How to Prepare for a Winter Hike in the White Mountains

Winter Hiking Tips White Mountains

A quick look at hiking forums online confirms what I am expecting… unprecedented new winter hikers will be visiting the White Mountains this winter. In order to help these newcomers more safely enter the sport of winter hiking I’ve compiled a list of resources and advice below.

Weather

Likely the single most over-looked piece of information prior for a first winter hike is obtaining an accurate regionally specific weather forecast. If you are planning a winter hike in the White Mountains you should consult the Higher Summits Forecast for a few days before your planned hike and the morning of! Things change fast in the mountains and the forecast is published around 4am which should be in time for you to get an accurate update before you leave the car.

Gear

The second most likely mistake to make is not bringing the right equipment. Every one on the hike should at a minimum carry “The Ten Essentials“. I’ll list some of my personal recommendations below and add some opinions/advice.

Cell Phone– While this one isn’t officially on the list it should be. The mistake is thinking this can replace any of the other 10 essential items. You should not rely on having service or any battery life left. A mapping app does not replace a physical map. The phone’s flashlight does not replace a real headlamp. Cell phones are susceptible to cold weather, so they should be kept warm, inside a chest or thigh pocket. Most importantly, leave the car with a fully charged phone and immediately put the phone on AIRPLANE mode! While on airplane mode you can still take pictures and use the phone’s GPS chip to track your hike if you are using pre-downloaded mapping apps. If you are not on airplane mode your battery we die quickly as your phone searches for a signal in out of service areas.

Personal Locator Beacon– With cell phone service not guaranteed many experienced hikers are choosing to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB). While a bit expensive (what insurance isn’t) a PLB works through a satellite network so you can request help, or let worried family know you are just running a little late, from virtually anywhere. The best kind of PLB’s allow for two way communication and custom messaging. It’s much easier for search and rescue to respond when we have a message about what the actual emergency is. One of the most popular models on the market that can do that right now is the Garmin InReach Mini.

Headlamp– You might think you can finish the hike before dark but everyone in the group should carry their own headlamp. For serious winter hiking I like headlamps that can really throw some light and perform well in the cold, like the Petzl Swift RL Headlamp. A more budget friendly option would be the Petzl Actik Headlamp. I actually stuff a Petzl Zipka Headlamp into my first aid kit as a back-up headlamp for when someone forgets theirs. I also use lithium batteries in all my headlamps for long life and excellent cold weather performance.

Map– The AMC publishes 6 great maps that cover the entire White Mountain National Forest. You could also learn how to make your own custom maps for free on a website like CalTopo.com, if you have your own quality color printer (or have UPS Store/Staples print them for you). Do not solely rely on your cell phone app to keep you from getting lost. Battery life can quickly drain in cold temps and we do reach temperatures below the operating range of the phone display’s.

Compass– Figuring out direction is the most basic part of wilderness navigation and there is no better way to do that than to use a compass. A solid basic model is the Suunto A-30L Compass. My personal all-time favorite professional grade compass is the Suunto MC-2 Pro Compass. Don’t know how to use a map & compass together to properly navigate? Take a quality Wilderness Navigation Course and/or get a good book on the topic!

First Aid Kit– There are lots of commercial first aid kits of various sizes and quality. For the last two decades I’ve started with the Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight and Watertight Series, the .7 size, and supplemented it a little. I’m also happy with a new My Medic Solo First Aid Kit I’ve started carrying. Any first aid kit I grab I usually stuff some extra medications in it, a spare Petzl Zipka Headlamp, a small knife, a fire-starter, and some chemical hand warmers.

The rest of the list includes; extra clothes, food, water, sun protection, etc.

Timing

Many rescues, accidents, and near misses share something in common… late start times. Darkness comes quick in the winter months so an early start increases your overall safety and leave wider margins for unexpected mishaps. Many experienced winter hikers prefer to hit the trail right at dawn. Starting a 4000 footer at 11am is riskier than starting a 4000 footer at 7am.

