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Adams and Jefferson in High Wind and Freezing Rain

Philip on the Summit of Mount Jefferson (5712')
Philip on the Summit of Mount Jefferson (5712′)

I went on a challenging day hike on Saturday climbing Mount Adams and Jefferson, the second and third highest 4,000 footers (both above 5,000′) in the White Mountains. We knowingly hiked up into a heavy mist layer which had settled over the northern Presidential peaks, but by noon the weather turned a lot fiercer than any of us had expected with 50 mile per hour winds and freezing rain.

Earlier in the day (at 6:30 am), we’d decided to abort the other hike we’d had planned which was a bushwhack over nearby Mounts Deception and Dartmouth. It had started raining at dawn that morning and none of us had relished bushwacking through soaking wet forest on a cool day. Bushwhacking is challenging enough without getting cold and wet in the process!

We’d met at the Ridge of the Caps Trailhead that morning, so we planned an alternate route from the trailhead up and around Jefferson, over Adams 5 and Sam Adams to the main summit of Mount Adams, and back to the car via the Buttress and Six Husbands trails. That’s an aggressive route over some of the toughest and steepest trails in the Whites, with close to 10 miles of hiking and 5750′ of elevation gain.

Adams and Jefferson from Caps Ridge Trailhead
Adams and Jefferson Loop from the Caps Ridge Trailhead

The weather had other ideas though and things didn’t go exactly as planned. That’s often the way it goes in iffy weather above treeline, so it’s best to be flexible and be ready to change direction when things go to hell.

In the end, we still had a fine and exciting outing with 8.5 miles of hiking and 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 10 hours. We also got a lot of practice at off-trail compass navigation above treeline and in heavy cloud, which is a skill you can only really work on if you’re willing to hike in crappy weather.

The Ridge of the Caps Trail

The Ridge of the Caps Trail is the fastest, most direct trail to get to the northern Presidential range, starting at 3o00′ of elevation. Despite this, the trail is very steep with numerous ledges that require good scrambling skills, particularly when the surface of the rock is wet. This route is also is extremely exposed to high wind and weather when it pops out above treeline. From here, hikers ascend as series of rocky masses – the Caps – which continue steeply until the ridge blends into Jefferson’s summit mass.

At 2.1 miles up, the Cornice Trail intersects the Ridge of the Caps and provides a very rocky but relatively fast bypass around Jefferson’s summit to Edmands Col. A total of 1.3 miles in length, the Cornice Trail has two sections: one west of the Castle Ravine Trail (0.7 miles) and one to the east (0.6 miles). The western half is the far rockier of the two and requires walking on the lichen covered boulders that form Jefferson’s summit cone. The eastern half of the Cornice Trail is significantly easier to walk across with a discernible path through sedge, although the cairns are much smaller and harder to spot in mist. Both sections of the Cornice Trail are above treeline and fully exposed to the weather.

The Lowest Cap on Caps Ridge Trail
The Lowest Cap on the Ridge of the Caps Trail

When we got to the first Cap Saturday, we encountered a cool westerly breeze and quickly donned mid-layers and wind jackets. Soon we were enveloped in mist which got quickly thicker as we started climbing Jefferson and reached the Cornice Trail. From here, we headed north following The Cornice Trail and headed to Edmands Col.

It was windy, but it was difficult to judge just how windy until we reached Edmands Col and the wind became very difficult to walk in. It was so strong, I’d swear it was blowing me from rock to rock as I picked my way down the trail. Conversation was difficult, so  we congregated on the lee side of a large boulder out of the wind. We rested here, had something to eat and drink, and planned our next steps.

Adams 5 and Sam Adams

I was interested in bagging Adams 5 (5266′) and Sam Adams (5551′), two peaks on the esoteric Trailwright’s 72 list that I’ve been working on for the past year. They’re not identified on most maps on the northern Presidentials, but both of my companions had climbed them before and knew where they’d be. It’s easy to find both peaks in clear weather, but bagging them in foul weather when you can’t orient yourself by visible landmarks requires keener navigation skills.

Navigation-wise, we were in a fairly low risk situation (as much as walking above treeline on boulder fields can be), far from any ravines or sharp drops, and surrounded by back stop trails that we’d all walked on before. Still, extra caution was in order because we kept seeing a lot of rocks that looked an awful lot like cairns in the mist.

Adams 5 was only about 30 or 40 yards off the Gulfside Trail and we picked it off easily. From there, we continued on Gulfside, until we saw what looked like the southern base of Sam Adams and vectored north to climb it. We passed 2 false summits and continued to follow the contour up (since we couldn’t see the summit) until we finally came to the summit cairn and bagged the peak. From there, I shot a  bearing to Thunderstorm Junction, which is a big trail junction and hiker landmark on the southwest of Mt Adams summit. It is a huge cairn, the biggest in the northern Presidentials.

