Winter Hiking: The Mountain Disappeared

The mountain was gone.

Just a few moments before, 5,712-foot Mt. Jefferson had stood under a cellophane, wintry sky.

But in what seemed like less than a snap, a partially-sunny day with temperatures hovering near freezing was becoming a fog-entrenched, sleet-infested, wind-whipping, 150-foot-visibilility grunt with a minus 17 degree wind chill factor at about 5,400 feet in the Presidential range.

There were six of us — two guides and four clients — on a Presidential traverse in the neighborhood of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. The goal was to hike about 20 miles over three days and two nights in the clutches of winter.

The group was comprised of an avid high school rock climber, two climbers in their 40s from the Carolinas training for a Denali ascent and myself, a 30-something writer out for my first above-treeline winter expedition. The guides were Supermen.

Single-Digit Temperatures
Over the weekend, we would sleep in tents, with temperatures plunging to the single digits. Since winter days are short, we would be in camp by around 4 p.m. after being up at 5 a.m. and on the trail three hours later.

A winter traverse of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range turned into areversewhen inclement weather set in. Marty Basch photo.

All six of us helped set up camp. Snow was gathered to be melted by stoves and served as our drinking and cooking water. Meals were simple. The menu included rice and beans, cup-a-soups, coffee, hot chocolate, granola bars, gorp and crackers.

The terrain was as variable as the weather. Scratchy trails became snow encrusted. Slick trails called for crampons. Hardwood forests would make way for the alpine environment where large cairns marked the way. The wind would start up and then it was a whole new rugged, extreme, green, blue, rough and raw world right in the face.

The alpine beauty was dazzling, but always in the back of your mind was the mantra: one slip and you’re a statistic.

Foul Weather Arrives
On the second day on the rocky terrain above treeline, the foul winds and declining weather conditions roughed up the climbers enough for them to start voicing discomfort.

One group member said he was ready to crawl into a sleeping bag. Another hiker confided in a guide that his footwork was getting sloppy. One admitted to having leg cramps while the strongest was ready to press on.

As the trip progressed and the weather worsened, I was the one who found my footwork getting sketchy. Instead of slow, strong, steady steps, the crampons began to act like lead weights, pulling at my legs. I also noticed widening gaps in the pace of the group; movement was slower and our energy level was diminishing. The trail banter that had greeted the first day of the trip was gone. Smiles had taken the day off.

Above the howling wind, the group outlined a new plan. The Presidential traverse became a Presidentialreverse and we escaped nature’s wrath below treeline some 15 minutes later.

I was one of the clients who encouraged the retreat. When it was announced we were heading for the trees, relief was the first emotion encountered. Failure didn’t enter my mind, but apologies did.

To the pair Denali-bound (in Alaska), once cover was reached, I offered profound apologies for ruining their trip, although one of them had the leg cramps. I wasn’t sorry for turning back. I was sorry they had traveled so far and had to turn back while the Presidentials are virtually in my backyard.

Turning back is a reality all adventurers face. But until it stares you down with a hideous grin, you don’t know how you will react. And retreating isn’t always synonymous with failure. Trips will fail because of poor planning, physical injury, unexpected weather conditions and just plain fear. These obstacles are learning tools. They are the keys, which open doors deep into the soul.

It was later, I learned that about only one in 10 expeditions complete the Presidential traverse in December and January while the success rate soars to 50 percent during February and March. The success rate wasn’t important to me. The priority was learning about my emotional and physical abilities in adverse conditions.

“If you can’t pull off the big goal, you can still have a safe trip,” said guide Dan Doherty.

Some people can implode, but instead I learned about inner limits. I was taught there are times one must not push oneself in the face of greater forces. My winter camping skills have improved tremendously and I’ve seen the dazzling alpine beauty of a world above the trees.

“I’ve failed in both of my attempts to summit 8,000-meter peaks,” said guide Maury McKinney, trying to put the episode in perspective. “I’m still alive and I’m ready to do it again.”

Me too.

Marty Basch is the author of “Winter Trails of Vermont and New Hampshire.”

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