A Cold Day on Mt. Madison, NH

We wanted to hike, but once again we had a football-based return deadline. So what did we do? We crawled out of our warm bed at the butt crack of early this morning.

Yupper-doodle… my alarm went off at 3:16 a.m. Yes, I hit the snooze button once. How could I not?

We were in the car at 4:37 a.m. Outside temp was 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember that temperature. Fourteen degrees!!

There were no turkeys or deer to see this morning. They were probably still sleeping when we reached the Appalachia trail head parking lot at around 6:45 a.m. According to WillyWeather.com first light today was at 6:44 a.m. Oh my goodness! We were late!

Note, this is first light, not sunrise. The sun was smart enough to push the snooze button for another 30 minutes.

The moon, however, still wasn’t quite ready to go to bed.

Near full moon at the start of our hike
Near full moon at the start of our hike

Oh and did I update you on the temperature? Yeah, it was 3 degrees as we headed up the Valley Way Trail on our way to Madison Spring Hut (near Mt. Madison & Mt. Adams in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). We were pretty sure when we started that we would NOT be going to the summit of Mt. Madison (elevation 5,367′), but you never know how you’ll feel once you get on the trail. Our options were open.

The Valley Way trail is a wonderful trail. It was 3.8 miles from the parking lot to the AMC Madison Spring Hut. It was well packed so we only needed our Hillsound crampons. Even so, we had our snowshoes strapped to our packs just in case.

Snowshoes on my pack

Hiking in cold weather can be tricky. You want to be warm enough, but not hot enough to sweat. You want to be sure your base layers (those against the skin) wick moisture away from the body. You want an insulating layer that keeps you warm. If it’s windy, you will also want to have a windblock layer. And if it’s rainy, I prefer to just stay home–not that we do, mind you, but it sounds like the smarter choice, doesn’t it?

Earl and I didn’t coordinate our thoughts on this too well today.

I was dressed to start hiking cold–meaning I didn’t have a lot of layers on. I wanted to start out hiking fast. That would warm up my body quickly. Once I warmed up, I would adjust my pace so I wouldn’t sweat.

Earl, on the other hand, started out wearing layers that had him feeling slightly cool/somewhat comfortable. My fast pace quickly caused his body temp to rise enough to cause him to sweat.

Yikes! Not a good thing on a frigid morning in the White Mountains! We were only a few minutes into the hike when he had to stop to remove layers. The first things he removed were his hat and heavy mittens. He unzipped his jacket.

I was warm enough to slow my pace. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. When Earl stopped a short distance later to remove his jacket, he laughed when he said I didn’t need to run up the mountain. Oops. (But inside I was gleefully thinking, “Those speed intervals on the treadmill are helping more than just my running time!”)

Shedding layers on Valley Way trail
Shedding layers on Valley Way trail

Poor Earl looked a bit like a frosted beer mug. Sure wish I’d taken a picture, but I kept forgetting when I had my camera out.

You see, once he took off his jacket, the fleece insulating layer he wore became frosty. His base layer was working well! The sweat on his skin was drawn away from his body, but the cold air hitting the moisture turned it to frost. You might think he would be cold, but he was not. This is how good clothing choices work!

Another factor in winter hiking is the size and weight of your pack. Besides carrying clothing layers to put on as needed, you should always be prepared to spend the night in the woods: that means carrying a sleeping bag and tent. Earl’s pack today weighed close to 40-lbs (including 2-liters of water and snowshoes). My pack weighed almost 30-lbs. (I only carried 1-liter of water–each liter is 2.2 lbs).

The Valley Way trail seemed like a gradual climb to me. The snow was well packed so our crampons worked well. The difference between snow covered and summer trails is tremendous. Winter trails are easier in many ways because the snow fills any gaps and irregularities in the trail. You are always hiking at an angle. In the summertime, trails can be like climbing irregularly spaced stairs with Tonka trucks, Leggos, or cat toys ready to trip you up.

The wind picked up as we reached the “Danger Will Robinson” sign. We were about to step into the “alpine zone.” The trees that had been blocking the wind were below us, and now there was nothing to protect us. We stopped to put on wind block layers before we continued up to the hut.

I was ready to just turn around at this point. We had already decided we were not going to continue up to the summit. I didn’t want to deal with putting on layers. But Earl insisted we continue on and promised that I would not be disappointed.

Don’t tell him, but he was right!

Another thing Earl and I need to work on is our winter weather communication skills. I stopped to take pictures. Earl was cold and wanted to keep moving. I thought I’d moved off the trail enough, so I focused on taking pictures.

He dropped to his knees behind me. I thought that was his way of getting out of the wind. When I finally stuffed my fingers back into my gloves and put my camera away, he got to his feet and hurried up to the hut to get out of the wind. Apparently, I underestimated how bulky my pack was and didn’t move far enough off the trail for him to be able to get by me. Oops!

I stopped a couple more times on the way to the hut to take pictures. My exposed fingers were nearly frozen by the time I got them back into my gloves each time. Except for my hands, I felt comfortably dressed. Layers work!

Meanwhile, Earl was pulling clothes out of his pack and getting prepared for the less strenuous activity of descending the mountain.

We talked with a couple of hikers who were doing the Presidential Traverse. We had met quite a few hikers on the way up the mountain and watched as a large group of 15-20 hikers arrived at the hut on their way up Mt Madison. They were gearing up for the final .5 miles to the summit, when Earl and I began to head back down to the car.

It had taken us 4 hours to climb 3.8 miles. It took us just over 2 hours to descend the same distance.

One thing both Earl and I noticed on the hike down the mountain trail was that the trail seemed very steep. This was really a weird feeling because it had not seemed all that steep on the ascent. One section was icy enough that we butt slid down it rather than trying to walk it.

Because of the number of people we saw on this apparently popular winter hike, we were not surprised to see a parking lot full of cars when we arrived back there at 1:20 p.m. Only a handful of them were early risers like us.

Do you remember I asked you to remember our starting temp in Biddeford, Maine? Do you remember what it was? No need to scroll back up to the top of this story, I’ll give you the answer. It was 14 degrees at 4:37 a.m. When we got to the car at 1:20 p.m. it was 14 degrees in Randolph, New Hampshire!


One of the highlights of winter hiking for men with beards or mustaches are the icicle growing abilities they develop.

A glorious snotsicle beard

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