Rhode Island Chapter

Explore, enjoy, and protect the planet.

Outing Journal: Winter in the White Mountains


By KEVIN PROFT/ 2.20.2013 - There is something bewildering about the ease with which I can leave behind my warm bed at 5 a.m. on occasions when I know I will soon be enveloped in the grandeur of nature. Last Saturday was just such a day. To be fair, it’s not as if I leapt from the covers at my alarm’s first cry, but considering I normally drag myself from bed at 7:30 a.m. and greet the world with a series of grunts, one snooze and a 5 a.m. rise was certainly an accomplishment.


My fellow Outings Committee members and I had been planning our annual winter excursion to the White Mountains since October. We’d reserved nine unheated bunks at Carter Notch Hut for the Presidents’ Day weekend. Five of us would head up the mountain on Saturday to freeze for two nights; the others would arrive Sunday and experience only one night of extreme discomfort.


By 6 a.m. my bags were loaded into the flatbed of my friend Sarah’s pickup and we were on the road to meet up with the rest of our group. As we pulled up to Coy and Christine’s apartment, Eric greeted us with a grin seemingly stolen from the face of a third-grader on Christmas Eve. I did not know Eric well at this point, but it was clear he shared my enthusiasm for exploring the outdoors. As he smiled away in the twenty-degree twilight he informed me and Sarah that Coy was sick. “Woke up and didn’t think he would be able to come,” said Eric happily.


On cue, Coy trudged from his front door looking much less excited about the weekend’s prospects and reported that, despite his severely upset stomach, we would be on the road in 15 minutes. “Is that a good idea Coy?” asked Sarah, a refrain she would echo consistently for the rest of the weekend.


Despite Sarah’s concern we were headed for the Whites by 6:30 a.m.


For those who dislike traffic, 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning is the nirvana of road travel times. The sun rose on the empty roads, its soft light kissing roadside trees dusted with snow that had fallen while we slept. Everything was peaceful.


It was about this time that Coy pulled his car to a stop on the shoulder of I-95. Sarah followed suit and the two of us looked back in time to watch Coy exit his car, walk purposefully to the guardrail, lean over, and empty the contents of his stomach. He then marched to Sarah’s window and informed us that we would be taking the next exit to use a restroom.


Coy has a well developed tolerance for suffering, a fact he would reinforce as the day progressed.


As the morning wore on, Boston and its suburbs gave way to the distinctly wilder landscape of New Hampshire. Distances lengthened between towns, roadside forests grew older, rolling hills transformed into craggy mountains, and eventually one blink could mean the difference between taking in a bustling town center or missing it completely.


In Twin Mountain we stopped for gas, waiting our turn behind a line of snow mobiles already fueling up at the pumps. As I took in my surroundings, two thoughts simultaneously occurred to me. First, surrounded by a handful of pickup trucks and fuel intensive recreational vehicles at a gas station that we had driven 10 miles out of our way to reach, I thought about how energy intensive the lives of rural Americans are. Many people from rural towns drive trucks out of necessity, using their flatbeds and towing capacity on a daily basis. These vehicles’ unavoidably high carbon footprint is compounded in a rural setting by the long distances their owners need to drive to get from one place to another. Conceivably it could take two gallons of gas just to get to and from the gas station.  


Second, I realized how disconnected from reality environmentalists preaching about climate change must sound to rural Americans. Here I was in the middle of a healthy forest preserve with snow covered trees as far as the eye could see. I could count the number of people at the gas station, a relative hot spot in Twin Mountain, on my fingers. To try to convince these people that their sparse population, is impacting the planet’s climate would be a tall order.


It is interesting that in cities, where the average individual’s carbon footprint is smaller than that of his or her rural counterpart due to shorter driving distances and smaller vehicles, high population densities offer obvious visual evidence of society’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels. The pedestrian bridge connecting the east side of Providence to India Point Park, for example, crosses twelve lanes of busy traffic and sits in the shadow of a natural gas power plant. The relative emptiness of America’s rural landscapes offer the opposite visual effect and is likely responsible, in part, for the lack of urgency to fight climate change among rural populations.


We reached the trailhead of 19 Mile Brook Trail around noon. The parking lot was packed with cars whose passengers were already atop the mountain. All forty bunks at Carter Notch had been reserved for the holiday weekend.


As we suited up in the parking lot, taking in the shrouded peaks surrounding us, Coy asked if anyone else already felt hot. The temperature was just below freezing, fairly warm for winter hiking, but I was by no means “hot.” I suspected Coy’s illness was striking once again.


The trail was beautiful from the start, winding its way along the frozen and snow covered 19 Mile Brook.  Occasionally, cave-ins allowed us to see the brook rushing just below the thick sheet of ice covering the stream. Double and triple teardrop icicles dangled from the underside of the ice sheet. Where the point of a normal icicle would have been, these icicles had perfectly flat and incredibly thin discs of ice which rested delicately on the flowing water.


The snowy trail was well packed, but not icy. The packed snow was elevated ten to twenty inches above the ground and one step to the left or right of the trail regularly left us knee deep in powder.


Only a short distance into our 3.8 mile hike up the mountain, Coy requested a break. Despite the relatively easy section of trail we had been hiking, Coy looked as though he had recently run a marathon. He immediately began stripping layers already drenched by sweat.


“Are you sure it’s a good idea for you to do this Coy?” asked Sarah.


As we continued up the valley the trail moved further from the brook. The limbs of the birches and pines surrounding us hung heavy with snow.


The trail became significantly steeper after the first mile and we all began to feel the burden of our heavy packs, especially Coy.  He plodded up the mountain in visible and sometimes audible discomfort. During one break he stretched out his coat’s elastic wrist band and drained what looked like a water bottle worth of sweat from inside of his sleeve. Sarah bit her tongue.


