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A Winter Hike to Mount Garfield

Breaking Above Treeline on Mount Garfield (4500')
Breaking Above Treeline on Mount Garfield (4500′)

The temperature was in the single digits when I woke on Saturday morning just before dawn. I’d decided to spend the weekend sleeping outside in my tent and -25 degree sleeping bag, while my friends slept all snug and warm inside of Subsig Cabin, a rustic cabin located in Crawford Notch. The thought of sleeping with 14 other hikers in one room, sawing away all night, was far less appealing than sleeping in the cold under the stars with over a foot of snow underneath my sleeping pads.

I pulled on my freezing softshell pants and got dressed before postholing to the cabin door to make myself breakfast. My friend Bob had already started boiling water for Pam and I to store in insulated water bottle holders for our hike up Mt Garfield. We were leading an Appalachian Mountain Club hike to the summit, with 10 other hikers who’d decided to drive up that morning from Boston for an 8:00 am start.

Normally, the round trip distance to Mt Garfield is 10 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation gain. But in winter, the road leading to the trailhead is closed, so you need to park just off Rt 3 and walk in another 1.25 miles, increasing the round trip distance of the hike to 12.5 miles. The road is flat, so the extra distance is no big deal, and the snow is packed down because snowmobilers use it.

Hiking behind Yorghos
Hiking behind Yorghos

After the big storm last week, the mountains have snow again and it is a lovely sight, with over a fresh foot of snow on the ground. Lucky for us, the Garfield Ridge Trail had already been broken out by 4 friends of ours a few days prior, so we didn’t have to break it ourselves, an exhausting task over 4.5 miles. We still carried our snowshoes up the trail though, because we didn’t know how broken our the trail would be (4 people can’t pack down a trail very well) or whether the wind would have blown drifts across it. It would suck to get 3 miles into the hike and then have to posthole for another 2 miles because we didn’t have the right flotation and traction.

While I knew most of the people in our group, there were a few new people to meet. This is normal on AMC hikes where about half of the participants are old friends and half newcomers, who quickly become new friends during the span of the walk. Meeting a lot of new hikers is one of the great benefits of leading AMC trips and one of things I enjoy most about doing it. I make a point to move through the line of hikers during the hike to catch up with old friends and hear the newcomers’ stories.

Layer break
Layer break

Our Garfield hike was co-lead by our friend Anne, who a three-season AMC leader working on qualifying for four season (winter) status, which is a big deal in New Hampshire because winter conditions last 6 months of the year. Becoming a 4 season leader is one of the highest volunteer qualifications you can attain in the AMC, and means that you can plan and run your own trips year round. Pam and I have been mentoring Anne this winter on how to run a winter trip (most of the work occurs before the day of the hike), so she really deserves most of the credit for organizing and leading such an enjoyable outing.

Despite the cold temperatures, we all started to sweat profusely when we started to gain elevation and we did a fair amount of layering, pulling off layers and putting them back on to avoid overheating and alternately, getting cold. Anne did a really good job keeping these transition times very short and we made excellent time on the hike, not that it’s a race or anything, but we needed to keep moving to stay warm.

Philip with facemask and goggles at the summit of Garfield, next to the old firetower foundation
Philip with facemask and goggles at the summit of Garfield, next to the old fire tower foundation

The winds had been forecast to be brisk on Saturday, so we knew we’d have to wear full face protection with balaclavas, facemasks, and goggles above treeline. We stopped for a 10 minute break below treeline and put them on, including more insulation and heavier gloves. I checked everyone’s facemasks to make sure no skin was showing and we headed for the summit.

Owls Head Mountain and the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Owls Head Mountain (left) and the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness

I took the lead, climbing steeply through the krummholz to the open area just below the summit’s old fire tower foundations. We’d timed it just right, arriving at the summit when there were clear views of Franconia Ridge, Owlshead Mountain , deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and the Twin Mountains to the west.

North and South Twin
North and South Twin

I scrambled up to the summit getting a hand from another masked hiker and took in the view for a few minutes until my hands got cold and I dropped back down out of the wind. It was too cold to stay very long in full exposure, so we dropped below treeline again and took a long food break, munching on the decadent Nutella stuffed chocolate chip cookies Anne had made special for the occasion. While we were eating I was dive-bombed by a Gray Jay, who tried to steal a package of gorp I was eating, only to spill half of it into the snow. I’m sure that bird had itself a feast after we left. A flying rat.

After we’d had our fill of snacks, I took the lead again laying down a very fast pace for the 5.75 mile hike down the mountain and back to the cars. We flew, in part to stay warm in the waning sunlight, and because it was so easy to hike down hill. What had taken over 5 hours to hike up, only took a bit more than 2 hours to hike out!

I felt really good on this hike, like I’m finally back in winter hiking shape. It was great to be out in the sun again too, with fresh snow all around. It’s a curious thing: hiking these peaks and trails never gets old, even in winter.

Total Distance/Time: 12.5 miles with 3,000 feet of elevation/8 hours

Snow conditions: packed out but unconsolidated snow, light traction helpful.

2 comments

  1. What type of traction did you use for this hike? Did Micro spikes or snowshoes work? Or did you need full crampons?

    • Most people used microspikes and did fine. The final ascent up Garfield was just packed snow although it and the rocks above treeline can be icy. I was using the Cypress 6 instep crampon from Hillsound. Good on the flats, but not so good on the steeps.

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