Above Treeline Winter Hike to North and South Kinsman Mountains

Philip on South Kinsman Mountain

“You know, thirty-below isn’t that bad if you’re dressed properly”, said Eliot, as we stood in the sun by the South Kinsman Mountain summit cairn. We were suited up in full above-treeline regalia including balaclava, facemasks, and heavy gloves. It was so cold, that I was even wearing long underwear, something that I almost never do on winter hikes.

Our objective for this hike was North Kinsman and South Kinsman, two 4000 footers overlooking Franconia Notch. It’s a wonderfully scenic hike in fine weather, with views of Franconia Ridge on the other side of the pass. Our route approached the peaks from the east, up to the Lonesome Lake Hut, before climbing to Kinsman Pond, North Kinsman, and the South Kinsman. The total distance for our route was 10 miles, with 3,900 feet of elevation gain.

We’d been tracking the weather forecast all week for this hike and the weather was looking pretty harsh with subzero temperatures (fahrenheit, not wimpy celsius) and sustained winds between 45-55 mph, with gusts up to 70 mph. Forty mile per hour winds will blow you off your feet, but it’s worse in winter, because you have to worry about frostbite on top of it. That means you need to wear goggles and full face protection whenever you leave the protection of trees, above-treeline.

The weather forecast was so sketchy that we’d discussed some alternate hikes up nearby 4000 footers with less exposure. But we decided to go ahead with the original Kinsman route because I’ve climbed both peaks in winter before and knew first-hand that the amount of actual exposure was quite limited. I also knew that we’d decide to turn around if conditions proved too dangerous, because we’d talked about it before we started hiking,

Mike and Eliot at South Kinsman
Mike and Eliot at South Kinsman

This was a 4 season leadership qualification hike for Eliot, who’s currently a 3 season Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) trip leader. That 4 season qualification takes a lot of training and dedication to attain, especially since it’s for leading winter trips anywhere in New England, including the White Mountains. The most important part of the training qualification process is peer mentoring and peer review, although existing 3 season leaders are pretty well seasoned by the time they start the 4 season qualification process. I was ostensibly mentoring Eliot on this hike, but we were working closely together as equals on participant qualification, gear needs, routing decisions, weather forecasting, and all of the minutiae required to pull off a group hike in winter. Collaborating like this, with a peer, is probably the thing that I like the best about being an AMC leader.

The parking lot at the base of the Lonesome Lake Trail hadn’t been cleared of snow, so we met at the Mt Lafayette / Mt Lincoln Trailhead on the other side of the interstate. That parking lot is usually overflowing in summer but there were very few cars there that morning because of the cold. I ran into some old friends who were also leading a hike up the Kinsmans that day, after deciding that hiking a Franconia Ridge Loop (much more exposure) was simply too dangerous with the wind forecast.

We crossed the interstate and started climbing the Lonesome Lake Trail, which climbs steeply uphill. I occasionally suffer from cold induced asthma, which kicks in at about 0F, and I was huffing and puffing on this climb. We made it up the Lonesome Lake which was frozen over, before proceeding to the AMC’s Lonesome Lake Hut for short break. The cabin is open in winter and you can sleep overnight in the unheated bunkrooms there for a small fee. There’s a combination common room / kitchen out front, with a wood stove, but it’s used sparingly, often just a few hours per day.

Mike and Eliot head towards South Kinsman
Mike and Eliot head towards South Kinsman

We stopped in and I took two puffs on my inhaler, which quickly opened up my airways. We drank some water and ate a snack, before heading back outside to hike up the Fishin Jimmy Trail towards Kinsman Pond. This section of trail was frozen and well consolidated, so we were able to climb it using microspikes alone. It was steep though and we knew full crampons would be necessary for a safe descent.

After a quick lunch stop at the junction with the Kinsman Trail, which climbs to the Kinsman Ridge Trail from the east, we hiked up to the North Kinsman viewpoint, just below the summit. This is a large rock ledge that juts out from North Kinsman. It has a 270 degree view of Mt Cannon and entire Franconia Ridge including Mts Liberty and Mt Flume at the south end. There was no wind on the ledge, because it was blowing from the west and the North Kinsman summit blocked the wind.

