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Hiking New Hampshire's Mountains in Winter

Article by Fred Shirley reproduced from the Winter/Spring 2006 issue of Heart of New Hampshire magazine.

presidential panorama
Presidential Panorama -- Late afternoon sunlight gilds the snow-crowned ridge from Mt. Eisenhower to Mt. Washington (viewed from Mt. Crawford).

If you drive by a trailhead parking lot in the White Mountains in winter, you'll see lots of cars. What gives? The answer: outdoor enthusiasts have discovered a fantastic winter playground!

The popularity of winter hiking has flourished in recent years. In part, it is because high-tech gear, such as current-design snowshoes, makes winter hiking easy.

But it is also the beauty of the season. The cold dry air creates a deep blue sky and long clear vistas. New snow on trees and landscape hides imperfections under a pristine cover. Low-slanting sunlight -- known to photographers as "sweet light" -- makes everything look its best.

And, then, there are the three reasons die-hard winter hikers have always known about: no bugs, no heat and no crowds!

Seeing the Beauty

Accompanying this article are photos from several winter hiking trips. Some are from easier hikes (Mt. Crescent, Mt. Cardigan); others more difficult (Mt. Washington, Bondcliff). A few are at sunset (Mt. Crawford, South Moat). But all share a common color scheme: white.

gray jay
A Bird in the Hand -- A gray jay alights on a hiker's hand with Mt. Washington serving as a backdrop (on Mt. Jackson).

Sometimes the white color enables and almost-abstract vista. I like the "Stairway to Heaven" photo because this view is so unexpected. The empty stairway with its straight lines and obvious human design sits in the middle of nowhere. The slippery slope in the foreground doesn't seem to be going anywhere. And the receding mountains -- in pastel shades of blue -- are so far below, it is like looking out from an airplane window.

At other times, the white color enhances the presence of humans, who are often dressed in bright color. In the "Colorful Passage" photo, the line of hikers snaking up the trail is enhanced by colorful clothing, which makes the people stand out against the almost black-and-white landscape.

The "Presidential Panorama" photo is an extraordinary view that can only be seen in winter. Here the snow-covered mountains have been painted in pink by the setting sun. And the whole scene looks unreal because the sky is so unbelievably clear.

In winter, waterfalls and lakes change their character. Icicles often look exceedingly pretty and lakes are transformed into water people can walk on.

People who don't get out in winter often think the landscape is dormant. But this isn't entirely true. The gray jay, for instance, stays with us all year and is easily attracted to winter hikers.

walking on water
A Cake Walk -- Hikers take the easy route across frozen Lonesome Lake (on the way down from North Kinsman).

stairway to heaven
Stairway to Heaven -- Stairs form a surreal scene, sandwiched between the iced-over auto road in the foreground and the receding undulations of the southern White Mountains in the background (on Mt. Washington).

Sometimes there are surprise views in winter. The day our group hiked South Kinsman it was drizzly and dark, until we emerged above the clouds. The view across Franconia Notch to island-like Mt. Lafayette was an unexpected and magnificent dreamscape.

You can see more winter hiking photos on my NH Mountain Hiking website at: www.nhmountainhiking.com.

Special Winter Gear

If you want to try winter hiking, you will need some extra gear: traction footwear (snowshoes and crampons) and layers of clothing (including a waterproof, breathable outer layer). This is in addition to the normal safety stuff you would want to bring on any hike (see AMC's The 10 essentials for a safe and pleasant hike at: www.outdoors.org/recreation/hiking/hiking-essentials.cfm).

If you plan to hike above treeline, you will also need to protect all exposed skin from the cold and wind to avoid frostbite. This includes goggles and a face mask. But, you can start out on smaller mountains, such as those on the 52 With-A-View list (www.nhmountainhiking.com/hike/lists/52view.html), where above-treeline exposure is minimal.

summit tower
Summit Tower -- A scene with straight lines and high-contrast lighting greets summiting hikers (on Kearsarge North).

For me, the single most valuable piece of winter gear is my pair of snowshoes. They are wide enough to support me on top of snow and have built-in crampons to keep me from slipping on ice. They are so light and comfortable that the first time I tried running in them I had to stop to see if they were still on my feet!

If you are going to get snowshoes, I recommend these criteria:
- The lighter the better.
- A little undersized works well in the mountains: it's better to sink in the snow a bit than to constantly be tripping over huge duck feet.
- A free-rotating toe bar (not a simple plastic strap) keeps the snowshoe on the ground when you pick up your heel to take a step.

If you are first on the trail after a snow storm, you will have to "break trail," which can be difficult (both in energy expended and following the trail). However, if you hike a popular trail, you will probably find that others before you have packed the snow down into a kind of super highway. Under these conditions, I actually find winter hiking easier than summer hiking where all the rocks and roots trip me up.

If you enjoy hiking mountains in the summer, you may want to give winter hiking a try. Revisiting those same mountains clothed in snow can be an awe-inspiring experience!

colorful passage
Colorful Passage -- A line of hikers heads up the trail into a white world (on Mt. Crescent).


winter moonrise
Winter Moonrise -- The January full moon rises over Cranmore Ski Area, where strings of lighting illuminate the trails for night skiing (viewed from South Moat).

cliff walk
Cliff Walk -- A hiker stands out in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness (on Bondcliff).


Icicles in the Spotlight -- Low-slanting sun accentuates the beauty of trailside icicles (on Mt. Whiteface).

Magazine cover photo:

Across an Elfin Sea -- Two hikers view a winter dreamscape as Mt. Lafayette rises like a magical island above the undercast clouds that fill Franconia Notch (on South Kinsman).