“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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 30th ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine
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