January 20, 2016 was not forecast by the Mount Washington Observatory as a great day to be on the northern Presidential Range. The summit of Mt. Washington was going to have a high of 0°, with winds 65-85 mph gusting to 105, putting the wind chill at -40°.
Mt. Madison, at 5,366 feet, is a little over 900′ lower than Washington, theoretically pushing the true temp about 3° higher than it’s bigger brother. That extra 3° wouldn’t help much.
Rich and I had this Wednesday off, and decided to give old Madison a try. We figured we could have a safe adventure if we did a few things…
- Shift our turn around parameters even more toward the cautious side of the scale than usual – leave immediately when things seemed that they would get too bad, not when they did get too bad
- Take extra care to watch out for the condition of each other
- Approach via Valley Way, which is sheltered by trees right up to the AMC Madison Spring Hut (closed in winter)
We started up Valley Way from Appalachia nice and early. We expected slow going, and it seemed that’s what we’d get – the trail had not been broken since the last snow.
Two hikers who were starting out just as we arrived (the only people we’d see that day) were heading to RMC’s Gray Knob for the night, attempting to summit Adams the next day, so the trail breaking on Valley Way would be up to us.
It wasn’t bad down low, but as elevation increased, so did the amount of snow and the drifting.
By about 3,400′, it was fairly nasty.
In the trees, Valley Way treated us just as we had hoped. Protection from wind was sufficient to allow us to call ourselves comfortable, despite the hard work of breaking trail. Short breaks on the hour reminded us of how cold it was, though.
Here and there we’d see Madison’s summit cone through the trees. She sure was beautiful today. These glimpses might have enticed us to get there at all costs, but we were just too aware of the conditions and were determined to stick to the plan.
Once in the scrub, we dropped our packs in what would likely be the last sheltered spot before full exposure. Shells went on, boots were adjusted, hand warmers went in windproof mittens, goggles and balaclavas came out, the usual prep for above treeline in the cold. We ate and drank, then stepped out of the trees.
We had crampons ready, but decided to stay in snowshoes between the trees and the hut, to get a sense of what would be more appropriate footwear to try for the summit. We stayed in snowshoes – although there was lots of exposed rock, the gaps were well filled in with snow and didn’t appear to require much in the way of fancy footwork.
We hiked for about .3 miles past the hut before we made the call to turn around. It wasn’t a hard decision, even though we were much closer to the summit than we had ever expected to get. Our goggles had fogged and then frozen, I realized I had a part of my face on the right side exposed to the cold, and Rich had a gap between his pants and his shirt on his back that couldn’t be corrected without stopping for a few minutes. We had also been hit by a few gusts that could have knocked us off our feet in the last minute or two.
On the way down, we were walking directly into the brutal wind. When we could see, the clouds blowing up from the northwest were beautiful. We’d go from crystal clear skies with my favorite scenery of snow and ice shining in bright sun, to completely socked in moon style conditions, and back again, over and over.
I wish I could have taken out the camera here, but it wasn’t the time or the place.
Off the cone, we took shelter against the hut and prepared to go back to the trees. We managed to take some photos here – briefly stepping out of the lee of the hut, snapping some shots, stepping back to warm up, and repeating. This didn’t last long – my camera stopped functioning after a few minutes and Rich’s iPhone shut itself down. Our hands wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway.
John Quincy Adams was our scenic star today, doing an Everest impression with contrails blowing off its summit into the clear sky and across the sun over Star Lake. No photos of the best of this, but what we did get gives a pretty good idea.
Rich managed to take the video below in between gusts of wind. It starts with JQA and ends with a quick look in the direction of Madison’s summit.
The hard work in the deep snow on the way up paid off on the way down. 4 miles of broken, fast, impact absorbing snow made for a fast descent. So fast in fact, that our early arrival at the car and experience at the top easily justified stopping at Moat.
The victory today was that we did not stand on the summit. We were able to safely sample some weather we really shouldn’t be experiencing because we were determined to get out of it before we actually had to.
I do realize that “safely” is relative and subjective here. Some would say that starting the hike wasn’t safe. That might be true for them, but we considered Valley Way in the trees safe for us in these conditions – and worse actually.
The same goes for starting up the cone. If it’s so likely conditions will force a turn around, it’s not safe to start. I think that depends on how you look at it. Our whole plan was to make sure the turn around wasn’t “forced” at all, and we have enough experience to make that likely to happen.
In the end, it’s never completely safe to head up a mountain, just like it’s never completely safe to drive to work.
I didn’t cross Madison off my winter list when I got home, but to me, the day was a success.