Winter Backpacking Gear: Light Weight Gear for Temperatures < 32F/0C

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The  extreme air temperatures on the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire can range from the 40°s (F) to the -40°s (F) during the winter months.

Before I delve into the details of my winter backpacking gearlist, I want to start by defining ‘winter backpacking’. Although most people define winter backpacking as backpacking between the first day of winter and the first day of spring (eg,  December 21 to March 20), the definition of winter backpacking that I use to guide my gear decisions is more accurately reflected by the lowest temperatures (as well as snow/ice conditions) that I am expecting to encounter on my backpacking trip. The rough definitions of backpacking seasons that I use are:

  • Summer Backpacking (lows ≥ 45°F)
  • 3-Season Backpacking (lows: 30°F to 45°F)
  • Shoulder-Season Backpacking (lows: 20°F to 30°F)
  • Winter Backpacking (lows: 0°F  to 20°F)
  • Expedition Backpacking (lows: -40°F to 0°F)
    • Winter Alpine Backpacking (lows: -20°F to 0°F)
    • Extreme Cold Backpacking (lows: -40°F to -20°F)
  • Arctic Backpacking (lows ≤ -40°F)

In this post I’m going to describe the gear that I use for ‘winter’ and ‘expedition’ backpacking (primarily) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

If you do a lot of hiking/backpacking in the White Mountains I highly recommend purchasing a 2017 New Hampshire Voluntary Hike Safe Card for $25; it helps cover the cost of search and rescue because sh** happens!

¡DISCLAIMER! The following descriptions of the way I use and/or am considering using gear are NOT indicative of safe or manufacturer approved uses; winter backpacking is inherently dangerous and you are responsible for any/all risks that you assume when heading into the backcountry.

Sleep System

My winter backpacking sleep system consists of my tent (Nallo 2), sleeping bag (Marmot Lithium 0° F ), sleeping pad (NeoAir XLite), an emergency bivvy, and an extra insulated foam pad. The combined weight of my winter sleep system is: 8 lbs 2 oz (3.7 kg).

Shelter/Tent:

  • ≥20°F: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 ( 1 lb, 15 oz)
    • 3-Season Tent: acceptable for minimal snow load, can feel draft at temperatures below 30F due to large % of mesh
  • ≤20°F: Hilleberg Nallo 2 (4 lbs 7 oz/2.0 kg)
    • 4-Season Tent: Easy to pitch alone, and spacious for solo adventures. Cozy (but workable) for 2 people winter backpacking trips. I would opt for a larger tent for winter car camping trips.
  • Emergency Bivvy: SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 oz /107 g)
    • I bring an emergency bivvy on all winter hiking/backpacking trips, especially since they are cheap ($16.95), light, and warm, and the cold can kill you very quickly when the temperatures start dipping near (and especially below) zero.I’m considering the SOL thermal bivvy (8.9 oz) as a replacement for adventures in the extreme cold (≤ 0°F to -40° F).

Sleeping bag

  • ≥35°F: Marmot Hydrogen 30°F Bag (1 lb 7.3 oz)
  • ≥0°F: Marmot Lithium 0°F Bag ( 2lbs 9.5oz /1176g)
    • Temperature Rating (EN Rating)
      • Comfort (9°F / -12.8°C): the temperature at which a typical woman can sleep comfortably in a relaxed position
      • Lower Limit (-4.5°F /-20.8°C): the temperature at which a typical man can comfortable sleep curled up for 8 hrs
      • Extreme (-45.2°F /-42.9°C): the minimum temperature at which a typical woman can sleep for 6 hrs without dying from hypothermia
    • Comment: I love this sleeping bag. Even after ~3000 miles use (purchased in 2013) it is still cozy for me down to temperatures in the teens and single digits (°F); the EN comfort rating is consistent with my personal experience with the bag.
      • ≤10°F, I start getting cold and need to wear additional layers (eg jackets, slippers, insulating pants inside the sleeping bag). I’m considering purchasing a vapor barrier liner (VPL) for use inside my sleeping bag (eg. the Western Mountaineering HotSac Vapor Barrier Liner [4.5 oz])
  • ≤ 0°F to -40° F: Currently considering acquiring a -40° F sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

  • ≤ 0°F to -40°F: NeoAir® XLite XTherm (15 oz)
    • Thickness (2.5 inches/6.3 cm); Length (72 inches/183 cm)
    • R-Value (5.7)
    • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm mattress R-value chart
    • This was a Christmas 2016 gift, that I’m looking forward to trying out!
  • NeoAir Mini Pump (weight: 2.3 oz / 65 g)
    • Comment: a worthwhile addition especially for winter backpacking so you don’t get moisture from breath freezing inside mattress

Backpack

For winter backpacking I need a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight and volume of my winter gear; I also want larger buckles so that I can take my backpack on and off without removing my gloves (NOTE: I keep an emergency knife attached to front of my pack so that if my hands no longer have the dexterity to unclip my pack I can cut the straps to gain access to the lifesaving gear I’m carrying).

  • ≥0°F: ULA Catalyst (3 lbs)
    • Total Volume: 4,600 cu in (~75 liters)
      • Total volume includes the volume of the side and mesh pockets
      • Internal volume: 2,600 cu it (~42 liters)
    • Recommended max load: 40 lbs
      • I’ve definitely stretched this to 45-50 lbs without any trouble
    • Pack Cover: Large Etowah Pack Cover (3.8 oz)
    • Comment: this pack works for me for winter, but is a bit small for extreme backpacking (the internal volume is low); the buckles are also too small for me to easily use when wearing bulky gloves or mittens
  •  ≤0°F: Wishlist? Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack (2.56 lbs)
    • Load capacity: 30 to 65 lbs
    • Interior Volume: 4400 cu. in. (70L)
    • Waterproof

Specialized Snow/Ice Gear


For winter backpacking trips I usually carry light traction (ie microspikes), ultralight (UL) snow shoes, and my ice axe, for a combined weight of 3.7 lbs (1,677 grams). Although I always use trekking poles, I don’t count them towards my pack weight since they never end up in my pack (I’m going to continue claiming this loophole).

