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Undercast on Mt Madison in March

BK on the summit of Mt Madison
BK on the summit of Mt Madison (5376′)

Imagine you’re standing on top of a mountain, looking down at a sea of clouds blanketing the valleys below. Called a cloud inversion or undercast, it’s a rare enough weather phenomenon that you’re willing to blow off work to climb a mountain to experience it.

I’m not sure what prompted me to read the Mt Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast on Monday afternoon, but when I read that undercast was forecast for the next day, I quickly recruited a partner to climb Mt Madison to experience it. Madison is the fifth highest mountain on the White Mountain 4000 footer list at 5376′. While the forecast called for mild climbing conditions, I’m not too keen on climbing a Northern Presidential peak solo in winter. Too much can go wrong, and if it does, ain’t no one going to climb 4 miles with 4000′ of elevation gain for a while to help you.

Madison Spring Hut at Treeline
Madison Spring Hut at Treeline

I’d never hiked with BK prior to climbing Madison, but we both belong to a tight-knit group of hikers in the White Mountains and I’d been following his trips this winter on Facebook. We met at the Appalachia Trailhead that morning and proved to be well matched in pace and temperament. He’s primarily a backpacker like me and gets out frequently for trips to the far reaches of the National Forest. The great thing about backpacking in the Whites is that you can go anytime and anywhere you want. They’re no permits and just a few simple regulations.

While the north side of the Presidential Range is densely crisscrossed with trails, there are only a few routes up the ridge connecting Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. For this hike, we chose the Valley Way Trail which climbs 4.3 miles with 4050′ of elevation gain to the summit of Madison. It’s also one of the few trails broken out in winter and one of the best protected with 3.8 miles of tree and vegetation cover.

Undercast in the Great Gulf - Star Lake at the Foot of Adams in Foreground
Undercast in the Great Gulf – Star Lake at the Foot of Adams in Foreground

We climbed up to treeline in microspikes on loose granular snow. Temperatures were in the low 20’s most of the day with 10-15 mph winds above treeline. We stopped for a short snack at the Madison Springs Hut which is a nice windbreak, even though it’s closed in winter. Then we climbed the Osgood Trail to the Madison summit admiring nearby Mt Adams and its sub-peak John Quincy Adams as we climbed. From the summit of Madison, we could make out Mt Washington, also surrounded by undercast, on the other side of the Great Gulf.

It took us a few hours to hike down from the summit, but we were pretty elated by our summit experience and the miles flew by on a long hike back down. We hiked back down to the hut and put on crampons for better traction on the steep descent.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams

March is the best time to climb the Presidentials, mainly because the weather starts to moderate as winter wanes. While the snow can linger above treeline into June, and even July in the shade, longer days and abundant sunshine make the climbs far less arduous. Undercast is a treat though. Well worth the detour if you get a chance to experience it.

Mount-Madison-via-Valley-Way

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6 comments

  1. I experienced cloud inversion while standing on top of Algonquin Peak in the Adirondack High Peaks on December 21, 2014. Due to our intentional late start, we stayed topside for the sunset. It was breathtaking, to say the least! I wish your site allowed us to upload a photo!

  2. I’ve gotten to experience that wonderment several times. Once, a friend and I hiked the Lost Mine Peak trail in Big Bend National Park, a short 4.5 mile round trip to an overlook 1500′ above the trailhead. The temperature was several degrees below freezing when we started and we were covered with rime ice, frozen rain, and snow when we popped out the top of the clouds a mile up the trail. At the overlook at the very top, the temperature was twenty to thirty degrees above freezing–a beautiful, sunny day. A sea of white with occasional sun drenched mountain tops poking above spread before us as far as the eye could see. We basked in the sun and the view for an hour or so and then headed back down. We descended into white cotton candy which morphed into a grey mass dumping snow and ice all over us. It was surreal.

  3. My Girlfriend and I hiked the Bald faces one March day a couple years ago when we had no snow and the trails were all icy. It was our first experience with undercast. We started up Slippery Brook trail on a snowy day. We got above the clouds and the sun was warm. The Maine side of Evans Notch was all socked in, but the NH side was clear. We stood at Eagle Crag and watched the clouds try to flow over the Ridge. It was pretty cool.

  4. I had a similar experience up Mt. Adams on January 20, 2017.. Stopped at Crag camp on my my up where it was 55 degrees on the south facing porch. If I recall, Much of my hike to the camp was done shirtless, in January!… the summit was glorious, with low winds and a magical undercast to the north and bright blue/clear skies with no clouds into the wilderness.

  5. experienced an undercast at Madison Springs hut in June a few years age just at sunset. A magical experience!

    Why is it always at Madison?

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