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Return to Mt Jefferson in January

MT Washington and Mt Clay poked above the cloud

After turning around on an Mt Jefferson attempt last week, I was resigned to not getting the peak for my January Grid: The weather has been so exasperating this month, with frigid temperatures and high wind, that there have only been a handful of days when Jefferson has been safe to climb. I had little hope that I get another chance this year.

But as luck would have it, we got a weather window on January 30th and decided to give it another go. This time we made it and summitted Jefferson with a strong group of 6 in perfect weather conditions with no wind and undercast (cloud inversion). This was one of the.best above-treeline hikes I’ve ever had in the White Mountains.

We were able to use Trail Crampons to ascend the Jewell Trail
We were able to use Trail Crampons to ascend the Jewell Trail

The day of the hike, we all parked at the Cog hiker’s lot and climbed the Jewell Trail to the Gulfside Trail junction on Mt Clay (5533′). Clay is a subpeak of Mt Washington and overlooks the Great Gulf. The Jewell had been well packed out by other hikers since we’d been there a week earlier and we were able to wear trail crampons on the climb instead of snowshoes to save energy.

The forecast called for sun, with a high of 15F on Jefferson, 10-15 mph winds, and a -15F windchill. Those are good conditions for hiking Mt Jefferson in winter, which is usually very windy since it’s adjacent to Mt Washington.

When we reached treeline, we were smothered in cold fog.
When we reached treeline, we were smothered in cold fog.

I dressed in layers for the climb but overdressed and sweated more than I liked on the initial climb. Luckily, I had the foresight to wear my KUIU long underwear which can be removed without taking of one’s pants or boots, so I was able to strip them off quickly. Still, I was sweating on top, which concerned me because I hadn’t packed an extra baselayer or midlayer to change into when we broke above treeline, which several of my friends like to do. It’s not a bad idea.

When we broke above the treeline, we were in a dense fog. From this point we had to climb another 500′ or so to the Gulfside trail, but this section of the Jewell can be downright tricky to follow since the snow obscures the cairns marking the trail. The trail also runs precariously close to the edge of a very deep ravine which you really don’t want to slide down accidentally, unnerving several of the other members of our party.

The summit of Mt Monroe, the fourth highest 4000 footer, poked up through the cloud layer like an island.
The summit of Mt Monroe, the fourth highest 4000 footer, poked up through the cloud layer like an island.

As we approached the Gulfside trail which links all of the peaks of the Northern Presidentials (Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison), we popped above the fog layer and were greeted by sun, blue sky, and undercast. All of the lower peaks surrounding us were smothered in a layer of cloud and obscured from view. But the summit of Mt Monroe poked up through the cloud layer like an island, off the west flank of Mt Washington.

When we reached the Gulfside junction we set off north towards the summit of Mt Jefferson which also peaked above the inversion layer. This is normally a long and arduous traverse, often into westerly prevailing winds. But there was virtually no wind all day, which is a real treat when climbing Jefferson which is one of the windiest mountains in the Whites.

We crossed the Monticello Lawn before ascending the Jefferson summit cone.
We crossed the Monticello Lawn before ascending the Jefferson summit cone.

We descended into the col between Clay and Jefferson, climbing past the Sphinx Trail Junction and ascending to the Monticello Lawn, a flat expanse below the Jefferson summit cone. From here it was an easy climb to the summit.

But we were still only halfway through the hike!

After posing for a few summit selfies and wolfing down some food, we headed back to Mt Clay on the Gulfside Trail, before descending the Jewell Trail once again. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the safety of treeline again and began our long descent back to the cars.

Hiking back to Mt Clay and the Jewell Trail.
Hiking back to Mt Clay and the Jewell Trail.

This was a big summit for me, in particular, because it was the 12th calendar month that I’ve climbed Jefferson (gridding out Jefferson) and the last four thousand footer I needed to climb (of the 48) for the month of January. This summit also brings me to 97.6% of the White Mountain 4000 footer grid completed with just 14 peaks left in April and May to finish all 576 summits. It’s hard to believe that this quest may end this year, but I am looking forward to finishing and starting another big hiking project in the future.

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6 comments

  1. congratulations on getting Jefferson! the undercast that you were rewarded with looked spectacular. I’ve had a few such days in the White’s and they are special.

  2. Nice read. I had to look up “undercast clouds.” For all the many times I’ve seen such conditions, I never knew the terminology.

  3. Congrats! I breathe that same sigh of relief, everytime.

  4. Gorgeous! We know where you were yesterday! Glad you got to sneak it in under the wire.

  5. “arduous traverse”….that’s for sure and I’ve done the winter route. That and I really can’t stand Jewell. It just seems like an endless slog. Throw in a tricky stream crossing when it’s not frozen and I say “I’ll wait till Jefferson Notch Rd opens and do it in the summer and fall”?

    • On this hike, we did the bushwhack shortcut to avoid the stream crossing. You cross the bridge at the bottom of the cog railroad,hike uphill about 75 yards, cross the tracks and head into the woods. Brings you about halfway up the Jewell Spur trails.

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