Spring hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be a frustrating time. Despite the change in season and longer days, snow usually lingers on the high peaks well into late May, and daytime temperatures remain quite chilly, only turning warmer in June.
In addition to all of the normal winter hazards of above treeline hiking in the Whites, hikers need to be prepared for postholing in soft snow and water crossings in frigid streams. This often requires carrying full winter gear, or close to it, including snowshoes, crampons, a face mask to guard against frostbite, ski goggles, a balaclava, gloves, warm clothing and some kind of emergency shelter in case things go south.
In addition to wet snow and mud, hikers need to be able to walk on monorail, which is an icy layer of snow that persists in the middle of White Mountain Trails, even as the snow on the side of the trails melts off. Called monorail (as in trains) or sometimes a balance beam, hiker have to walk or climb a narrow strip of it, about 4-6 inches while wearing crampons because it’s solid ice. One false step to either side of the monorail, and you are likely to posthole in soft snow, which can be quite exhausting and drenching.
Monorail is the result of many hikers hiking the trail in winter, compacting the snow each time they pass over it, until it freezes into a thick layer of solid ice. When the surrounding snow begins to melt off, the width of the monorail can become precariously thin, so you may need to walk on it by shuffling sideways. Doing this for hours at a time takes real concentration on your footwork, because if you fall off, you are likely to posthole up to your waist in soft snow and have trouble getting yourself out. Even worse, you can fall into a spruce trap at the base of a tree and require external assistance to escape – in other words don’t hike alone at this time of year.
Spring Hiking Footwear
By mid May, many trails are bare of snow at lower elevations and some snow bridges over streams are likely to have collapsed. Still you need to wear footwear that can take a pair of crampons or microspikes for walking on ice, handle mud, snowmelt, and even water crossings without freezing.
Fording streams further complicates footwear selection because the temperature of snowmelt in White Mountain stream is ice-cold. Wearing plastic boots is not an option anymore and even leather boots become very heavy when repeatedly soaked in streams. This can be a real challenge and you may need to bring more than one pair of shoes with you for a long hike in case your feet get wet or for whatever reason, you are forced to spend the night outdoors.
Planning Spring Hikes
The best thing to do before any spring hike is to carefully study your maps, The White Mountain Guide, and to read any recent trail condition reports about your planned destination on TrailsNH.com. If snow bridges are out and alpine streams are running at high levels, your best bet may be to avoid hikes like The Hancocks, The Bonds, or Owls Head which require fording streams.
Whatever you do, remain cautious about spring conditions in the White Mountains. While frustrating, postponing your hike until mid-June when conditions improve might be the best option
Written 2011. Updated 2015.
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