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Climbing East Osceola in Winter

Section hiker and Nature Ninja
Section Hiker and NatureNinja

Nature Ninja and I haven’t done much hiking together this winter, but we finally hooked up last weekend and bagged another winter 4,000 footer named East Osceola. While we’ve both climbed this peak before, we’ve never climbed it from the Greeley Ponds side of the Osceola Ridge, or experienced the 45% grade from this side.

Although we’d both studied the map the night before and knew there were some steep bits, I don’t think we really put two and two together until we started kicking steps for the last mile of the ascent. The White Mountain Guide says that this is one of the steepest trails in all of the White Mountains region, and I wouldn’t dispute that.

We started our climb at the Greeley Ponds Trail Head, which is just below the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway. Neither of us had every hiked this trail before and I think we were both impressed with how beautiful it was in the snow. If you continue past the Mt Osceola Trail head, you can hike straight through Mad River Notch, to the trails in Waterville Valley at the foot of the Tripyramids and Mt Tecumseh. If you try to drive this in winter, it’d take you an hour, but it’s only a distance of 4 miles to Tripoli Rd by ski or snowshoe.

We’d left our snowshoes in the car, under the assumption the trail would be broken out and packed. It was broken out, but pretty soft and really borderline. Nature Ninja put on a pair of Hillsound Trail Crampons, but I just bare booted it. I’ve been doing that a lot more this year to save energy on ascents. It makes a real difference.

We took a quick water break at the intersection with the Mt Osceola trail, which first ascends East Osceola, before continuing up Mt Osceola. We were just doing the first peak today, which is covered in forest, because winds were 40-60 mph on the second peak, which is very exposed.

Nature Girl on East Osceola
Nature Girl on East Osceola

East Osceola was actually a Plan B; our original goal had been to climb Lafayette (5,260 ft), but we called that because of the wind. I don’t think I’m going to be able to climb it before the “official” end of winter on March 20th, but I do hope to bag Monroe (5,372 ft) before then, if we get some decent weather.

About a mile from the summit the trail got very, very steep and we started to encounter ice covered rock. I backed down a bit to “level trail”, put on my step-in crampons, took out my ice axe, and switched with Ninja to lead. I reckon we were at about 3,200 ft elevation at this point, notable because this was the level of the fog/cloud cover. This was going to be a viewless hike.

As I climbed, I noticed that someone, it looked like a solo climber, had been up this way before us, also wearing crampons. Judging by the freshness of the spike marks, I figured they were not that far ahead of us.

The climbing wasn’t difficult, but the snow was quite soft due to rising temperatures, and I used my axe as a cane, ready to self-arrest if I fell. A fall here would have been an unpleasant slide down a steep slope and into pine trees. There’s no telling when I would have stopped.

Avalanche Zone on East Osceola
Avalanche Zone on East Osceola

Avalanche Zone

Things got rather interesting as we crossed an obvious avalanche zone. You could tell by the lack of vegetation, the angle of the slope, and the run out path, that this section of trail had slid before. I did some hasty snow tests and shot the angle of the slope in a few spots with my compass clinometer. I’d taken an avalanche certification class a few weeks earlier, and it was cool to apply my new learned skills to assess the avalanche potential and history of this slide zone.

A few more pitches, and we made it to the summit where we met several other groups of hikers. The weather wasn’t great, so we had a quick snack and water break and about faced it back the way we came. Unfortunately, a lot of the hikers we’d met had opted to butt slide down our tracks, eliminating all of the steps that we’d kicked in on the way up.

I’ve given up trying to explain to hikers and climbers the danger of sliding or glissading down a peak wearing traction. I view it as natural selection: if they want to kill themselves, let them. At least we’ll get them out of the breeding population.

Anyway, it meant we had to be extra careful on our descent since we were climbing down a trail that had been effectively turned into a bobsled run. If that wasn’t bad enough, the temperature had risen to the point that snow was starting to clump under my crampons in bowling ball sized snowballs, and I kept falling over into the snow alongside the trail. I eventually just took the crampons off and bare booted it back the trailhead and out.

Summary

I really enjoyed this hike and the challenge of climbing East Osceola. I’m also very interested in coming back and studying the avalanche zone here in more detail. I know that there are a lot more steep features and slide zones like this on other big mountains in the Whites and not just in Huntington or Tuckerman Ravine, at the foot of Mt Washington. It will be fun to discover the rest and uncover their mysteries.

7 comments

  1. Interesting indeed! I was under the impression that the only avalanche areas were on Washington and maybe a few of the other highest peaks. I climbed that backside of Osceola on the New England Trail, just after ice had started to form, and it was a bit sketchy going up that slope. Well worth it though. I'm glad natural selection didn't get me :)

  2. There are plenty of other slopes with slide potential. Technically anything between 25% and 50%, if the snow conditions are right. For example, arrow slide on North Hancock, Willy's slide on Mt Willey, the north slide on North Tripyramid, Cinema gully and Silver Cascade in Crawford Notch. King Ravine. The list goes on.

    While Huntington and Tuckerman probably have the most frequent slides, and are filled with the most people, avalanches zones do exist elsewhere in the whites. The best way to be safe is to avoid them in winter and to understand the snowpack signs of a potential slide by getting proper avalanche prediction and rescue certification.

    On a historical note, you have no doubt heard the expression "it gives me the willies." This expression was coined after an avalanche on Mt Willey swept a train off the tracks that run underneath it, during a winter rescue of a family that lived on the mountain.

  3. Good point. I climbed Tripyramid the day before Osceola, and I should have remembered– that would be a super avalanche zone. I definitely choose the "avoid" option in winter for things like that.

    Oh, those willies. Maybe we should just start renaming them at random. Like, "that gives me the wrights!" (Wright Creek on the PCT, and the Wright Trail on Goose Eye both seemed a little insane to me. Good times!)

  4. I know the exact section of trail you're describing. The snow is anchored quite well in this area and the probability of a big slide are minimal. However, in the proper snow conditions those tress could be a perfect trigger point. It's always fun to find portions of trail such as this where one can put relevant skills to use.

  5. Nice report. I don't understand why people choose to slide down mountains like that. Its almost just as fast, and safer, to walk. Good luck getting to Monroe before the season ends; I am hoping to bag Washington before winter "officially" ends.

  6. Phillip,

    Coming from flatter lands (Cleveland) I'm not quite sure I understand the risks of glissading while wearing foot traction. In our local woods a 50' slide down a little gully is all we get.

    Is the problem in your area, that people who glissade will catch their crampon points because they don't keep their legs up high, trip over them and tumble down?

    Thanks,

    Marty Cooperman

  7. Compound Fractures. Very nasty when you are hours away from an ER.

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