Winter Trip Planning
My co-leader Bill and I had been carefully monitoring the weather all week for an above-treeline hike over Mt Pierce (4312′) and Mt Eisenhower (4779′) in the Southern Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Our planned route included 4.0 miles of fully exposed above-treeline travel and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to be blown off the ridge or drenched in sleet and freezing rain in cold hypothermia conditions.
But the forecast held steady all week and we knew we’d have clear weather for our hike before a storm blew in from the south bringing sleet and freezing rain to the higher summits in the late afternoon and evening. If there’s one skill that winter hikers need to develop for hiking in the White Mountains it’s weather forecasting and the judgement of when and when not to hike, especially above treeline (see Winter Weather Forecasting in New Hampshire’s White Mountains).
Just to be on the safe-side, I changed the route of our hike from being an out and back to a loop hike that climbed the Crawford Path to Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower (via the Eisenhower Loop Trail), so that we’d descend by the Edmand’s Path, on the other side of the mountain from the oncoming storm. This eliminated about 1 mile of above treeline travel from our route and spared us from walking back down the Crawford Path in freezing fog, as it happened.
We met at the Mt Clinton Rd Parking lot across for the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch at 8:00 AM and hiked along the following trails as follows:
- Crawford Connector to Crawford Path to Webster Cliff Tr to Mt Pierce Summit (3.1 miles)
- Mt Pierce Summit to the Mt Eisenhower Loop, via the Crawford Path (1.7 miles)
- Mt Eisenhower Loop (south side) to Mt Eisenhower Summit Cairn (o.3 miles)
- Mt Eisenhower Loop (north side) to Edmand’s Path (0.4 miles)
- Edmand’s Path to Mt Clinton Rd (2.9 miles)
- Mt Clinton Rd to Crawford Connector (2.3 miles)
Total mileage: 10.7 miles with 2750′ of elevation gain
Hiking up the Crawford Path to the summit of Pierce is a fairly relentless climb gaining 2350 feet in 3.1 miles. But the trail was well packed down and we made excellent time, just stopping for a few layer breaks, and wearing microspikes for traction.
I’d been looking forward to this hike because I got to see my friend Maria again, who’s a backpacking leader with the New York/New Jersey Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and leads a lot of trips in the Catskills and Adirondacks. This was her first above-treeline winter hike in the White Mountains and I wanted it to be memorable.
We layered up again right below the summit of Mt Pierce, which is effectively bald when covered in winter snow, and marks the transition between the dwarf trees called krummholz and the above-treeline section of the Southern Presidentials, extending all the way to the summit of Mt Washington, 5.4 miles away.
Bill and I could hear Maria and her friend’s jaws click open when we emerged above treeline below Pierce and were surrounded by views of mountains as far as the eye can see. I take it one of the differences between the White Mountains and the Adirondacks is that you can see so many mountains from the other high peaks. Steve Smith, in The 4000 footers of the White Mountains, documents 30 mountains which are visible from Mt Pierce and 42 mountains from the summit of Mt Eisenhower.
We hiked up to the cairns on Pierce and I pointed out some of the surrounding peaks, including the snowy crown of nearby Jackson, the distant blanket of snow on Mt Carrigan’s Signal Ridge, the snow encrusted cliffs above Zealand Hut, and the slides on the east side of Franconia Ridge. The cloud ceiling was relatively low, but high enough that you could see clean across to the other side of the Whites. That would change soon though. We could see dark grey clouds on the horizon, moving in from the south, but we still had plenty of time.
We proceeded to hike from Pierce along the Crawford Path over packed snow, wind slab, and ice, passing through areas of stunted trees on the ridgeline. There aren’t a lot of cairns marking this section of trail, so I mostly followed the packed path left by other hikers’ crampons and microspikes when the trail became uncertain. Conditions were perfect. There was very little wind and face protection wasn’t required, although we’d all donned hard shells and a bit more insulation.
When we reached the south end of the Eisenhower loop, I could see that freezing fog had descended on Mt Carrigan about 10 miles south of us, completely obscuring the peak. It was a little after noon and getting closer to when the storm was expected to arrive.
We climbed up to the summit of Eisenhower which is also bald, and has a marked resemblance to Ike’s bald pate. The wind was picking up as we made our way down to the col between Eisenhower and Mt Franklin, and the Edmand’s Path Trail Junction. Once we’d descended to the col, we were completely out of the wind and would be for the remainder of the hike.
We headed down the Edmand’s Path and quickly ran into deep snow that had blown off Eisenhower’s summit, burying the trail under about 6-8 feet of snow. We switched to snowshoes and hiked down the trail, which was invisible. But I knew where the trail was supposed to run by looking at the land forms on my topographic map and we soon found a blue blaze at ankle level, and then another, which was reassuring. (I’ve hiked Edmand’s Path before in 3 season conditions and knew what I was looking for.)
From that point, following the trail became easy and the snow depth decreased the farther we moved west from Eisenhower and the southern Presidential Ridge. We were breaking trail, but we had gravity on our side until about 3900′ when we ran into three hikers bare-booting their way up the trail. From that point if was an easy hike down Mt Clinton Road, which is closed in winter, but packed out by snowmobiles, and back to our cars.
When we reached our cars, nearby Crawford Notch and the Presidential Range where completely socked in with freezing fog, which turned into horizontal sleet and freezing rain about an hour later. I’m sure we would have been fine coming back down the Crawford Path the same way we’d hiked up, but coming down Edmand’s Path out of the weather had worked beautifully as a foul weather alternative and made this a very pleasant loop hike with a bit of adventure on the way down.