Very Cold Toes on Mt Field in November

Climbing Mt Field in November

Crawford Notch is one of the big mountain passes in the White Mountains and the dividing line between two mountain ranges, the Southern Presidentials leading to Mt Washington and the Willey Range, which forms the steep western wall of the notch opposite Webster Cliff. The Willey Range includes three peaks: Mt Willey, Mt Field, and Mt Tom. Willey and Field were my planned destinations for the day since I’d already climbed Mt Tom in November for my 4000 Footer Grid.

Original Route Plan – Out and back

  • A-Z Trail: 1.3 miles w/850′ elevation gain
  • Avalon Trail: 1.5 miles w/1550′ elevation gain
  • Willey Range Trail: 1.4 miles w/400′ elevation gain (rev. 350′)

My plan was to climb Field via the Avalon Trail which is quite steep, then head out to Willey, and then retrace my steps back to Crawford Notch. While calendar winter is still a few weeks away (approx. Dec 21), I was dressed in full winter gear and carried a winter load in my pack. In some ways, the shoulder season between autumn and winter is harder than full-on winter, because you need to carry clothing and traction that can span both seasons. For instance, it’s not uncommon to encounter running water on the trails at lower elevations, only to encounter thick ice flows and snowdrifts the higher you climb.

That was not the case on this hike, however. The trailhead in Crawford Notch already had snow and one poor sod was already trying to dig his car out of a snowbank (aided by a platoon of volunteers) as I crossed the railroad to start my hike. I was hiking by myself on this trip and felt comfortable with that decision. I’ve been up these peaks many times in all seasons and I knew there would be a lot of other hikers out in case I ran into trouble.

The bottom of the A-Z trails is usually packed out given its proximity to the AMC’s Highland Center.
The bottom of the A-Z trails is usually packed out given its proximity to the AMC’s Highland Center.

I started up the A-Z trail and put on a pair of Hillsound Ultras (microspikes) before crossing a partially bridged stream. The trail climbs steadily after the stream through hardwoods. One thing you notice when you climb the forty-eight four thousand footers month after month is how much the landscape changes from season to season. While I’ve hiked in the Whites a lot, and I mean a real lot, I haven’t climbed that many 4000 footers in November, December, April, or May, which are the shoulder season months when trail conditions on the higher peaks are often downright nasty. Those are usually good months to stay low on the trails that are last to become snowbound or that melt out early at the end of winter.

But when you hike during these shoulder season months, you get to experience the landscape in a new way. When the leaves from the trees have fallen, you can see the topology of the landscape and the watercourses that run alongside the trails so much more clearly. It makes everything look a lot different and even very familiar trails appear transformed.

I turned onto the Avalon Trail at the next junction and started climbing. This trail has undergone a massive transformation in recent years by trial crews that have widened it and made it much less obscure. It could be very difficult to follow, just a few years ago, and I suspect I’ve climbed it more than once accidentally off the official route. That was almost the case on this hike when I missed a fork in the trail and followed the packed-out trail made by other hikers who’d also missed that turn. I quickly realized my mistake and backtracked to the blazed fork which I’d passed previously. Going up the right trail is much easier than the alternative.

The snow depth increased on the Avalon Trail above the Mt Avalon spur junction.
The snow depth increased on the Avalon Trail above the Mt Avalon spur junction.

The Avalon Trail has two logical segments. The first half climbs from the A-Z Trail to the Mt Avalon Spur Trail in 0.5 miles w/600 feet of elevation gain. The second half climbs from the Mt Avalon Spur Trai Junction to the Willey Range Trail in 1.0 miles with 950′.

While both of those climbs are steep, the first one really gets your attention. In my case, I was ascending early in the day, so the trail, which is a run of boulders in what might generously be called a staircase, was still covered in a dusting of snow, over what turned out to be very hard ice. Caution was required, which meant choosing my foot placement carefully. While microspikes do provide an increased level of traction, you can’t really dig them into ice the way you can with full crampons. They work best on packed snow on early ice but aren’t as trustworthy on wet ice, smooth ice flows, or more angled surfaces. Careful footwork is still required so I took my time on the ascent while wondering if it would be prudent to take a longer but safer route back down on my return.

View of the Dartmouth Range from Mt Field Summit
View of the Dartmouth Range from Mt Field Summit

As I climbed, I noticed that my toes were getting pretty cold. I could still wiggle them inside my boots, but they didn’t feel right. I was wearing 200g insulated mids, which might have been a borderline decision with the snow depth, but I’ve used them on other climbs in snow recently without any major issues. Except one maybe, and that is that front of my microspikes can press down on the front of my left boot, in particular, and cause friction on top of my toes. I’m always worried that this friction will create a hot spot and a blister, but it never has. I often let the front of my microspikes slip to the side of the front of my boots, which helps relieve that pressure somewhat.

When I got to the top of the first climb, I took a break, ate some gorp, and drank some of my hot water. That helped warm me up and my toes felt a bit better. I packed up and started up the second half of the Avalon Trail towards the Willey Range Trail. I came to a sunny opening on the trail that lifted my mood before I entered the woods again and started to next steep climb.

