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Hiking Mts Madison and Adams in April

Hiking Madison and Adams in April

Mt Madison (5367′) and Mt Adams (5774′) are two mountains in the Northern Presidential Range of the White Mountains. Madison is the fifth tallest 4000 footer in the Whites, while Adams is the second tallest, after Mt Washington, which is #1. Climbing Madison and Adams is a tough hike, at any time of year. While the round trip distance (from the Appalachia Trailhead) is only about 10 miles, the route requires 5000′ of elevation gain which makes for a long day.

It's spring in the valleys, but still winter in the high peaks.
It’s spring in the valleys but still winter on the high peaks.

My hiking partner Ken and I hiked up Madison and Adams this week for our White Mountian 4000 Footer grids, which require hiking all 48 of the 4000 footers once in each calendar month for a total of 576 summits. The weather forecast was favorable for April with temperatures in the 20’s (F) and winds dropping from 35 mph down to 20 mph by afternoon. Together with brilliant sunshine, this meant we could probably get by without face protection against frostbite.

April is a tricky month to climb 4000 footers because it’s still winter in the higher elevations, while the valleys are largely snow-free. That means you have to be prepared and carry gear for both seasons since you can’t be sure what you’ll encounter at elevation. Trail conditions can also vary widely during the course of a hike, again depending on elevation, and also by time of day, when icy morning trails turn to slush or mashed potatoes by the afternoon when the sun has warmed them up.

We quickly stripped down to baselayers for the climb up Valley Way
We quickly stripped down to baselayers for the climb up Valley Way

Ken and I met at the Appalachia Trailhead, which is the main parking lot for climbing the Northern Presidentials, and headed up the Valley Way Trail, which runs to the Madison Springs Hut in the col between Madison and Adams. We hiked on bare ground and through mud before hitting ice and snow about 500′ (of elevation) up. We switched to Hillsound Trail Crampons, which are really sharp microspikes when we hit ice and frozen snow. That kind of surface is easy to hike on, but we soon encountered a thin layer of fresh snow, which started to ball up in our spikes. That ceased after we continued higher and it got a bit colder.

The Valley Way Trail is a relentless climb up to the Madison Spring Hut, which incidentally, is closed all winter. But it’s the trail that most people climb to treeline, so its surface conditions are well documented on New England Trail Conditions. So we expected a large ice dome on the trail at 3000′ which we were able to skirt along the side without much trouble. From there, we started hitting soft unpacked snow which made the hiking more strenuous, because you’d sink backward a little with every uphill step you took.

Stop Sign White Mountains
STOP: The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many had died there from exposure even in summer. Turn back NOW if the weather is bad

We finally made it to the very faded “Stop Sign” at treeline and arrived at the Madison Spring Hut shortly after. There we ran into my friend Sandy who was climbing Madison. She’s a real inspiration: she’s well over 70 and is over 80% of the way through her second White Mountain 4000 footer grid. I chalk that up to her love of the mountains and good genes – I know from talking to her that the women in her family live a long, long time. She’s a babe by comparison!

Sandy is 77 years old and 80% of the way through her second White Mountain 4000 footer grid
Sandy is in her late 70’s and 80% of the way through her second White Mountain 4000 footer grid.

We took a break to eat and drink something and then hiked up to the summit of Madison, through a maze of boulders, ice and packed snow on the Osgood Trail (the AT). I kept my trail crampons on but Ken shed his and just rock hopped; you really could go either way. The prevailing northwesterly winds were pretty pushy and cold, so I flipped up my hardshell hood to stay warmer and protect my face. The wind died down when we got near to the summit and the trail swings north, putting the peak between us and the wind, but we got a full-frontal blast when we summited. We didn’t linger, tagged the peak, and headed back down to the hut.

Ken nears the Madison summit
Ken nears the Madison summit

After another short snack and water, we headed up the Gulfside Trail to the bottom of Adam’s summit cone. Like Madison, this is a huge cone of ankle-twisting boulders. Adams is harder to climb though because the boulders have deep voids between them, so you need to be much more sure of your steps. That’s not the case on Madison where you can see bottom.

Philip at the Madison Spring Hut (closed) at the bottom of the Madison Summit Cone.
Philip at the Madison Spring Hut (closed in winter) at the bottom of the Madison Summit Cone.

We headed up the Airline Trail, following the rock cairns marking the route to the summit. There’s no clear “trail” so you have to pick your way between the boulders and pick a route that conserves as much energy as possible on the climb.

Mt Madison, seen from the Gulfside Trail
Mt Madison, seen from the Gulfside Trail

The bottom half of the ascent just required rock-hopping, but the final 0.2 miles got pretty icy. It’s wasn’t clear or blue ice, but a combination of high angle rime and frozen snow pockmarked by hundreds of crampon scars.

Ken scopes out the final approach to Adams.
Ken scopes out the final approach to Adams.

While the climb had been windy, the summit of Adams wasn’t windy at all. Go figure.

Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson
Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson

We paused to take in the views of Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson and took some summit photos before picking our way back down the maze of cairns back down to the Gulfside Trail and the hut.

Ken at the rime-encrusted Mt Adams summit sign.
Ken at the rime-encrusted Mt Adams summit sign.

From there it was a long and slushy descent back down Valley Way to the trailhead below.

Total distance: 10.5 miles with 5100′ of elevation gain.

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  1. Great trip and photo of the rime ice on the sign. Snow and ice don’t look too bad in your photos but we all know that can change quickly. Were just microspikes sufficient?

    • I used Hillsound Trail Crampons for the entire hike which are in between microspikes and full crampons. They’re reasonably comfortable in soft snow, slushy snow, and perfect for dealing with soft, plastic ice. You get used to wearing them on rock pretty quick in mixed conditions (rock/snow/ice).

  2. I noticed that Ken is sporting a front pack of some sort? Could you share some particulars?

  3. Philip,
    It was a pleasure meeting you and Ken on my descent. I’m glad to see Sandy made it up, when I spoke with her she was thinking of turning around. I wonder if she linked up with her friends? Anyway, great report, it reflects my experience to a T. All the best!

    • Paul – great to hear from you. Sandy did not meet up with her friends..they went up Lowes Path which reportedly was super icy and tough. But we started up Madison all together and we met up with Sandy later near the bottom of Valley Way. Her friends (and mine – I’ve hiked with them too) did eventually summit both peaks and got down ok but it sounds like it was an ordeal.

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