Within two and a half hours we reached the crest of our hike and began the short decent to Carter Notch Hut. The trail declined steeply, then turned out of the forest onto the shore of what should have been a small mountain lake, but instead was a giant snowy field. The beaten path led directly across the frozen water and into the woods on the other side. We stepped onto the ice nervously hoping it would hold us as we crossed; it did. We would later see that the ice was two feet thick.


Though I was surprised at how quickly I had acclimated to the weight of my heavy pack during the hike, taking it off upon reaching Carter Notch Hut was a welcome relief. After warming ourselves with a cup of hot water, we headed to our bunkhouse to unpack. I skeptically unrolled my 0 degree sleeping bag wondering if I would make it through the night in the unheated cabin. I then gathered some Cliff Bars, a Camel Pack, and some emergency supplies into my daypack eager to start exploring the trails.


With the afternoon growing old we decided to stay close to the hut. We explored a snow covered boulder field with many hidden and ankle wrenching holes. The reward was a spectacular view of the valley between Crater Dome and Wildcat Mountain that stretched eastward into the distance. An icy wind quickly forced us to turn away from the view. We would have to keep ourselves moving until the hut’s wood stove was lit at 4:30 p.m.


We passed the afternoon hours using the frozen lake as a slip-and-slide, trailblazing the knee deep snow of the local wilderness, sledding down small slopes on our slick snow-pants, and nervously spelunking in a cave big enough to house a hibernating bear. Luckily, no one was home.


Never have dry cloths and a relatively warm hut seemed like such a luxury as they did that evening. My fellow hikers and I, tired but satisfied from our long adventurous day, spent the night playing dice, preparing and eating a big meal of falafel and pasta, and dreading the hour when the hut keeper would put out the fire and send us to our frosty bunks for the night. Coy, either because of the cozier environment of the hut or his newly discovered knack for winning at dice, was smiling for the first time since he’d woken up that morning.   


When the fateful hour came, we donned our headlamps and scrambled as quickly as possible to our bunkhouse and sleeping bags. Upon entering the cabin I noticed the snow we had tracked into our hut earlier in the day was still resting lightly on the wood floor and a ring of water I had spilled from my thermos onto the window sill was frozen solid. The walls were sparkling with frost, and a drift of snow leaning against the huts exterior wall filled half of our window.


I was into my sleeping bag as soon as my frozen fingers allowed me to undo the laces of my shoes. Surprisingly, within a few minutes I was warmer and as I drifted off I couldn’t help patting myself on the back for being so bad-ass.


I slept in two pairs of wool socks, sweat pants, a tee-shirt, two long-sleeve shirts, gloves, a scarf, and a ski mask.


The next two days were a whirlwind of novel and amazing experiences.


We awoke on our second day to snowy 10 degree weather with wind gusts reaching 50 m.p.h. Eric led the way to the top of Carter Dome. We worked for each step on the steep snowy trail. At the top we were greeted by colder and windier weather and near whiteout conditions. The trail down was so steep we were forced to sled down on our rears, something Sarah perfected with the help of an emergency blanket “sled”. We attempted Wildcat Mountain but conditions worsened and we were forced to turn back. The second half of our group arrived at the hut at 4 p.m.  from the parking area in time for us all to sit down to another huge meal.


The third day was colder and windier still, but the skies were crystal clear. We climbed some of the same trails as we had the day before spurred on by the promise of snow free panoramic views. Our efforts were rewarded with views of the snowy Presidential Range to our west and an endless mountainous landscape to our east. Our cabin, visible from one view-point, looked no bigger than an ant.


Before we knew it we were headed down the mountain for the parking lot. For some time, the majestic Mt. Washington was framed by the valley in front of us. Golden rays from the late afternoon sun graced the trees and snow creating a patchwork of shadows and light in the forest.


As we approached the end of the trail we were welcomed back to the real world by the sound of 18-wheelers barreling down the highway at 60 miles per hour. It was as if a spell was broken by the sound of those diesel engines. Conversation quickly turned from enjoyment of nature and good company to finding a suitable restaurant to eat at, racing the clock to arrive home as early as possible, and figuring out how to make up for the lost time we had squandered on the mountain.


Back on the road we passed billboards advertising all the ways one could summit Mt. Washington without ever leaving a heated car, then, in the parking lot of our chosen restaurant, I fretted about the wisdom of leaving our packs unattended in the open flatbed of Sarah’s pickup truck. Theft was something I had not considered while on the mountain despite our cabin door not having a lock.


For the three days prior to hearing those rumbling trucks, our biggest concerns had been deciding which mountain to climb, how to put on a pair of stiff frozen boots in the morning, and what the best method was for eating a frozen Cliff Bar. We’d busied ourselves sweeping snow out of our cabin as if it were dust and fetched drinking water with a gas can from a two foot thick hole in the ice covering the lake.  We had been surrounded by nature at its meanest and learned that, despite a certain level of inherent discomfort, the snowy mountains still provided inner calm and time for reflection about where one belongs in such a big world.


I had been completely immersed in the experience. Despite our trip unhappily coincided with the Keystone XL Pipeline rally in Washington D.C., an issue I feel passionately about, the pipeline and protestors left my mind completely upon stepping into the woods; to be honest I didn’t miss the stress of worrying about their fates one bit.


Since getting home and sharing my experiences with friends and family, many have asked whether I would do it again. They call me crazy when I respond in the affirmative without hesitation. But, when I think of the complicated world I inhabit for most of the year, then compare it to the simplicity of life at Carter Notch, the answer is obvious. I will happily brave the mountain any day.


See more pictures from the outing on Facebook.

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