  • Light Traction: Kahtoola Microspikes (13.5 oz/ 383 grams)
    • Indispensable for winter hiking/backpacking; allow me to leave my crampons at home in most winter conditions. Crampons still required for anything that requires kicking steps or climbing ice flows at steeper grades.
  • Crampons: Grivel 12-Point Crampons (31.1 oz)
    • These crampons clip onto my mountaineering boots (C2)/plastic boots; I have been using them for over a decade and I still love them. In conditions where I’m need to kick steps, or will be traversing steep ice flows I bring my crampons instead of my microspikes
    • To review proper crampon use check out:
  • Gaitors: Men’s Crocodile Knee-high Goretex Gaitors (10.2 oz)
    • Comment: These gaitors are useful for keeping the snow out of my boots (keeping my feet dry), and are also critical when using crampons to help prevent accidentally shredding my waterproof pants/insulated pants
  • UL Snowshoes: Louis Garneau Women’s Transition Boa (2.4 lbs /1089 g)
    • Length: 23 inches long, 7 inches wide
    • Load: 100 to 220 lbs
    • Notes: I love these snowshoes, they are light and easy to to put on/take-off on the trail. For winter backpacking, as long as I remain below their max load, I enjoy them. They have 360 degree crampon traction, lightweight decking flexible to -40°F, awesome foot clasp system.
  •  Ice axe: CAMP Corsa (7.2 oz /205 grams)
    • Length: 70 cm
    • Uses: Probing terrain, self-arrest, snow anchor, chipping out ice/snow for water. It’s not as rugged as a heavier ice axe, but it works well for my needs.
    • Before taking your ice axe into the mountains make sure you know how to use it. The following links have some useful reminders for ice axe use:
  •  Trekking Poles: Leki Carbon Ti (14.9 oz/pair)
  •  Snow/Avalanche Shovel: Snow Claw Backcountry Shovel & Multi-tool (6 oz)
    • A lightweight, easy-to-pack snow shovel for clearing campsites and digging snow caves; I only bring it when I anticipate deep snow
  • Avalanche Safety Gear (Transceiver/Probe)
    • Always check with the local avalanche center (for the White Mountains in NH: The Mount Washington Avalanche Center) for snow conditions and warnings prior to winter treks, avoid avalanche prone areas, and carefully monitor snow conditions. Prior to venturing into avalanche terrain I’m considering purchasing:

Emergency Locator Devices

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  • Personal locator beacon (PLB): ACR ResQLink+
    • If I get lost or seriously injured I want to be found, so I carry this PLB. It doesn’t have lots of whiz-bangs of the satellite communicators, but the engineering is better, it doesn’t require the purchase of a contract, the battery life if guaranteed to last five years (not rechargeable), the power output of its frequency beacon is higher than any other backpacking locator device I’ve found, it broadcasts at multiple frequency, uses the government/military satellite systems, and is registered with NOAA.
  • Satellite communicator: Delorme InReach SE+
    • This device allows two-way satellite communication with family, friends, and rescue services. It also allows you to post/track your routes and location online; in addition to purchasing the device you must also purchase a service contract, and you need to be mindful of battery use (the more you use it for tracking/messenging, the less you’ll be able to use it for emergency rescue)
  • Map and Compass: Don’t leave home without them

Footwear


For winter backpacking, I always bring a pair of knee-high waterproof gaitors and a pair of ultralight down booties to use as camp camp shoes. I keep using my trail shoes (waterproof trail shoes, or a thru-hiker hack with waterproof socks) into the early winter backpacking season when snowshoeing or when minimal/light traction (microspikes) is required, but I’ve learned the hard way (multiple toenails sacrificed) that my trail shoes (eg, Altras, Oboz, and Merrell Moab’s) don’t have rigid enough soles for heavy microspike/crampon use, especially on uneven terrain. For colder, more rugged conditions I switch to my mountaineering boots, or the dreaded plastic boots.

  • Camp Shoes/Booties
    • ≤30°F: Western Mountaineering Flash Down Booties (3 oz/pair)
      • Comment: As somebody that frequently has cold feet, these down booties are one of my favorite pieces of winter UL gear; I’ve backpacked over 1000 miles with these booties, and can’t complain about their durability ;) They do have some drawbacks for winter use though: they’re not waterproof and they don’t have much traction. I’m considering purchasing:
  • Socks

Additional Personal Items

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  • Water
    • 32 oz Nalgene wide-mouth bottles (2)
      • CAUTION: Not all 32 oz wide mouth Nalgene’s are created equal!!! I will be replacing my old Lexan Nalgene’s (which may contain BPA) with the lightweight HDPE Nalgenes (3.75 oz) and NOT the new Tritan Nalgenes (6.25 oz) because the Tritan Nalgenes are not rated to handle boiling water and they are brittle in extreme cold. Detailed explanations of the plastics used for each of the Nalgenes is available online (click here for the pdf); below I’ve listed the max use temp (Max), the heat distortion temp (HDT), the brittleness temp (Low), the chemical resistance (CR), and the recycling symbol (♻) for bottle identification.
        • HDPE (high-density polyethylene) Nalgene:
          • Max (120°C), HDT (65°C), Low (-100°C); CR (g00d), ♻ 2
        • Lexan (PC-polycarbonate) Nalgene: 
          • Max (135°C), HDT (138°C), Low (-135°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 7
        • Tritan (PETG-polyethylene terephthalate glycol) Nalgene:
          • High (70°C), HDT (70°C), Low (-40°C), CR (minimal), ♻ 1
    • Insulated bottle holders (2): Outdoor Research Water Bottle Parka (~1 oz each)
    • Purification: Boiling
      • Caution: Water filters are typically ineffective if they’ve been frozen and chemical water treatment methods are highly depend on the temperature of the water being treated
  • Food: a subject of a post of its own
  • Cooking/Stove
    • ≥20°F:  Jetboil Sol Ti Cook System
      • Jetboil Sol Ti (8.5 oz)
      • Winter Blend Canister Fuel:
        • Winter canister fuels I’ve had good luck with (≥20°F):
          • MSR IsoPro Fuel Canister: 80/20 blend of isobutane/propane
          • Snow Peak GigaPower: 85/15 blend of isobutane/propane
            • lowest working temp according to manufacturer: 15°F
          • For winter use I keep my fuel canisters warm (sleep with them and/or put them in a pocket before use), shake them, and place them on a foam pad to isolate them from the ground.
        • NOTE: For canister fuels to function, the ambient temperature must be above the boiling temperature of the fuel mixture. Higher percentages of low boiling point fuels will lead to lower boiling point mixtures. For reference, canister fuels are a blend of:
          • isobutane (boiling point:11°F)
          • propane (boiling point: -44°F)
          • n-butane (boiling point: 31°F)
    • <20°F: Whisperlite (11.2 oz)
      • Titanium pot
      • Comment: a classic that I’ve had forever
    • Sea to Summit Titanium Folding Spork (0.8 oz.)
  • Fire Starters (cooking/emergency):
    • Emergency Stormproof Matches
      • Waterproof matches are notoriously hard to light; I’m considering upgrading my emergency matches to:Titan Stormproof Matches
    • ≥20°F: Mini Bic Lighter (~1 oz)
      • Bic pocket lighters use isobutane as fuel (boiling point:11°F), but I find that below 30°F they don’t keep a flame very long unless I’ve kept them warm in a pocket close to my body; their safety mechanisms and flicking mechanism are also challenging to use with gloves on, making them a poor choice for cold weather conditions
    •  <20°F: flint/steel fire-starter
  • Sun protection
    • Sunglasses/glacier glasses
    • Sunscreen
    • Lip balm containing sunscreen
  • Additional Emergency Gear
    • First-aid kit
      • Pills/Capsules:
        • aleve (6), tylenol (4), 12-hour sudafed (2),  Nyquil capsules (2), benadryl (4), 12-hour immodium (2), nuun electrolyte tablets (4)
      • Asthma/Allergy
        • Epi-pens (2), Inhaler
      • Wound management
        • Bandages: Duct tape, 2 gauze pads, 2 maxi pads, 6 steri-strips, 3 tega-derm dressings
        • Triple antibiotic ointment
        • Alcohol wipes
      • Survival
        • Length of Rope/cord
        • Matches/Mini-lighter/Flint&Steel fire starter as described above
        • Knife
      • Hand/Foot Warmers (2)
      • Water purification: Aqua Mira/Iodine Tabs
      • Additional items that described elsewhere that reside in my first aid kit include:
        • sunscreen, lip balm with sunscreen, compass, PLB, ultralight headlamp, emergency bivvy
  • Headlamp with spare batteries
    • All season: Petzl e+LITE (< 1 oz)
      • Spare batteries (2x CR2032 Lithium)
      • Max lumens: 26
      • Comments: It doesn’t through much light, but it’s more than enough to hike with and set up camp with. Down to temperatures in the teens it continues to perform well.
    • ≥20°F: Nitecore Headlamp Series HC60 (3.47 oz)
      • Battery (1 × 18650 lithium ion, micro-USB rechargeable)
      • Max lumens: 1000
      • Comments: This isn’t the lightest headlamp on the market, but it’s bright, its rechargeable, and it generates enough heat on its own that it seems to do better in harsh winter conditions than in summer conditions. I love this headlamp for winter backpacking/nighthiking; I wish that it had a red light mode, but otherwise I can’t complain about this headlamp
  • Hip pouch: to keep inhaler/cell phone etc close to body and warm
  • Bandana/hankerchief: the only cotton items I carry while backpacking