Following the bearing, we crossed the Israel Ridge Trail but still couldn’t see the junction in the mist. It was also hard to follow the bearing without being able to site on anything in the distance. Got to practice this some more.

Instead of continuing to the junction, we climbed to the summit of Adams (5774′) via the Israel Ridge Trail, which is the easiest route up through the boulder field below this peak. As we climbed, I could hear what sounded like raindrops hitting my hard shell, but I wasn’t getting wet: it was freezing rain.

Taking a Break out of the Wind at Sam Adams
Taking a Break out of the Wind at Sam Adams

Once at the summit, we slipped out of the wind and donned rain pants. By now, my glasses were starting to mist and freeze over with ice, making walking quite difficult because I couldn’t clearly see the rocks I was walking over, I could barely make out my companions, and I couldn’t see the next cairn.

Time to Turn Around

We had a huddle and decided to turn around due to the freezing rain. In addition to my degraded eyesight, the rain was making the rocks quite slippery to walk on, not to mention the wind, which was now blowing at 50 mph,with gusts as high as 60 mph (per the Mount Washington Observatory). Climbing down the Buttress Trail, up the Six Husbands Trail, over Jefferson, and back down the Ridge of Caps was definitely not appealing with rain and possibly ice added to the equation. We decided that the prudent thing to do was to turn around, hike directly to Jefferson, and down the Ridge of the Caps – which turned out to be the right call. In the end, we still only make it  down 1 hour before dark, which was still cutting it close: the Ridge of the Caps Trail is definitely too steep and rough to climb down in the dark.

As we headed back down Adams, I asked my friends to walk more slowly because I couldn’t see them in the mist very well with my frozen over glasses. Eventually, they just put me in front, but it was still difficult for me to pick out the cairns along our route.

Rather than hike the Cornice Trail on our way out, we chose to climb the 700 feet up Jefferson from Edmands Col. I thought I’d be tired by this point in the day, what with the cold and wind, but I climbed the slope quite quickly leading my friends to the summit. We were in a hurry, but not at the expense of bagging another 5000 footer!

From the summit of Jefferson, we had an issue re-acquiring the Ridge of Caps Trail as the cairns down were difficult to find. We even went down the wrong set of cairns for a ways, but quickly figured out that they were taking us on the wrong compass heading. One we acquired the correct trail, it was a very steep hike out, still exposed to the wind and freezing mist.

The Benefits of Hiking in Crap Weather

A tough hike – more of a mental struggle than a physical one for me – with the mist, wind, and freezing rain. Still, it was good navigation practice to walk above treeline in such low visibility and high wind, if only because it showed me how important it is to practice my skills in awful weather. That, and I need to get a better set of maps for the northern Presidentials which have more detail for navigating on days when there are no views, only contours and compass bearings to guide the way.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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  1. I had similar conditions on Adams last year in August. Freezing rain blowing sideways and my glasses were so fogged up on the way down the Air Line trail that I had to remove them every time I looked for a blaze – it was easier to see the blue blazes without my fogged up glasses on than it was to see blazes or cairns with them. Was pretty fun hiking in such conditions, actually, but I was disappointed that there was no view. No matter, it made for a good excuse to visit again this year.

    Oh, and did I mention I had the summit to myself?

  2. Does that stuff really work? I guess I should do that as well.

  3. What are the average temperatures throughout the day in the four different seasons in that area? Virginia has cooled off and evenings are comfortable now, but it will be awhile before peak bagging gets uncomfortable.

    • It depends on the elevation and wind speed. In the valleys, current autumn temps are in the 70-80’s during the day and 40-50 at night. Go up 4,000 feet and it’s 16 degrees cooler because you lose about 4 degrees for every 1,000 feet. Average wind speed on the tops of the White Mountain 4,000 footers is 35mph (every day) which results in wind chill. Much worse when the wind speeds up over 70 mph and above treeline becomes effectively unhikable because you are blown off your feet.

      Of course, none of this will deter peakbaggers. Many hikers view White Mountain winters as their favorite hiking season, myself included. We generally avoid day time temperatures below 10 below zero and 40+ mph winds, but warmer/slower than that you can expect hikers on nearly every peak, every weekend.

      I realize I didn’t fully answer your question.

  4. I am a sucker for blue bird days above timberline but some of my most memorable hikes have been in conditions that were less than stellar. One of my most memorable hikes started off as an ascent of Washington via Lion Head. The day was forecasted to be clear and calm. When I arrived at the trailhead it was very foggy and quite cool. I ascended to the summit of Lion Head and decided that it was not safe for me to continue as I was hiking solo on this day. I sat alone on the summit of Lion Head for over an hour. The fog rolled down from the summit of Washington nto Tuckerman Ravine much like a fog machine does at a concert. The Grey Jays were calling to one another. One Grey Jay would being the conversation and others would answer the call one by one until the call was passed along from one side of Tuckerman Ravine all the way around to the other side. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in the Whites.

    I never saw another person on that day. It was just me and the mountains.

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