March is the best month to climb the higher peaks in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range when temperatures warm up and the days are longer, but it’s still full-on winter conditions above treeline. This is home of Mt Washington, the White Mountains highest peak, which is on the same ridge with Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe, the six highest peaks in New Hampshire, and all over 5300′ of elevation.
In terms of difficulty, I’ve always found that Mt Jefferson to be the most difficult one of these high peaks to climb in winter, even more so than Mt Washington, because it requires the longest approach hike across exposed terrain. Jefferson is also always very windy year-round, with the prevailing southwest wind blowing straight into your face.
But Jefferson and all of the higher peaks are a joy to climb in fine weather and what are called “Presi Days” by New Hampshire hikers. When you see one of these days shaping up in the forecast, with calm winds and reasonable temperatures, you can bet that there will be people taking the day off from work to hike in the Presidential Range. The beauty of the scenery is staggering. Weekdays are best, of course, when you have the mountains all to yourself.
I have an old friend named Trey, who I did a lot of winter peakbagging with back in 2013-2014 when I was working through the Winter White Mountain 4000 Footer List. He subsequently moved to Oregon which was a loss because he was a skilled and cordial companion. Six years later and out of the blue, he contacted me to say that he was coming back to New Hampshire for a week to finish his Winter White Mountain 4000 footer list. All that time and he couldn’t get it out of his mind. I was thrilled to hear from him and looked forward to his visit.
The Real Deal
You may wonder, why an accomplished west-coast hiker and mountaineer like Trey would have trouble leaving an unfinished peakbagging list behind. It comes down to this. Climbing all of the White Mountains 4000 footers in winter, especially the peaks in the Presidential Range, is the real deal. Expedition teams from around the world come to Mt Washington and the Presidentials to train for routes in the Himalayas, South America, British Columbia, and Alaska because the weather and terrain are so fierce and unrelenting.
Despite this, the Presidential Range is only 3 hours by car from Boston and 2 hours from Portland, Maine making it quite accessible. There’s also a rich hiking, skiing, climbing, and mountaineering tradition in the surrounding towns with lots of expert mountaineers and gear smiths to tap into during a visit. It’s one of the main reasons I live in the area myself. You are surrounded by outdoor adventurers and adventure opportunities. There’s no shortage of places to experience and people to go with.
Three months later, Trey and I met at 8:00 am at a trailhead at the foot of Mt Washington, with the goal of climbing Mt Jefferson and conditions permitting, Mt Monroe, some distance away. We met up with two of my hiking friends, Hilde and Ken, who I’d invited to join us, and headed up the Jewell Trail, which climbs the west flank of Mt Washington.
Ken and Trey quickly discovered that they have a lot of mutual mountaineering acquaintances in Oregon and Washington. Trey is quite active with the Mazamas Climbing Club in Portland and Ken has climbed Rainier, Adams, Baker, and other western peaks multiple times with Mazamas members. Small world.
The Jewell Trail is a 3.7-mile/3000′ climb up a steep wooded ridge to treeline before it meets with the Gulfside Trail, the main trunk trail that links the Northern Presidentials from Mt Madison to Mt Washington. I use the word “trail” loosely here because the trail is covered in snow and ice in winter and all you can see are the ice-encrusted rock signs and cairns that mark the route.
The snow on the Jewell was soft and unpacked but drier than mashed potatoes. My friends bare booted the climb, but I’ve snowshoed so much this winter, that it was easier for me to put them on for the added flotation they provide. Everyone switched to snowshoes when we reached the small trees called Krumholz that delineate the alpine zone, and we all wore them for the remainder of the hike.
We hiked north along the Gulfside Trail to Monticello Lawn below the Jefferson summit. Conditions were remarkably mild with little wind, even less than expected. We dropped about 300 feet into the saddle between Washington and Jefferson before climbing another 200′ or so to the Jefferson summit. This added another 1.5 miles to our approach.