Clothing Layers

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If you have any questions about my gear choices, or if you have a favorite piece of winter gear that you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments below! If there’s sufficient interest in any particular gear item let me know, and I can work on writing up a more detailed review in a separate post.

Happy hiking!!

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A fellow winter hiker descending from Mt. Lafayette and enjoying a phenomenal January sunset in the White Mountains of NH


Additional Links

For other gearlists/reviews that I’ve published check out:

Links to other winter gearlists you might find interesting:

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Appalachian Trail selfie in low visibility conditions above treeline in the White Mountains in January (temp 5F, windchill -30F)

‘Tis the Season for High-Vis Hiking… (Hunting, blaze orange, a high-vis gearlist and more)

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The sound of gunfire shattered the stillness of the trail. “Oh, shit!” I thought. “It’s still hunting season!” Once again I’d forgotten that the winter hiking and backpacking season was also hunting season. I paused, trying to remember where my blaze orange was… Doh!! The answer was nowhere useful. I have a blaze orange hiking T-shirt that I wear in the fall, along with a blaze orange reflective baseball cap-I love them both. I also have a blaze orange expedition parka, but I don’t have any blaze orange for the in-between-winter season. Clearly, I needed more blaze orange backpacking gear. The only problem was that I needed it right then!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!

“Pop!” another shot went off, “Pop!,” And then another. I frowned as the AT was bringing me closer to the hunters and not further away from them. As a 4-season hiker and backpacker I share the mountains and the woods with hunters; I just want to make sure that I do it as safely as possible. That means being both seen and heard! Since I didn’t have enough blaze orange on, and my path was predetermined by the route of the Appalachian Trail, I opted to make my presence known with the only tool I had on hand: my voice. I started singing. Loudly:

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

As I hiked through Vermont singing, I remembered that I’d run into this same issue last year on a section-hike of the New England Trail during the week between Christmas and New Years. I’d known that the regular deer hunting season ended by the second-week of December, but I’d failed to take into account the ‘primitive firearms’ season which runs until December 31 each year. On that trip I ran into five hunters for every deer track I’d seen. Even though they’d surprised me, I hadn’t surprised them. All of the hunters had both heard and seen me coming long before I’d seen them; still, I’d like to give them as much advanced notice as possible!

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September through November I always remember that it’s hunting season and I wear my blaze orange, but for some reason in late December I forget that there are still plenty of people in the woods with guns that are shooting at things. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me, so I want to make it as easy as possible for them to see me, and avoid me… blaze orange it is, but, how much blaze orange should I be wearing as I wander through the woods in the winter? (Check out the educational video below, which has information about how much hunter orange you need, and how visible it is).

The safe bet seems to be to wear the same amount of blaze orange they recommend that the hunters wear: a blaze orange hat during most of the hunting season and 500 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back during shotgun season. Perhaps due to my motorcycling background I figure if I I’m going with high-visibility for hunters, I might as well go high-vis all the way, so here’s my high-vis hiking gearlist/wishlist:

Once I have my blaze orange gear, the tricky part is remembering when hunting season actually is so that I’ll know when I’ll need wear it… The answer varies by state (check the listings near the bottom of the post), but it’s a good bet that you should be wearing blaze orange whenever you go out into the backcountry between September and May. For example, in Massachusetts hunting season started on September 8, 2015 (with deer archery season), and will extend until May 23, 2016 with the end of wild turkey season.

Is hunting really allowed on national scenic trails like the Appalachian Trail?

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Yes! Hunting is allowed along most of the Appalachian Trail, or at least 1,250 miles of it according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a large portion of the remaining 900ish miles, hunting is allowed just outside the 1000-foot wide AT corridor. On my thru-hikes I’ve encountered a fair number of hunters on the trails: on my 2013 AT thru-hike I ran into turkey hunters on the trail in Georgia and North Carolina in May, as well as moose hunters in Maine in October. On my 2014 PCT thru-hike I ran into hunters in the woods of both Oregon and Washington, and on the New England Scenic Trail I ran into dozens of hunters in late December.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

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As a thru-hiker I’ve heard gunfire on the trail so often that I’ve started to recognize, and be able to tell the difference in, the patterns of sound between: people firing at clubs and ranges (there’s a spot on the AT in Pennsylvania where the firing range sounds disturbingly close to the AT), people randomly firing at objects and targets (hiking through the desert on the PCT provided plenty of data points for that), and hunters firing at game (see above)…

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

As if the sound of frequent gunfire wasn’t enough evidence of gun use on the trail, on the PCT there were shell casings all over the trail… I ended up making a game of keeping track of each new type of casing I saw, just like I was keeping track of each new type of flower: there were casing from handguns, shotguns, and rifles in all shapes and sizes… Too many to count! Thru-hikers have a tendency to write-out the mile-markers for the long-distance trails using sticks, stones, and pine cones. But near mile 500 of the PCT the only thing around were shell-casings, so I made my mile-marker out of them :-P

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Since there are plenty of folks with guns out there, take a minute to review your local hunting seasons and land-use rules before heading into the woods this winter, and remember to wear plenty of blaze orange! Below are links to hunting information for the states that the AT, the PCT, and the Florida Trail cross through, along with a rough range of the current hunting season to give you a sense for why you want your blaze orange if you are thinking about doing a lot of winter hiking, or setting off on a thru-hike:

Hunting Seasons on the Appalachian Trail:

Hunting Season for the PCT:

Hunting Season for the Florida Trail:

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***

All together now, let’s sing (To the tune of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song):

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer,
Howdy hunter, let’s be clear!
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I sleep all night and I hike all day
I’ve got a pack, upon my back
And boots upon my feet.

