On the first day of Winter my true love gave to me.. decent weather, clear skies, and alpine trails to dash through the snow.
I’ve had that voice in the back of my mind for days now. I don’t hear it often but when it perks up, I listen. The voice had remained silent for a few months now, but just again in the past several days, it has reawakened and began screaming all day and all night, trying to tell me just what I wanted to do with my time.
This is the voice of idea; the voice that conjures up lofty, epic goals featuring long loops with steep trails that I inevitably end up adoring for their brutal yet scenic nature. The voice stokes the fire within my lust for adventure, and it was back – leading the orchestra of my thoughts now into crescendo.
It had been too long since I had toed the rocks high above the treeline in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, and for the first real hike of this years calendar winter – here would be the perfect playground to get the winter gear wet yet again.
I explored options of different trails, read reports and tried to figure out which forest access roads remained open. The weather had been pure excellence lately: some snowfall days prior, light winds in the higher altitudes, light cloud cover with some freeze-thaw going on over the past few days.
Expecting that I might very well be breaking trail, my 75 liter Gregory pack (used for thru-hiking and carrying larger cold-weather loads such as additional water and clothing during winter months) was packed with anything I thought could be needed out on the trails: extra clothing, water-proof pant shells, extra socks, beanies, head lamp (that hopefully would not be needed), map and compass of course, water filter and an extra Nalgene bottle of water tucked away inside my pack, while the HydroFlask that I knew would not freeze went along for the ride on the outside of the pack.
A beautiful sunrise accompanied my commute northeast to the high rises of New Hampshire, and an even more beautiful sight was discovered when I pulled into the Appalachia trail head in Randolph to find under ten cars (in a lot that typically houses +70 on a summer day, with cars overflowing out onto the highway shoulder), some of which had frosty windows – indicating they had been parked for some time, with their inhabitants likely somewhere in the forest probably camping or hiking already.
Geared up and with a beep of the watch, all the satellites were tracking my modest pace as began the slow, arduous climb up and out of the valley. The views began behind me, stretching back out to Randolph and Route 2, showing just how far I had gone since leaving the roadside lot.
Bare boots quickly gained their white and orange attachments as the trail became several inches of soft, granular snow and post-holing was not something I wanted to contribute to a popular trail this early into the morning.
I met the first hiker of the day while just over a mile into the Valley Way trail, she was heading back down toward the trail head clearly looking shaken up and terribly emotional. Without trying to pry, I asked if she was alright.
“They told me I’m too weak and that I had to go back!”
Turns out she had hiked too slow for the remaining members of her party who had forced her premature retreat, but she sure did handle her massive 50 pound (guessing of course, but it was a huge pack..) backpack like a champ!
Wishing her a nice day, we parted and before long had caught up to her friends – I remembered their leader from my finish of the NE111 several weeks prior, over on Mount Carrigain. Once again, the guide of the group shook my hand and tried to give out his Almond Joy chocolate bars to me, I politely declined in favor of my 85% cacao superfood and espresso bean blended culinary masterpiece (just kidding.. I didn’t have chocolate up there, but espresso bean chocolate will probably always be my favorite!).
Here and there, my mind remembered images along the jaunt in that it recalled from a year and a half ago when Ciara and I took on the Presidential Traverse via this same trail, I thought I could recognize sections and precariously downed trees despite the change in seasons. Such a beautiful trail, the fresh snow acting to dampen any hint of a creek or peep in that forest.
Somewhere around 3.8 miles with 3,400 feet of climbing behind me, the trail began to level out – and now with the sunny slopes of Mount Quincy Adams shining through the trees, I knew we were getting close now!
Approaching Madison Springs Hut, the path levels out and meanders shortly along a pathway lined with rocks – but today the space between the rocks had frozen over as one large ice flume, a big mass of sticky blueish green hazed ice, the real world appears so much different, more elaborate, much more beautiful up here in the mountains.
It appeared that I had been the third hiker up the Valley Way trail this morning – the other two had dropped their packs and snowshoes at the hut just prior to ascending Mount Madison, in fact, I could see their colorful jackets up on the slopes of Madison – appearing like little ants slowly making their way up the frosty rock covered grade.
Deciding to keep my pack and snowshoes on, I began up the spur trail after them.
The winds picked up with each step, climbing higher into the thin air.
I passed the two ladies now making their descent just below the summit cone and we talked for a minute, until the winds sunk deep into my finger tips and I had to get my thickened blood pumping once again.
The summit air had a calm to it, sure it was windy, but with the mountain literally crumbling away on either side, I just stood there in space, letting the wind tear at my face, reaching through my beard. The roaring winds were serene.
I could see everything from 5,366ft – the Wildcats standing out first with their carved ski slopes, of course Washington was amidst the many with its antennae reaching further into the sky, one could almost see the arc of the Pemigewassett loop beginning with the Bonds and continuing counter-clockwise over South Twin and henceforth Garfield, before reaching the jagged white points of Lafayette and the rest of the Franconia bunch.
Knowing I had more miles to trek today I put my camera away, plunged stiff fingers back into thick gloves, grabbed for my trekking poles and began the slow descent.
