I met up with Kevin and Dan at the Hooksett park and ride at 6am on Wednesday and then drove north, stopping at the Tilt-N-Diner off exit 20 for a mighty fine breakfast. We talked about the weather a bit and went over our proposed route for the day with Kevin (a relatively new hiker, and first time 'winter' hiker). I've been checking the weather and trail conditions the last couple of days via the internet (I LOVE the internet). Lots of snow early in the week but nearly 2" of rain the last 24 hrs. He had hoped to knock off 3 more 4,000 footers by climbing Mt Tom first, then Mt Field and finally Mt Willey. Round trip would be just over 10 miles and we hoped to be off the mountains by 4pm. That was the plan...
We reached the Highland Center by 8:30am, got dressed for hiking and checked our gear one last time, finally hitting the trails around 9:15am. 75% of the day I was able to wear just a long sleeve Coolmax shirt as temps hovered in the mid-20's to low 30's most of the day.
We were the first and only folks on the trails today, with 3-6" of snow and a crusty top layer of ice for most of the first few miles. It was slow going but not too bad. The multiple water crossings were more of a challenge as the streams were running pretty high. To top it all off the 'stepping stones' typically reserved for crossing were either under water or covered in ice. Nothing like crossing on an ice covered tree with a 25lb pack on your back, and we'd have to do this twice.
We climbed the A-Z trail towards Mt Tom and above 3000 feet the snow was considerably deeper (knee deep at times) , and travel was slowed to less than a crawl. The crusty top surface was not quite thick enough to support our weight. We could take one or two steps on the surface and then we'd break through, smashing our shins in the process.
We reached the Mt Tom spur trail a little after noon, had a bite to eat, ditched the packs and made the 1.2 mile round trip up to the summit of Mt Tom. The weather never cleared for us and we never did see the sun. We reached the summit around 1pm, took a few pics and headed back to our packs.
We were traveling much slower than planned and already knew we wouldn't be able to summit Mt Willey but Mt Field may be possible. Our route was a lollipop over Tom and Field and then back down the Avalon Trail, eventually meeting up at the Avalon/A-Z trail intersection. At this point we knew we would eventually be hiking in the dark but the key was to get back to the Avalon/A-Z trail intersection before dark since this section would be virgin trails with no tracks to follow. At least from the intersection we could follow our footsteps back to the Highland Center.
We reached the summit of Mt Field at 3pm and it was already getting dark and a light snow was falling. Again, we stayed just long enough to snap a few photos and then we were finally heading down. The Avalon Trail was VERY hard to follow and most of the yellow blazes were faded so badly that we weren't always sure we were actually on the trail. In the woods, in the snow everything looks the same and it is deathly quiet.
Eventually we were able to make it back to the trail intersection by about 4:30pm, got out our headlamps and followed the Avalon Trail (and our footsteps) back to Crawford Notch. It was much easier going now but we were still concerned about the fairly technical water crossings which were tough enough in the daylight. I wasn't entirely sure how were going to do it in the dark but somehow we all managed without getting wet.
Finally, at 5:30pm, nearly 8hrs and 15 minutes after we started, we made it back to our car...relieved.
This was one of the most difficult hikes I've ever been on. Plodding through the virgin snow covered trails was brutally slow and exhausting. Thankfully we were all well prepared and had the proper gear. We were warm and dry.
We all made calls home to let everyone know we were safe (since we were 2 hrs later than planned), got in the car and headed south. Thankfully no one called in the helicopters or the search and rescue team. Now that would have been embarrassing. After a stop for dinner, we eventually made it home around 9pm and put an end to a fantastic day (and partial night).
I have some additional pics posted here. Oh, and if there was any confusion, this is the reason why I didn't race on Thanksgiving Day.