I hike the trail, from dawn to dusk
Whene’er the skies are blue
I wear synthetic clothing
Like all the hikers do!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like red meat and ice cold beer
I’m gnarly like a root
I climb up over mountains
There ain’t no need to shoot!!

Cuz, I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
I’m not a doe and I’m not a steer
I’ve got 10 toes, 10 fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I hear gunshots, I eat my lunch,
I go to the lava-try.
I follow the white blazes
Singing loudly and off key

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

I like Bambi stew, and duck confit
My whiskey strong and neat.
I should be wearing orange
Now wouldn’t that be sweet!

Cuz I’m a hiker and I’m not a deer
Howdy hunter lets be clear
I’ve got ten toes, ten fingers too
An awful lot like you!

Part 2 – A Solo Winter Mount Washington Ascent

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Was I really going to set off to climb Mt. Washington (the mountain with the worst weather in the world) when the temperature in the parking lot was -16F? No, I was not! (See Part 1- To Hike or Not to Hike). I was going to wait… at least for a little while… It was -4F when I left Carter Notch and that had seemed like a perfectly reasonable temperature for a hike, but -16F? No way!… That settled it, I was going to wait until the temperatures got up to at least -5F before I left the warmth and safety of my car…

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Temperature in the valley the morning of Feb. 28

How cold is too cold? I have trouble conceptualizing subzero temperatures, so -5F was an arbitrary threshold. However, if -5F was too cold I had no problem with turning around and hiking right back to my car (a big advantage of day hikes relative to thru-hikes). As I waited for the temperature to rise I double-checked my gear and re-packed everything… I was over-packed for this hike, but in light of the recent tragedy (the death of a solo hiker from exposure in the Whites), it seemed like a small price to pay to know that I could be warm if I needed to be.

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Looking out at the valley from the steep section of the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail.

“ALERT: Wind Chill Advisory in Effect,” I read from the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast as I sat in the parking lot waiting, “wind chills -25F to -35F.” Brrrrrr… Just thinking about it made me cold!

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Mt. Washington via the Ammonoosuk Trail plotted using the tracking function of my SPOT locator.

Mount Washington via the Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail (White Mountains, NH)

  • Date: February 28, 2014
  • Total Mileage (out and back): 9 miles, 3,800 ft of elevation gain
    • Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail ~ 3 miles each way
    • Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path) ~1.5 miles each way
  • Mount Washington forecast the morning of  Feb. 28, 2015:
    • Sunny, highs near 0F, westerly winds 25-40 mph, wind chills of -25F to -35F.
  • Total Duration: 8 am – 4:30 pm, 8 hrs 30 minutes
  • Trailhead Parking: Cog Railway Base Station. Base Station Road and hiker area were plowed.
  • Base Pack Weight: 21 lbs, 28 lbs with food and 3L of water. Pack contents include: ice axe, snow shoes, crampons, expedition parka, zero degree sleeping bag, emergency bivy, SPOT etc.

By 8 am my car registered the requisite (and oh so balmy) -4F degrees, so I hefted my pack onto my back and headed towards the trail… Loaded up with all of my winter gear my pack was heavy! The base weight of this day-pack was heavier than the base weight for my PCT thru-hike!

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“Hmmmmm…” Just out of the gate and I was already feeling like a noob… Where exactly did the trail start? Why was everyone leaving the parking lot and hiking up the road? I’d hiked this trail in the summer and had scouted out the winter trailhead last night, but as far as I knew, the trail left from the backside of the parking lot… That trail, however, was largely untracked and I really didn’t want to start my Mt. Washington ascent by breaking trail if I didn’t have to… The next time I saw someone pull into the parking lot and start gearing up I wandered over and asked, “Is there a second trailhead up by the station? Everyone seems to be heading up there, but then some of them turn around and then veer off to the left… Are those the folks going up the Jewell trail?”

“Yeah,” he replied as he strapped his snowshoes to his pack, “if you veer to the left on the road before the station that’ll bring you to the Jewell trail, but if you keep going passed the station, veering to the right through the cabins, that’ll take you to the Ammo.” I hesitated, but he continued reassuringly, “Don’t worry, it’ll be obvious.”

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Ammonoosuk Ravine Trail: 3.1 miles, 2,500′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty level: Strenuous. Trails in New England are famous for their steep grades, and the Ammonoosuk (Ammo), despite it’s gentle start, is no different with an average grade of 15%.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/traction. Most hikers were using snowshoes, but some, like me, started in boots and used full crampons as necessary. (I brought my snowshoes with me, but didn’t use them).
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, mostly hard-packed powder, small section of ice flows immediately below Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
  • Vistas (9/10): The views of the Northern Presidentials from the parking lot and as you head into the ravine are stunning… and before long you start getting views of Washington that are spectacular.
  • Duration: 8:00 am – 10:40 am (2:40); Summertime ‘Book’ estimate (2:50)

I headed up the road in awe of the mountain that I was about to climb, but the closer I got to the base station, the more tracks I saw… there were ski and snowshoe tracks veering off in almost every imaginable direction. Eventually, however, I saw the well-tracked path the guy in the parking lot was talking about… It wove between the cabins and headed off into the woods right where I would imagine it to be from the map… I was shocked to discover that there were even some trail signs perched there at the edge of my winter wonderland!

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Because of the subzero temperatures I started off wearing more layers than I usually do, figuring that I would peel them off as I warmed up, but the outside temperatures dropped as I tucked into the ravine by the water… I didn’t need to add any layers but I certainly wasn’t going to take any off! About 10 minutes into the hike, however, my eyes started feeling a little bit gummy… my eyelids were sticking together and it was getting harder and harder to open them… I took off my gloves and reached up to touch them and discovered that my eyelashes were glued together with ice! The heat from my fingers quickly melted the ice from my eyes and I continued hiking…

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Within minutes my eyes started to freeze shut again… I took out my camera so that I could see what they looked like (and have a better sense of what I was dealing with), and was entertained to find that my eyelashes were crusted with a beautiful frosty mascara! Despite the ease of application of this ‘mascara’ (the first make-up I’ve applied in years), and my fondness for my new “Frozen” look, I decided that I needed to add another layer to my ensemble afterall… it was time to put my ski goggles on and eliminate every last bit of exposed skin!

