Active outdoors: Hitting the high points this winter
Mount Katahdin is impressive in summer—but can you imagine standing on top in winter? (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Mount Washington is the highest point in the northeast and the most challenging to climb safely. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
You can ride a ski lift most of the way to Stowe’s summit—but that’s cheating. You have to do it yourself. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
There’s this dream I’ve put off for too many years, claiming that I’ve been too busy with work or family, or not in good enough shape. (Do any of these excuses sound familiar to you?). I want to climb to the highest points of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and New York. In winter. Under my own power. Climbing them all in a single winter is probably going to have to wait, but I know I can check off at least one or two this winter.
The five high points on my radar screen are Mount Washington (6,288 feet) in New Hampshire, Mount Katahdin (5,268 feet) in Maine, Mount Mansfield (4,395 feet) in Vermont, Mount Greylock (3,488 feet) in Massachusetts and Mount Marcy (5,344 feet) in New York. I’d also love to do Mount Caubvick/D’Iberville (5,420), the highest point in Quebec
and Labrador, but that’s a major wilderness expedition requiring charter aircraft and more time, money and technical climbing skills than I have available. And I’m not sure it’s doable for ordinary people in winter, anyway. The winter climate that far north is severe enough at sea level.
This won’t be a completely new experience. I’ve climbed Mount Washington many times, including in winter, and Katahdin once (many, many years ago) in summer via the Abol and Hunt trails. I’ve stood on the summit (The Chin) of Mansfield a number of times in both winter and summer, but have always cheated and taken a ski lift or the auto road most of the way up, so that doesn’t count. Marcy and Greylock are new challenges to face.
Some of these, of course, are easier than others. Doing Mansfield, for example, is merely a matter of picking a nice, clear day, slapping skins on AT or Tele skis and skinning up the auto road, then on up to The Chin, which is the official summit. If the snow is really hard, I may need to strap snowshoes onto my pack and carry crampons. But there’s nothing inherently difficult or dangerous about the climb up or the ski down. With Stowe ski resort (stowe.com ) right there, this is a very civilized mountain. Camels Hump (4,081) is the highest undeveloped peak in Vermont and a worthy alternate. Maybe do both ...
Greylock should be about the same – just pick a good day and go. Sure, either of these could be made more challenging – just pick a longer and more difficult route or go when the weather’s not so nice. But that’s not the point ... not this time, at least.
From the research I’ve done, Marcy looks like a fairly straightforward proposition. There’s a popular snowshoe trail and, though it’s long, it’s not technically difficult. Again just a matter of picking the right day and doing it – or the right two days and camping along the trail.
Katahdin and Washington are a different matter entirely. People die pretty regularly on both of these mountains, though Washington is, historically, the deadlier of the two (because more people climb it?). Usually, the casualties are people who aren’t physically prepared to handle the challenge (think “heart attack”) or who don’t have the right equipment and skill set (think,“hypothermia” or “slip and fall.”) Still, both mountains are doable in winter, if you are careful.
Personally, I think it’s important to have things you want to do, goals to strive for. But it’s even more important to get past the excuses and make them happen. I’m going to climb some mountains this winter. What about you?
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
While my regular outdoor partners and I could probably safely climb both Katahdin and Washington on our own in winter, there’s no real reason to test that theory. Not when there are so many top-notch guide services that will supply you with the equipment you need and the leadership to get you up and back safely. In the case of these two mountains, having a guide just makes sense.
A couple of months back, I did a Wilderness First Aid course at Mahoosuc Lodge (mahoosuc.com) in Newry, Maine. The instructor, Jon Tierney, is head of Acadia Mountain Guides (acadiamountainguides.com). After class one evening, he and I were discussing the guided trips his company leads on Katahdin in winter – which is what got this whole notion moving and set my resolve to do at least a couple of the Northeast’s highest peaks this winter. I rock-climbed with Acadia Mountain Guides on the sea cliffs of Acadia National Park in the summer, so they seem a natural choice for my first winter ascent of Katahdin.
Mount Washington has more options for guided trips. The EMS Climbing School, IME, Joe Lentini’s Ascent Services, Synnott Mountain Guides, Mooney Mountain Guides and Adventure Spirit Guides run combinations of mountaineering classes and one-day summit climbs, overnights at the Mount Washington Observatory and multi-day Presidential Range traverses (which sound like even more fun). I’ve climbed rocks with EMS and IME, and climbed with Joe Lentini a number of years ago, but haven’t done anything with the others.
My advice: Contact them all, check what they offer and go with the one you feel most confident with.
Edge of winter continues
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the particular challenges presented by the uncertain weather at this time of year. One day this week was near 60 degrees, another was in the 30s, tomorrow, who knows? This is a beautiful time to play outdoors – just make sure you have the clothes you need to stay comfortable and safe if the weather turns bad. It will ... you know it will.
At this time of year, it’s important to carry lightweight, versatile insulation layers that fit under your outer shell layer. One great choice is a down or fiberfill “puffy.” Most of theses jackets weigh less than a pound, pack into their own pocket or tiny stuff sack, and provide lots of insulation when and where you need it. If you are interested, EasternSlopes.com has just published a review of several puffies that have something slightly different to offer.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)