Winter has finally arrived to the White Mountains. This was no more evident than on the hike to Eisenhower this Saturday with a group that included three leaders and six of this year’s Winter Hiking Series participants. During all of our Series outings, we really didn’t experience all that winter was capable of due to the slow start to winter this year. This trip to Ike gave us all that.
We started out at the Mt. Clinton Rd. parking lot and due to the group size and weather forecast, there was a choice of hiking either to Eisenhower via the Edmands Path (11.2 mile round trip, including the road walk and back) or to Pierce via the Crawford Path. I chose Eisenhower, although we were warned that we’d only have a 50% chance of summiting on this day due to the weather. The weather was forecast to be subzero and very windy, with the summits in the clouds. I already have both peaks in winter, but my reasoning for hiking Ike was that Ike was harder peak to summit in January than Pierce was, and even if we didn’t make it, it would be a good day to learn more from the experienced leaders in the group.
Once the decision was made, we strapped on the snowshoes for the first time this season and set off down Mt. Clinton Rd. accompanied by some light snow. It took us about an hour to get to the Edmands Path trailhead, where we took a break and got ready for the real work to begin: breaking trail all the way up.
With nine people, this was not as difficult as a task as if there had been a much smaller group. It still wasn’t easy, as in some spots especially in the higher elevations I was stepping in almost knee deep snow, but it was good way to stay warm.
We seemed to move at a reasonable rate, eventually passed the ice fall, and then were ready to suit up for the last section to the summit. Up until this point, we hadn’t really experienced much wind, but it was much colder. A peek at the thermometer had the temperature between -5F and -10F and this was before we stepped out on to the talus slope and into the wind.
Once out in the open beyond the trees, but still in the clouds, the wind was strong and relentless, estimated by an older, experienced leader to be 40mph, possibly a bit over. Looking back at the reports from the day from Mount Washington’s observatory, that was not an out of line estimate. The average sustained winds on Washington were in the 50-60mph range for the time period we were on Ike. It was difficult to move forward in a straight line, let alone communicate. I decided to hike at an angle to the direction I wanted to go, as the wind then pushed me back to the correct line. In addition to the wind, we were in the clouds, so getting from cairn to cairn was the only way to make progress toward the summit. All concentration was on careful foot placement, following the person in front of me and taking note of the cairns. Finally the giant summit cairn came into view and we moved around as best as possible to the lee side of the cairn. Within minutes, all nine of us were there. While we were there, the clouds were just starting to lift, giving us glimpses of the landscape around us. A few times, the summit of Washington briefly cleared and we could see the heavily rimed iced buildings against a bluebird sky.
The summit was no place to linger on this day and with a few quick congratulations and photos, we headed back down. All of us safely navigated the trail on the way down went on to cross the talus slope without stopping, heading back to the trees and out of the wind. Once we were in the trees we took a break and were quite awed by the weather and thankful that we made it to the summit and back without incident. The clouds continued to lift and, we could start to see out to Marshfield Station, the ravine below and beyond.
We continued hiking downward, just to stay warm, taking a few breaks along the way. On one break, we thought it was getting a bit warmer than it was before and a check of the thermometer confirmed that: it was now 0 degrees F. At this point, the trail was easier as some nice large group had already broken it out. Oh wait, that was us! The trail was not only easier, but also beautiful as the sunlight was now coming through the trees making the scenery sparkle on the way down to the trailhead. Once at the trailhead, we faced the 2.5 miles road walk back to the cars, but even that wasn’t so bad with good company to keep up the pace and the blessing of a summit achieved in less than ideal weather with no injuries or major complications.
While the road walk seemed long, we were able to watch the nice colors as the sun set behind the mountains and to make it to the parking lot without having to use headlamps!
**All photos courtesy of Hikin’ Dave. My camera was very unhappy with the cold temperatures and refused to work at all, preferring the warm comfort of its case within my pack.**