Mt’s Tom, Field, and Willey are a group of three 4000-foot peaks that are usually hiked together because they’re all clustered along a single ridgeline above Crawford Notch. It’s not a difficult hike in mild weather, but it’s a reasonably long one that’s 10.2 miles in length with just under 4000 feet of elevation gain. But when you throw in winter, it gets much harder, especially the segment between Mt Field and Mt Willey, where the trail is often obscured by drifting snow. Many people also shorten the route and just climb Mts Tom and Field which is also a perfectly nice route.
A recent thaw has wrecked cross-country skiing for the foreseeable future, so I’ve been picking off 4000 footers to get back into hiking shape for the Spring. Trail conditions have been pretty tough though, ranging from deep powder to slush, requiring snowshoes for flotation, microspikes for traction, and an ice axe on peaks that are steep enough to glissade down. While Spring is on the horizon, I know it’s still a good six to eight weeks away before I can put away my winter gear and hike unhampered.
The toughest part of this hike for me was climbing up to the ridgeline from Crawford Notch to the col between Mt Tom and Mt Field. The difficulty isn’t so much physical but largely mental. While the distance is 2.3 miles with 1850′ of elevation gain, which is significant, it takes me a while to get a good pace dialed in when I’m hiking uphill, especially in winter. As I’ve aged, my brain still instructs my body to hike as fast as I did 20 years ago. I have to force myself to go slower and at a steady pace so I don’t have to stop every 100′ of elevation and catch my breath.Tom, Field, Willey Hiking Route
It was quite cold and windy when I hiked this route and I probably could have used a warmer hat. The high temperature for the day was 15 degrees with a 20-30 mph wind. Since the route is almost entirely below treeline, although not by much, it’s reasonably well protected from the full brunt of the windchill. As it was, I kept the hood of my winter shell up for most of the day to keep the wind from blowing through fleece insulation.
I started this hike wearing microspikes but switched over to snowshoes after a mile as the snow got deeper and the climbing angle increased. Most modern snowshoes have a piece of wire that you flip up under your heel, called a televator. It’s kind of like hiking on high heels, but it has the effect of reducing the length of the calf stretch required when climbing up a hill and greatly reducing calf fatigue. Televators also let you put more pressure on the front crampons of your snowshoes, located under your toes, so you get better traction climbing uphill.
The steepest part of the climb was just before the col between Mt Tom and Mt Field and the trail junction where the Mt Tom Spur Trail, the A-Z Trail, and the Willey Range Trail meet. At this stage, it’s customary to turn onto the Mt Tom trail and hike the 0.6 miles to the summit before returning and continuing to Mt Field. But I decided to skip it and catch it on the return trip, so I could save my energy for climbing the furthermost peak, Mt Willey.
You have to climb Field to reach the trail leading to Willey, so I headed up the Willey Range Trail. The trail was barely discernable because it had been covered by drifting snow and the blazes were covered with rime ice. But it’s pretty obvious where it “goes” through the trees and I’ve been there before in winter so I had an idea of what to expect.
As trail-breaking goes, this was a pretty mellow break and I was the first one to summit Mt Field for the day. Mt Field has a good view of Franconia Ridge and Mt Washington, so I checked that out while I ate a sandwich and drank some hot tea to get energized for the hike out to Willey.
The portion of trail between Field and Willey drops into a col and climbs to a false summit before it reaches the actual summit on the far side of the peak. This segment of trail gets a lot of snow and the trees feel like they’re closing in on you from the sides because the snow depth elevates you to the level of their lower branches. I’d only been down it once before in winter, but I remembered it being a little bit sketchy. Admittedly, I was having second thoughts about hiking solo out to the Willey summit and being the first person to do it on that day.
Just then a brightly dressed woman appeared behind me. We talked about heading to Willey and agreed to team up, which made me feel more confident about heading out that way. As expected, the hike out to Willey was less than straightforward. The trail was heavily obscured by drifting snow, the blazing was non-existent and we had to do some navigating by GPS to find the correct route. Michelle also taught me a trick which I never knew for following monorail covered by snow. It is rather clever.
Monorail is formed when many hikers hile down a trail in winter and compact the snow. Over time, the snow freezes into an icy berm like a monorail. It’s most noticeable in the spring when the snow on either side of the monorail melts off and all that’s left is the monorail down the middle of the trail.
If a popular trail is drifted over, you can find it if you find the monorail. As we hiked, Michelle would feel ahead for the monorail with her snowshoes. Not only did this keep us on the trail, but it also kept us out of the deep, uncompacted snow on either side of it, so we could conserve energy. Learn something new every day.
We made surprisingly rapid time out to Willey and checked out the stunning summit view of Crawford Notch and Mt Webster. It turns out the Michelle commutes to the White Mountains every weekend from Allentown, PA to hike, driving up on Friday and back on Sunday. That’s love. I used to do something similar from Boston before I bought a place in the Whites. I waste a lot less time commuting.
We parted company and I hiked back to Field and then to the Tom/Field col, before heading up the Mt Tom Spur to the summit. From there it was downhill back to my car parked in Crawford Notch.