Knowing when to turn back

One of the hardest skills to develop as a new winter hiker is determining when to turn it around and head back towards safety. We want to be challenged and meet success on our hiking trips but we must be careful to always balance the delicate risk vs reward scale. Many books and articles have been written on the topic of lost life in the Presidential Range and greater White Mountain Region. You can learn from these tragedies and remember to stay humble… we are all prone to making mistakes. Some books on the topic worth checking out:

Not Without Peril

Where You’ll Find Me <- my short blog post about this event is here

The Last Traverse <- currently reading to review

Guided Instruction

For many the best way to get into winter hiking is to do so with people who are already experienced at winter hiking. The Appalachian Mountain Club has a very long history of helping people learn to recreate in the mountains safely and responsibly. They have tons of courses and guided hikes designed for the aspiring new winter hiker.

If you’re goal is to travel above treeline in the winter there are a host of well established guide services that offer quality programs and can rent you the specialized equipment you might not want to purchase yet as you’re just dipping your toes into the sport of winter hiking (like plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, mountaineering axe, etc). Better yet their guides will teach you how to properly pack, adjust layers during the day, walk with crampons on, self arrest, with an axe, etc).

Here’s is a list of some of the most known companies that run trips in the White Mountains;

Northeast Mountaineering <- disclaimer I work for this company

EMS Schools

International Mountain Climbing School

Ragged Mountain Guides

Synnott Mountain Guides

Redline Guiding

Chauvin Guides

Acadia Mountain Guides

REI Adventures

(if you are a guide service that leads winter hikes in the White Mountains and were not included in the above list please contact me to be added)

Get Educated

Other than the knowledge you can gain from the above guided experiences there are two skills every hiker should obtain early on in their hiking career, Wilderness Navigation Skills and Wilderness First Aid Skills. While you can learn some of these skills from sources like YouTube nothing beats hands on training with quality instructors.

More Info

Check out the Hike Safe website. It has great information to help you plan your hike including “The Code“. Also please consider purchasing a Hike Safe Card from New Hampshire Fish and Game. This purchase adds crucial funding to a very tight budget for search and rescue in NH and might help you avoid incurring the cost of a rescue should you need one.

From NHFG website:

It is important to note that people may still be liable for response expenses, if they are deemed to be reckless or to have intentionally created a situation requiring an emergency response.

Summary

Winter hiking is an amazing sport and one I have enjoyed for over thirty years. It can be magical, beautiful, spiritual, exhilarating, and grandiose. It can also go from a fun outing to dangerous and deadly quite quickly. My best advice is to start off slow, read some books or articles on it, seek advice from quality outdoor retailers, join a hiking group, start with smaller hikes and save Mount Washington or the Franconia Ridge for when you’ve got some experience under your belt. Maybe hire a guide or instructor and take a formalized course. Most importantly though… please come home at the end of your hike.

Winter Hiking Tips White Mountains
The author enjoying a cold day up on Mount Washington a few winters ago

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer: Affiliate links above support the content created on this blog. If you make a purchase through one of them the author receives a small commission at no additional cost to you. The author is also a guide who works for Northeast Mountaineering, which was listed alongside other guide services in the area. You are responsible for your own safety. The use of any information in this post is at your own risk.

Winter Gear Prep Part 1- The Essentials (2017)

It’s that time of year again! The leaves are falling and it’s time to start planning for all the snowy and icy adventures that await! Thanks to reader Paul for reminding me I never finished this multi-part gear prep series from last Fall! I’ve gone through and edited Part 1 to reflect what is actually in my pack this season. I will update Part 2 this week and finish Part 3 & 4 in the next two weeks!

Winter Gear Prep
What’s in your pack? photo by Brent Doscher

(Originally posted October 2016, now updated October 2017)

Every year around this time I start getting excited about the arrival of my favorite season, Winter! To help fuel the stoke I go through my gear closet and take stock. What’s worn out and what needs replacing? What’s good to go for another icy season? I thought it might be helpful to provide a gear checklist with recommendations on what I use in all categories. In this first segment I’ll cover “The Essentials” a personally modified list of the classic “Ten Essentials“.

