Mount Osceola (4340′) and its subordinate peak East Osceola (4156′) are always a challenging climb in winter. Scarred by avalanche slides and ice encrusted cliffs, it is hard to comprehend how rugged these mountains are until you need to carry full winter gear up their steep slopes or climb them off-trail.
When approached from the Greeley Pond Trail in Mad River Notch (the winter route), the biggest challenge is climbing the steep western face of East Osceola. Rising 1860 feet in 1.5 miles, this section of trail requires crampons or snowshoes with televator lifts to climb in winter, depending on trail conditions.
That was the case on Saturday when seven of us climbed both peaks, completing the 7.6 miles round trip with 3100 feet of elevation gain in 7.5 hours. Visibility was poor with a low cloud ceiling ahead of an expected winter storm, which cheated us of the magnificent views available from Mount Osceola. But the beautiful, ice encrusted winter woods made for pleasant snowshoeing in the sag between East Osceola and Mount Osceola and I got to practice some of my more technical mountaineering skills, which is something that always gives me a lot of satisfaction.
On the first leg of our hike, we bare-booted it on packed trail from the Greely Ponds trail head off the Kancamagus Highway to the junction with the Mt Osceola Trail. I wanted to continue bare-booting as far as I could to save my energy, but the snow was soft and unconsolidated, and I was eventually forced to switch to snowshoes for more flotation. While there were a few points on the climb where switching to crampons would have been better to climb through some icy spots and steep sections of trail, we were able to power through them to the summit.
From East Osceola, it was an easy 0.5 mile hike to the base of Mount Osceola and a feature called the Chimney, with only about 200 meters of elevation loss. The Chimney is about a 25′ vertical climb that is fairly easy to do in warm weather, but which most people hike around in winter. When we arrived it was full of ice, so we decided to take the detour which still takes some careful footwork over rock, pack snow, and some ice. Switching to crampons, those of us who had brought ice axes got them out and put away our hiking poles for the scramble upwards.
Once past the Chimney, there’s still a fair walk up to the summit of Osceola and the foundations of the old fire tower. As we climbed, the trees thinned and the trail became increasingly exposed. It had started snowing by now and the winds were coming from the southeast which is never a good sign in the White Mountains and often an indication that a Nor’easter (major winter storm) is making its way up the east coast.
After summitting, we didn’t linger but about-faced it down to the shelter of the trees between the two peaks for food and drink. With the incoming storm and snowfall intensifying, we re-climbed East Osceola and descended steeply in crampons, with ice axes ready to arrest a fall.
I love walking down this side of East Osceola, across and past the avalanche slide that runs alongside the Osceola Ridge Trail. You can feel the power of this mountain when you have to traverse the slide in winter and see the path of destruction it has unleashed below. Few hikers ever realize how close they are meeting their fate if the snow “decides” to slide, all the more reason to hone your winter skills and not get complacent when hiking the Whites in winter.
Another great winter hike, with more to come!