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Just above Gem Pool (~2.1 miles, elev. 3522′) the trail got significantly steeper, and I stopped to put on my crampons. In the summertime, I love the waterfalls scattered along the Ammo, and I had hoped that I’d get to see them in all of their frozen glory on this winter hike. Unfortunately, the icy cascades were buried under the snow and largely indistinguishable from the rest of the blanket of white.

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There was a lot more snow on Washington now than there had been on Lafayette just a month before… It was beautiful… I just wished that the sun would finally peak around the Presidential summits and make all of the snow in my ravine sparkle!

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Climbing the last mile (1,528′ of elevation gain, 29% grade) from the pool up to the hut, I couldn’t help but contemplate the difference between the designed trails of the PCT with all of their switchbacks and moderate to low grades and the direct (fall-line) trails of New England that I’ve grown up with… None of the PCT was this steep, unless you count the snow-covered sections in the High Sierra where there was no trail (Mather and Pinchot Passes immediately came to mind, though there was a small stretch towards the base of Forester that probably would count to.).

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I stopped to enjoy the view… Not a cloud in the sky… the stark contrast between the snowy mountains and the deep blue sky was breathtaking… or maybe that was just all of the exertion with a side of asthma? It was true that it was time for me to use my inhaler again so I caught my breath, took a puff, and continued onwards and upwards… The views were still breathtaking!

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As I made the final approach to Lakes of the Clouds, I left the last of the trees behind and a starkly beautiful landscape of snow, rock, and ice opened up before me…

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“Wow, just wow!” In all the times I’ve climbed Mt. Washington I’d rarely (if ever) seen it this calm and clear. I could see the evidence of strong winds all around me in the beautifully sculpted sastrugi

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I made a mental note of these areas since the forecast predicted increasing westerly winds throughout the day… These would be the trouble spots when the winds picked up, but for now, they were quiet, calm, and eerily beautiful.

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Just above the first round of sastrugi, the trail opened up into a field of ice that made me glad that I was wearing crampons. I traversed it easily and found myself at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

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I wasn’t hungry (a common problem when winter hiking), but Lakes of the Clouds was a pre-designated break point for eating and for re-evaluating the weather, how I was doing, and for forcing myself to eat my second breakfast! It didn’t matter how unappealing food was, I had to make sure to eat, drink, and adjust my layers before making a decision about whether or not I should push for the summit of Washington! (Note: If you are too cold to eat, you are too cold to go above treeline. If you don’t want to bother with hydrating, you don’t want to bother with going above treeline. If you are too cold to stop and take a break, you are too cold to go above treeline.)

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Appalachian Trail (Crawford Path): 1.5 miles, 1300′ elevation gain

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. After finishing the final steep ascent to Lakes of the Clouds, the bid for the summit seems tame , but it is still steep with a lot of exposure and always feels longer to me than I think it will.
  • Special Equipment: Snowshoes/crampons. Most people switched from snowshoes to crampons for this final stretch, though either would work. I used crampons.
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): Hard, wind-swept snow, sastrugi, interspersed with occasional ice flows.
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely exposed and above treeline the whole way… views of the valley and of both the Northern and Southern Presidentials. It was 100% clear, not a cloud in the sky… a 1 in a million day on top of Mt. Washington.
  • Duration: 11:10 am – 12:40 pm (1:30); summertime book estimate (1:25)

The back side of Lakes of the Clouds Hut (Lakes) was glare ice, so I circled around to the front where the snow had drifted up and over the roof. I found a nice, dry, sunny spot on the roof to take a break, eat my second breakfast, and watch my fellow hikers. The majority of them were popping over to Mt. Monroe (a short hike from Lakes), but a few were returning from sumitting Mt. Washington so I asked them about current conditions up there, “Clear, calm, and absolutely beautiful,” was invariable the response. The sun was shining, it was early in the day, my belly was full, and I was nice and warm… Everything was looking good for a summit bid!

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The temperatures were still subzero, but I was confident that my gear was up to the challenge (the warmest of it was still in my pack)… The only thing I was still nervous about was the strengthening westerly wind, which was predicted to top out at ~40 mph, which by Mt. Washington standards that wasn’t too bad (the last time I was on top of Washington they were predicting 80 mph winds!).

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Since it was a westerly wind, I’d be facing into it for the 1.5 mile return trip to the hut, but even if the winds picked up to 65 mph (25 mph above anything predicted in the next two days), I would still be well within my comfort zone. If, for some reason, the conditions changed wildly and unpredictably (the Whites are famous for that) and were so extreme that I couldn’t return to the hut, my back up plan would be to head to Pinkham Notch via the Lions Head Trail with everyone else… After eating my second breakfast and going through all of my checks and double-checks I made the call (literally called my parents to let them know)… I was going to give the summit of Mt. Washington a go!

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On the AT, looking back at Lakes of the Clouds and Mt. Monroe.

As I left the hut, I was once again on my beloved Appalachian trail. I was stuck by the stark beauty of the wind-swept landscape… I’d never been up here in the winter before. The elegant sastrugi pointed out the areas where the winds funneled up from the western ravines… I noted them not only for their beauty, but because I figured these would be the trouble spots if the winds picked up later. For now, however, everything was still quiet and calm (~10-15 mph winds).

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As I continued to ascend the winds started picking up… barely breaking ~20 mph, but a sign of what was to come. Knowing how exciting the tippy-top of Mt. Washington can be, I decided to stop at the intersection between Crawford Path and Davis Path to layer up… fighting high winds to add warm layers at the summit of Mt. Washington is a challenge at best!

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On the AT, looking ahead towards Mt. Washington!

On my last hike up Mt. Washington (AT, September 2013) I was within 10 feet of the towers on top and had no idea that they were there! I had stopped, confused at the edge of the building with absolutely no idea which way to go to get to the summit which was less than 100 ft away…Needless to say, the view was less than stellar…

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The summit of Mt. Washington on my AT thru-hike! (September 2013)

That view, the view of the inside of a cloud, is the view from Mt. Washington that I remember from my childhood. In the 25 years that I’ve been climbing Mt. Washington it is, by far, the most common view I’ve encountered from the summit!

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My first hike to the summit of Mt. Washington (summer 1990) with my family (mom and brothers in photo).

So for me, the crystal clear views were unusual and I was savoring every minute of them! It was so clear that I’d been able to see the towers at the summit from the parking lot! I had had them in sight from the moment that I left Lakes, and now they were finally in reach…

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As I approached the first tower and the snow-covered parking lot it boggled my mind that the last time I was there I hadn’t known how to get to the summit… It was so close!

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I smiled and approached the final heap of rocks that sported the summit sign… Here I was, on top of Mt. Washington, on the Appalachian Trail, in the middle of winter… the temperature was around 0F, and I guessed that the winds were gusting to 35 mph, but hidden beneath my nice warm ski-mask was a great big smile… the same smile I always wear when I’m climbing mountains… the smile that comes with knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be!