The Dion snowshoes had been upgraded with stainless steel crampons underneath so the traction was superb, it was the frame of each snowshoe that had been casting my foot in varying directions as I bounded from boulder to boulder. With a few sketchy landings, occasionally I had to stop, collect the thoughts and remind myself that I was in fact alone up here and no one was along side to drag my busted ass back down this hill – it was all me relying on myself, I was my own way home.
Back at the Madison Springs Hut, I turned back to witness with my own eyes where I had just been twenty minutes prior.
Oh, the places our little legs can take us!
Onward to Mount Adams.
In some regard, this hike into the Presidentials was somewhat a recon mission, constantly scoping out the state of everything up above treeline – Ciara and I both want to trek the Traverse in wintertime, and I have set in my mind the conditions that I think would work best for us and our two fluffy quadruped brothers.
I was hoping that the flanks of Adams would be filled in by gusting snow by this time, but each jagged boulder clearly showing itself, and in fact now with partial snow and partial frost-covered rock, the ascent became even more treacherous – but I love it because each step must be so well crafted, thought out, intentional and secured in place before relying on any crampon spike to hold our weight. The other hikers continued in spikes, I left my running snowshoes on for the ascent.
I began creeping up on the two ahead of me once again, occasionally I found myself following in their footsteps.. they sure did choose an excellent route up the mountain after all!
When they stopped to yell to one another, I took in the opportunity with zero-wind to snap a couple of photos. The image of these women in bright teal jackets with trekking poles in hand and snowshoes fastened to their packs appeared so iconic for winter mountaineering, I had to soak up the classic image before they knew I was behind them.
As the two reached the summit sign and began snapping their photos, I offered to take a few shots of them together.. almost in exchange for breaking up their early morning mountaintop celebrations.
One of them offered to shoot some of me before shimmying off to their next destination, that was when I heard “hey.. I think I recognize those snowshoes!”
Between the beanies, buffs and sunglasses – I did not even notice that the hiker who had snapped my photos was none other than Michelle who I met and helped break trail over in the Wildcats with last winter!
After talking and laughing about the minuscule size the world can be at times, I wished them the best and a very Merry Christmas, agreed that we would all run into each other again some day and I began away from Adams.
False alarm! I had only made it about twenty feet down from the summit when I decided to drop my bag, have some snacks and just sit, staring face to face with Madison and enjoying its flowing flanks with all of its muted colors. It was a view that all money could not replace.
After my short, but much needed refuel, I could hear voices sailing down the valley like a sine wave from my friends over on Madison. I was alone for miles standing just above the Great Gully!
I abandoned my plans of continuing over to Jefferson as I was quite content with how my day had gone thus far, and did not want to run the risk of needing my headlamp above treeline, plus Ciara would be getting home soon with the doggies and I wanted to also spend some time with them – all of my favorites packed into one incredible day!
The return trip down Valley Way was much of the same, upon beginning my descent however, it was apparent to myself that my mind desperately did not want to leave one of my favorite places on earth – but I knew before long that we would be back, climbing hand over hand, digging trekking poles in deep as we would make our way over to Crawford Notch via the Presidential Traverse!
I began passing many more hikers as I descended, quite a few with large, lofty packs complete with all of their extraneous gear and trinkets, attached by carabiners and rattling with every step, likely going off at the beginning of their long holiday weekend to winter backpack with their buddies.
Some asked how the trails were, others simply grunted as they passed.
I was all smiles as I glissaded down, able to see Route 2 far below, through the trees as if acting as my beacon, indicating how far one had to walk to reach my Subaru’s heated seats and barrel of grapefruit that I had prepped for post hike munchies.
The trail was much more packed on the descent, most hikers ascending opted for Hillsound spikes while carrying their snowshoes. As I trekked on, the sound of big rigs out on the highway grew louder and I knew the inevitable was just around the corner.
It was still early in the day as I dropped my pack at my car, ditched the wet layers and rehydrated with as much fruit as I could fit in my belly.
This morning, I had the comfort of solitude in the forest.
I found silent reflection on the sunny slopes of these high mountains.
I made new friends and found old acquaintances while out in the woods.
I left shell fragments of an old, fragile me next to the windswept alpine mosses and as I descended, now able to stand taller than ever before.
I search to find the playful child I once was, eager to climb any boulder that stands in my path.
The day is Christmas as I write this, a good day to reflect on where the past 365 days have taken us.. a magical time to day dream about where the next year may guide us, but none of it matters if we can’t smile, laugh and love where we are today, our paths and how they came to mold us to what we are today.
Let’s be the folks who make laughter contagious this year as we climb high and run far together!
As always, thanks for following along my journey and epic adventures – a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and all that good stuff!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with COROS Pace
- 10.20 miles
- 6hr 18 minutes
- 5,495′ elevation gain
- Mount Madison – 5,366′
- Mount Adams – 5,799′
Favorite Gear of the Day!
Sometimes the difference between a great day and just a day out can be a simple as what is in your boots. Especially important in the chilly winter months, it is imperative to keep warmth in (without over heating) while keeping snow and water out of your boots!