March 7th, 2013, The Saturn Expedition: We thought of everything! The most prepared for a hike we had ever been. I’ve been hard at work training to be a mountain guide and am successfully applying what I know and have learned. Yep we had it all: Corrected compass bearings for every segment and dog-leg of the entire above treeline portion of a Presidential traverse; A back bearing for Madison; A GPS tracking our progress (in case we needed to make a step-by-step retreat, and to evaluate my compass work after the hike — which ended up being spot-on for what we did travel); We had six planned bailout routes, not including our entry, across the range, especially in the north; And a friend willing to get us at any of them; We even had a firsthand, up-to-the-minute MWOBS weather forecast and current conditions delivered to us by phone — nice to have some friends in high places when attempting something like this in sub-par conditions. We had so much of the minutia covered, a PLB and all sorts of gear designed to help us in an emergency of just about any sort, we had it all, and more… but we didn’t finish. What on earth went wrong?
Let me start at the beginning, the real ordeal: Going to bed at 4:00 pm. That’s hard to just up and do one day when it’s not your regular thing. But in order to wake up at 11:00 pm, shower, eat, and drive two-plus hours so as to meet at the Jackson-Webster trailhead at 2:00 am, you do what you have to. We did meet, though, and on time, and my friend and hiking buddy Bill Robichaud and I got in my truck and headed to the Appalachia trailhead. We geared up, strapped on our snowshoes, and hit the trail at 3:10 am, ready for an adventure.
We hiked for about three-and-a-half hours or so, slowly, breaking trail the whole way because the wind and two inches of fresh snow pretty much obliterated the path overnight. That was hot work, and tiring, but the packed out underbed was pretty easy to follow keeping us from sinking deeper than 4-6″ on the path most of the time.
Eventually we made it to the AMC‘s boarded up Madison Spring Hut finally and entered a cold, windy, and foggy winter wonderland. The snow so deep we walked about the coniferous canopy. The world was thickly covered in rime ice. The wind, gusting maybe 20-30 or so was biting and the temps felt well below zero. The air around us a dense cloud, visibility only 50 feet more or less. No problem. That is winter hiking and those conditions can be part of the experience. One must know how to deal. But then Bill’s eyeglasses fogged on the inside and rimed over and froze on the outside. It happened fast. He could no longer see anything clearly, even I was a blur mere feet from him. In fact, he wouldn’t see clearly again until we started down the mountain a few hours later. No problem, I led us up Mt Madison (5366’), still visible cairn-to-cairn, a route I know well anyway. The compass was backup for this leg. Bill drafted me the entire way. The snow was thick so we were able to walk up the summit cone in snowshoes and this made for safe, easy walking, despite sinking in a bit, still breaking trail. Knowing the exact path is all but impossible, but we did okay and as quickly as it started, we arrived at the summit, facing the weather’s full fury.
After an abbreviated summit session, complete with Arctic-like photo-ops, we descended the way we came, back to the closed-for-the-season hut. We lingered for a moment, prepping for the next leg, a jaunt to Mt. Adams (5799′). Knowing precisely where the trail starts we went to that point and began. That part was easy, for maybe 200 feet, then it was all gone. No cairns (though we did find one eventually), no track, a lumpy field of white was all that lay before us. It was time to bushwhack to Adams. This involved two course bearings, the first, 256º magnetic, for roughly .5 mile. We traveled that amount (later verified by the GPS track), then twisted the bezel to 223º magnetic and off we went.
Almost immediately upon starting this leg the thick clouds around us got more dense making visibility even less. It made for lousy route-finding between the lumps, even though maintaining a course line was not that difficult. I could see well enough still. Then the unexpected happened: the clouds above us thinned allowing a lot of diffused sunlight to bathe our white winter world in light. Blinding light. I could not longer see five feet in from of me. I quickly donned my tinted ballistic-grade ESS Turbofan goggles. Problem solved. Again I could see what there was to see in the featureless world around me. But it didn’t last. My goggles are impervious to fogging thanks to the built in fan, but that doesn’t stop rime ice from forming on them. Within a few minutes I was in the same state as Bill: I couldn’t see through my iced goggles, and the light was way too bright without them. The blind was now leading the blind.
I turned around. “Bill,” I said “I’m calling it.” It was 9:06 am, and roughly .6 from the summit of Mt. Adams. We turned, I jumped ahead to lead because I could still see better, and peering downward to my feet I led us back the way we came. We started down the Valley Way Trail far enough to stop, recollect ourselves, and tend to our gear. Bill could see again. We could see the sun trying to come out behind us. We cursed it and it eventually went away. A bit dejected, we went back down to the trailhead, calling it a day.
It was a good day. Sure we didn’t complete our planned expedition. Our hike ended up being only 10 miles and 4000′ or so of elevation gain, but it was a day in the mountains so there were no tears of sadness being shed over this miss. We plan to try it again very soon, another winter attempt. Because of the choices we made, we will be afforded this opportunity. Not everyone is so lucky, then again, banking on luck alone in the Northern Presidentials is the act of fools — and while the White Mountains spare most fools, I’ll put my money on planning and preparedness any day.