Here to tell the story
By Andy Poster
My adventure began the same way as most of them do - The mountains had received snow 3 days previously, and the forecast called for temperatures to drop through the day. The truly bad weather was predicted to hit the mountains later that evening, which left plenty of time to go for a hike. Still, I wanted to be conservative, so I chose a familiar objective. The hike over Mts. Jackson and Pierce seemed a good decision for that day. Anyone who has driven through Crawford Notch on a Saturday afternoon can tell you this is one of the most popular routes in the White Mountains, and my decision was based on the fact that I could count on the trail being thoroughly packed down and obvious.
The summit of Mt. Jackson is commonly viewed as one of the “easiest” 4,000 foot peaks to bag in the Whites, being only 2.6 miles from the trailhead. On a pleasant Summer day, the final 1/4 mile is a blissful stroll up a majestic cone, with a breathtaking panorama of the entirety of the Southern Presidential range waiting as your reward for the effort of the climb. However, as any experienced White Mountain enthusiast will tell you, in poor weather this summit becomes a much different beast. High winds and whiteout conditions are common, and during the Winter, on all but the best days, it becomes a place where your best bet is to leave as quickly as you came.
View from the Summit of Jackson on a Bluebird Day
With strong winds in the forecast, I knew what to expect, and while still in the trees below the final push, I transitioned into full Winter gear, despite the fact that I had worked up quite a sweat on the climb. True to form, as I emerged onto the bare slabs of the summit, I was greeted with a harsh wind in my face, and cloud coverage obscuring my views. At this point, most folks would turn around and call it good. However, I have over 30 trips across this route under my belt, and I knew that as soon as I descended 100 yards on the Webster Cliff Trail, I would be comfortably in the woods again, and on my merry way toward Mitzpah Hut.
The 1.7 mile trip to the hut was, as I expected, quite pleasantly “set’ by the multiple snowshoers that had come before me. Aside from a couple of clearings that are exposed to weather, and typically wind-scoured at the best of times, the going was incredibly easy. This led to my decision to continue with my original plan: To ascend Mt. Pierce from the Hut, then descend from the summit to the Crawford Path on the opposite side and continue down back to my car. Although the weather had been poor on the summit of Jackson, the ease with which I had found the proper trail, and the immediate safety I was provided by the woods upon leaving that summit led to my feelings of comfort in continuing with my plan.
After leaving the Hut, I was excited to see that the snowshoe track continued to the summit of Pierce. I felt that the hard work of the day would be done upon attaining the summit, and indeed the going was quite easy and clear until I was just below it. As I passed through an area just shy, my visibility noticeably decreased, but not badly enough to be unable to make out the track leading to the summit. I was determined to follow through, and was quite confident until the moment I entered the area where there is a large cairn which marks the summit of the mountain. Almost immediately upon reaching the cairn, the weather that makes the Presidential Range famous for its deadliness reared its ugly head. Suddenly, the wind was blowing ceaselessly at speeds high enough to knock me over if I let my guard down. The innocent cloud cover of 3 minutes ago turned into a blanket of freezing mist that prevented me from seeing anything beyond 10 feet away. All of that is disconcerting enough, but the moisture in the air suddenly began to congeal on my eye protection, and within mere seconds there was a coat of rime ice forming on my glasses that refused to succumb to attempts to wipe it away.
Having a multitude of experiences above tree line, I knew that the first thing I had to do was to locate a cairn. “Find the first cairn, and you will be on the correct path” I told myself.
However, rime ice and fresh snow have a unique way of making spruce saplings and cairns completely indistinguishable from each other, and with my glasses in such poor condition, I was led on a goose chase that yielded nothing but multiple dead falls into waist deep snow while trying to figure out if I was looking at a cairn or a conifer. After about 45 seconds of this silliness, I decided the only possible method of survival was to retrace my steps back to the Hut. This sounds easy enough, however something interesting about 45+ mph winds is that they tend to fill your footsteps in with snow before you even finish making them. Luck led me to see a solitary track that had been protected by the windblown crust above it. It was literally only because I could make out the direction of my foot in the track that I was able to see where another one had been preserved 10 feet behind it. I followed these, and after 30 feet was able to make out the trail once again, and immediately began my descent back to the hut. The rest of the trip passed uneventfully, with a renewed sense of appreciation for the simple act of breathing without fearing for my life.
This illustrates exactly how far off course I was in the moment (blue line), and how disastrous the results would have been to continue moving forward
In review, there are multiple interesting things to take away from this experience: As an avid outdoor enthusiast that lives in North Conway 12 months a year, I have an enormous amount of trail knowledge. I map my outings using a GPS monitor, and have over 15 maps of the exact itinerary for that day which I can review at any given moment. The first, and most obvious lesson to be had is that your timing/pace in Winter conditions is not at all what it is in the Summer. You must expect yourself to be, at the very least, 5 minutes per mile slower, and that is in optimal conditions.
Second is pre-planning. When you load your pack, load it in a fashion that makes it easy to find the things you know you will need, and have the things you will use first at the top of the pack. Every second you spend stopped in Winter is a second that you are vulnerable to changing conditions, so there is no such thing as “too much” pre-planning. Keep food and water in places where they can be accessed with minimal effort. One thing I have found over the years is that when you begin to get cold, your willingness to stop and properly hydrate diminishes. While in the moment this seems ok, it can potentially lead to disastrous consequences. A dehydrated, hungry mind leads to an inability to make essential decisions in moments where 45 seconds can save your life. Take the time to eat and drink when you are in places where it is possible to do so comfortably, even if you believe it is not necessary in that moment.
The final piece of the puzzle is route knowledge. In every Winter expedition, large or small, there will always be a moment when you have to make the decision to either retreat and “cut yourself loose.” In this particular tale, I knew beforehand that the moment in this particular route would be the summit of Pierce. As close as I came to disaster, I did know a hasty retreat to the Hut would lead to safety. Had I continued to attempt to descend toward the Crawford Path, I would have been exposed to the brute force of the weather coming across the Presidential Range for another 1/4 mile, and in this case that would have been enough to kill me. Most expeditions in the White Mountains feature such a decision point. On a day spent on the Franconia Ridge, that moment is the summit of Little Haystack. Once you leave that area, retreat is every bit as difficult and unforgiving as pressing forward. If your plan is to do a Northern Presidential Traverse in Winter, the moment you leave Madison Hut heading toward Adams is the moment you commit yourself fully to the remainder of the expedition. You simply must, in these moments, make decisions based upon the principle that the mountains will always be there for another day.
After 20+ years of recreation in these mountains, I have more tales than I care to tell that are similar to this, yet they all share one common theme: the worst things imaginable can begin to happen at a pace that is more rapid than you can control. There is no such thing as too much planning and research. And above all, ALWAYS be ready to retreat before taking silly chances. It’s not only your life you have to consider, it is the lives of the folks that will need to come help you at stake, as well as the ramifications of their safety upon the lives of their families. We all love these mountains, and we all want to push ourselves to our ultimate potential. Make good decisions, plan well, and that potential will remain something that grows throughout your life.