It was the Winter of 2005-2006 when I came just a few peaks shy of hiking all 48 four-thousand footers in one winter. If memory serves me right, I came up 9 short. Since then, I’ve had it in my mind that I’d like to go for it again. Seeing as I’m planning on moving to Colorado this year, this Winter is my final chance. Hell, more people have climbed Everest then have hiked the 48 peaks in one winter. Consider the population of Nepal and nearby Katmandu vs. the Population of the New York/Boston Metro-Area. The white mountains are a 3 hour drive from Boston as opposed to a 3 day yak drive.
Winter officially started 2 weeks ago. I’m two weeks behind. Two weeks, no peaks. I’m all ready very much doubting my ability to pull this off. As the price of gas increases I continue to run out of money to even try this. However, I love any trip I can take into the White Mountains. It’s my backyard. I know more about the White’s then I do about any of the towns I’ve lived in in the last 5 years. So it’s always a mini-homecoming when I peel off the highway and find myself at a trail head.
Today it was Patrick and I. Pat is getting ready for his upcoming Winter Backpacking class with the UNH OE Department. He has limited winter hiking experience but knows he’s in good hands. I trust the kid an awful lot, competent and a good head on his shoulders. The kid is strong, I know he can hang. We meet up at a Park-N-Ride with a plan. We’ll hike the Osceola’s and then head just up the road a whole quarter mile and hike the Hancocks. Pat thinks the 17.6 miles is a bit more then we can chew.. if everything goes according to plan, it’s a no brainer for me, just a long day of walking for 8 hours. He’s up for the challenge and so am I.
As we drive down the Kanc from Lincoln and look out the window, our jaws drop. There’s more snow in our towns (Derry and Epping) then there is here. As we park the car and get out, we see that the trail has been very well travelled. It usually is. Pat has everything.. including the Kitchen sink.. in his pack. He asks me if he should leave the sleeping bag and pad behind, I chuckle and he says, “Oh what the hell.. it’s weight training.” So, my with my minimal gear and Pat with everything under the sun, we head out.
The weekend warriors.. peak baggers that is.. have packed this trail down to death. Coupled with this past weekends temps in the 40s to near 50 degrees cause a melt. A cold front blew in and there was a flash freeze. What was left over was a trail you could ice skate on. In all the years I’ve been hiking in the Whites, on all the winter hikes I’ve been on previously, this trail is in the worst shape of any trail I’ve ever been on. We move at a very good clip down on the flat surface as we make our way up and into the Greely Pond Area. We hit the junction of the Osceola Trail.. and start to head up. It didn’t take long for us to look up, jaws wide again, scratching our heads, knowing that if we even got these 2 mountains today we’d be lucky.
Despite all that we brought with us for this hike we forgot one important piece of equipment, Crampons. The trail was a huge frozen waterfall. From top to bottom. What a mess. All I could do was look up and smile at the challenge that the Earth had placed before us. If you can envision all the snow at elevation melting into a slow watery soup and then flash freezing.. where you need to walk.. thats what we had before us. And so, we took it on, stepping very carefully on any piece of ice free rock, root or snow patch we could find. Grabbing onto fir branches with every step. Crawling at times, spread eagle, looking like a star man, you name it, we struggled all the way up.
Soon we came to the famous East Osceola Slide. We were pleased to see that a rock ridge was visible right up the center of the slide. We walked the line up, then jumped off and back into the woods. Finally, we reached the top of East Osceola where we took our packs off and had a long snack. I had almonds, dark chocolate, raisins and craisins then chased it down with a strawberry banana fruit smoothie from Stonyfield. After our brief break and a few photos, we slung our packs back on and started to head over to Osceola main peak.
Anytime the trail went from a gradual slope to any form of steepness, the trail turned into frozen waterfall. Neither one of us wearing a watch, we had no clue how long this was taking us. We agreed, sun comes up, sun goes down, we have headlamps. Onward. Soon we came to the chimney. A section on the trail where it’s about 25 feet of vertical rock. Or of course, you can take the “go round” to the right. In the winter I’ve always taken the go round, not today. I tackled the chimney, right up the center of a frozen waterfall spread eagle and arms straight out. About half way up, I came to a point where I couldn’t see anywhere to go. Can’t go up, can’t go down… so I went to the right and made a new route. Clinging to tiny rocks, stepping with care, feeling for ice free footholds with my feet as I couldn’t look down. Eventually I hoisted myself up and off the cliff, looked down and commenced hyper ventilating. That was enough for me… enough to garner a laugh.
Pat made it up, all the way, we shook hands at the to and carried on to Osceola’s Main peak. The top was mostly clear of snow and ice having been sheered into large piles up against the trees. The summit was socked in, it was snowing lightly, there was only a view of the a piece of the valley below. We smiled, we’d made it.. now came the tough part.. getting down that 3+ mile waterfall without breaking anything.
As we left Osceola we ran into another hiker. He came up the trail rather quick and left us even quicker. Of course he had crampons on. He caught up to us again before we even made it up East Osceola on the return trip. How embarrassing. I turned my camera on to see the tim and noticed the camera clock said that it was after 1pm. NO WAY! We started at 8:30am and it’s only 3.8 miles. We could only chuckle as we continued to slowly pick our way down the mountain. Everywhere we looked was frozen ice. The falling snow made things even slicker. So we took it to the woods, opting to bushwhack most of the way down, cutting corners and trying to be safe while not destroying the forest. We sang songs, laughed, told riddles and jokes. It was just a great day to be outside, great day to be alive.
Back at the car, after having a really great time out in the whites, we knew that the Hancocks were out of the question. It took us almost 8 hours to do these peaks, one of my all time slows up here. But what the hell, our slow slog of the O’s beat a ay inside watching crummy TV shows on cable. Until I return again…