New England’s Greatest Mountaineering Challenge
By Lily Hartman
The Presidential winter traverse attracts hikers and climbers alike for its highly technical and rewarding terrain, wide open views, and dreamy ridges. The hiking traverse stretches about 18 miles over nine classified 4,000 footers: Mount Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Clay, Washington, Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, and Pierce; while the extended version adds two more miles with Jackson and Webster. On this traverse, hikers are exposed above treeline for 11 miles, gain anywhere between 9,000 to 10,000 feet of elevation, and are exposed to potentially high winds and extreme weather conditions at any time of year.
“The greatest high adventure in the East is crossing the Presidential Range in the winter,” says Bill Aughton, a co-founder of International Mountain Equipment (IME) in North Conway, who has been teaching SOLO Wilderness Medicine on and off for 40 years.
Corey Fitzgerald, a co-founder of Northeast Mountaineering (NME) and mountain guide, set out on a winter traverse early in his hiking career, where he and other hikers present lost the trail toward the end, right by Mount Eisenhower and Pierce, since it wasn’t broken in yet with snowshoes. For two hours, they floundered through the snow and were sinking up to their chest. “It was kind of desperate,” he says. “We were crawling across the top of the snow on our bellies [to keep from sinking].”
What Hikers can Expect
During the winter months, hikers should expect deep snow, temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit, unexpected low visibility, and extremely high winds. In fact, wind speeds in this range during the winter reach 100 miles per hour once every four days on average, according to The Wild Outsiders™, a company run by two outdoor adventurers who provide helpful information on all things outdoors.
At 60 miles per hour, “for most people, you can put your arms out to your sides, lean into it, and the wind will pretty much hold you up,” says Brian Fitzgerald, the director of education at Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS). “That’s a lot of force.”
Brian Fitzgerald explains why the weather can change so suddenly from ideal conditions to rapid winds and frigid temperatures in the Presidential Range, especially on Mount Washington, which is known for having the worst weather in the world. According to MWOBS, the highest recorded wind speed on this summit was 231 miles per hour in 1934, which is the second-fastest wind speed ever recorded.
These aggressive conditions have to do with where we are on earth. With New England already being so cold, it is expected to get colder on the tallest peaks in New Hampshire from the layers of air that sit between sea level and the tropopause. Plus, there is not much blocking the wind above treeline, so naturally, it is going to be windier.
In addition, wind can strengthen over mountain peaks due to the Venturi effect, which is when mountains squeeze the air and accelerate it. Jet streams at lower levels (around 5,000 feet) can also produce greater wind, which is caused by the tropopause meeting the stratosphere above Mount Washington.
When the wind speed doubles, Brian Fitzgerald says that it does not feel twice as strong. Instead, the force quadruples. At “50 [miles per hour], you can kind of struggle through; 100 [miles per hour], hardly anyone is standing a chance in conditions like that.”
For the most accurate weather reading at higher elevations, hikers should check the Higher Summits Forecast online at MWOBS. The forecast goes out 48 hours prior and should be checked all the way up to when the hike begins. According to Brian Fitzgerald, looking more than 48 hours out decreases the probability of those conditions occurring.
For lower elevation readings, the National Weather Service is a great resource for getting a sense of the weather in that realm. Checking multiple sources will help you form an accurate prediction. “The less that [the weather] changes, the higher the confidence everybody has,” says Brian Fitzgerald.
On one guided group hike with IME across the traverse in the winter, Aughton says, “… [the wind] was blowing like you would not believe.” The group slept at Crag Camp near Mount Madison the night prior and were continuing onward the next morning. One female participant was carrying a 40-pound pack and got blown over by the wind, fell over a couple of rocks, and broke her leg.
Aughton and other hikers immediately straightened out her leg, removed her boots and crampons, and splintered her leg, as well as wrapped a dry sleeping bag around her for warmth. Once they finished making a litter out of a tent and a few hiking poles, they carried her back down to the hut to radio the IME Climbing School for help.
“People don’t reckon that these mountains are as severe as they are,” says Aughton.
Consider Learning Additional Mountaineering Skills
Before attempting this traverse in the winter, hikers would benefit from taking a winter skills course. This could be a one-day mountaineering skills course or winter skills course with organizations such as NME or Redline Guiding, where hikers will learn the basics of winter hiking all the way to how to use an ice axe, crampons, and self-arrest.
UNDERSTANDING THE BURDEN OF A RESCUE
There are multiple rescue groups operating in the White Mountains, many of which are volunteer-based. It may take hours for rescuers to reach you in decent weather, and possibly days, if the weather is at its worse. There is no sense in risking the lives of many for one. Rescue is an intensive operation requiring multiple healthy bodies—it can take 12 or more to carry out just one litter.
Rescues also tend to be extremely costly and the bill generally ends up in the hands of the rescued. To protect yourself from these sorts of incidents, the New Hampshire Fish and Game department offers hikers the option to purchase a Hike Safe card. The card is valuable for anyone hiking, paddling, cross-country skiing, or engaging in other outdoor recreation. People who obtain the cards are not liable to repay rescue costs if they need to be rescued. An individual may still be liable for response expenses if the actions that created the need for the emergency response meet the criteria set forth by legislation.
Visit www.nhfishandgame.com for information.
Such mountaineering skills would be especially beneficial for when hikers approach the Jefferson snowfields, which they will cross right before summiting Mount Jefferson on a northbound Presidential traverse. The snowfields are known for being the last to melt away come the summer months, and can be daunting to cross during the winter due to their slopes.
