Mt. Madison was a logical choice for our first hike. We were camping at the Dolly Copp Campground at the base of the mountain. Our plan was to head up the Daniel Webster trail
which originated right in the campground and then see how far we could get up. We of course wanted to summit, but it was pouring rain all day and foul weather above tree line in the White Mountains can get a little hairy if you are not careful.
After an unplanned detour to Pinkham Notch to grab some gloves. we headed out hitting the trail head at 10:00 AM. It was raining steadily but the first part of the trail was pretty easy and a moderate grade. Despite the constant rain over the past couple of days, the trail was in pretty good condition. There were a couple of stream crossings but those were pretty easy to manage.
The trail starts off under a beautiful bright green forest canopy consisted of a lot of birch and maple trees. At this point in the Spring time, the leaves have not settled into their dark green shades yet so the air around us was lit up under a green-yellow hue only amplified
by the soft light from the gray clouds above. The canopy also gave us some cover from the rain as well, although there was still plenty of drops coming down. A couple of miles in the forest abruptly changes to an evergreen forest mostly composed of hemlock and spruce. At about the same place, the trail started to climb a bit more and the trail started to get a little more “stream-like” in places where the water was starting to run down the center of the trail.
We came across a hiker who was coming down and talked to him for a bit. This was useful on two fronts. First he gave us some valuable trail intel from what was a head of us – icy at the top (ice!?!?!), difficult navigating (!!) and the sleet blowing in his face made it hard to continue (awesome!). Second, it is always a morale booster to see other people on the trail in these kind of crappy conditions to help reassure yourself that you are not the only idiots on the mountain. We shared info on the trail that we had just come up and then parted ways.
The continued to climb steadily until we got to just below the tree line and the start of the Alpine Zone when we stopped to have lunch and throw on our extra layers. The rain had switched to a mix of sleet, snow and rain and we could tell it was going to be windy. There was little visibility around us as the clouds were very low and there was a lot of fog around. We did a quick check to make sure that we were good to go and then busted out of the trees into the boulder fields that cover the top of Madison. Not knowing what the conditions would be like as we got higher up, we wanted our first target to be the Osgood Junction where the Webster and Osgood Trails met which was around 4800′.
When we walked out into the bolder field it was pretty intense. No longer under the cover of the trees, the wind was blowing steadily around us and at us – about 20 mph sustained winds. The rain changed over to snow completely which was actually a bonus for us. Because it was windy and no longer properly raining, our outer layers started to dry out! The visibility was pretty poor with only about a 1/4 mile in any direction able to be seen.
We focused carefully on the trail ahead of us. With limited visibility and poor weather, it was very easy to get disoriented and loose your direction – particularly in a boulder field where everywhere looks like a trail. As we climbed higher and higher we came across another group of fellows who actually had come all the way from Mt. Adams! They let us know that up on the ridge the wind was blowing really hard and that face masks and traction would be a good idea. Luckily we both had our microspikes with us but we did not have face masks. Cautiously moving forward we decided to make an assessment once we got to the Junction.
As continued heading up the visibility became worse and worse getting to be no more than
a 1/10th of a mile. We were pretty much going from cairn to cairn. Additionally the snow had changed over to sleet which was coming at us sideways and blasting us in the face pretty good. Ben cinched down his visor on his hood and I took my bandanna out and used it as a face mask. The other thing that is critical in these types of conditions is to constantly focus on your surroundings and keep up constant communication. Every 5-10 minutes was a “how you feeling? are you wet? are you cold? where are you wet? what do you think, should we continue?” and so forth. In bad weather, at elevation and being completely exposed you need to be sure that everyone you are hiking with is comfortable with the situation. It is the time to check egos and, as I like to say “not be a hero”. Everyone’s goal is always the summit, but not at the sake of putting each other at risk or in a situation that cannot be handled. Thankfully, Ben and I have known each other and have camped and hiked together for 20 years so that helps make that communication that much easier.
One of the cool things about hiking in the alpine zone with low visibility is that it makes you focus on the “now”, one what is immediately in front of you. As you hike on, moving from cairn to cairn the trail reveals itself to you in small pieces. You can’t see what is up ahead, you can’t allow your mind to wander forward and think about what you see. Even though the environment around you is harsh and unforgiving with swirling winds, rain, sleet and snow blasting away at you, you are able to find calmness and focus only on what is in front of you. It is a pretty powerful experience.
Finally we got to the top of the ridge line and found ourselves at the Osgood Junction where the weather was the worst we had seen yet! Finally because we were on top of the ridge, we were feeling the full force of the winds and all that came with it. We sought refuge behind a huge pile of rocks and talked through our options. We could continue to the summit of Madison (only a 1/2 mile away), we could turn back and head down the Webster trail or we could take the Osgood Trail back down and connect with some other lower trails to bring us back to the site. We opted to head down the Osgood trail. Not having proper face masks, and our gloves completely soaked through, we felt it a better decision to head back down.
So off we went…. for about 30 yards. We then stopped, being pummeled by winds, and decided that if we went down Osgood we would be on this ridge for a while before making our way back down. If we head back down Webster we knew exactly where we were headed and that shelter from the strong winds and weather was not that far away. So we decided to head back down Webster. As we headed down, the weather had changed over to solid rain and the trail showed it. The upper parts of the trail through the evergreen forests were practically raging rivers! After a brief stop where I made some hot tea to help warm us up, we had to walk through, over and around many small streams and waterfalls that had formed along the center of the trail. It made for some sloppy hiking!
It was a long day and slow moving on the boulder field and through the washed out upper sections of the trail. We did the ~8 miles in about 7 hours. Not a great pace but ultimately we had to go with what the mountain gave us. Once back down to camp we stripped off our soaking wet clothes, hung up the outer layers to try and dry and climbed into the tents for a nap and warm up until it was dinner time.