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Hiking Mt Adams and Mt Madison in December and January

Mt Jefferson seen from Mt Adams

Mt Adams (5774′) and Mt Madison (5367′) are the second highest and fifth highest four thousand footers in the White Mountains. They’re usually hiked together on the same day because they’re adjacent at the northernmost end of the Presidential Range.

Climbing Adams and Madison is a difficult day in any weather, but it can be downright brutal in winter conditions when you have to carry extra clothing, traction aids, snowshoes, food, and hot drinking water up both peaks, the latter to prevent it from freezing during the day. Face protection is often required to prevent frostbite, and visibility can be poor due to low clouds, freezing fog, or blowing snow. There are different routes one can take to climb both peaks, but in general, you’re looking at a 10-mile day with close to 5000′ of elevation gain.

Mt Madison in December
Mt Madison in December

I climbed both Adams and Madison last December (’23) and this January (’24) exactly one month apart. In December, I was accompanied by my friends Lynn and Barbara, and by my friend Tom in January. All of them are very experienced winter hikers and people I trust to hike with above treeline in winter. Like me, they’re also working on the White Mountain 4000 Footer Grid, which requires climbing all 48 White Mountain four thousand footers in each calendar month of the year (usually over multiple years.) It takes a lot of perseverance and willpower to complete this peak-bagging list although it’s very rewarding because you can become friends with so many wonderful people along the way.

The weather on both of these trips was wintery but very different. In December, we encountered deep snow above-treeline which required wearing snowshoes to climb both peaks. However, that snow was washed away in January by a major rainstorm, causing major flooding in the surrounding ravines and valleys, leaving just a dusting of snow and ice on the trails. While counterintuitive, January’s trail conditions were harder than December’s, especially on the boulder-strewn summit cones of both peaks, since the voids between the rocks that are normally filled with snow were now bare, while the rocks themselves were covered in ice.

We’d stripped down to our baselayers for the climb up to treeline.
We’d stripped down to our baselayers for the climb up to treeline.

The December Climb

Barbara, Lynn, and I climbed Adams and Madison on December 2, which is technically still autumn not winter, despite the winter conditions we encountered. We met at 8:00 am at the Appalachia Trailhead on RT 2 outside of Randolph, NH, and hiked up to the AMC’s Madison Hut, which is located just above treeeline, in 4 hours. The Madison Hut is closed in winter but provides a good place to shelter out of the wind, have a snack, drink some water, adjust your clothing, and regroup for the next phase of the hike.

We’d hiked up to the hut through several inches of wet, but packable snow, wearing trail crampons for traction, but switched to snowshoes from that point on, because there was 1-2 feet of powder above treeline and we needed the extra flotation. From the hut, we headed up to Adams on the Guldside Trail in order to approach the summit from the north side, where the gradient is more gradual.

While closed, the Madison Hut sill provides a good windbreak and rally point.
While closed, the Madison Hut sill provides a good windbreak and rally point.

While it’d been clear at the hut, the clouds closed in overhead as we climbed the Gulfside Trail. We’d agreed beforehand to hike up to Thunderstorm Junction and follow Lowes Path to the summit, but we had trouble following the Gulfside due to the poor visibility. I was just about to reach for my compass when three hikers appeared on our left, descending Adams. They turned out to be friends (it’s a small world above treeline) and they’d broken out a trail to the summit that we could just make out in the fog.

It had started snowing heavily at this point, but we started up the path they’d made, following their packed prints. Unfortunately, Barbara had hit the wall at this point and was bonking and really slowing us down. I’ve been there and I’m very sympathetic. But I wasn’t going to leave her and climb the remaining 200′ of elevation to the summit without her. I know how heartbreaking it would have been for her to climb all this way without summitting. So I encouraged her to continue, however slowly, all the while wondering if the snow would obscure the broken-out snowshoe tracks ahead of us or if they would be covered by snow when we tried to descend. Lynn, in the meantime, was climbing steadily and I had to rein her in so that we could all keep each other in sight.

Barbara’s Orange Hat made her easier to see in the fog.
Barbara’s Orange Hat made her easier to see in the fog.

