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Climbing Mt Pierce In Winter

Jefferson, Eisenhower, and Mt Washington

Mts Jefferson, Eisenhower, Washington from Mt Pierce

After my Avalanche Class last weekend, I stayed in the White Mountains for an extra day to get a little more exercise and bag Mt Pierce (4,320 ft), another 4,000 footer that I've climbed before, but never in winter.

The climb up Pierce is about 3.2 miles with 2,400 ft of elevation gain and a round trip book time of 4:25. Book time refers to the standardized 3 season estimates found in the White Mountain Guide, which documents the hundreds of trails and mountains in the region. It's a useful reference, but tends to be a bit short on specifics, and shouldn't be relied upon without a good map and compass.

I was hiking up Pierce solo, which can be a risky strategy in winter, but the peak is very close to the AMC Highland Center, and I figured I'd meet other people a bit later in the day if I encountered any problems. I also figured that trail conditions would be excellent after the holiday weekend stampede, and that the trail would be well broken out.

This turned out to be the case and I was able to bare boot it all the way to the summit, which is far less tiring than wearing snowshoes or crampons with my plastic mountaineering boots. (I can't wait to wear trail runners again for hiking.)

It was a beautiful sunny day, but temperatures were still in the single digits and there was still a wind chill advisory in effect for the high peaks from the Mt Washington Observatory, with winds at 15-25 mph. I was still a little tired from climbing up to Hermit Lake the previous day at the base of Tuckerman's Ravine, but I wanted to bag a peak and continue to whittle down the Trailwrights 72 peakbagging list I'm working through this year. This list is particularly challenging because you need to return to a road or a trail head parking lot between each peak, limiting the number you can climb in one day.

The trail up Pierce runs along the oldest section of the Crawford Path, built in 1819, which is considered the oldest continuously maintained footpath in America.  The Crawford Path and the Appalachian Trail overlap between Mt Pierce and Mt Washington and I took this same route up Pierce to Mt Washington, when I section hiked the AT over the southern Presidentials, two years ago. I think it's one of the most scenic hikes in the White Mountains if you get good weather, but it's quite dangerous in winter, if there's a wind blowing.

The winds were calm up until treeline when there was a noticeable drop in temperature. I donned face protection before breaking out of the trees into the krumholz below the bald summit and quickly lost the trail in the drifting snow. It was uncomfortably windy just below the summit, so I kept my head down and found a faint route through the dwarfed vegetation, circling to the left around the peak, and climbing up to the summit cairn. I took a few photos but could barely hold my camera because it's metal body was so cold.

Deep snow nearly covers the Alpine Zone Sign

Deep snow nearly covers the Alpine Zone Sign on Mt Pierce

The view however was great. The sky was a deep blue and I could clearly see the weather towers on top of the Mt Washington, with Mt Jefferson to the left of Washington and Eisenhower in the foreground. The wind however had other ideas, and I got off the peak quickly and back under cover of the trees as quickly as I could go. It was really blowing hard and quite cold.

It had taken me about 2:30 to climb the peak, but I hiked down in half that time, wearing crampons to give me some extra traction on the steep descent.

I was 10 minutes away from the trail head, when I greeted a man wearing snowshoes, who turned as I passed him and said, "I know you. I read your blog." It's still a surprise to me when that happens. It turns out he's a gear tester for Backpacker Magazine, MSR and Tubbs, so we compared notes on product review technique and had a short visit before parting.

I'm glad I stayed up north an extra night for this hike. The official end of winter is March 21st and I will probably only get up to the Whites 1 or 2 more times this season before the big thaw. Winter is never long enough in New Hampshire.


  1. I heart winter. But that last sentence made laugh. Despite the fact that winter is so fantastic up here, it seems like the general population has other sentiments. I think we need to combat the fear of snow, because snow is so delightful.

    I don't think I'll be out for anything big before the end of the season, but I feel so lucky to have been out at all for some good hikes in the Whites this winter. It's such a magical time!

  2. I was hoping for Lafayette tomorrow, but we're now expecting 60-80 mph winds, so that's probably a scratch. I've got Monroe scheduled in 2 weeks, so keep you fingers crossed. Then I'm heading south for a long hike, while the White's melt off. That's when it gets even MORE impossible to predict conditions up north.

  3. I've done some winter hiking (snoeshoes) but the spring is when my juices get going. The land comes alive and everything seems possible.

  4. Great post and I agree that the winter season always seems to go so fast!

    We've been able to get quite a few hikes and peaks in this season and looking forward to finishing it off on Mt. Isolation on the 20th.

    Look forward to our paths crossing on the trails.

  5. Scott – looks like you've done quite a few winter peaks this season, and Isolation is an awesome way to finish. How will you be hiking in there – up the Davis Trail, down from Pierce and the ridge, south from Pinkam or from Rocky Branch? Day hike or overnight? Should be an expedition. Enjoy.

  6. We're looking at the Rocky Branch Trail and bushwhacks through the Birch Glades that I've read about on a couple of blogs I read. Day hike should be sufficient, picked the 20th for additional daylight for the mileage involved just in case. We don't need another North Tripyramid Slide descent in the dark (not one of our finer moments or decisions!).

    As of Sunday 5p I have 10 left for my 48, which my brother and I plan on ending upon Mt. Carrigain this spring/early summer together.

  7. Interesting route. I'd be a little concerned about postholing on the bushwhack, even with snowshoes, but you're close enough to the road that you'll be ok. But who knows what the weather wil be like then…Easy to get a good compass bearing on the summit from the isolation trail junction. Have fun!

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