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A Mt Jefferson Attempt in January

A Mt Jefferson Attempt in JanuaryI 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 Jewell Trail climbs up one of the ridges leading to Mt Clay as subsidiary peak if Mt Washington.
The Jewell Trail climbs up one of the ridges leading to Mt Clay a subsidiary peak of Mt Washington.

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.

The Ammonoosuc River Crossing
The Ammonoosuc River Crossing

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.

Slogging up the Jewell Trail on a very cold day
Slogging up the Jewell Trail on a very cold day

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 had a conference when we reached treeline to decide whether we’d go on or turn back.
we had a conference when we reached treeline to decide whether we’d go on or turn back.

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′.

The Jewell Trail becomes much harder to follow above treeline when the cairns marking it blend into the landscape.
The Jewell Trail becomes much harder to follow above treeline when the cairns marking it blend into the landscape.

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.

Fog shrouded the higher summits and would have made route finding more challenging.
Fog shrouded the higher summits and would have made route finding more challenging.

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.

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18 comments

  1. Good call on turning around. Live to fight another day.

  2. Philip, Great article. Having hiked in the Whites year around for many years and worked in a profession where risk assessment was critical for my personal safety, I have always tried to learn what happened to those hikers that unfortunately die in the mountains. Outside of an accident (fall) or medical/health condition that resulted in a hiker’s death, the over whelming majority of hiker deaths are exposure related. Outside of one’s level of preparedness (fitness & gear), factors such as the time of year, weather conditions and level of exposure (above or below tree line) are the key points that one needs to assess before deciding on a hike. Of those hikers that died from exposure almost all were hiking alone at the time. When one hikes alone, especially in extreme weather, the chances of one’s survival is greatly reduced if one gets into trouble. Using the buddy system by having a fellow hiker with you greatly increases your chances of survival. The buddy system is used by the military and law enforcement because it works. By having a hiking partner with you, you have someone to discuss current conditions and reassess the hike as needed. Also having a buddy allows for one of you to recognize if the other is starting to show signs of hypothermia, which is the biggest killer in the mountains. The summit or your goal will always be there for another day.

    • Innawoods with another person you have a proven heat generator alongside if required. It could spell the difference. This said, I am a committed soloist even in Alaskan winters despite living in Chicago proper thanks to our airports. I like being alone when out. This admitted, having another person/heat generator can, I say from cold conditions experience, substantially improve your chances in the event you need to hunker down for some time, usually for only a few hours but then you never know until afterwards. Get to afterwards.

  3. Nice description…I can feel the cold!

    Cheers from another winter NH hiker.

  4. I turned around on the Caps Ridge at tree-line the day before, it was far out of my comfort zone as a solo hiker. I knew this before starting but wanted to get a taste of the rarely used trail in snow. Upon returning to my car I learned the sad news about a fellow hiker who froze to death… May he rest in peace.

  5. Winter hiking is a whole other ballgame. You made the right call. If not this January then there’s always next year. The mountains will always be there for us.
    I was on the Baldfaces a few days ago. Left the car at 08:00, back to the car at 01:00 the following day. That’s 15 hours for a 10 mile hike, entirely caused by deep variable snow conditions (4″ fresh powder, 2″ crust that mostly did not hold weight with 8 – 10″ sugar snow beneath) and breaking trail, knee deep even with snowshoes except for the rare sections on top where the wind-crust held up. Temperatures not as extreme as your day, low 20’s and 15 – 20 mph WNW wind. A long, slow day.
    I carry enough kit in my winter rucksack to spend the night out – zip-on long under wear, zip-on puffy pants, puffy jacket, extra top layer as well as three sets gloves (including Daschsteins), 45N balaclava, plus a bothy bag and SOL emergency bivi. It is extra weight but I was never a speed hiker – the idea is to get through the night if I get caught out.
    My absolute go-to for winter hiking is a Hilltrek Double Ventile jacket. Over the head old-school anorak-style. Absolute bomber on a cold windy day. Hilltrek are out of Arboyne, Scotland (not far from Aberdeen). I also use their Ventile gaiters. Ventile is a cotton weave so it breathes, never get sweaty wearing their gaiters.
    I hiked Jefferson in January (a couple of years ago). Checked the weather and elected to hike the Boundary trail, Caps Notch road, Caps Ridge, Gulfside and down Jewell. WNW wind was mostly over my shoulder or at my back. It is probably the toughest of the Presidential to hike as a day hike.

  6. Now I’m interested – can you tell me why you don’t like wearing long underwear on winter trips?

      • Good call on the turn around. As a peak bagger (in western ranges) I eventually adapted a mantra- You have to get into position or you never get up the hill. But you have to be ready to bag it if conditions aren’t right or it may be the last peak you ever eyeball.

        And your own mindset can be a storyline, or even hazard, in itself. I once hiked in (day and a half) to Fremont Peak in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. I got to where the scramble/climbey class 3 last thousand feet began and I realized that I was in denial about the condition of an ankle I had sprained 3 weeks earlier. It just wasn’t fully healed.

        I bagged it, came back the next year and had a magical hour on top with crystal air, huge visibility.

        Condolences to the family and friends of the deceased White Mountains hiker.

        Philip, thanks for the good website and nurturing what seems like a really solid electronic community. I grew up in the East, am Wisconsin based now.

  7. I got caught in a mountain white out and was already falling tens of feet when I realized it. Fortunately, I just landed on my face, punching out a molar and cracking an opposite one. You really don’t want to lose your awareness and spatial orientation. It could be bad. So, in addition to RTB be prepared to hunker down in place until you can see again.

  8. As I’m reading this I’m reminded of the book, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why.’ I’m a Trauma Program Manager at a large NY hospital. I see it all. I also no longer have the time to get out as much, if at all, and when I do it is up to my camper in the Catskills to fish. My life has changed but not my desire or love to get dirty and sweaty and watch an eagle be a better fisherman than I. You certainly made a prudent, wise, and possibly life-saving choice but clearly a decision based on deep knowledge. I love this website. It is still pure.

  9. Brad Washburn said the reason he got to be an octogenarian is that he was not afraid to turn back.

  10. I’ve never used the Cog lot. It’s my understanding that hikers have to use the lower lot, correct? And if its about .3 up the road and across additional lots to the Jewell Link and then another .3 on the Jewell Link to the Jewell trail you’re paying $10 to cut off .3 one way. If you just stay on the Jewell trail from the Ammo lot its a total of .9 to the same spot and you’re $10 richer pp.

  11. I think your decision was a wise one. So many rescue teams looking for climbers who made bad choices along the way or simply lost their way. As someone said, better to see another day and another attempt
    I have a mid-fifties y.o. friend from central Maine foothills who drives over to the Prezzies 2-3 weekends a month, year round, and hikes up to the Observatory or does some other funky run up some crazy winter trail and disappears into the clouds there. He’s always careful and despite my fear and concern for him he’s smart with his choices. You may see him running by you anytime you try another hike there. ! His name is David. You’ll know him because he just doesn’t stop running.

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