“These aren’t 20 mile per hour winds,” I told Eliot, as we started climbing the Crawford Path up to the Southern Presidential Range, just south of Mt Washington in New Hampshire. Our destination was Mount Pierce and Mt Jackson, two 4000 footers, both with above-treeline summits. I could tell that the winds were stronger because they were pushing me off-balance as I walked, an indication that we were probably experiencing winds closer to 40 or 50 miles per hour.
A minor, but messy storm system was forecast to pass overhead during our hike, dumping 3-7 inches of snow on us during the day, with a chance of sleet as well. But our route to Pierce and Jackson was fairly well protected by tree cover, so we decided to attempt Pierce first and then loop around to Jackson if we felt that the conditions were safe.I wasn’t that worried by the wind or the oncoming snow because I knew we were well equipped and temperatures were hovering near 30 degrees, greatly reducing the risk of windchill and frostbite for short periods of exposure.
- Hiking a Mt Clinton (Pierce) Loop
- Winter Ascent of Pierce and Eisenhower
- Mt Washington and Mt Monroe in Winter
We all carried face masks and goggles, heavy mittens, and traction in the form of microspikes and crampons. We decided to leave our snowshoes behind however, because we knew these trails were well packed out, since they’re two of the more popular winter peaks to climb from Crawford Notch. There’s a local newsgroup called NewEnglandTrailConditions that lists trail condition reports submitted by hikers and is quite useful for winter trip planning.
We started up the Crawford Path, which is the oldest continuously maintained trail in the United States. It climbs gradually to Pierce, climbing about 2300′ in 3.1 miles. The trail was well packed out and we just wore microspikes for traction. The wind howled high overhead in the trees and it started to snow much more heavily as we approached the peak. We’d been climbing in mid-layers to reduce sweating, but the snow was making our clothes wet, so we layered up again with hard shells to stay warm and dry.
When we arrived near the summit of Pierce, we suited up for full exposure in the trees with balaclavas, face masks, and goggles. Eliot and I were with another strong hiker named Caleb, who rounded out our party.
There’s a short stretch of above treeline exposure from the protection of scrub to the summit cairn, but the snow was blowing horizontal and covering every bit of exposed skin was the safest and most comfortable option. We all scrambled to the summit which was coated with a thin and slippery layer of ice. The wind was still blowing hard and I could feel it pushing me as I neared the summit cairn. This wasn’t a day to stop and take photos, so we hiked past it without stopping and back down into the protection of the krumholz to consider our next move.
We’d passed a trail sign marking the Webster Cliff Trail junction just past the Pierce summit, but it’d been covered in ice and was hard to read. I checked our position on my iPhone GPS (in Gaia) to make sure we’d gotten on the right trail and Eliot checked his compass to make sure we were headed down it in a southerly direction. We all agreed to proceed to our next checkpoint, the Mizpah Spring Hut, where there is another trail junction and trail that could be used as an escape route if we decided not to proceed.
The Webster Cliff Trail is bordered by spruce trees and was well packed out except for shallow snow drifts. This section of trail coincides with the white blazed Appalachian Trail and the blazes helped considerably with route-finding in the deep snow. I always get a little thrill when I see AT blazes in winter because they’re usually ankle height instead of their normal head height, due to snow depth. We were literally hiking along the tree tops.
We’d almost reached the Mizpah Hut when we encountered a huge tangle of blow-downs that blocked the trail. There must have been 40-50 trees down and I was a little surprised that trail crews hadn’t been up to clear them out yet. The scene of destruction is in a Wilderness Area, which might explain it, since chain saws and other mechanized tools are prohibited. If they need to clear the areas with axes alone, it’s going to take a lot of people to clear the downed trees.
I was hesitant to lead our tiny group through the downed trees because I was afraid of falling into hidden voids under the snow surface. So we bushwhacked around them and then found an opening that led to the hut, which we ducked behind to get out of the wind. After refueling with food and water, we had another discussion about our next steps. Eliot and Caleb wanted to continue the next 1.6 miles to Jackson, but agreed to turn around if we hit deep snow drifts and started to posthole.
I was cautious about proceeding due to an experience I’d had many years ago on the southern-most section of the Webster-Cliff Trail south of the Jackson summit, beyond the section we were about the hike down. We’d encountered very deep snow drifts on that hike and had a very hard time making headway, despite having a big group of highly experienced and snowshoe-equipped hikers. Eliot, Caleb, and I had no intention of hiking that section of trail, but I was still concerned that might encounter similar conditions on the section north of Mt Jackson.
Eliot switched off with me and took the lead. We passed many postholes, where someone had sunk into soft snow despite the fact that they’d been wearing snow shoes, but they were easy to skirt on the frozen surface. The summit of Jackson is similar to Pierce, and is really just a rocky outcrop sticking above treeline. I scrambled up in microspikes, while Caleb and Eliot put on their crampons for the final ascent up more ice-covered rock. We quickly descended to cover again and headed down the Jackson Branch of the Webster Cliff Trail back to Crawford Notch, the wind still howling overhead.
Total Distance: 8 miles with 3000 ft or elevation gain.