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2006-02-27 Winter Hike in the Whites

I just got back from New Hampshire. My hiking buddies and I just completed what for us is a new high-water mark in our campaign in the Whites: a winter hike up Mt. Jackson!

In addition to the normal problems of hiking in this region (mainly the endurance required and the need for the right clothes and enough water) winter hiking presents the additional hurdles of difficult navigation and extremely cold temperatures. When we got out of the cars at the trailhead, the outside temperature was already in the single digits, with heavy winds taking the windchill well below zero.

The first problem came up pretty quickly. I was outside of the car strapping up my pack and showshoes for about five minutes, took a draw off the mouthpiece of my hydration unit as a test and got nothing. I asked one of the guys if he could see a kink in the line - he reported that there was ice in the line. It had already frozen to the point of unusability in the few minutes we were standing there. I had to remove the reservoir from the pack and place it and the line under my fleece against my abdomen to keep it warm enough not to freeze.

We were sheltered from the wind in the woods, and we were a lot more comfortable, but now there were the snow-covered trails to deal with. We were the first ones up this path for the day and it had snowed the night before, so the trail was covered with virgin snow. There were a lot of steep spots where the snow covered ice, many of which were very difficult to get past. We had to circumvent one portion of the trail entirely - it was just too icy for us to get up.

Over the course of about four hours (for what what normally be about a two hour ascent) we made it to the "alpine zone" - the part of the mountain just before the treeline where the woods turns into smaller and smaller pine trees. Here we were facing some very deep drifts and some very difficult ice-banks. It was also very cold. We generally expect to lose about ten degrees for every thousand feet of altitude any time of year. By that rule, we would expect it to be around 15 below near the summit. We couldn't say for sure in the absence of a thermometer, but it sure felt like it was below zero. When I tried to drink fron my water line, I found it frozen again, even though it was still under my fleece!

We were getting a little concerned about the time at this point - we didn't know how difficult coming down would be. We had to assume that it would take as long as going up. So that would have meant that we could expect to get back to the base at about 5. This was about as late as we wanted to be doing this, so we decided that whether we had reached the summit or not we would turn around at 1:30.

As it turned out, we never made it to the treeline. The last man in our group reached an ice flow that he was simply unable to make it past, the man in the lead was reaching the point were it was just way too much energy to make every last bit of progress. I was already ready to turn around about 15 minutes earlier. The fourth member of our party (who was wearing snowshoes at this time, the rest of would have donned ours but for the difficulty of doing so in these conditions) scouted ahead and determined that we were, in fact, within about 15-30 minutes of the summit. But we all knew this was as far as we were going on this particular day.

Much to our surprise, the trip back down was not only a lot less work, but downright fun! It was like half skiing, half bouncing, with none of the high-impact joint torture that would normally accompany a run down a mountain trail. We ran into other hikers on the way down, lots of them were using some of the icy stretches of trail as slides - just sit down and slide 20 to 50 feet! After some hesitation, we followed suit, further increasing our speed of descent.

We made it down the mountain in an hour and a half - fantastic time. We'll definitely be doing this again next year. With better preparation.