At least once each winter for the past five years or so, Phil and I head up north for a two or three-day winter snowshoeing/backpacking trip. Generally we pick a 4,000 footer to attempt while at the same time realizing that the added difficulties of winter hiking combined with our unwillingness to risk life and limb are, in fact, a prescription for potential failure. In other words, until this year, neither of us has summitted a 4,000 footer in winter.
My list of remaining 4,000 footers in New Hampshire has been shrinking as of late. Only Mts. Hale, Waumbek, Cabot, Owl's Head, and Cannon remain to be climbed, and none of these (with the possible exception of Owl's Head) lend themselves to a three-day winter trip. Therefore, during trip planning, our attention was focused elsewhere. Mt. Madison, which could conceivably be done as a winter dayhike by an extremely fit hiker, looked to be an ideal candidate.
Friday, February 26 (2.6 miles). We parked at the Great Gulf parking area on Route 16, just south of the Dolly Copp campground. The snowfall in the White Mountains this year has been unusually light (six inches or less at the trailhead), but since we were uncertain what we might encounter at higher elevations, we brought along showshoes and a portable shovel. Neither were needed. By about 11:00 am or so, we had started up Great Gulf Trail, which doubles as a cross country ski trail for most of the first mile and a half or so. At the 1.6 mile mark, the trail enters the Great Gulf Wilderness, leaving the ski trails behind. From the parking lot to this point, we encountered a single skier, and except for his tracks, the two inches of snow that had fallen the night before were completely untouched.
After we entered the Great Gulf Wilderness, we continued along for another quarter-mile or so until we arrived at the junction of the Osgood Trail, which branched off to the right. The Osgood Trail, built in the 1870s, is the oldest existing trail to the summit of Mt. Madison and forms part of the border to the Great Gulf Wildnernes. After traveling up the Osgood Trail for a little less than a mile, we came to the Osgood tent site, our destination for the day. Maybe I'm getting old, but the tent platforms, and particularly the outhouse, were a welcome sight. We had the entire Osgood tentsite to ourselves, with a great view of the Wildcat ski area across the notch on the other side of Route 16, as well as an unobstructed view of Mt. Washington. Washington's summit was not visible from this lower elevation.
Throughout the day, the weather had been improving. Clouds in the late morning had given away to mostly blue sky by 4:00 pm, which was about the time that we were preparing dinner. By the time darkness settled in, we were fed and in bed. I don't believe that it got much colder than 10-15 degrees overnight, and staying warm was not a problem. The wind was howling all night, however, and neither of us slept particularly well. The fact that we both snore and we took turns keeping each other awake didn't help either.
Saturday, February 27 (5.0 miles). It was 9:00 am by the time we muddled through breakfast and loaded up our packs with the few essentials needed for day two (we left most of our things at the tentsite, since we were returning to the same location later in the day). The Osgood Trail becomes decidely steeper beyond Osgood tentsite, so we donned our crampons and got underway. The going was slow, primarily because I'm in the worst physical condition of my life. By the time we got above treeline, any idea of summitting two peaks (we had optimistically included Mt. Adams on our wish list) was gone. Soon our desire to summit Mt. Madison and our strong preference for being back to the campsite before darkness began to conflict with each other. By the time we reached about 4,800 feet, I knew I was not going to be able to summit and still get down at a reasonable hour. It was obvious that I was holding Phil back, so I decided to stay put. Phil continued on with a couple of hikers that had overtaken us. They had driven all the way down from Montreal to do a little winter climbing. I watched them climb over the several false peaks on the way to the summit while I waited for Phil to return.
The view from my location along the open ridgeline was magnificent. The wind was at times strong enough to make standing difficult, but all of the northern presidentials were stunning in their beauty. My other hike in the northern presidentials was five years ago, and while I summitted Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, visibility on that day was practically non-existant. It was a thrill to see what I had missed five years previously.
Phil and the other two hikers took about 90 minutes to summit and return to where I was waiting. I'm sure it would have taken me at least twice as long to do it, as I was relatively exhausted by then. The area above treeline had been so windblown that we had removed our crampons, and as we dipped down below treeline on our way down, we left them off, preferring the fun of sliding when possible, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting down. For me, at least, this turned out to be a big mistake, because I sprained an ankle when I caught it on a tree trunk while taking an unexpected fall. The injury made the rest of the trip down quite difficult and slow, and by the time we reached our tent it was almost 7:00 pm. Luckily, we had an almost full moon to help us find our way down safely. I plan on being more diligent about wearing my crampons in the future.
It being a Saturday, we no longer had the campsite to ourselves. Another tent platform was occupied by some other winter hikers, but we didn't actually speak to them--they were inside their tent for the night by the time we got back to the campsite, and we were long gone by the time they got up the next morning. After dinner we settled in for another night. Unlike the night before, Saturday evening was completely calm. We were again blessed with relatively warm temperatures, and both of us slept relatively well, although we did both wake up several times over the course of the evening.
Sunday, February 28 (2.60 miles). We were up by 6:00 am, and packed up and on our way down by 7:00, foregoing breakfast in favor of a fast exit. I was worried about my ankle, and wasn't even sure whether I'd be able to manage the hike out with a fully-loaded pack on my back. It had been very painful putting my plastic mountaineering boot on over the sprained ankle earlier in the morning, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to carry the pack and walk on my bad ankle with only minor pain. It took about an hour and a half to negotiate the 2.6 miles of trail back to the car, and I don't remember too much of it, as I was focused primarily on not further injuring my ankle.
Once we had driven back into North Conway, we farted away some time at IME looking at gear, but we didn't buy anything. As soon as lunchtime arrived, we headed over to Conway for our traditional post-hike Mexican meal, and then we headed home.
Total trip mileage, 10.2 miles.
Copyright © 1999, David Lister