My frequent hiking partner and I haven’t done much hiking together this winter, but we finally hooked up last weekend and bagged another winter 4,000 footer named East Osceola. While we’ve both climbed this peak before, we’ve never climbed it from the Greeley Ponds side of the Osceola Ridge or experienced its 45% grade.
Although we’d both studied the map the night before and knew there were some steep bits, I don’t think we really put two and two together until we started kicking steps for the last mile of the ascent. The White Mountain Guide says that this is one of the steepest trails in all of the White Mountains region, and I wouldn’t dispute that.
We started our climb at the Greeley Ponds Trail Head, which is just below the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway. Neither of us had ever hiked this trail before and I think we were both impressed with how beautiful it was in the snow. If you continue past the Mt Osceola Trailhead, you can hike straight through Mad River Notch, to the trails in Waterville Valley at the foot of the Tripyramids and Mt Tecumseh. If you try to drive this in winter, it’d take you an hour, but it’s only a distance of 4 miles to Tripoli Rd by ski or snowshoe.
We’d left our snowshoes in the car, under the assumption the trail would be broken out and packed. It was broken out, but pretty soft and really borderline. My partner put on a pair of Hillsound Trail Crampons, but I just bare booted it. I’ve been doing that a lot more this year to save energy on ascents. It makes a real difference.
We took a quick water break at the intersection with the Mt Osceola trail, which first ascends East Osceola, before continuing up to Mt Osceola. We were just doing the first peak today, which is covered in forest because winds were 40-60 mph on the second peak, which is very exposed.
East Osceola was actually a Plan B; our original goal had been to climb Lafayette (5,260 ft), but we called that because of the wind. I don’t think I’m going to be able to climb it before the “official” end of winter on March 20th, but I do hope to bag Monroe (5,372 ft) before then if we get some decent weather.
About a mile from the summit the trail got very, very steep and we started to encounter ice-covered rock. I backed down a bit to “level trail”, put on my step-in crampons, took out my ice axe, and switched to lead. I reckon we were at about 3,200 ft elevation at this point, notable because this was the level of the fog/cloud cover. This was going to be a viewless hike.
As I climbed, I noticed that someone, it looked like a solo climber, had been up this way before us, also wearing crampons. Judging by the freshness of the spike marks, I figured they were not that far ahead of us.
The climbing wasn’t difficult, but the snow was quite soft due to rising temperatures, and I used my axe as a cane, ready to self-arrest if I fell. A fall here would have been an unpleasant slide down a steep slope and into pine trees. There’s no telling when I would have stopped.
Things got rather interesting as we crossed an obvious avalanche zone. You could tell by the lack of vegetation, the angle of the slope, and the runout path, that this section of trail had slid before. I did some hasty snow tests and shot the angle of the slope in a few spots with my compass clinometer. I’d taken an avalanche certification class a few weeks earlier, and it was cool to apply my newly learned skills to assess the avalanche potential and history of this slide zone.
A few more pitches and we made it to the summit where we met several other groups of hikers. The weather wasn’t great, so we had a quick snack and water break and about-faced it back the way we came. Unfortunately, a lot of the hikers we’d met had opted to butt slide down our tracks, eliminating all of the steps that we’d kicked in on the way up.
I’ve given up trying to explain to hikers and climbers the danger of sliding or glissading down a peak wearing traction. I view it as natural selection: if they want to kill themselves, let them. At least we’ll get them out of the breeding population.
Anyway, it meant we had to be extra careful on our descent since we were climbing down a trail that had been effectively turned into a bobsled run. If that wasn’t bad enough, the temperature had risen to the point that snow was starting to clump under my crampons in bowling-ball-mized snowballs, and I kept falling over into the snow alongside the trail. I eventually just took the crampons off and bare booted it back the trailhead and out.
I really enjoyed this hike and the challenge of climbing East Osceola. I’m also very interested in coming back and studying the avalanche zone here in more detail. I know that there are a lot more steep features and slide zones like this on other big mountains in the Whites and not just in Huntington or Tuckerman Ravine, at the foot of Mt Washington. It will be fun to discover the rest and uncover their mysteries.