We all reached the top, touched the summit sign, and then bolted immediately back down the way we’d come. I could barely make out our snowshoe track, but I knew where I was, I had two types of navigation aides (compass, GPS App) so I wasn’t worried about getting off the peak back down to the Gulfside Trail, or the hut.

Gravity is my friend and we were soon back at the hut where we drank water, ate some food, and agreed to climb Madison. I always like to get Adams first on these hikes because it’s the one you don’t want to leave behind if you decide to bail partway through the trip. Madison is a much easier peak to climb and it’s one I’d feel perfectly comfortable soloing if need be, unlike Adams.

Lynn at the summit of Mt Madison
Lynn at the summit

We were all tired, but the final ascent up Madison was straightforward, in part because the cairns on the Osgood Trail are so much easier to follow. There’s no trail on these summits to speak of, just a line of cairns to follow as you rock hop up on snowshoes to the summit. That was clouded over too, but we’d made it. From there we just had to hike back down the trailhead following the slushy Valley Way Trail in the dark lit by headlamp.

The January Climb

Tom and I climbed Adams and Madison a month later on January 2 in drastically different conditions. This time we had a sunny day, temperatures in the low 20’s, but a brisk wind. The forecast had called for wind speeds of 25-30 mph with gusts as high as 40 mph, but it was on the high end of that range and pushed us around when we tried to walk above treeline. We also had to put on face protection to prevent frostbite.

Tom at the treeline warning sign just below Madison hut.
Tom at the treeline warning sign just below Madison hut.

We started at 8:00 and hiked up the Valley Way Trail which was bare earth lower down, icy at its midpoint, with packed snow just below treeline. We put on Trail Crampons around 2000′ and kept them on the rest of the day. Conditions above treeline were such that snowshoes were not required on this hike, because of the massive rainstorm and thaw that had occurred throughout the Whites, the week prior. Mountaineering snowshoes weigh 4-5 pounds per pair, so I was eager to climb Adams and Madison in conditions where I didn’t have to carry them all day.

We got to the hut after 3 hours of climbing and had a snack before proceeding up the Gulfside Trail to the north side of Adams. Tom wanted to hike up Lowes Path from Thunderstorm Junction instead of following the Airline Trail because he was concerned it’d be too bony. The ascent to the summit of Adams along Lowes path is shorter and requires less climbing so I was game. But, following the Gulfside Trail was a bit challenging because there were a lot of hidden voids amongst the rocks that make up the trail. Tom’s glacier classes were also fogging up, so he let me lead and followed close behind.

Tom, a short distance from the summit of Mt Adams
Tom, a short distance from the summit of Mt Adams

Following Lowes Path to the summit was ok, but in hindsight, the Airline Trail would have been better. Lowes required a lot of icy boulder hopping and there were many voids between the rocks to avoid. Still we summitted and then beat feet, following the Airline Trail down. It was indeed packed out nicely and a much faster descent. We vectored over to the Gulfside Trail again on the way down Adams, a common shortcut, and descended to the hut to regroup.

After some food and drink, we slowly climbed to the Madison summit which is only a few hundred feet above the hut. The wind at the top was very pushy, even worse than on Adams, but we touched the summit cairn and immediately headed down. From the hut we hiked back down to the trailhead, in just 2 hours, making it back down before sunset.

The giant cairn at Thunderstorm Junction is a major trail junction along the Gulfside Trail.
The giant cairn at Thunderstorm Junction is a major trail junction along the Gulfside Trail.

Wrap Up

These two hikes were a major milestone for me because they were the 11th and 12th calendar months that I’ve climbed Adams and Madison for The Grid, which means I’m done with them. That is a big relief because “gridding out” Adams is arguably the hardest peak to hike in each calendar month of the year. I still have a few challenging hikes to complete this month, but they’re all easier and slightly less weather-dependent than Adams.

Mt Adams is a beast to climb in winter.
Mt Adams is a beast to climb in winter.

I want to thank my friends for coming with me on these hikes. While it’s true they “needed” them for their own Grids, good hiking partners a hard to find, and I’m blessed to have them as my companions.

3 comments

  1. phil s Undercoffer

    Congratulations and great article with good descriptions of conditions. Impressive feat for everyone both hikes.

  2. Congrats on Gridding those out. Just hit #10 on both this weekend, 1/6/24

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