Adams – 2/21/2016

Winter hiking above treeline on Mt. Adams, New Hampshire

If everything went as planned, today would be a pretty awesome hike beyond just being up on the northern Presi’s in general…

  • I’d cross Mt. Adams off my winter list, putting that down to 4 remaining
  • I’d hike for the first time with my friend and co-worker Tom – we’ve been meaning to hike together for a long time
  • I’d complete my 2nd time through the 48 New Hampshire 4000 footers

So, I was excited.

We started on Lowes Path at 8:50.  There was even less snow than when I had left Mt. Madison the day before.  We went at least a mile and a half with no traction, and no snow.  Lots of mud, and an occasional stretch of ice that was easily crossed.

Eventually (finally) we reached some snow and lots of ice.  This trail is steep after the gradual start, and near the RMC Log Cabin, we put on MICROspikes (I’ve officially ditched my Hillsounds – they broke and I’m not going to bother repairing them), and then quickly switched over to crampons.

Using crampons on Lowes Path on Mt. Adams, New Hampshire
Tom getting the feel for the crampons

This was Tom’s first time on crampons, and there were some serious ice bulges to contend with.  He got the hang of them very quickly and we didn’t have any trouble.  We really only had to break our pace when we had to get out of the way of people coming down with light traction.  Every one of these people (about a dozen all in the area of the Log Cabin) were sliding, grabbing at trees, and generally crapping themselves.

I thought that was bad – until I saw the first of several coming down with no traction at all… nothing.  There were 2 groups of these guys.  All were not only sliding on their asses and desperately grabbing at tree branches, but were outright falling when they did try to stand.  Three of them were in cotton.

I try not to judge, but one guy proved his cluelessness with this brief exchange (this is in its entirety – I hadn’t even said hello yet) as he slid to a stop at my feet:

Dude: I’m on my way down (this was spoken as if to imply he was returning from the summit).

Me: From where, Gray Knob?

Dude: …yeah (disappointed I hadn’t assumed he meant the summit). {long pause} It’s too windy to go up.  The wind is 108 miles per hour.

Me: Really? The forecast said gusts might reach 70 on Washington.

Dude: Yeah, it was 108.

Me: Where – Gray Knob?!

Dude: My friend is on the summit right now.

Then Dude shifted his weight or something, and continued sliding down the trail.

…Like his friend had just decided to give him a ring from the summit (3 hours away) in a 108 mile per hour wind, which he measured with the anemometer he carries when he hikes with his friend who he doesn’t tell not to wear cotton or bring traction.

It could happen, but Tom and I decided to roll the dice and write this guy off, and continued on our way.

Sadly, this would not be the most troubling thing we’d see today in terms of bad hiking decisions.

As we approached treeline, we encountered more snow and less ice, and things got pretty.

Lower Path in winter on Mt. Adams, New Hampshire

The clowns were below us now (for the most part), and that nice peaceful, isolated otherworldly atmosphere that I crave all week at work enveloped us.

We were well rested, and didn’t stop at Gray Knob.  Soon we were out of the trees.

Above treeline in winter on Mt. Adams, New Hampshire

This was not only Tom’s first time in crampons, but also his first time above treeline in winter.  It would be a trial by fire.

Not far from treeline, we ran into a young guy descending solo.  I asked him if he summited.  He had.  I asked how it was.

“Real windy for the last 100 feet.  I had to crawl.”

I had already put our chances of summiting at 50/50 when we stepped out of the trees into very poor visibility and a strong sustained wind.  Now I was pretty much thinking we’d play around above treeline for a bit and then turn around.

As we were walking away, the guy casually asked a disturbing question.

“Hey, have you seen anyone else on their way down?”


“My friend went ahead of me to the summit, I didn’t see him up there.”


I got the guy’s name and asked where he was going – he would stop at Gray Knob.  I told him we’d keep an eye out for his friend.

Tom and I kept moving along – visibility was generally ok except for a minute or 2 every once in a while.  Tom had a personal locator beacon and we had our maps and compasses at the ready.

We had a nice false summit experience on Sam Adams (so hey, it was a summit, just not the one we thought we were on), even breaking out cookies and me telling Tom I had just finished all the NH 48 for the 2nd time.  As we were packing up, something just flashed in my head that this wasn’t it.  We checked Tom’s PLB and it was confirmed.  We still had 30 minutes to our turnaround time, and we could see, so we kept on.

Conditions worsened as we reached the summit of Adams, but we were warm and feeling strong.

Mt. Adams winter summit, New Hampshire
Quick summit shot

Bad judgement must have been contagious on ol’ Mt. Adams today, because we didn’t turn back onto Lowes Path at Thunderstorm Junction, and unknowingly continued on Gulfside Trail.  It’s very easy to do this at Thunderstorm Junction… but still.  It wasn’t a good day to spend more time than planned above treeline.

We might not have realized it until we hit Edmands Col if we didn’t see the sign for Israel Ridge Path.  We’d take that down to Gray Knob Trail and then reconnect with Lowes Path.  Or so we thought.

We knew we’d likely be breaking trail, but it was better than retracing back  to Thunderstorm Junction at that point.  And break trail we did.  And lose trail we did.  Again and again.

Eventually we climbed up onto the steep sides of Sam Adams to stay out of the snow, and made our way back to the junction of Israel Ridge Path (lots of “paths” up here on Adams).  After a long cold stop with the map and compass, we went down Israel Ridge Path again, eventually meeting the Randolph Path and finally, some trees.

The previous 4 paragraphs are a very short summary of a nerve wracking situation, and doesn’t include all the details.  Things turned out ok because we used map and compass, and its a good thing we did.  More than once it corrected us 180° from the direction we were heading.

It sounds easy to “always trust the compass”, and we did without hesitation, but it was against every directional instinct I had.  It’s amazing how a generally good sense of direction can become worse than meaningless.  We never panicked – Tom was in a new world and handled it like a champion.  He made as many of the correcting decisions as I did, for sure.  He probably made more of them.

In the end, we were above treeline in the nastiness for almost 4 hours.  See “Not being above treeline anymore” in my post from a few weeks ago.

Hiking above treeline in winter on Mt. Adams, New Hampshire
Retracing steps

We never saw the hiker who went ahead of his friend to the summit, but I didn’t see anything about a search when I checked from home.  Hopefully he was ok.

Randolph Path is a beast of a thing.  We were breaking trail in deep snow, but I suppose that was better.  This is a rough, uneven trail when it’s bare.

You know the drill for the rest of the story.  I sure was happy when we started hearing cars and spotting headlights on the road, and soon we had our asses planted firmly on heated seats.


4 thoughts on “Adams – 2/21/2016”

  1. That is an amazing and enlightening story. Thank you for sharing it. I am climbing Adams with a group this weeken, 3/12. Your story is invaluable for mental preparation, all the equipment was already coming!

    1. Thanks SL! I hope your trip this weekend goes well. Hopefully I’ll be up on Jefferson finishing my Winter 48 that day, I’ll keep an eye out toward Adams!

  2. My wife and I just finished your story. Extremely informative and well written, we both enjoyed it. Photographs were amazing. I did Cannon Mt. yesterday (Monday) and my experience was totally different from yours. Please continue to recount your stories on New England Hiking. Since starting up hiking in Sept. after 8 year absence I have not met anyone remotely resembling the folks you encountered yesterday on the trail.

    1. Thanks Bruce, glad you enjoyed it. There are way more people out there on the winter trails each year, so there’s more of every type of hiker!

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