My favorite section of the hike out to Jefferson is a flat alpine sedge meadow called the Monticello Lawn. There’s another area like it on the south side of Mt Washington called the Bigelow Lawn. Instead of the talus, they’re covered with wild grasses and hardy alpine plants like Bigelow’s Sedge, Highland Rush, Mountain Sandwort, Mountain Cranberry, Alpine Bilberry and Three-toothed Cinquefoil. They’re also home to the White Mountain Arctic, an endangered butterfly species that lives in the alpine zone. When we visited the lawn was covered with snow, but it’s a lovely place to sit and marvel at Mt Washington and the Great Gulf during the summer months.
After a short lunch break in the lee of the summit and out of the wind, we hiked back up to the Jewell Trail junction, where Hilde broke off and hiked down the Jewell and out. It was her third day in a row winter peakbagging and she was pooped. She’s very experienced and I felt comfortable with her hiking down alone.
Ken stayed with Trey and me, as we set our sights on Mt Monroe on the southern portion of the Presidential Range below Mt Washington. This required traversing the Westside Trail on the west flank of Mt Washington, overlooking Ammonoosuc Ravine.
The Westside Trail is one of my favorites in the Whites. While you can’t see it in winter under the snow, the mountain rocks that form the trail are carefully fitted together like cobblestones, the work of the patient trail builders who constructed it under the supervision of J Rayner Edmands, one of the early White Mountain Trail System architects.
We walked past Washington’s headwall on our left, which I’d climbed again last summer, before following the Westside Trail. The wind picked up noticeably and we layered up. I was starting to feel “the burn” on my face, so I put on an OuterU Face Glove to protect my nose and cheeks from sun glare and wind burn.
The Westside trail was covered in wind-blown powder and sloped at an angle making it difficult to snowshoe across. I hiked with my snowshoes pointed forward at an uphill angle, kind of like French Technique in snowshoes, to get across without falling and sliding down into the ravine below. It was a little sketchy, but we were relieved when we made it to the Crawford Path junction, which runs down to the base of Monroe and the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds hut.
Trey was very interested in climbing Monroe to count it towards his Winter 4000 footers, so Ken and I let him hike ahead so he could climb it before we arrived at the hut. I not a fan of splitting groups like this, but this was a low-risk move. There was no wind, we had perfect visibility, we could see each other the entire time we were apart, and we all have plenty of winter above-treeline experience. Ken and I have so many winter ascents up Monroe between us, that climbing it has kind of lost its luster. I was more interested in snooping around the hut and frozen alpine lakes beside it for a few minutes.
Trey outpaced us by 5-10 minutes, but it was enough for him to drop his pack at the hut and make the 350′ climb from the ridge to the summit of Monroe. He let out a yell at the summit and came down quickly. Not bad – two of the highest Presidentials in one day!
Darkness was approaching and we wanted to be below treeline before sunset. The Ammonoosc Ravine Trail that we planned to descend is very steep in spots and I wouldn’t want to hike down it in the dark in winter. The top of the Ammo is poorly marked and little hard to find in winter, so we checked our position on Gaia and soon found the blue-blazed trail headed downhill.
Some earlier hikers had glissaded the trail and it was difficult to get a foothold in the steeper sections without falling and sliding. I went down twice this way, despite wearing snowshoes. An ice ax would have helped. We managed, just the same.
Once we arrived a the Gem Pool, a waterfall at the base of the steep climb to the ridge and the hut, we were home free and had a fast 2-mile snowshoe back to the trailhead lot from where we’d started in the waning daylight.
It’d been a fabulous hike and I was glad that Trey had gotten two Presidentials, Jefferson and Monroe, which are seldom hiked together except on a Winter Presidential Traverse. He didn’t finish climbing all the peaks he needs to finish the Winter 4000 footers during his visit, so he’ll be back again next winter when I hope to see him again.
Note: I voted on an absentee ballot before this hike!