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Photo actually from down by Lakes after summitting :)

I pulled my camera out of its warm inner pocket to document my final steps to the summit and managed to get one picture before the screen said, “power exhausted” and shut down. I tried for a cell phone photo, but the cell phone wouldn’t even bother to turn on… My electronics found the cold weather to be exhausting even if I didn’t!

I took another couple of steps towards the summit. It would be a shame not to have any summit photos, but wow… It was beautiful… I turned to fully appreciate the view and saw two people emerge from behind a building… I pulled my mask down and yelled over the wind, “Hi! Could you take a picture of me and mail it to me? My electronics are rebelling and refusing to work!”

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I spotted a couple of people leaving the summit and convinced them to take a quick photo and email it to me.

“Sure,” they replied quickly snapping a picture of me before I even got the chance to pull my hands out of my pockets where I was placing my cell phone hoping to warm it up. I hurriedly gave them one of my cards saying, “Thanks! This has my contact information on it. It would be awesome if you could email me a copy of that photo.”

“I’ll get the picture to you… You can count on it!” he said determinedly as he and his hiking partner hurried off, leaving me alone on the summit… (he emailed me the photo a couple of days later… Thanks again Andy!)

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The summit of Mt. Washington, all to myself?! How cool is that? -1F with a -30ish wind chill, that’s how cool! I took the last few steps to the summit and plunked my pack down… Wow! I’d made it, and it was absolutely awesome! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and as long as I kept my back to the wind, I was perfectly comfortable relaxing there at the summit sign.

The Summit of Mount Washington!

  • Duration: 12:40pm – 1:20 pm (30 minutes)
  • Official Summit Conditions @ 12:47 pm:
    • Temperature: -0F
    • Winds: W 35 mph
    • Wind chill: -27F
    • Visibility: 100 miles
  • Number of people at the summit between 12:40 and 1:20 pm: ~10-15

I sat at the summit for a while soaking in the view and trying to coax my electronics into working again… It’d be nice to get one or two photos! I had the summit to myself for the first five minutes or so, but before long there was a steady stream of people coming up to summit, snapping quick pictures and heading off in search of some shelter from the wind… It was kind of fun watching them scurry around the summit buildings trying to find windows or door jams to crouch in, desperately hoping to find some shelter from the wind… There was none.

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After snapping a few pictures for other folks I pulled my cell phone out and managed to get another photo or two before it turned itself off… Fivish minutes of warm pocket time meant two pictures… This called for strategic picture taking… If I played my cards right, I might be able to get a picture of me at the summit itself! I set my camera warming in my pants pocket again and waited for the next group… I didn’t have to wait long before the next group of guys came up from the Lions Head (there was a steady stream of guys coming up from the Lions Head Trail) and I was able to get them to take a photo for me!

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I was reluctant to leave the summit because it was so beautiful up there, but what goes up must come down… Besides, I wanted to get back to Lakes of the Clouds before the winds picked up too much!

The Descent

  • Crawford Path to Ammonoosuk ~ 4.6 miles
  • Duration: 1:10 pm – 4:30 pm (3:20) including 30 minute break at Lakes.

With winds gusting to almost 40 mph, I definitely needed to use my goggles and a face mask as I descended down towards Lakes. By the time I got to the lower sections, however, the winds weren’t too bad (~20 mph). I took my time as I descended, enjoying the expansive views of the valley with both the northern and southern presidentials stretching out before me… It was amazing! If my electronics had been happier, I’d have taken hundreds of pictures and gone even slower,  but they continued to rebel against the cold. I only managed to get one or two photos every five minutes or so from the summit until I returned to the car.

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For the last snow field before Lakes of the Clouds I decided to pull out my ice axe… the footing was easy and good, but I I was getting tired and there was enough exposure that if I fell I’d go for more of a slide than I wanted to. Per usual, I crossed it with no problem and didn’t really need the ice axe. I was relaxing at Lakes of the Clouds and eating my next enforced meal before I knew it! I still wasn’t hungry, but on winter hikes I schedule food breaks where I force myself to stop, take a break, and eat because I know that I need the calories!

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Though glissading all the way from Lakes of the Clouds to the parking lot seemed like it was the way to go, I decided to hike it instead. I try to be more cautious when I’m hiking solo, and I know that glissading has a higher risk of injury than hiking…. Having done accidental glissades on similar slopes, and knowing that I was tired, I decided to keep my ice axe out just in case (especially since I still had my crampons on… stopping a glissade with crampons is a great way to break a leg).

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For the most part it was a long, beautiful, snowy, uneventful descent… I postholed once or twice, but not enough to make the snowshoes seem worthwhile, so I stuck with the crampons…

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It wasn’t until I was about 0.5 miles from the parking lot that things suddenly got exciting. I was just traipsing down the relatively flat trail as it followed along the Ammonoosuk River when suddenly my right leg went out from under me, postholing through the snow and then sliding down a steep embankment, my left leg quickly following behind it.

“Holy sh**!” I hadn’t left the trail, but the trail had left me! Before I knew what was happening my ice axe was buried to it’s hilt in the snow and my face was at eye level with the trail. I had reflexively plunged my ice axe into the snowy bank creating an impressively, awesomely stable anchor, and now there was nothing keeping me from tumbling 6-10 ft down into the Ammonoosuk (and getting sopping wet) except for my trusty ice axe… I looked at it, surprised (and very pleased) by its sudden usefulness as I pulled myself back up and onto the trail with its aid.

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The terrain was flat, easy, and had seemed very stable… Normally, I would have long since put my ice axe away in favor of my trekking poles, but I’d been feeling lazy… to lazy to take the time to stop and put it away… I looked back at the river… Though the tumble wouldn’t have killed me, the surprise icy plunge would have been incredibly unpleasant, and the 0.5 miles back to the car would be a really nasty hike if you were sopping wet after a full day out in the cold and with temperatures well below freezing! Yup, I was suddenly very fond of my ice axe indeed!

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When I finally made it back to the car I was both happy and exhausted… The sun was low in the sky, the afternoon was warmish (18F), and the skies were still perfectly clear. My hike up Mt. Washington had been everything I’d hoped for and more… I hesitated, standing there beside my car… I didn’t want the day to be over… I didn’t want my amazing hike to be over… I wanted to stay outside in the sun, enjoying the amazingly clear and beautiful afternoon… I have to admit, I didn’t hesitate for too long though… A nice warm car, a hot meal, and a soft bed sounded awfully nice!

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Official Summit Weather Summary for February 28, 2015

  • Temperature: 4F to -11F, avg. -3F
  • Precipitation: 0.00
  • Summit snow depth: 14 inches
  • Wind: avg. 30.8 mph, 46 mph gusts, 310 NW
  • Total sunshine: 680 minutes, 100% of possible minutes

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P.S. Know before you go!!! Mount Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world… Weather in the mountains (especially on Mt. Washington) can change quickly and with deadly consequence… In preparing for my trip I frequently checked weather conditions and trip reports and had an exit strategy (or two or three) at all times. These are some of the online resources that I found most helpful:

Mount Lafayette, NH: A Solo Winter Ascent

Mt. Lafayette

Looking back at the summit of Mt. Lafayette from Franconia Ridge.