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The Essentials

Maps– I use the free online mapping software CalTopo for all my mapping and trip planning needs. This powerful software has so much potential every outdoor adventurer should familiarize themselves with this tool! If you’d like to take a course that covers survival navigation and these advanced navigation skills go here!

Compass– I love my Suunto MC-2 compass which I reviewed in full detail here.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon

If you’re looking for a smaller more affordable compass I also highly endorse the Suunto A-10 Compass.

Buy on Backcountry   Buy at REI   Buy from EMS   Buy on Amazon


Headlamp– I recently upgraded my headlamps and currently carry the Petzl Zipka 2 and the Petzl Actik. You really can’t go wrong with a Petzl headlamp.

Buy the Petzl Zipka 2 on Backcountry, Amazon, REI

Buy the Petzl Actik on Backcountry, Amazon, EMS, REI


Batteries– I put fresh lithium batteries in my headlamps every Fall. Days are shorter and I am much more likely to need a headlamp. Lithium easily out performs alkaline in cold weather so the Energizer AA’s and AAA’s are always on hand. The best deal I can find on these batteries is on Amazon which is linked here.


First Aid Kit– I start with the Adventure Medical Kit .7 then modify it a little. I add more gloves (acquired from visits to the hospital) and a bottle of iodine tablets (for emergency water treatment and wound irrigation), and a small refillable bottle of Advil.


Knife– Colonial makes dozens of great models like this one.


Bivy Sack– I carry a AMK Heatsheets Emergency Bivy on every single outing. It only weighs a few ounces and is worthwhile the extra insurance!


Handwarmers– I always carry 6-8 hand warmers in my winter pack. Pro-tip: If you need to use them… place them under your glove on your wrist, right where that artery is. Much more effective than placing it in the palm of your hand which reduces grip on ice axes/ski poles. Usually the glove can hold it in place though sometimes I’ll use a little athletic tape.


A “Buff– A very versatile clothing accessory! I have a few so I can wash them occasionally and always have one ready to go.


Glove Liners– I usually need to purchase a couple pairs of these because I do wear them out within a year or two. Totally worth the cheap price though!


Dermatone Sunblock– I always have a tin of this stuff with me in the winter.


Neoprene Face Mask– I like this simple style. It works well in combination with the Buff and my hat/hood. Bigger “fancier” ones make it difficult not to over heat. Pro-tip, if you have fogging issues when used with your goggles take a pair of scissors and enlarge the mouth holes.


GogglesRevo Capsule with the Green Water Lens. The one “essential” category I don’t skimp on. I need quality breathable goggles for the mountain work I do and this pair has not disappointed. As a Revo ambassador I’m able to extend a 20% discount on these to any of my readers! All you need to do is order them directly from http://www.revo.com and enter promo code “ALPINESTARTF&F” and you’ll get 20% off the purchase!


Well that’s it for my “Essentials” list. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below!

Part 2 will focus on my various clothing systems specific for ice climbing, mountaineering, and back-country skiing.

Part 3 will focus on ice climbing gear and maintenance.

Part 4 will cover ski gear and maintenance.

If you enjoyed this post please share and subscribe!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Disclaimer- Every product mentioned above except the goggles was purchased with my own money. This post contains affiliate links that help support this blog.

See you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start

Mount Washington Ascent 12-19-16

This past Monday I headed up to the rockpile again with Virginia/Maryland based Max & Rachel. After gearing up at the Northeast Mountaineering bunkhouse we hit the trail at about 8:15. Following last weeks snow/rain/deep freeze trail conditions were quite nice on the lower Tuckerman Trail. The first “step” on Winter Lionhead had considerable water ice but full crampons and ice axe, and a little coaching saw us through it in quick time. Above this step cramponing was great all the way to the summit which we reached around 1:15pm in really low wind conditions. Definitely a great day on the mountain and I hope to see Max & Rachel back for another adventure this winter!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

P.S. If you decide to book an adventure with Northeast Mountaineering use promo code “DavidNEM” to get a chance at winning a free guided day of your choosing!

Eastern Snow Avalanche Workshop

A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!

6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
6th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Sixth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)

by Jonathan S. Shefftz

The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.

This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort.  The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”).  ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative.  Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research.  Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.

ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service.  Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.

Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC.  Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.

We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.”  Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”:  glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms.  This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”).  But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible.  The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated.  And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.

Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections:  Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together.  And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.

On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.”  His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying.  Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.”  After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.

Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.”  For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center).  Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal.  (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.)  “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period.  This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process.  Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures.  To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie:  “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.”  It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe.  We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.

After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training.  Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject.  (Right?)  This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.

Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side.  To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships.  In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.”  The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.

And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon.  Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.

And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington.  His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees.  And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!

We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research.  Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.  

Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.

 

Mount Washington, Willard, and Elephant’s Head… my winter guiding season finally begins!

This weekend kicks off the start of my winter guiding season. Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a motivated father & son team from Connecticut up Mount Washington in some of the thinnest conditions I have ever seen this late in December. Despite the absence of snow we had a pretty enjoyable climb with comfortable weather and some great views.

Connor and his father, Thomas
Connor and his father, Thomas

Crossing the Cutler River for the second time
Crossing the Cutler River for the second time

Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us
Climbing through the clouds Boot Spur Ridge appears behind us

Summer Lion's Head Trail
Summer Lion’s Head Trail

Just Below Lion's Head
Just Below Lion’s Head

A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion's Head
A group ahead of us climbing up to Lion’s Head

Reaching Lion's Head
Reaching Lion’s Head

Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December
Tuckerman Ravine looking pretty bony for mid-December

Nearing Split Rock with Lion's Head below in the fog
Nearing Split Rock with Lion’s Head below in the fog

We made it all the way to the lower summit parking lot before needing to don our micro-spikes for the final 100 yards (that parking lot is an ice skating rink).

Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction
Clear skis as we reach the lower parking lot and for the first time need traction

Obligatory summit shot
Obligatory summit shot

Our route
Our route

Today I had 3 guests for a Winter Climbing 101 Course. It’s no secret Mother Nature has dealt us a sub-par hand in terms of “winter” conditions, but John, Mitzy, and Tom were still enthusastic about what we could accomplish and with a little thinking “outside the box” we put together a pretty productive day. We started the morning off in our new conference room where I shared some of the online resources for trip planning in the White Mountains. Namely, HikeSafe, the Mount Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast and Regional Mesonet, and CalTopo.

We then had a gear shakedown looking at differences in ice axes & crampons before packing up and heading north to Crawford Notch. I knew Willey’s Slide & other usual early season standby’s would still be questionable but we had a backup plan in place. Our drive through the Notch confirmed my suspicions regarding “climb-able” ice and we parked at the Mt. Willard Trail parking lot. After shaving the technical gear from our packs we hit the 1.6 mile trail up to Mt. Willard. While non-technical in nature we were able to go into detailed conversations regarding mountaineering concerns. Heat loss, cold weather injuries, altitude illness, navigation, avalanche awareness, mountain weather, layering strategies, were all discussed in detail. About an hour later we arrived at a socked in summit, just in time for a clearing while we enjoyed our lunch.

John & Mitzy on summit of Mt. Willard
John & Mitzy on the summit of Mt. Willard

Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind
Tom on Mt. Willard with Mt. Webster behind

Love that view
Love that view

We opted to wear micro-spikes for the descent and headed back down to the car. With a couple hours to spare, and wanting a bit more “technical” end to our day, we made our way over to Elephant’s Head. This .3 mile trail brought us up to the top of this 120 foot bluff where we all rappelled during intermittent snow squalls.

Rappelling the Elephant Head
Tom rappelling the Elephant Head

Our route
Our route

While we seem to be off to a rough start this year I want to put a little perspective on the situation. It’s true we had a great start last year with freak powder skiing on Halloween and a personal 11/20 ascent of Pinnacle in great conditions. But then we had a big December thaw with 3 days of rain towards the end of December which essential pushed the reset button on our winter. We then went on to have one of the best winter & ski seasons I have experienced since moving here in 2001. El Nino or not, I’m holding out hope that just like last winter our season is simply going to begin a bit later, but still be quite epic. The two new pairs of skis sitting in my closet sure do hope so!

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See you in the mountains!

-NEAlpineStart