I really wanted to climb Mt Jefferson (5712′) this month, but some things are more important than bagging a peak. Many of us partner up on potentially dangerous hikes, especially above treeline, but when push comes to shove, are you willing to turn around and hike out if your partner calls it a day and needs to turn around?
My hiking partner and I had been tracking a potential weather window for Mt Jefferson for a few days. Single-digit temperatures were forecast, but we know how to dress for extreme cold in the White Mountains (NH). The problem is the wind and wind chill, especially on Mt Jefferson which is always very windy. Jefferson is adjacent to Mt Washington in the northern Presidential Range and the prevailing wind blows in from the northwest, right into your face, along our intended route.
The weather window we were tracking showed winds dropping down to 25-30 mph on Friday afternoon, which is at the high end of my preferred wind speed range (in winter), but still doable. Once you get up to 40 mph, the wind makes it difficult to walk and can blow surface snow around creating whiteout conditions. You need to put on a balaclava and ski goggles for face protection, lest you get frost nip or frostbite on exposed skin.
The main winter route to Jefferson involves climbing the Jewell Trail past treeline to its junction with the Gulfside Trail. From there, you follow Gulfside north, cross the Monticello Lawn, and climb up the Jefferson Loop Tr to the summit. The total round trip hike distance (starting from the Cog’s hiker lot) is 9 miles with 4150′ of elevation gain. In reality, it’s harder than that because the hike requires 4 miles of above-treeline exposure, which in winter, means danger. If you get hurt or disoriented in the fog, no one is going to come for you for a long time.
The day of the hike, we met at 7:30 at the Cog’s hiker lot which charges an extortionist amount of money, $10 per person to park – not $10 per car. We pay it because it shaves 2 miles off the route. We suited up and headed out quickly, aware of the fact that we wanted to get back below treeline before dark. The temperature at the cars was 6 degrees and about 8″ of dry powdery snow had fallen in the preceding days. There hadn’t been any trip reports posted on NewEnglandTrailConditions about the trails we planned to hike, so we brought snowshoes because we expected we would have to break trail up to treeline.
My hiking partner and I have been hiking together for over a year and in two winters, so I knew she was solid. We have an easy rapport and I trust her judgement. We both knew going into this hike that there was a 50-50 chance we’d turn around because of deep snow, high wind, or cold temperatures. We discussed it but decided to give it a shot anyway. We’re both trying to finish the White Mountains 4000-footer grid and need to summit Jefferson in January since we’ve climbed it at least once in every other month of the year.
We hiked up to the stream crossing at the beginning of our route which crosses the headwaters of the Ammonosuc River to get to the start of the Jewell Spur Trail. It’s not signed anymore, but this side trail leads to the Jewell Trail. I know it well because I used to be the USFS volunteer trail maintainer for it.
No one had crossed the stream for some time and there weren’t any tracks to follow. So I put on my snowshoes and looked for the thickest ice, hoping it would hold me, as I crossed. Snowshoes help in this circumstance because they help spread your weight over a wider surface area. I gingerly stepped forward listening for a telltale crack, but the ice held and I made it across safely. My partner followed my footsteps and soon we were snowshoeing through the woods to the Jewell Trail Junction.
We immediately started having the break trail in powder. It hasn’t hard snowshoeing, but when you strap 5 lbs of snowshoes on your feet, you start to feel it pretty quick. We alternated leading and breaking trail as one does. I quickly put on a hard shell jacket and raised the hood because there was a ton of snow in the tree branches above the trail to prevent it from falling on me and going down my back.
We turned onto the Jewell Trail at the trail junction and started climbing almost immediately, quickly gaining elevation. The Jewell provides a fairly gradual, but consistent climb to treeline, which is one of the reasons I like to climb it. It’s well protected from the wind by vegetation and easy to follow. That ends at treeline, however, when snow obscures the cairns leading to the Gulfside Trail and it can be very difficult to follow.
We climbed and climbed, snowshoeing up the trail as the snow got deeper and deeper with elevation. It was very cold and I had four layers on – a wool t-shirt, a baselayer and mid-layer Patagonia hoody, and my hard shell. I was even wearing long underwear under my softshell pants, something I hate doing, and go to great lengths to avoid. I was also hitting off my inhaler since I get cold-induced asthma when the temperature drops below about 10 degrees.
My partner tired eventually and I took over the trail breaking until we passed the illegal campsites near treeline and the alpine zone warning sign which barely poked out above the snow. The snow deepened in the krummholz and then we were at treeline, at a prominent rock at 4600′.
We ate some food, drank our hot water, and had a go-no-go conference. The wind didn’t appear bad, but the summits were clouded over and it looked like we’d have to hike to Jefferson in the fog. My partner was also completely drenched in perspiration from the climb and I could see that she didn’t have 4 miles of exposure left in her tank. I certainly wasn’t going to hike out to Jefferson alone in these conditions, so we made a plan to bail and hike out.
I probably would have decided to continue to Jefferson if I’d had a third trustworthy partner with me, because I knew my partner could have easily and safely descended on her own. But I didn’t, so it was an easy call to descend with her and call it a day. Jefferson is not going anywhere and who knows, maybe I can still climb it this month if the weather cooperates.
Our hike took place just 2 days after a local hiker died while attempting a Pemigewasset Traverse. The newspaper accounts state that he was hiking with two other companions, who decided to quit in the terrible conditions, while tragically, he continued on. That incident was certainly on our minds on our hike and no doubt, influenced our decisions to turn around and be conservative in our decision making.