What is your favorite day-hike in the White Mountains? For me, the answer is Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, which is why I set my alarm for 6 am and headed for the Lafayette trailhead early last week.

Franconia Ridge Loop (White Mountains, NH):

  • Date: January 22, 2014
  • Activity: Winter Hiking/Day Hike
  • Total Mileage: 8.9 miles
    • Old Bridle Path – 2.9 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail – 1.1 miles
    • Appalachian Trail – 1.7 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail – 3.2 miles
  • Duration: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm, 6 hours 30 minutes
  • Parking: Lafayette Place Trailhead Parking (just off of I-93), 2 privies available at trailhead, open year-round.

Although I’ve hiked the Franconia Loop dozens of times, most of those times have been during the summer or fall when the days are longer and the temperatures warmer. Of the handful of times I’ve hiked it during the winter, the day it was -20F at the base really stands out in my memory… that was the day I decided that there really was such a thing as too cold!!! By comparison, the 14F temperatures that greeted me at the trailhead parking lot last week seemed downright balmy!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path... If that's not motivation I don't know what is!

The first view of Franconia Ridge from the Old Bridle path… If that’s not motivation I don’t know what is!

The Old Bridle Path (Lafayette Place Parking to Greenleaf Hut) – 2.9 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous. The trail gains 2,450 ft in 2.9 miles… anything approaching 1000 ft of elevation gain per mile qualifies as strenuous in my book.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons, snowshoes (optional)…
  • Trail Conditions (9/10): Well-tracked, soft-packed powder. Occasional icy spots, easily avoidable.
  • Vistas (8/10): After 1.5 to 2 miles, amazing views of Franconia Ridge ahead and the valley behind are common.
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Greenleaf Hut and the Franconia Ridge as viewed from the Old Bridle Path.

I donned my microspikes and set off, alone, into the quiet, snowy, New Hampshire morning. After two solo thru-hikes it felt both strange and incredibly normal to be heading off into the snow-covered mountains by myself, but mostly it just felt great to be moving in the mountains I loved with beautiful blue skies above and sparkling white snow below. The only thing that dampened my spirit was that I couldn’t find my ‘good’ camera when I stopped to take pictures at the first overlook. I assumed I must have forgotten it back at the car in my excitement to get out on the trail… My iPhone 5 would have to serve as my camera for the day!

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

On the Old Bridle Path looking ahead towards Mt. Lafayette.

The trail all the way up to Greenleaf hut was beautifully snow-covered. Even though extra gear and precautions are necessary for winter hiking, one of my favorite things about the snow is that it covers and smooths out the normal rocky backbone of the trail and creates a strangely uniform hiking surface… The nice, stumble-free, snow-covered terrain reminded me of the PCT, but the grade of the Old Bridle Path was way too steep for that! I gained 2,450 ft in the 2.9 miles it took me to get up to Greenleaf Hut (closed & boarded up in the winter), and I still had a mile to go to get the the summit of Lafayette!

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Greenleaf Trail and the summit of Mt. Lafayette as viewed from the trail. How many cairns can you count in frame?

Greenleaf Trail (Greanleaf Hut to Mt. Lafayette Summit) – 1.1 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Strenuous, the trail gains ~1000 ft in 1.1 miles
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons recommended. Snow shoes optional
  • Trail Conditions (8/10): partially-tracked, lightly-packed wind-swept snow, some possibility for postholing. Windy!
  • Vistas (9/10): Primarily above treeline with sweeping vistas.

Near Greenleaf Hut I ran into a couple of people on their way down. They assured me that the trail conditions at the summit, along the ridge, and on Falling waters were great… Our excitement about the unusually warm, clear White Mountain weather was almost palpable… and it was certainly visible on all of our smiling faces.

Not long after leaving the hut I left the scrubby treeline entirely behind me, and embraced the blinding sun and whipping winds characteristic of Greenleaf trail in the wintertime.

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The sandy snow made that final mile to the summit of Mt. Lafayette seem to go on forever… I wasn’t postholing, but I could feel myself backsliding a little bit with each step… It didn’t help that I was almost 5000 ft above the elevation I’d slept at the previous night!

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Looking across the windswept snow to the rest of Franconia Ridge.

Either way, I didn’t hesitate to take a break when I encountered a rare site on Mt. Lafayette… a group of 5 skiers struggling up the slope. Sure they were struggling on the uphill, but they were going to have it made on the way down!

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

The steep, windswept approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette from the Greenleaf Trail.

After a few more photo breaks than were probably absolutely necessary, I made it to the windy summit of Lafayette! As I looked around I couldn’t help but smile… There’s nothing better than a beautiful clear day on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I was kind of curious though, where exactly were those skiers going to go from the summit?

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

The summit of Mt. Lafayette!

Appalachian Trail (AT/Franconia Ridge Trail – Mt. Lafayette Summit to Little Haystack) – 1.7 miles

  • Difficulty Level: Moderate, some ups and downs with drifting snow.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons
  • Trail conditions (9/10): well-tracked, windswept powder. Windy!
  • Vistas (10/10): Completely above treeline. Amazing views of the ridge you’re on (Franconia Ridge) and of the Presidential range… Absolutely phenomenal!

It felt good to be back on the Appalachian Trail (AT)… The last time I’d stood on the summit of Mt. Lafayette looking out at Mt. Washington was on my 2013 AT thru-hike… The sense of accomplishment I felt standing at the summit was for more than just climbing the mountain that day, but for the incredibly journeys of the last two years… It was a beautiful moment full of memories of the past and excitement about the new memories that I was creating right then and there.

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Obligatory summit selfie with Franconia Ridge in the background. Hello AT!

Franconia Ridge is one of my favorite stretches of trail. It is incredibly beautiful, but it is also incredibly exposed… definitely not to undertaken lightly when hiking solo in the wintertime. I scrutinized the distant clouds… the weather was still miraculously clear, which was good, and I did a time check. It wasn’t even 1pm yet, but since it was the middle of the winter sunset would be come early, ~5pm… did I have enough time to do the ridge and descend to my car before dark? Yes. Plenty. If I got caught out after dark was I prepared? Yes. Were there any suggestions of iffy weather? No. Since I was winter-hiking solo, I did a quadruple check… Would another hiker with my level of skill and preparation think that this was a risky decision? No. Phew… Safety checks passed, I texted my parents, “heading across Franconia Ridge now, will descend via Falling Waters.” I’d given them an itinerary before I left, but sending them time-stamped updates seemed prudent.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Patches happily visiting the AT on Franconia Ridge near the Summit of Mt. Lafayette.

Every fiber of my being rejoiced at the opportunity to prolong my time on Franconia Ridge. It was such a gorgeous day, and as winter weather goes, it was as good as it gets! The winds weren’t too strong, the temperatures (in the teens) were moderate, and I had plenty of gear to keep me warm. I also discovered that as soon as I wasn’t going uphill anymore my toes completely warmed up!!! I was definitely excited about that!

