Winter hikes rarely go as planned and our recent overnight near Madison Hut was no exception. High winds and sub-zero temperatures kept us from reaching any summits but we still had an epic outdoor experience that I won’t soon forget.
|starting the hike|
Two friends and I pulled into the Appalachia trailhead with a plan to ascend Valley Way Trail to Madison Hut, set up camp and then hopefully bag Madison and Adams before heading down the next day. Valley Way is the easiest route to the hut with 3,550 feet of elevation gain over 3.8 miles. Of course easy is a relative term on Mount Adams where flat trails are few and far between.
We were greeted at the trailhead by lightly falling snow and temperatures in the 20s. The snowpack was present but nowhere near as deep as it should be this time of year. The forecast called for high winds to replace the cloud cover with sunny skies and subzero temperatures the next day. With a changing weather system we knew that we had to be prepared for anything above tree line.
|Valley Way Trail|
Once our bags were packed we headed onto the Valley Way Trail which immediately begins with a gradual climb in a classic White Mountains forest. The combination of elevation gain and warm temps had us stopping to layer down just a few minutes from the trailhead. We also noticed that the trail had a thick coat of ice under a thin layer of snow so I opted to use my Microspikes instead of full crampons. My hiking companions only had full crampons so they put those on.
|a trail with many junctions|
From here Valley Way continues climbing with plenty of tree cover but no views. I should also note that there are a ton of trails that branch off Valley Way so it is important to make sure you are on the right trail.
|crampons are best here|
As we neared tree line we came to a few short but steep and icy pitches where I wished that I had my crampons on.
|the sign is serious|
Just before tree line we were greeted by the infamous “death sign” that warns hikers about the dangers above tree line. Madison hut came into view as soon as we got out of the trees. This route is one of the most protected and unexposed routes to tree line which is always good to keep in mind for descending in bad weather.
We were now in the saddle between Mount Madison and Adams at 4,853 ft. It was significantly colder with frequent wind gusts and somewhat limited visibility. We had no desire to go for the summit in these conditions so we decided to just focus on building a solid camp.
|a well protected camp|
Darkness came quickly and it brought sustained winds, blowing snow and a huge temperature drop with it. Cooking in these conditions was challenging to say the least. We made tortellini as well as chicken and rice. Our food became cold almost as soon as we took it off the stove so we ate as fast as possible. The somewhat warm meal went a long way towards lifting our spirits. Next we went about the slow task of melting snow to make water for the next day. This felt like it took forever but the weather and darkness probably had something to do with that. By now, the high winds made the blowing snow feel like glass shards as it relentlessly hit us.
|photo by Dave Newman|
Once the work was done we retreated to the tent for the night. We made sure to put our water, boot liners and wet gear into our sleeping bags so it would not freeze. It was only about 7:30 pm but we were all tired enough to quickly fall asleep although that would not last long. The tent violently shook as winds pummeled it with freight train intensity all night.
|photo by Dave Newman|
Each time the tent shook it would knock any condensation lose from the ceiling which essentially caused it to snow inside the tent. This made me slightly concerned since my down sleeping bag doesn’t insulate when wet.
|a snow bulge, photo by Dave Newmane|
We all drifted in and out of sleep throughout the night as the wind fluctuated. We woke in the morning to find that snow drifts had pushed up against the sides of the tent which made it even more cramped.
|photo by Dave Newman|
Blowing snow also filled up the tent vestibules which covered our boots.
The sun was up but the wind had only intensified. Therefore we chose not to venture out of the tent to cook a hot breakfast. Instead we ate Pop-Tarts and granola bars within the safety of the tent. We took turns bringing out backpacks into the tent to pack them for the hike out. We usually do this outside but it would be almost impossible to do in 60+ mph winds. Once we were all packed up it was time to take the tent down and we knew we had to go outside to do that. Thankfully there were 3 of us so one of us would hold the tent down, so it would not blow away, while 2 others removed the poles.
The temperature we below zero with a nasty wind chill so we decided to head straight down instead of going for the summit. The only problem was that our route down required us to head straight into the wind. I basically leaned into the blowing gusts as I pushed my way toward tree line. We later learned that -15 was the high temp on neighboring Mount Washington and that the wind had exceeded 60 mph.
Almost all wind virtually disappeared as soon we reached the scrub pines at the beginning of tree line. It is always amazing at how much different weather can be above tree line.
From here we took Valley Way back to the trailhead. The trail was covered in plenty of snow which suggested that a few inches had fallen over night. However the descent was gradual and uneventful and we were back at the Appalachia trailhead by noon.