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Winter Navigation and Escape Route Planning

When bad weather rolls in above treeline, you want to have a pre-planned escape route that provides better cover
When bad weather rolls in above-treeline, you want to have a pre-planned escape routes that provide better cover.

Whenever you plan hikes in backcountry areas, far from roads or towns, it’s useful to plan out escape routes in case an unexpected thunderstorm storm or blizzard blows in, you encounter white-out conditions, avalanche conditions, flash floods, forest fires, or you need to evacuate a companion.

I do contingency planning like this when hiking across exposed terrain without much cover, above-treeline or in winter, when there’s a real risk of bodily harm or death if things go pear-shaped. Counting on rescue or extraction in such extreme conditions seldom pays off and the only way to save your butt is to save it yourself.

While local knowledge, namely planning with someone who knows the local terrain week is useful, you don’t always have access to it. On the flip side, complacency, because you are local, can be dangerous unless you think out the pros and cons of different routes with your partners in advance.

An example is in order. While this will prove most useful for White Mountain winter hikers, it makes some universal points about how to plan winter escape routes that are applicable for anyone planning an above-treeline hike or ski tour.

Above Treeline Warning Sign, White Mountains, New Hampshire
Above-Treeline Warning Sign, Presidential Range, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Winter Escape Routes in the Presidential Range

The Presidential Range is a mountain range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that links Mt Washington’s northern and southern ridges. The range includes nine mountain summits that are 4000 feet or higher, including Mt Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson. A full nineteen miles traverse of these peaks in called a Presidential Traverse and includes nine miles of above-treeline hiking with 9,000-10,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. However, numerous winter hikers also climb the individual peaks.

The ridge is bounded to the east and west by steep ravines and glacial cirques. While there are several dozens hiking trails that climb to the ridgeline, most are too dangerous or remote to use in winter, limiting the number of good winter escape routes available.

Winter Escape Routes - Presidential Range, White Mountains, New Hampshire
Winter Escape Routes – Presidential Range, White Mountains, New Hampshire. The red areas are shaded slopes. (click if you want to drill into this map on Caltopo)

The best winter escape routes (marked in black) in the Presidential Range are:

  • Valley Way Trail – Easy to find from the Madison Springs Hut (closed in winter). Heavily wooded below treeline (4500′) providing good protection. Runs directly to the Appalachia Trailhead and Rt 2.
  • Lowes Path – Can be difficult to follow without a compass from Thunderstorm Junction to treeline in bad visibility, but leads to Gray Knob cabin which is manned and has a radio. Runs directly to Lowes Garage and Rt 2.
  • Jewell Trail – Top of trail is exposed, but easy to follow through krummholz. Runs directly to the Cog Railroad lot with good winter road access.
  • The Cog Railroad – Hard to miss. Follow the railroad track down to the Cog station. Good winter road access.
  • Ammonoosuc Trail – Easy to find from Lakes of the Clouds Hut (closed in winter). Very icy at the top and a bit hard to follow in poor visibility. Traces a safe route down the ravine and runs directly to Cog railroad lot with good winter road access.
  • Edmands Path – Top can be blocked by deep snow, but drops into the trees quickly and leads to a road with good snowmobile access. Once down, you can walk out to the AMC Highland Center and Rt 302 in Crawford Notch.

All of these routes avoid dangerous terrain and serve to get you below treeline and into cover as quickly as possible. Most are easy to follow with a compass in a white-out or because they follow obvious geographic features that force you to hike in the right direction. In many cases, they’re also the only safe route off the ridgeline and out to safety, because other routes are too dangerous to follow.

Winter Hazards

If you look at a map of the Presidential Range, there are about two dozen trails that lead above-treeline to the summits along the ridge. Why are most of them impassable in winter? What makes a trail that’s safe for three-season use, dangerous in winter conditions?

Avalanche Zones

The prevailing winds that sweep the Presidential Range run from the west to the east, blowing snow off the ridge into the eastern cirques and ravines which are prone to avalanche activity. While avalanche forecasting is available for Tuckerman Ravine and Huntington Ravine on the east side of Mt Washington (because of their popularity with skiers and ice climbers) avalanche conditions can occur in other locations, including north and western facing slopes such as King Ravine, Castle Ravine and the Ammonoosuc Ravine. While a 35-45 degree slope angle is a useful avalanche forecasting heuristic, slides do occur on slope angles greater than 45 degrees in the Presidential Range. The best strategy is to avoid steep slopes when climbing or descending from the ridge.

