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Climbing Mt Jackson and Webster in Winter

Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Ridge

Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Ridge from Mt Jackson

Two weeks ago, I climbed Mt Jackson and Mt Webster with a group of 9 other experienced winter hikers. This is a 6.3 mile loop hike, starting in Crawford Notch on the Webster-Jackson Trail, and then branching off to Jackson, then Mt Webster, and looping back on the Webster Branch Trail. A moderate hike in 3 season weather, it took as 7 hours to complete in snowshoes, and we just made it off the trail at sunset.

We had all gathered to celebrate Brian Glenn's birthday with a weekend of mountaineering and ice climbing in Crawford Notch and nearby Frankenstein Cliff. Brian is a mountaineering trip leader with the Appalachian Mountain Club and a very experienced climber, having summited Rainier, Denali and Kilimanjaro. But he is the nicest, humblest person you're likely to meet in mountaineering and ice climbing circles. He's touched all of our lives as a trip leader, teacher, and fellow hiker and it was great to meet so many other people who were his friends over the weekend.

Brian Glenn (left) on the My Jackson Summit

Brian Glenn (left) on the Mt Jackson Summit

Fitting for Brian's birthday, we had fantastic weather up to the Jackson summit, and despite recent snowfalls the trail was pretty well broken out. After that, things got a little more strenuous, and we had to break 1.3 miles of trail from Jackson to the Mt Webster summit.

Breaking Trail as a Group

One of the advantages of hiking in a group during winter is that you can take turns breaking trail. The lead person will take, say 100 steps, step off to the side to let everyone in the group pass them, and continue at the end. The person behind them will take over as the lead, and so one, so that everyone gets to break trail, and no one gets completely exhausted.

I think we were all a little surprised though by the trail conditions and the difficultly of the 1.3 mile stretch we had to break out wearing snowshoes. It was very tough going. The snow was thigh deep. The trail was obscured by blow downs and snow covered trees, and an atmospheric low blew in obscuring everything in a thick, cold fog.

Despite the exertion level, I started to get cold and began adding insulation layers and eating more food. But I couldn't help remembering my solo hike the day before, when I'd broken out half this distance in similar snow conditions on Mt Avalon. While it was a luxury to break trail with 9 other people, I was feeling my previous day's exertions on top of the current ones.

We eventually made it to Mt Webster and back to a broken out trail, but it had been a major slog, and we still had several miles to hike down and back to the trail head.

An Uneasy Feeling

I was kind of uneasy on this hike. The truth is, I really didn't know in advance where we were headed, what trails we'd be on, what the weather forecast was supposed to be like, or what the trail conditions were.

That's not how I normally hike. I like to plan a route in some detail before I hike it and leave my itinerary with a friend, usually my wife. I'm spontaneous and all, but I've usually thought through potential detours in advance, and I'm always concerned about turnaround times and the like.

As a member of a group, and not the leader, I went along with the group and broke my own, well-established protocol. While I totally trusted the leader, I wasn't comfortable not being on top of this information, especially when the fog rolled in and I wasn't exactly sure where we were (although I knew we were near a big cliff.)

Route Plans

I realized exactly what was bugging me about the trip, yesterday, when my friend George commented on my post about solo hiking in winter. He wrote about the importance of writing a trip plan and leaving it with a friend whenever you go hiking, solo or in a group.

Writing a route plan makes you read the map and think through your route before you go anywhere. But it's an easy thing to forget when you go hiking with a group and you're not the leader.

I'm planning on leading some hikes this winter (honest – I'm writing the trips plans now) and I think I'm going to try to work in a route plan review into the group interaction somehow. This seems like it would be a worthwhile exercise, especially since I'm planning some higher consequence overnight trips in the northern presidentials, which are among the highest peaks in the White Mountains.


  1. Leaving a trip itinerary with someone who knows to expect you back is something that is really often overlooked even by experienced backpackers. Especially when you are going in a group and you didn't plan the outing.

    Thankfully for my forgetful self, my wife knows to ask me for a itinerary before I run out the door. Without that, I'm sure I'd forget quite often. And and I assume that should I ever go missing she'll remember to alert someone :-)

    All that to say, I've found it easier to be good about itinerary notification with someone to hold me accountable and who expects to get an itinerary every time I go out in the woods. I recommend if it's not a spouse, then a good friend or a relative. The key I think is to make it the same person every time so a habit is formed.

  2. So in other words, find someone who cares whether you come back or not, and will demand a route plan in advance.

    One thing my wife used to ask about was who to contact if I go missing. I tell her the state police. This is an important bit of info to include.

  3. Hi Philip, you're recent articles have been of great interest to me. Mainly because this will be my first season of winter activities here in the Northeast. While I have a great amount of experience with winter out west, and 3-season experience here in the East, I don't have the greatest confidence with taking on solo trips out here with unfamiliar territory and the related safety concerns. Generally, I had a couple questions regarding group trips. It looks like you'll be leading some trips in the future…will these be through the boston chapter of the AMC? Though not a member, I plan on joining soon, as it appears to be a great resource for group exploration of the backcountry out here. Do you have any other suggestions for a person looking to get outside but with the safety of a larger more experienced/familiar group? Thanks!!

  4. I'll be leading trips with the Random Group of Hikers on meetup.com. This is a gung-ho group that does a lot of 4 season hiking in the Whites. They're mainly focused on day hikes, but they have a lot of advanced members who take on big stuff.

    Interestingly, a lot of hikers in this group signed up for the Boston AMC Winter Hiking Program this year, which I high highly recommend to anyone interested in winter hiking in the Whites. Absolutely fantastic classroom and outdoor instruction, plus associated trips for WHP attendees. They also have a great Ice Climbing program, which I'll probably sign up for next year.

    The problem with the AMC is that they have so few trips, which is why you should join the Random Group also. They have several each week and it's a great group to meet other hikers in. You might also try the New England Hiking Group, which I am also associated with. They're a little less hardcore, but they run a lot of trips too and I've led trips with them as well.

    Hope that helps. Here are some links:
    http://www.meetup.com/random-hikers/ http://www.meetup.com/New-England-Hiking-Meetup/ http://www.hbbostonamc.org/index.php/Table/Winter

  5. Konrad – there are also a few things you should be aware of with the AMC. I don't believe you need to be a member to join one of their hikes. In addition, with your experience, you can probably talk you way onto a winter AMC trip. These are listed at outdoors.org. We're getting into the best part of winter right now, so get out there!

  6. Hi Phil,

    I think you might want to separate your desire to have all the details from everyone else's. When hiking with Adam and my nephews I used to try to get each of them to identify where we were on the map at each junction. My son Adam was the only one interested in it. I finally resigned myself to the fact that Adam and I enjoy maps and my nephews were content to just hike.

    We joke that if both Adam and I get hurt the four of us are totally screwed but the truth is I only take my nephews backpacking on trails where I am sure we will see other hikers.

    FYI – I am impressed you figured thsi out about yourself so quickly; it usually takes me a while for the light bulb to turn on.


  7. Philip, thank you so much for the info! Hopefully I'll see you out there in the near future.

  8. On almost every occasion that I have left an itinerary with park's staff, I have returned later only to find there has been a shift change and my itinerary was not passed onto or mentioned to the following shift.

    Tell a friend or family member, but never trust the park staff to care about your safe return.

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