The Appalachian Trail's familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge

The Appalachian Trail’s familiar white blaze looking South down Franconia Ridge.

About halfway across the ridge I encountered a northbound hiker, “How’s the trail ahead?” I queried. “Well, the ridge isn’t bad, but Falling Waters Trail is Icy… It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it! It was so bad I had to use my ice axe to get up it!” he replied sounding slightly rattled… “Hmmm…” This was directly at odds with the trail report I’d gotten from the last person I talked to!

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I'd come.

Looking back at Lafayette and the way I’d come.

After some contemplation, I continued hiking South along the AT.  I remembered the sweeping vistas from my Northbound AT thru-hike, but somehow the snow made it all feel more magical!

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The windswept rocks of Franconia Ridge iced with snow! (On the AT, looking South).

As I neared the end of the ridge and headed up Little Haystack I ran into one final group of people (total number of people encountered: 9). I asked the group of 3 guys how the trail had been. “It was great,” said one guy. “No Problem,” smiled one of the other guys.

“That’s good to hear,” I said feeling relieved, “there have been conflicting reports about Falling Waters trail.”

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

Standing on the AT in the middle of Franconia Ridge.

“Oh?” replied the third guy, curiously. “Well… the last guy I talked to said it was the worst he’d ever seen it and that he’d had to use his ice axe.” Almost immediately they chimed in and admitted that they’d used their ice axes too, but assured me, “it’s not that bad, you won’t have any problems with it.” I looked at them kind of skeptically before quizzing them a bit more about where they’d used their axes… I tried to picture the trail ahead and the spot that they were talking about..but I had trouble imagining a spot where I’d need my ice axe… Well, I’d find out when I got there!

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

One last glance at the ridge before heading down the Falling Waters Trail.

Falling Waters Trail (Little Haystack to Lafayette Place Parking) – 3.2 miles

  • Difficultly Level: Strenuous, steep downhill descending 2800 ft in 3.2 miles. Snow-cover decreases impact on knees compared to summertime conditions.
  • Special Equipment: Microspikes/crampons. 3/4 people ascending cited use of ice axe on one section. I did not use an ice axe nor did I feel the need to.
  • Trail Conditions (6/10): mostly well-tracked powder, however, some extremely icy sections are present on the lower 1/3 of the trail… Confidence traversing ice flows a must on this section.
  • Vistas (7/10): The majority of the trail is below treeline. However, the views from Shining Rock are worthwhile and the ice formations and flows of the ‘falling waters’ make up for the lack of more sweeping views.

Sometimes the trail seems even steeper when you are going down than when you are going up, and this definitely felt true as I headed down the Falling Waters Trail. It was steep, well-tracked powder, and it would have been a lot of fun to do some glissading… Unfortunately, I was below treeline and would have to navigate around a lot of trees in order to safely glissade… I was also afraid that I would end up going faster than I wanted to, so I decided to play it safe and stay on my feet.

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When I reached the falling waters section of the Falling Waters Trail I was fascinated by all the different ice formations in and around the stream. They were absolutely beautiful!

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

Icy Waters on Falling Waters Trail.

The ice formations were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but stop and take pictures of all of the the different kinds of ice… The feathery plumes were something that didn’t remember ever seeing before!

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Despite discovering lots of beautiful ice and water as I descended, the trail had remained nicely packed powder…

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

About halfway down the Falling Waters Trail.

… until all the powder disappeared and was replaced with a wall of ice. There was no doubt… the wall of ice below me was where everyone had used their ice axes. I stood at the top of the steep ice flows contemplating my options for a couple of minutes.

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

Ice chute/trail on Falling Waters

It was clear that most people had used the ~5-6 ft long ice chute (pictured above) to my right instead of following the main trail with it’s steep 20-30 ft long ice flow (pictured below)… I continued contemplating my options… I didn’t like either of them, but eventually decided on the ice chute/glissade… once I was sitting down with my legs extended I’d be most of the way to the soft powdery snow below.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes... though I'm not sure how.

The iciest portion of the Falling Waters trail where people had been using their ice axes… though I’m not sure how. Check out that blue blaze up there? The trail is somewhere underneath the beautiful blue ice.

Sure enough, the powder cushioned my short slide, no problem. Despite the icy trail conditions, the thing that was really slowing me down wasn’t my footing… it was all the time I was taking to admire and take pictures of the cool ice formations along the way!

A different kind of icicle… ice sheets maybe? near Falling Waters trail

Luckily for me, the icy section of the trail… the section where the trail held more ice than snow, was relatively short… about 1/4 mile, but I treated that section with extreme caution!

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

One of the icy sections of the Falling Waters trail.

Even though I wanted to linger on the icy sections of the trail taking pictures and enjoying my hike for as long as possible, the magical low-angle light that was making everything extremely photogenic also signaled the fast approaching sunset.

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I reluctantly put my phone camera away and continued towards my car.

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Back at the car I searched for my ‘good’ camera, which I’d assumed I’d forgotten in the car during the hub-bub that morning… It wasn’t there… Doh! Was it possible that it was somewhere in my pack and I’d just missed it? I frantically emptied all of the contents of my pack out into my car… Still no camera… Oh sh**! My camera really was lost… My beautiful Sony Nex was somewhere between the car and the first overlook where I’d first noticed that it was missing.

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I took a deep breath… at least 5 people had descended that trail, maybe one of them found it and left it or a note about it for me somewhere… I circled the parking lot looking for clues… Nothing… My heart sank as I contemplated retracing my steps from that morning to look for it… Somewhat exasperated I decided a bathroom break, a snack, and some more water were in order before making any decisions…

As I rounded the corner to the women’s privy I saw it, right in front of the privy, lying on the snow… my camera!!! It must have fallen out when I stopped there before my hike. Since I was the only woman on the trail that day, nobody else had ventured over to the women’s privy, and nobody else had seen it! Phew!

With my camera in hand, and the sun beginning to set, I returned to my car and headed home… I was definitely a happy hiker! It had been an amazing day and the hike up Mt. Lafayette and across Franconia ridge kept its place as one of my favorite hikes of all time.

Note:

  • Consider checking out trip reports and forecasts here before heading up Lafayette.
  • The weather in the White Mountains is notoriously bad (even in the summer), so when planning a winter hike in the Whites finding a good weather window is my primary concern… If I’m considering a climb of Mt. Lafayetter (5250 ft) I check the Mt. Washington summit forecast and look for a day with high temperatures > 5-10 degrees F, wind speeds < 30 mph, and no measurable precipitation predicted for that day or the next… Even with appropriate gear, low temperatures and high windchills significantly reduce the fun factor of the hike for me… been there, done that (like the day it was -20 degrees F at the base… brrrrrrrr!!!).
Up next, Mt. Washington?!

Up next, Mt. Washington?!