I bagged Mt Monroe (5,372 ft), on the final day of winter this past Sunday, on a glorious day in the White Mountains. The weather in New Hampshire has been crap for the past 6 weeks, with high winds and precipitation, so I’m glad we were able to get a good weather window, before the official end of the winter season.
While winter conditions will prevail on the high summits for another 4-6 weeks, the lower elevations in the Whites are melting off. The snow pack on top of the rivers and streams have given way to clear water and you can start to see the ground again once you get out of the shade of the forest and into the sun. It shouldn’t be long before the trees start to bud and mud season starts.
If you’re interested in climbing Monroe, which is one of New Hampshire’s highest peaks, the fastest approach is from the west up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. Though a short 7.0 miles RT, this route is extremely steep and can be uncomfortable for less experienced winter hikers because crampons are required in winter. It’s a little less gnarly when there’s no snow or ice, but it’s still a challenging ascent.
My hiking and climbing partner for the day was my pal, Nature Ninja. This is the 3rd season we’ve been hiking together in winter.
We started our hike at the Base Station, which has a tremendous view of Mt Washington. It was my first time hiking from this trail head, and the lot was packed with backcountry skiers, wanting to ski down the western face of Washington or Tuckerman Ravine, both popular, but gnarly descents, requiring good avalanche awareness and rescue skills.
We met about a dozen other hikers on the same route yesterday, which climbs to the Lake of the Clouds Hut at 5,012 ft, where it intersects with the Crawford Path. From there, hikers can hike north 1.4 miles to the summit of Mt Washington (6278 ft) or head south about 4/10 of a mile to the summit of Mt Monroe at 5374 ft.
On Sunday, I was able to bare boot the trail for the first hour or so, but switched to full step-in crampons shortly before the Gem pool at 2.1 miles. During the rest of the year, this is a pool at the base of a 600 foot waterfall, but on Sunday is was still frozen over. From here, the trail ascends at a 45 degree angle, climbing 850 feet in 4/10 of a mile. I took out my ice axe for this section and actually used it at one point for a lightning fast self arrest, on the ledges above the top of the waterfall.
After this steep bit, the trail continues to ascend over blue ice and wind slab, to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, which is closed up in winter, but provides a handy wind break. The snow is actually piled up to the roof in the front of the hut, barring access, but there is an emergency shelter underneath and around back in the the basement.
During the summer months, the area around the hut is a big grassy lawn on the southern face of Mt Washington, and home to rare alpine plants and two glacial tarns. These were all covered in snow and blue ice yesterday, and it looked like a moonscape, with just a few cairns peaking up through the crust.
When we arrived at the hut, we met a few hikes who are friends with Ninja and who were headed up to Mt Washington. I was bonking a bit, so I parked myself in the intense sunshine on the roof of the hut and had some food and water, while she did some socializing. After a while, I went and bagged Monroe while she hung out. I’m not exactly sure why she didn’t come along, since it’s such an easy hike to the peak, but she’s like that sometimes. Peaks are less important to her than getting out and doing a strenuous hike.
The views from Monroe were exceptional. The weather towers on top of Mount Washington were clearly visible 2 miles to the north (see above), and Mts Franklin and Eisenhower were easy to see, to our south. While the temperatures were in the 20’s, the wind was a scant 5-10 mph, although the sun was quite intense and I had to wear glacier glasses to shield my eyes.
Many of my friends were out and about yesterday in the awesome weather and it would have been a fine day to do a full winter Presidential Traverse, which is one of the hardest hikes up here.
Still bagging Monroe was good enough for me, and a great end to a fine winter 2011 hiking season.