Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lucky Jeff

Thursday, March 17, 2011
Hike: Mount Jefferson
5,712'  @ 12 Miles
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Everyone has their white whales in life and Mount Jefferson has been one of mine. Sure I've hiked it many times over the years but it's the winter ascent that has haunted me since December 2005. It was March of 2006 when I announced and celebrated my completion of the "48" peaks in winter. However, for personal reasons I've never been satisfied with the effort. The main theme of that personal reason is Mount Jefferson. So heading into this winter, with plans to move to Boulder, I made it my one and only serious "MUST DO" goal of the winter to return to Jefferson and stand atop it's rocky exposed peak.

Timing is everything. When you start trying to come up with a plan to hike a peak such as this, you need a free day (rare these days) and the perfect weather window. Last week I told my classmate Pat that, whatever day the window falls on over Spring Break, we're going up. He agreed, excitedly, and as the weather story unfolded throughout the week we figured it out. At first it looked like Wednesday was our day but as a weak disturbance rolled though we switched to Thursday. The valley forecast called for temps in the upper 40's (it was 64 back home) and the higher summits forecast still told a vastly different story. When I woke up the day of our hike and looked at the Mount Washington Obs. higher summits forecast I told Pat we had a D.F.U. situation. "What's that?" he asked so I told him. High's in the uppers 20's with winds in the 35-40mph range with high gusts. Clouds rolling in in the afternoon with winds rising to near Hurricane Force with gusts near 100 and rain over night. "Don't F&@* Up."
We parked at the base of Mount Washingtons Cog Railway around 9AM, loaded up our packs and headed to Marshfield Station for a bio break. Only problem was the museum is closed. So after checking all the doors we walked right into the woods and began our hike. We could hear the rushing waters of the snow melt which have filled the stream beds which are rushing down to join the Ammonoosuc River down below. We reached the first bridge which was a mix of exposed boards and a monorail of rotted snow. The second bridge was a monorail about 3 feet high where one miss-step or cascade of snow would send you about 10 feet down into a 3 foot pool of frigid water. We took great care as we stayed with the Mantra "D.F.U."
 As we finally began to hike the main ridge of the Jewell Trail I felt my head get dive bombed by a tree rat.. or more commonly known as "The Grey Jay." We stopped to take out some food and our cameras. I put some craisins in my hand and smiled as these little guys landed upon my finger tips and ate the berries from my palm. Then I put a few up on my head where the birds landed and pecked a few berries off my dome. All smiles we pushed along enjoying some of the early views through the shrinking trees along the way. I entertained Pat with tales of some of my more illustrious prank calls from back in the day, chuckling along the way really enjoying each others company.
It wasn't long before the tree's were brightly covered in rime ice from the over night frozen fog. We stopped to admire natures artistry before rising above tree line and out into the open sky. From here we continued to silently watch as the morning fog and cloud bank rose from the valley's and flow up and over the tops of New Hampshire's highest peaks, lightly tickling the summits as it flowed over like water of rocks. The snow is much deeper now, not cold enough to be melting quite yet and firm. Solid sections of ice lay hidden under a fresh coating of sleet that had fallen the day before. Tired of slipping around and fear of falling down into the ravine forced me to put my Micro-Spikes on and Pat his snowshoes.
We continued to climb ever higher, enjoying the views, playing in the snow, being very careful along the snow slopes to not trigger and avalanche or slip and fall far below. The higher we got the more the wind began to pick up. The sun is up and it's lighting the white peaks up so bright that we had to put on our shades. My sunglasses gave me much needed relief from the blinding snow and I was relieved to no longer have to squint to see. Soon, it was evident that the trail was just going every which way. Cairns were still buried from the deep drifts and it was getting tougher to find our course. Though, up ahead I could see the cairns which marked the Gulf Side Trail. So, we made a b-line across the snowfields to the trail. After linking up, we turned North and stared at our goal of Jefferson.

As we moved along the Gulf Side Trail we noticed that we were now following a set of footprints. We knew they belonged to the resident fox but what was amazing to us is that he was following the trail, EXACTLY, from cairn to cairn across the entirety of the broad ridge. We carefully maneuvered our way across a large snowfield before making our final descent into Sphinx Col. Once reaching the col we could feel the wind kicking up and starting to really whip through the low spot. As we now began to climb the shoulder of Jefferson, the winds only got stronger. At our first place of refuge from the wind, we stopped to layer up, put on face protection and secure our glasses. Up here, the temps were in the 20's with the winds blowing from the WNW at 45 mph.. the windchill is 7. Below, we can see the haze in the valley from the evaporation of melting snow.. what a different world we are in now.
We stopped for a few breaks as we made our final approach to the top of Jefferson. The wind whipping so ferociously that we had to struggle for each forward step. We both were being knocked around, tired and near exhaustion from fighting. We couldn't talk simply because we couldn't hear each other through the rushing of the wind anyway. We both simply put our heads down, sucking in our guts, and trudged to the top of the peak. We finally reach the flat landing just below the summit where the wind was non-existent. We stopped here, dropped our packs and sat down for lunch. In disbelief that we're exhausted all ready from fighting the wind, sore.. and it had taken us 4 hours to reach the summit.. 6 miles of hiking.

After our lunch time break, we put our packs back on and touched the top. I raised my hands in celebration. Where the common theme here on my blog is redemption, that's exactly what I got this day atop Mount Jefferson. I'd made it to the top of my white whale and made a personal wrong a right. I was emotional yet it was too cold to cry. I knew my tears would freeze to my cheeks so I opted instead to just start heading home.
As we began our descent off Jefferson, we came to a place which offered what looked like exceptional glissading. So, I sat atop a high snowdrift, took out my camera and snapped a video of my adventure. Pat took his camera out and got a shot from his vantage point as well. It was a hoot! We reached the col once more and began the long slog up and out and back to our junction with Jewell. About half way up I spotted a long snowfield that ran parallel to the contours of the mountain. We got off trail and just started side-hilling around the cone of Clay. Not long after we came across a long snowfield that ran down hill. We looked up then down and sized the situation up. If we glissaded here, how long would we go for? How fast would we go? Where would we stop? Is it worth it? YES!  The camera's came out again, we sat down and took off down hill. We were the only ones on the mountain today, so no one could hear our hoots and hollers except for ourselves. We were having a blast, being kids, wishing we had a sled.
As we made our way back into the tree's it was warming up quickly. The rime that graced the branches earlier today were now raining to the forest floor. We were getting soaked from both sweat and drip. The snow was now rotting beneath us and post holing became the prevalent activity. Thankfully we descended quickly, and made it out of the woods without any "major" injuries. It was a fantastic day in the Whites, Above tree-line enjoying my last winter jaunt and most likely.. the last time I'll be above Treeline here in NH.