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Skookumchuck on Ice

Ice at the top of Skookumchuck Tr, White Mountains, NH

I have two short sections of the Appalachian Trail left in New Hampshire and had hoped to complete one of them this weekend, a 2.7 mile stretch (requiring 14 miles of hiking) from the Skookumchuck Trail at the northern foot of Mt. Lafayette (5,260 ft) to Mt Garfield (4,500 ft). To hike this section, I had to hike in to the Garfield Ridge Trail (AT) up the Skookumchuck Trail, a distance of 4.3 miles with about  2,700 feet of elevation gain. Unfortunately when I got to treeline and the AT, the trail was really iced up and shrouded in dense fog.

I put on a pair of microspikes, but it quickly became clear that the risk of going any further without full traction (crampons) was too great. I was hiking solo and there is nobody up on this ridge at this time of year. I knew I'd have to ascend Mt Garfield at the other end and didn't feel that would be safe without at least one partner and the rest of my 4 season kit, including a heavy down jacket. So I turned around and hiked out. I'll be back another day.

Skookumchuck Stream, White Mountains

Despite this, climbing up the Skookumchuck Trail today was good fun. It's a challenging and picturesque trail that parallels a beautiful stream for a few miles, before relentlessly climbing up to the northern foot of Lafayette. Skookumchuck is a Chinook word for turbulent falls or rapids and must describe this watercourse during spring thaw.

I also got to work on heat management during my climb today: I spent a lot of time experimenting last year with layering and different clothing combinations for winter hiking. My body composition has changed since then and so have my clothes, so it was good to get a little practice in.

Winter is definitely here above treeline.


  1. Knowing when to turn back is an important skill.

    Heat management: try some Paramo if you can. Much easier than adjusting layers.

  2. What is it about the Paramo's that people like so much. I looked at the manufacturer web site and the cut of the garments look excellent, but is there something about their breathability or dwr that sets them apart in a distinctive way from other manufacturers?

  3. They are much more breathable because they are not based on a membrane. 95% of the time they are better than a hard shell, occasionally you can get damp, but it is not uncomfortable or cold. In cool/cold weather Paramo is ideal. Also they have a lot of venting options. I like them because I can constantly adjust my temperature without having to take off or put on garments. They are not perfect or everyone's cup of tea, but they have a lot of fans. You'll see a lot on the TGOC.

  4. I read your report of turining around due to ice last night and then saw postings about this hiking death due to a fall.

    And a week or so ago a poster on VFTT wrote about breaking his ankle about a mile from the trailhead on a less frequently traveled trail. He self-rescued but it sounded like a real ordeal.

  5. Don't let my wife see this.

    No seriously – when winter arrives, solo hikes cease in my house. So, get your gear together Tommy. :-)

    I'm already signed up for 2 WHP multi-day trips, plus will register for the above treeline workshop with Larry when registration opens. There's a Harvard Cabin trip coming up in a few weeks…it's a nice place to hang out at the base of Mt Washington and only open in winter.

  6. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    I have a few equipment shortage issues I need to resolve before being eligible to join an AMC winter hike. I also need to get my conditioning back to where it was; I am not eager to be an anchor on others.

    My most serious equipment issue is, of course, the boots. I am going hike out early on Sunday morning and plan spend Sunday afternoon in Conway trying on boots, learning about boot rentals. I imagine that I would need to go up on a Friday night and rent my boots in order to be ready for an early Sat morning start.

    I also need to find out if rentals of 4-season tents exist. My 3-season tent is bomber but it got mixed reviews from the trip leaders last week. Like you, I am not keen on sharing a tent in the winter.

    The Great Gulf and Neumann hikes appealed to me but I am not sure I will be ready for that step when the time comes.

    I will still be camping, just not with the AMC.

    Once we get a dump of snow, my first winter camping will be an easy in/out hike with all my gear, camp next to my car, and, the next morning, hike with all my gear again. Basically simulate a hike and camp to a backcountry site but with the car as a bailout option.

    After that I am thinking of a hike into the Franconia tent site on the Eastside trail. It is approximately 3 miles in, some very gentle hills but no real elevation gain, very wide path that can’t be missed, I have hiked it a few times.

    BTW, I do understand and agree with the AMC equipment rules; I would be the same way if I were a trip leader.

  7. REI in North Reading rents plastic boots and crampons. The rental policy is quite convenient. They give you a grace day before and after the rental period to pick up and return your boots so you don't pay for transit. Last year they had Koflachs (excessively warm) and Scarpas for rent. They also rent snowshoes, winter bags, tents, skis..the works.

  8. Ok, one "on topic" comment:

    Was the ice thick enough crampons? Your picture seems to suggest a thin layer of ice on rock; like after an ice storm. Amd, umm, that doesn't sound like fun at all.

  9. @Tom – I should probably fill in more context here. It was just a thin layer of ice at this point, but I had planned to climb Garfield and camp on the ridge and those weren't going to happen with the gear I had on me, or the lack of a partner. The safety margin just wasn't there. Back to your question about crampons. I use them for mixed rock and ice and still would have preferred them in this situation since I was carrying a 20+ lb pack. Microspikes rock for convenience, but I feel a sense of power and authority when I'm wearing crampons.

  10. I use Microspikes for icy snow but no likey on ice over rocks (though they work well on flat ice like iced over roads). I honestly hate ice! Couple years ago I hit a hidden sheet under a thin layer of snow that I wasn't expecting and fell hard. Hurt for days – I was lucky I didn't break my wrist as I took my landing on it.

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