North Kinsman Mountain and Kinsman Pond
North Kinsman Mountain and Kinsman Pond

The distance from North Kinsman to South Kinsman is 0.9 miles and protected by short stubby trees for most of the way. First, you drop into a col (the dip between two mountain summits) before climbing back up on the other side. This section of the trip went by quickly and we were soon standing at the point where the trees gave way to the summit area which was open rock ledge covered with hard ice. We put on full face protection, including balaclavas with face masks, and ski goggles and set out for the final summit push.

I can’t say that I enjoy wearing a face mask and goggles. As a glasses wearer, there’s always the risk of the ski goggle lenses fogging up. They also block most of my peripheral vision, so I can’t see my feet unless I turn my head to look down at them. On this hike, I was using a new pair of Smith Knowledge Turbo Fan Ski Goggles that have a built-in exhaust fan, which worked well. The power pack wires on my last pair broke, but Smith, to their credit, offered me a free pair under their lifetime warranty. At $180/pair, that warranty is gold.

Eliot and Philip at the North Kinsman Viewpoint
Eliot and Philip at the North Kinsman Viewpoint

The short walk to the summit cairn was uneventful and we basked in the warm sun, fully suited up. We were surprised that the wind wasn’t howling on South Kinsman because it’s not as protected as North Kinsman. After admiring the view and picking out the peaks we could see in Vermont from the summit, we hightailed it back to North Kinsman and back down to the Lonesome Lake hut. Full crampons were required for that descent and I was glad that we’d required them for our hike participants.

Hiking out across frozen Lonesome Lake
Hiking out across frozen Lonesome Lake

We didn’t stop at the hut on the way down and kept on going across the frozen Lonesome Lake lake bed, all the while admiring the view of Franconia Ridge on the other side of Franconia Notch. It’d been a wicked cold day, but the views had been great, and the time has passed too quickly with good company.

Here’s a map of the route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out. North and South Kinsman
Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide and is 98% of the way through a second round. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

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  1. Curious to see what kind of gear it takes to handle such extreme temps and layering for when your body is generating lots of heat.

    • Not that much. For this hike I wore a Bryne mesh synthetic long underwear top, a lightweight REI long underwear ls shirt, a Ragged Mountain Equipment power stretch hoodie and an OR panorama point hard shell. I started out with a synthetic vest over the hoodie and under the hard shell, but quickly removed it when I warmed up. On the feet, I was wearing wool socks in insulated Salomon boots rated to -40 with OR crocodile gaiters over them. For pants, UA boxer jocks, Helly Hansen capris, then REI softshell pants over them. For gloves, I wetted out a pair of fleece gloves on the ascent before switching to possum down wool gloves for the remainder of the hike. I use neoprene overmitts over the handles of my pacerpoles which cuts way down on the number of gloves I need for cold hikes. I mostly wore a fleece hat and only put on a fleece balaclava and goggles for South Kinsman.

  2. Awesome shot walking across the lake. Beautiful!

  3. I have hiked North and South Kinsman in summer, and I enjoyed the description of your winter hike, plus your winter pictures–beautiful!

  4. Great write-up Phil. Great hike, I did the same route a couple of winters ago and the only mishap I had was trying to get home. After 10 miles on snowshoes I got to my car in the Lafayette Campground parking lot just after dark. I was totally spent and with the 10 foot high snowbanks I got a little confused trying to find the exit and pulled into the wrong lot rather than out onto the highway, where my car sunk into the snow and despite 4-wheel drive, refused to budge. Eventually I gave up trying to rock it free and with 1-bar on my phone, called AAA and they dispatched a driver. “Good news is” the driver said, “I’m here to tow you out”. Bad news was I was apparently on a snowmobile section and AAA wouldn’t cover the cost to pull me out. He then showed me the two small “No Highway Vehicles” signs posted on the lot I had mistakenly pulled into and explained that “10 people a weekend don’t know how to read and get stuck in the same lot”. He didn’t appreciate my suggestion that the signage might need work if 10 people per weekend were missing it but after he threatened to get Fish and Game to come argue with me I ponied up the $300 to get out. Of course his vehicle then got stuck and we had to wait another hour for the boss to show up with the mother of all trucks to pull us both out. In further discussions with the boss I learned his mother is in on a transportation committee in the state legislature and it’s unlikely that those signs will ever get changed. Lessons learned: I now know what “No Highway Vehicles” means, I always keep a shovel and other traction devices in the boot, and honey pots still live in the Granite State.

  5. Wow this is wonderful Philip! Do you advise first timers to trek Kinsman Mountain?

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