Trailwright's 72 Finish on Mt Guyot
Cairns are difficult to see when covered with snow or the fog is down

Visibility

Above-treeline trails are marked with rock cairns that can be very difficult to follow in dense fog or white-out conditions because they blend in with the boulder-strewn landscape. Trails that are easy to follow the rest of the year, can easily vanish under snow cover and become very difficult to find. It’s not that unusual to follow a compass bearing when hiking above-treeline in winter when landmarks or trails aren’t visible.

Snow depth

Hiking off the ridge and into an area with deep snow should be avoided because of the time and effort required to hike out. For example, you wouldn’t want to hike down into Oaks Gulf in the Dry River Wilderness because you’d have to break trail for miles to get back to a road. That can be virtually impossible without a big group.

Martin starts the Osgood Trail Descent
The Osgood Trail is very exposed to bad weather and makes a poor winter escape route

Exposure

The average wind speed on Mt Washington is 40-45 mph from January through March. While wind speeds tend to be a bit lower on the other Presidential peaks, frostbite is always a big concern above-treeline making many exit routes less desirable than others. For example, you wouldn’t want to hike down the Osgood Trail, the Airline Trail, the Howker Ridge Trail, or the Castle Trail in winter because they have so much unprotected exposure to the wind and precipitation. The Mt Washington Auto Road also has a tremendous amount of exposure, although it can be used as a last resort off Washington in bad visibility, because the road is easier to find than most above-treeline trails.

Poor Road Access

Many roads close and become inaccessible in backcountry areas during winter, which can also make escape routes less desirable. For example, hiking out the highly-exposed Caps Ridge Trail from Mt Jefferson leads to a seasonal road which is impassable and closed in winter. When planning a winter trip, it’s important to know about seasonal road closures and access.

Decision Points

While escape route planning is an important aspect of winter navigation, you shouldn’t overlook the need to plan out decision points during your hike or tour. These are locations where you will decide to keep going along your intended route, turn around, or hike out one of your pre-planned escape routes (perhaps to a pre-planned car spot.) These decision points should include the junction of your route with each pre-planned escape route, among others.

When planning a decision point, it’s important to specify where the decision will occur and the criteria you’ll use to make your decision, particularly if you’re leading a group or hiking in a group of peers without a designated leader. While the dynamics of group decision-making are beyond the scope of this article, this topic is covered heavily in AIARE avalanche awareness courses, which I recommend you take  if you plan to hike, ski, or climb above-treeline in winter.

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10 comments

  1. Thats a long ways between Lowes Path and Jewell. I see why several people have died along that area.

    • Jefferson and the area around it have zero cover and are the windiest spot in the Whites. This is why I pick my days very carefully. It’s much nicer up there on a sunny calm day.

  2. Great article, Philip.

    While reading, it was fantastic to see myself on many of the trails because we had hiked a PT this past Summer. We actually had to hike down the Valley Way Trail to meet our shuttle; we would have missed it if we had hiked out to Pinkham Notch.

    The Presidential Range is beautiful and breathtaking, yet unpredictable and possibly life threatening. I don’t see myself traversing the Range in the Winter, but do enjoy reading about it. I’ve considered the Mt. Washington Observatory Winter overnights, but it’s a bit pricey.

    I do need to return to New Hampshire….. It’s an amazing experience.

  3. Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and Jewell Trail can be very difficult to follow through the low scrub to where the trail is more pronounced and are major spruce trap hazards as well. I don’t disagree that these are escape routes but I would not consider them “easy” routes down into the trees. Following the windblown track as it meanders through the maze of trees and snow drifts can be a considerable task on the Ammo. And it’s steep too.

    • Jewel is not that bad in my experience. It is windswept and you can figure out where it is with a compass bearing. For spruce traps, bring hiking partners…but seriously I’ve crossed over that krumholz when I’ve lost the trail coming up to Jeff. And not fallen into any big holes. If there’s a moral to this is that you can’t count on finding trails in winter and navigation skills are doubly important. For example, if you know how the ammo hugs that ravine, you should be able to find it since the geography funnels you down to it. I’ve “lost” that trail coming down too and refound it again but following the terrain. If you step off the waterfall you’ve gone down too far.

  4. Good article and advice!

    Perhaps worth mentioning: There is an emergency shelter at Lakes of the Clouds hut which is open when the hut is closed for the winter. It saved my butt once when I got stuck above treeline in a wicked storm and dense fog with daylight fading.

  5. Sometimes we westerners talk about “effete Easterners” and think we have a monopoly on awful weather, but that’s obviously not true! Certainly not for you folks in the Whites!

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