Many winter hiking courses will also cover avalanche risks and safety, which can occur on slopes “when there’s enough snow and the conditions are right,” says Aughton. The risk of avalanches increases when it rains, the rain freezes, and a fresh layer of snow falls right on top—creating a weak layer that makes it easy for the snow to slide off.
“Look at the signs of the mountains,” says Aughton. “If you see slides; if you see any cracks across open areas, then it’s avalanche time.”
In addition, Mike Cherim, the owner of Redline Guiding, says that hikers would benefit from a wilderness navigation course, especially for being above treeline, where conditions can change abruptly. One time, on his way up to Mount Adams, Cherim had to turn around due to rime ice, which is a weather condition that creates a complete white out.
“You could be operating by electronics and the only thing you would be able to see is the GPS right in front of your eyes,” says Cherim, which is why he emphasizes the importance of learning how to navigate without electronics, such as by reading the cairns, as well as a map and compass.
How to be Prepared
Regardless of the time of year, hikers should be carrying the “Ten Essentials,” which comprise navigation, sun protection, headlamp or flashlight, knife or multitool, first aid kit, shelter, fire starter, and extra food, water, and clothes. Redline Guiding takes it a step further and provides 13 essentials. During the winter, hikers should carry snowshoes and have insulated water bottles and food that will not freeze or have a way to keep their food from freezing, such as by keeping it close to their body. Cherim recommends that hikers should also have some sort of pad to keep immobile hikers off the ground, in case of emergency, in order to prevent them from developing hypothermia. In the next article, “Running Hot in the Cold,” Dr. Trish Murray discusses hypothermia in greater detail.
Preventing hypothermia has a lot to do with layering your clothing properly. Base layers should be made of some sort of sweat-wicking material, such as Merino wool and polyester, so they can absorb moisture and prevent hikers from getting cold when they stop on the trail or summit. Hikers should avoid wearing cotton at all costs because it doesn’t wick moisture and could potentially lead to hyperthermia. In addition, insulated soft-shell pants and jacket are crucial, as well as a hard-shell, lightweight jacket that provides a shield from wind and rain.
Higher Summits Forecast
Hikers will also want to wear insulated hiking boots, carry extra socks, hats, and gloves, goggles to shield their eyes from ice blowing around, and something to cover their face. Essentially, all skin should be completely covered in harsh conditions.
Regardless of how prepared hikers are, conditions can turn, and often hikers will have to bail on the traverse. Cherim emphasizes the importance of having multiple bail-out points and having someone on the ground ready to pick you up at any time. Hikers should make someone they trust aware of their itinerary, with very specific details.
If hikers are stuck in an emergency situation and need help, Brian Fitzgerald says that the best thing to do is call 911 to reach Fish and Game, the point of action in most emergency cases. Mount Washington Observatory gets roughly six to 12 calls per winter from organizations seeking information on current weather conditions to determine if it is safe enough to head out for a rescue.
“Hikers need to keep in mind that the SAR [search and rescue] won’t necessarily go out if they’re going to die in the process,” says Cherim. “There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get rescued right away.” Oftentimes, SAR will have to wait for a safe weather window to head out for rescue or they’ll first need to assess where exactly hikers are before creating an action plan.
Corey Fitzgerald emphasizes the importance of self-care during a traverse, from eating and hydrating consistently to knowing your own limits. In addition, hikers can ensure their safety a bit more by purchasing a “Hike Safe” card through the NH Fish and Game Department. The card is $25 per person, which protects hikers from being responsible for any rescue-related costs unless the actions during an emergency rescue meet specific criteria set out by legislation. The cards are valid for 12 months from the day of purchase.
To prepare for a safe traverse in the winter, Corey Fitzgerald recommends that hikers improve their cardiovascular endurance at a comfortable pace. Hikers can do so by completing eight- to 10-hour day hikes with heavy packs, such as sections of the Pemi Loop or the Franconia Ridge. Or, if hikers do not have easy access to mountains, they can climb hills in their local area or use a StairMaster while wearing a heavy pack to prepare their body for the difficult trek and excessive elevation gain.
Since this hike can be mentally daunting, Cherim says that hikers could also start with something a bit smaller above treeline, such as taking the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to Mount Monroe and Washington in the winter; then working their way up from there. When the weather is ideal, and hikers are ready to attempt a traverse, Cherim says that being up there is like a dream.
One beautiful night up in the Presidential Range, Corey Fitzgerald and his brother camped up on rocks and snow on their two-day winter Presidential traverse. Their trip included sunlight moving in and out of the clouds, a stunning sunset, heavenly undercast, and minimal wind.
“Just knowing that you’re doing one of the most brutal things you can do in New Hampshire is special,” says Corey Fitzgerald. “Especially if you get good weather and it’s enjoyable.”
For hikers planning a winter traverse, Fitzgerald recommends waiting until you get really nice days in the imminent forecast instead of scheduling a traverse too far in advance, since the weather won’t always be ideal. In fact, MWOBS reports that during the months of December through March on Mount Washington, the average temperature is 9.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the average wind speed is 43.5 mph, and the typical amount of snow, hail, and ice pellets it receives is 45 inches.
Without proper mountaineering equipment, winter hiking experience, and knowledge of safety and preparation, hikers may find themselves in very dangerous situations. And well, Mount Washington didn’t earn the name “Home of the World’s Worst Weather” for nothing.
Catch this article in the print edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe located around the Whites and NH Welcome Centers.
Thank you to Max DesMarais | www.hikingandfishing.com for the header photo.
Thank you to the Wild Outsiders for their graphic support
Thank you to Jordan Cargill of Mountain Shadow Adventures for photo support.