Two weeks ago, I climbed Mt Jackson and Mt Webster with a group of 9 other experienced winter hikers. This is a 6.3 mile loop hike, starting in Crawford Notch on the Webster-Jackson Trail, and then branching off to Jackson, then Mt Webster, and looping back on the Webster Branch Trail. A moderate hike in 3 season weather, it took as 7 hours to complete in snowshoes, and we just made it off the trail at sunset.
We had all gathered to celebrate Brian Glenn’s birthday with a weekend of mountaineering and ice climbing in Crawford Notch and nearby Frankenstein Cliff. Brian is a mountaineering trip leader with the Appalachian Mountain Club and a very experienced climber, having summited Rainier, Denali and Kilimanjaro. But he is the nicest, humblest person you’re likely to meet in mountaineering and ice climbing circles. He’s touched all of our lives as a trip leader, teacher, and fellow hiker and it was great to meet so many other people who were his friends over the weekend.
Fitting for Brian’s birthday, we had fantastic weather up to the Jackson summit, and despite recent snowfalls the trail was pretty well broken out. After that, things got a little more strenuous, and we had to break 1.3 miles of trail from Jackson to the Mt Webster summit.
Breaking Trail as a Group
One of the advantages of hiking in a group during winter is that you can take turns breaking trail. The lead person will take, say 100 steps, step off to the side to let everyone in the group pass them, and continue at the end. The person behind them will take over as the lead, and so one, so that everyone gets to break trail, and no one gets completely exhausted.
I think we were all a little surprised though by the trail conditions and the difficultly of the 1.3 mile stretch we had to break out wearing snowshoes. It was very tough going. The snow was thigh deep. The trail was obscured by blow downs and snow covered trees, and an atmospheric low blew in obscuring everything in a thick, cold fog.
Despite the exertion level, I started to get cold and began adding insulation layers and eating more food. But I couldn’t help remembering my solo hike the day before, when I’d broken out half this distance in similar snow conditions on Mt Avalon. While it was a luxury to break trail with 9 other people, I was feeling my previous day’s exertions on top of the current ones.
We eventually made it to Mt Webster and back to a broken out trail, but it had been a major slog, and we still had several miles to hike down and back to the trail head.
An Uneasy Feeling
I was kind of uneasy on this hike. The truth is, I really didn’t know in advance where we were headed, what trails we’d be on, what the weather forecast was supposed to be like, or what the trail conditions were.
That’s not how I normally hike. I like to plan a route in some detail before I hike it and leave my itinerary with a friend, usually my wife. I’m spontaneous and all, but I’ve usually thought through potential detours in advance, and I’m always concerned about turnaround times and the like.
As a member of a group, and not the leader, I went along with the group and broke my own, well-established protocol. While I totally trusted the leader, I wasn’t comfortable not being on top of this information, especially when the fog rolled in and I wasn’t exactly sure where we were (although I knew we were near a big cliff.)
I realized exactly what was bugging me about the trip, yesterday, when my friend George commented on my post about solo hiking in winter. He wrote about the importance of writing a trip plan and leaving it with a friend whenever you go hiking, solo or in a group.
Writing a route plan makes you read the map and think through your route before you go anywhere. But it’s an easy thing to forget when you go hiking with a group and you’re not the leader.
I’m planning on leading some hikes this winter (honest – I’m writing the trips plans now) and I think I’m going to try to work in a route plan review into the group interaction somehow. This seems like it would be a worthwhile exercise, especially since I’m planning some higher consequence overnight trips in the northern presidentials, which are among the highest peaks in the White Mountains.