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Hiking Cannon Mtn in January

Hiking Cannon Mtn in January

Cannon Mountain is a White Mountain 4000 footer in Franconia Notch located across the pass from famed Franconia Ridge, one of the most beautiful hikes in the United States. Cannon is probably best known for the Old Man Profile, a rock formation shaped like a man’s face. It collapsed in 2003 but remains a cultural icon for the state of New Hampshire. Cannon is also the site of the first aerial tramway in the United States and with an elevation of 4080′, it is the highest ski area summit in New Hampshire.

With the end of January fast approaching, I’ve been banging out as many 4000 footer climbs as possible for my White Mountain 4000 footer grid. To finish the grid, you have to climb all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers in each month of the year. This hike was my 9th summit this month and 34th overall in January spread across many years. The biggest obstacle to getting them all done is winter weather which limits the number of days you can hike in the White Mountains, especially on the higher summits with above-treeline exposure.

I was joined on this hike by four friends: Beth, Wanda, Ken, and Larry, who are all really experienced, winter hikers. You couldn’t ask for a better crew.

There are a number of different ways to hike up Mt Cannon in winter and they’re all tough. We took the Kinsman Ridge Trail, a 4.4 mile round trip, with 2,200 feet of elevation gain. It’s steep and provides the most direct ascent of the mountain, reaching the top of Cannon Cliff at 1.5 miles. The top 0.5 mile has some above-treeline exposure, so I packed a face mask, ski goggles, and heavily insulated mitts the night before, in case they’d be needed. That was a good call.

-27 Weather Forecast

I suffer from cold weather asthma, so I try to avoid hiking in really cold weather, below 10 degrees Fahrenheit if possible. So you can imagine my reaction when I checked the morning weather for Franconia Notch at the trailhead and saw that it was -27 degrees Fahrenheit! This was at the bottom of the mountain, not even on top. I texted Beth who was driving north to meet me and we decided to go ahead with the hike because the temperatures were supposed to rise during the day. I was still a bit apprehensive though.

The Kinsman Ridge Trail starts out steep and never really eases off until about 3800′. We were climbing packed trail with about an inch of loose snow on top using Hillsound Trail Crampons, which are aggressive microspikes in a chain. But I could feel a tightness in my chest and I was having trouble keeping up with the group from the get-go. After 600′ of ascent, I announced I was bailing. My friends are aware of my cold-induced asthma and I started back down after a brief discussion. I felt bad because the only reason most of them were climbing this freezing peak on this day, was to keep me company.

I hiked down about 200′ and decided to look at my elevation on GaiaGPS. It said 2450′. I decided to see if I could get to 3000′ so I turned around and started climbing again, although much more slowly, and I took a short 15-30 second rest after each 100′ of elevation gain. I wear an altimeter watch on my wrist so I could keep track of this. At 3000′, I decided to go for 3600′, and then 3800′, where I put on a facemask and ski goggles for wind and cold protection above treeline.

Philip on Cannon Mtn with a facemask and goggles
Philip on Cannon Mtn with a facemask and goggles

Shortly after this, I ran into my friends just below the summit as they were starting their descent. They hiked back up to the summit with me and then we all headed down together.

There’s no moral to this story and I’m not mad at my friends for continuing on without me. I felt perfectly at ease hiking up Cannon without them, in part, because I do hike solo in winter when I feel the risk is manageable. I made the decision to continue back up to the summit without them and we were all happy to be reunited when we met later on the trail.

It does however bring into focus something I’ve been thinking about for some time, about the mental effort and willpower required to hike the White Mountain 4000 footer grid. I’ve hiked and completed other big peak and trail lists in the Whites, but I’ve never had to struggle to motivate myself to keep plugging away at them or to finish a hike. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to will myself up to a grid summit and I doubt it will be the last. Perhaps it’s because the grid is more physically taxing or because the calendar requirement is so unrelenting. If you don’t climb a mountain in one month, you have to wait a whole year before you can climb it in the same month.

Stuff to ponder.

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  1. Fellow “Gridiot” here. For me its just the opposite. Attempting the grid keeps me super motivated to keep hiking. Great website, I love reading your reports, reviews and insights. Thank you!

  2. I found that I put a lot of pressure on myself in the last year of finishing the grid. I promised my wife I would not put that pressure on myself again and therefore will not attempt any list or goal with a time constraint or time element. I still hike and work on other lists but do not have the constraint of I have to get this peak this day.

  3. Those are some great friends to hike back up to the summit with you! Glad it worked out

  4. Re the wet rib: I took the waist strap off my Versa (HMG’s waist back), and ran the sternum strap of my backpack through the back sleeve of the Versa. The buckle on the end of the sternum strap which I ran through the Versa, naturally hooks behind that sleeve. I can then leave it on my backpack, knowing it won’t fall off when I remove my pack. I simply hook the sternum straps together, and voila! A “wet rib.” I imagine there are many waist packs constructed in a similar manner.

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