The two most difficult winter 4,000 footer hikes in the White Mountains are Owl’s Head Mountain and the Bonds, consisting of Bondcliff, Mount Bond and West Bond Mountain. The difficulty in reaching these peaks stems from their remoteness. All of them are located in the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, requiring long walk-ins or snowshoes, and very long days.
On Saturday, I hiked into Owl’s Head (4025′)and summitted the peak with 7 other very strong and experienced winter hikers, including two Grid finishers – hikers who have climbed all of the 48 x 4000 footers in all 12 months of the year. Our route for this hike was 18 miles long, including the Black Pond and Brutus bushwhacks, and took us 17 hours to complete. I co-led this hike with Joe C., a Grid finisher, and one of the most experienced Appalachian Mountain Club leaders in the White Mountains.
Winter has arrived in the White Mountains and we had 12 inches of newly fallen fresh powder to contend with. Temperatures were in a mid-teens with little wind and the skies were overcast, although new snow was predicted to begin falling by noon.
We met at the Lincoln Woods trail head at 5:30 am and were on our way by 6:05, walking up the Lincoln Woods Trail by headlamp. The trail was broken out, but the snow was very dry and unconsolidated, making for slippery bare booting. Most of us were wearing double plastic boots for this hike designed to keep your feet warm and dry for extended hikes in cold weather or above treeline. They’re also optimal for step-in crampons, although we decided at the trail head to skip climbing Owl’s Head up its steep and icy avalanche slide, and instead bushwhack an alternative route called the Brutus bushwhack, named after a local Newfoundland dog by that name. This meant we could leave our ice axes behind as well, saving between 3 and 6 pounds person.
The Lincoln Woods Trail is always a fast hike and we flew up it before branching off onto the Black Pond Trail. That trail was already broken out somewhat, but we soon switched to snowshoes for better traction and flotation. It looked liked two hikers had broken out the trail the previous day. As Joe likes to say “you need to get up pretty earlier to break trail in the Whites anymore.”
From Black Pond, the traditional bushwhack is to head magnetic north in order to skip two hazardous stream crossings on the Lincoln Brook Trail and to help reduce the trip mileage. Rather than breaking new trail on that bearing, we followed the existing broken out one, even though it took a somewhat less direct path we would of liked. We were interested in speed and conserving our energy at this stage of the hike and came out of the woods at the Lincoln Brook Trail (easily found because its follows an old railroad grade) after 3 hours, well on the way to a 12 hour pace for the hike.
We hiked along Lincoln Brook towards the 2 major stream crossings we’d have to make, admiring the surrounding peaks which were now visible through the leafless trees. From the trail, I could see North and South Hancock, the Bonds, and Liberty and Flume, which are at the southern end of Franconia Ridge. You don’t normally get to see Liberty from this direction, and I was impressed by how rounded the east side of the peak is.
Luckily, both of the stream crossings were bridged and withstood our weight as each of us crossed. Getting wet in these conditions would be life threatening so far from a trail head and rescue, so we were very cautious, We had safety gear along of course, still we were far enough into the backcountry and out of cell phone range that help would be a long time coming and we needed to be able to fend for ourselves. That really sums up the hazard of winter hiking in the Whites.
After the stream crossings, we arrived at the base of Owl’s Head and started to bushwhack up its eastern flank, climbing close to 1,500 feet off-trail, until we merged back onto the Owls Head Path, above the steepest part of the trail, which climbs an icy avalanche slide. The woods were fairly open making for easy whacking, but the going was very steep, and the powdery snow provided little traction as we climbed. This part of the hike was very slow and it took us nearly 3 hours to bushwhack a mile and summit the mountain. Our total time to the summit was 8.5 hours or close to 1 mile per hour.
At the summit, a member of our group started to experience severe shooting pain in their upper hip. She bombed it with ibuprofen but it really slowed down our return pace. So much that the hike out took 9 hours with frequent breaks to allow our injured comrade to catch up to the rest of the group. At 10 pm and 6 miles later, we sent two strong hikers out ahead to call Fish & Game, to see if we could arrange a snowmobile rescue for her. If we could get her back to the Lincoln Woods Trail, there was a chance that they could be snowmobiled out the last 2.8 miles of the hike. Anything farther out would probably require a larger search and rescue effort.
The two hikers were able to get cell phone reception after hiking back to their car (3.5 miles) and driving all the way back to Lincoln, New Hampshire – there’s simply no good cell phone access in the mountains. In the meantime, we walked out our hurting friend, but it was still very slow going and the rest of the group had to layer up because they weren’t moving fast enough to stay warm. The sun goes down at 4:30 pm in December, and we’d been out in the dark for a long time already.
I thought there was a low probability that Fish & Game would send a snowmobile to pick up our injured hiker, but they mobilized two rangers who reached her at 10:30, just as she got back to the Lincoln Woods Trail. It would have been very difficult to get a snowmobile up into the Black Pond area, so this was probably the earliest point where any assistance could be offered. She declined medical attention – it was really just pain – and probably a muscle strain brought on by over exertion.
It’s bad luck for us all that her body had reacted that way it did, but a valuable lesson that a similar incident could happen to anyone hiking in the winter Whites. If there’s a lesson to be learned it’s that you need to hike with other people on high risk hikes of this magnitude, you need to bring emergency SOL gear – which we had, and that you may need to walk out quite a distance to get in range for an extraction. Winter hiking in the Whites is much less forgiving than 3 season hiking and you need to be on your best game if you attempt a hard route.
Personally, I think I’m going to backpack these long routes from now on and break them into multi-day trips. I’ve had my fill of 18+ hour hikes this year. It’s a style of hiking that was worth trying, but that I really don’t enjoy that much. I’d much rather hike for 2 days and enjoy myself than hike for 1 and be a zombie for a day afterwards.
Still, despite the hurdles we faced on this hike, I’d glad that we bagged Owl’s Head in winter. All of the physical training and day hiking with a heavy winter pack that I’ve been doing this autumn seems to be paying off and I’m ready for more big climbs on my winter 4,000 footer list.