Winter Wonderland: Mt. Madison & Mt. Adams

The centerpiece of our New Year’s Day White Mountain trip was a winter hike up two of New Hampshire’s fiercest mountains. Adams (5774 feet)  is second and Madison (5367 feet) is fifth on the New Hampshire list of tallest mountains. 48 of those hills are over 4000 feet in height and are more than 200 feet above any ridge connecting it to a higher neighboring peak. At 6322 feet, only Mount Washington is taller than Mount Adams. Unlike Washington, Adams and Madison have no refuge on their summits, though the Madison Spring Hut does lie in the col 3/10th’s of a mile below Madison’s peak. The hut is only open in the summer months. When we saw it on Saturday, it looked sad and lonely all boarded up with snow drifts piled to the roofline.

Madison and Adams’ proximity on the ridge with the adjoining Presidential Range summits of Jefferson, Washington, and Monroe, make them as challenging as any White Mountain 4000 footers. The hike we laid out was pretty straightforward. We considered some variations, but given our time constraints and our family obligations, we opted for the quickest route up and the quickest route down. That meant starting/finishing at the Appalachia trailhead on Rt. 2 outside of Gorham, and taking the Valley Way Trail.

My hiking partners were Arthur Roti and Matthew Schomburg. We had a good trio. Matt is as seasoned as a hiker can get, and has joined Debbie and I on many previous adventures. He doesn’t mind cold weather, having spent the winters (summers down there) of 2007 and 2008 at the South Pole in Antarctica. This time last year, he was “on the ice” as they say, but this winter, he opted to stick around New England. Our last meet up was at Zealand Falls Hut on our summer White Mountain trip back in June. He is a mountain man through and through. As a U.S. Forest Service Ranger, it is his job to know the outdoors, and his guidance on our trips is always appreciated. Art is a colleague of mine at Horst Engineering and a relative newcomer to winter mountain adventure, but I have been on many bicycle adventures with him over the years, and we have done several fairer weather hikes as a duo.

We set off from Appalachia on the Valley Way Trail and made good time to the hut. Art and I used snowshoes, but they weren’t necessary. Snow fell on us the entire hike (it fell for four days straight) and we walked on a powdery 18 inch base. The temperature in the valley was in the low teens. We started at 8:45 A.M. after driving up from Pinkham Notch. We chatted amiably on the walk up knowing that when the trail steepened and we left the cover of the trees, that 100% focus would be needed to ensure our safety and to reach the summits.

Even though the White Mountains are known for difficult weather, we weren’t mountaineering. The well-known mountaineer and writer, David Roberts, cut his teeth in the Whites, but he refers to these mountains as “walk ups.” Roberts’ preference for real climbing is done with crampons, axes, and ropes and is done in Alaska on vertical ice/rock faces. We were content with our walk. Once above treeline, we paused behind the hut to adjust our gear. The backside of the hut offered a little reprieve from the steady wind that was blowing. It was here that I got my only photograph above treeline. My camera froze up and the lens was covered in ice within seconds. I didn’t have much experience with shooting in those conditions, so it was a one frame learning experience.

Matt opted to put on his snowshoes and Art and I kept our shoes on. We added layers, ate some food, and drank some water before setting out for the top of Madison. It was slow going with the stiff breeze and blowing snow. It was much colder in the wind and Art slowed a bit. With the windchill, the temperature had to have been at least -25 degrees Fahrenheit, but there is really no way for me to know. The wind was very strong, but it didn’t have its way with us. I have been in gusts that could knock you down and this wasn’t as bad. Saturday’s wind would push you a bit and keep you off-balance, but it wasn’t nearly as strong as the wind that those summits often see. It was the combination of cold temperatures, wind, and blowing snow, that made for the complete challenge.

We saw three hikers on their way down and they described what they experienced on their way to the top of Madison. They were happy to be getting off the mountain. After 10 minutes, Art opted to retreat back to the hut to work on his gear and warm up. Matt and I accelerated and reached the top of at 12:10 P.M. We spent two minutes on the summit, soaking up the excitement of being out in those conditions. When survival is at stake, there is no worrying about the “to do list” at work. That is one of the main reasons why I love forays into the mountains. We high-fived each other, and then made our way back to the hut, passing two more hikers on their way up. Those five people were the only folks that we saw all day. Solitude is one of the joys of being in the White Mountains in winter.

We met up with Art, who was feeling better. We made sure he was OK, and then we all agreed to remove our snowshoes and put on our crampons. We felt that we would be able to move quicker with the crampons, despite the pockets of deep snow. Art was cool with our idea to give Adams a shot. The temperature was dropping, as forecasted, and the wind was picking up, so we adjusted our gear behind the hut before making an uphill push again.

Mt. Adams eluded us. Conditions were deteriorating fast, and we lost sight of our next cairn. We decided to take the shortest route up, which in hindsight was a bad decision. We knew where we were, having been in that area before, but we were off trail. That can be an exciting development in some situations because winter bushwhacking isn’t all that bad. But, given our circumstances and the terrible visibility, being on trail would have permitted us to reach the top. We kept going up, but we were off course and the terrain got sketchy as we made our way up the flanks of Mt. Adams. Matt and I took turns scouting ahead, before we regrouped with Art and agreed to descend via a gully in an attempt to return to the trail. Sure enough, after less than 10 minutes of going down, we found the trail again and followed it back to the Valley Way trail.

Once below treeline, we were out of the wind and our hike turned into a pleasant walk. We returned to our fun conversations and finished the nine-plus mile hike in six hours and 45 minutes. All in all, a great day.

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