours by headlamp.
We decided on this destination after having to cancel a hike up Mt Washington and Mt Monroe because of high winds above 65 mph with a severe wind chill. Galehead is often a good destination on exceptionally windy days in the White Mountains because the route is almost completely protected by tree cover and long enough to be a full day hike.
In winter, the Gale River Road which leads to the Galehead Trailhead is closed, so you need to park at the Beaver Brook Picnic Area off Rt 3 instead. From the picnic area, follow the cross-country trail that starts next to the kiosk heading south for about 50 yards and take the first right onto another cross-country trail headed west, hiking along it for about a 1/2 mile. This will bring you to Gale River Road, where you can continue to the regular 3 season trailhead. If that sounds vague, go with someone who’s done this hike in winter before or bring a compass, map, and figure it out. If you’ve ever driven down the Gale River Rd, you’ll quickly realize where you are when the cross-country trail meets the road.
Once you reach the trailhead and get on Gale River Trail,it runs alongside the Gale River on an old railroad grade for most of its length. The trail is well maintained and quite easy to follow since it leads to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s three season Galehead Hut (3780′), although it is closed in winter.
The distance from the trailhead to the hut is 4.6 miles with an elevation gain of 2200′. For most of its length, the Gale River Trail climbs very gradually until it gets closer to the Galehead headwall and intersects with the Garfield Ridge Trail. Things get a bit steeper at this point, but there are stone steps along the steepest parts. Of course, in winter, the stone steps are usually covered by thick ice or completely obscured by packed snow, the latter which makes winter hiking somewhat easier than three season hiking because you don’t have to step over so many rocks.
For our hike, I barebooted most of the way until the Galehead headwall where I changed over to microspikes. These started balling up almost immediately which was annoying, but I kept them on while climbing the icy steps and walked on my heels mostly to maintain purchase. That’s the problem with microspikes and one of the reasons why Stabilicers can sometimes be a better winter traction aid, because they don’t ball up when the snow is damp.
Once we’d arrived at Galehead hut, which is the most remote hut in the AMC hut system, I took the lead and led the group up to the largely viewless Galehead Mountain summit. The snow depth wasn’t bad with only about 6 inches of unconsolidated powder, covering a thick layer of solid ice from a recent ice storm which affected most of the White Mountains on the first weekend of calendar winter. As we passed the hut, my friend Joe pointed out the Galehead Hut wheelchair ramp, which is sort of a joke despite being federally mandated, because you’d have to get up the Gale River Trail by wheelchair to use it.
The summit of Galehead Mountain is a very short half mile hike from the hut with 250′ of elevation gain along a trail bordered by mature snow-laden spruce. The woods are surprisingly open as one nears the summit, at least from a bushwhackers’ point of view, opening up potentially interesting opportunities to explore Galehead’s western flank facing Mt Garfield or a ramble down to the little southwestern sub-peak at 2962′ to see what there is to see. I’ve found these little off-trail sojourns to be most fulfilling, especially when they’re located so close to busy thoroughfares like Galehead Hut and the nearby Appalachian Trail, which coincides with the Garfield Ridge Trail. Once you’re off-trail, you’re basically invisible, like walking through a house inside the walls and watching the occupants without them knowing it.
I’ve climbed Galehead Mountain many times, but this hike counted twice, both for the Winter White Mountain 4000 footers (#40/48) and the Trailwright’s 72 (#71/72). I’m not certain that I’ll finish either of those peakbagging lists this winter, but I will get awfully close.
After a short snack on the porch of Galehead Hut, we donned full crampons and climbed nearby South Twin Mountain (4902′), which is always a steep, rocky, and wet climb. Most of us were not that interested in climbing South Twin, which I’ve been up several times this year, because the peak was covered in freezing fog, starting at 4000′. There are normally fantastic views from South Twin but we weren’t going to get to see them.
I literally broke above treeline, hiked over to the summit sign, and above faced back down into the krummholz where I was protected somewhat from the blowing wind. After a few minutes on the summit, everyone headed down the peak and back to the Galehead Hut Spur, starting the long hike back down the Gale River Trail shortly just before sunset. On hindsight, I was glad I’d climbed South Twin for the exercise and crampon practice, even if there were no views.
By 4:30, dusk had turned to night and we hiked out by headlamp. The group of 10 split into a faster group and a slower group, but the faster group had to discipline to stop periodically and wait for slower hikers to catch up. This can often be an issue with less experienced groups – where breaking up is a bad idea – especially in winter – but we had five full 4-season AMC leaders on this trip who helped with group management even though most of them were just along for the hike and not ‘working’. The other participants were also quite experienced winter hikers, who’ve been on many other AMC hikes and know the standard winter safety and group hiking routines we all follow.
The trip down the mountain was straightforward although that we were hiking by headlamp in the pitch black night. I kept my crampons on for about two miles because they have anti-balling plates on them and because they’re exceptionally lightweight (CAMP Nanotech XLC for review), weighing just a few ounces more than microspikes. After that I barebooted the rest of the way back to our cars.
Ravenous, we all headed to GH Pizza in Lincoln, NH – a few doors up from the Mountain Wanderer Bookstore. They have the best pizza in town and the service is quite fast, an important consideration when you need to get up at 4;30am the following day for another strenuous winter hike and need to go to bed early again! Let’s face it, service at the Woodstock Inn is too slow on a Saturday night, and the beer isn’t that good anyway.