Rime on the trees below the Field summit.
Rime on the trees below the Field summit.

But my toes got colder and really started to hurt. This was not good. I have big winter hiking plans and I needed to keep those toes happy. I stopped hiking and dug out the stuff sack that I keep my emergency gear in. I pulled out two plastic bread bags, took off my boots, and slipped them over my socks. This creates a vapor barrier around the toes that has helped keep them warmer in the past. I booted back up and started climbing again.

I was pretty close to summiting Mt Field and decided to hold on until then and make a go-no-go decision about continuing to Willey. I also took off my microspikes because I suspected that the pressure they were exerting on my toes was limiting the bloodstream to them and the root cause of my cold toes. I knew I’d have to put them back on for the steep portions of my descent, but that they were big chunks of the route where I could keep them off.

I finished the climb to the Willey Range Trail and hiked up to the summit of Field which is only 0.1 miles away. My toes were still cold. I took in the view, chatted with a few other hikers, had a sandwich and hot water, and decided to cut my route short and exit. That’s kind of a bummer because I still need to climb Willey next November for my 4000 footer grid, but it is what it is.

Modified Route to Mt Field

I started my descent, only putting on my microspikes when needed for the steepest portion of the Avalon Trail. My toes did warm back up eventually near the end of the hike, but my left foot ached for a few days afterward. I switched to a different pair of 400-gram insulated boots a few days later and climbed South and Middle Carter, but experienced cold toes again, which was relieved by removing my microspikes.

I have a few options going forward: I can change my boots to something with a more rigid toe, I can change my microspikes to something that causes less toe pressure, or modify the microspikes somehow. I’m pursuing all these options in parallel. In the short term, I plan to switch to Kahtoola K10 crampons, which are in between microspikes and glacier crampons. They have a different binding system that doesn’t use an elastomer strap and doesn’t exert so much pressure on the toes. That’s not optimal because they have much longer spikes and are harder to walk with on mixed rock and snow, but it’s a short-term fix until I can field a better option.

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7 comments

  1. Good morning Mr. Werner, this was a great wright up, as all your post are. But might I offer a bit of advice , the next time you head out try loosening your boot laces over the top of your foot. As a medical provider that specializes in foot and ankle, I here this complaint from my patients often. It is very difficult to restrict blood flow to the toes while they are in footwear or using hiking gear like micro-spikes. this is due to the anatomy of the foot and the path that the arteries in the foot and ankle take. I could give you a detailed description but you would fall asleep about 4 sentences into it. the more common cause of this issue is pressure on the nerves in the foot, specifically the two very superficial nerves that run over the top or bridge of the foot. Pressure on these nerves can restrict your body’s natural feedback system telling your brain to increase blood flow to warm a body part. While allowing for the sensation of cold to still be intact. I know this may come across odd, but give it a shot it can’t hurt to try. I would hate for you to slip and fall using the more aggressive crampons in a situation not warranted.

    • I follow you completely (dad was a neurophysiologist) and appreciate the advice. I did get tripped up a few times today from the longer crampons, although it was manageable. Still, it’s good to get some insight into what the body/mind are doing.

    • RW, it took me several years of running to figure out that the one shoelace over the top of my foot (I have really high arches) is what caused my feet to fall asleep 10 minutes after starting on every single run that I did. I finally just undid the lacing on that one spot and haven’t had numb feet while running since. I wish you’d been my doc then, could’ve saved me a lot of annoyance and worry. :-)

  2. Phil,

    Due to a back injury fifteen years ago, my toes get very cold even in slightly below freezing temperatures. Wearing ‘spikes and snowshoes make them all the worse. What works for me are disposable toe warmers such as those from Grabber and HotHands. I stick them on well before the outing to make sure they’re at full tilt by the time I’m at the trailhead. At first I thought their thickness would make for squeezed toes but minutes into the snowshoe I forget I’m even wearing them. Some are now good for 8 hours or more of continuous heat. Although your tight microspikes may be the cause of your cold toes, packing chemical toe warmers makes for good insurance.

    Clifford Daly
    Ottawa

  3. I can’t even imagine hiking in snow in boots so soft that the pressure of microspikes would compress them. Your option 1. “I can change my boots to something with a more rigid toe,” should do absolutely fine and should only require sort of standard old school hiking boots, not even winter boots (so far as the pressure issue goes).

    Regarding chemical warmers, I think they should be reserved for emergency use. Winter hiking (or anything close to it) is always potentially risky and using something that will not last if an emergency comes up and you are out longer than expected, or the temps drop more than anticipated, is potentially dangerous. One should always have something extra in reserve, another layer, chemical warmers, etc. (I feel the same way about the hot water bottles in the sleeping bag thing, good for emergencies not so much as general practice to avoid paying for or carrying adequate gear.)

  4. My toes get cold easily whenever it’s below 50 degrees. I have tried lots of different remedies, but Yak Trx disposable toe warmers work best for me. I wear them on top of my toes as opposed to under them most of the time, including hiking. For downhill skiing, I wear them on both top and bottom. I bring plenty of extra on hikes and we keep them in our first aid kit. I have found that different disposable warmers have different intensities of heat, so do some sampling to find the ones that work best for you.

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