new hampshire

Light Pillars

You know it's cold outside when you see this amazing phenomenon. 

The morning of December 17, 2017, Ted and I loaded up the car for a day of ice climbing and hit the road well before daylight. As we drove around the green at the center of town, I noticed beams of light reaching toward the sky, rising from each of the streetlights. After pointing this out, we stared out the car windows in awe at this peculiar sight. They were EVERYWHERE, and SO BRIGHT! Ted snapped this low quality photo with his phone as we approached the interstate, and that was it. They were gone. We hoped to see them as we drove over the bridge in West Lebanon, since it overlooked more lights, but sadly, they seemed to only be in one small isolated area further east. 

The first half of our drive to the mountains involved me asking questions and trying to understand what we just saw. They were light pillars, which form on REALLY cold, calm nights, when there's enough humidity for the creation of "diamond dust," or tiny ice crystals suspended in the air. It's pretty cool, since it's like having precipitation that forms near the ground on a clear night, rather than falling from clouds. The light pillars are seen when light refracts off the tiny ice crystals, creating a beautiful display. Needless to say, I was pretty intrigued and welcomed the cold air heading our way. 

Usually I'm not happy about waking up in the middle of the night if it's not to go hiking, but yesterday morning around 3am, I woke up to see the elusive pillars yet again. Ted mentioned the night before that conditions were optimal for them, having fresh snow on the ground, light wind, and nighttime temperatures below zero. That knowledge is what prompted me to look out the window in the first place. I probably scared the crap out of Ted when I screamed "BEAMS!" out of excitement, and then dragged him out of bed and into the -14 degree night with my camera. At first it looked like they faded away, but we drove around a bit, keeping an eye out for pillars and an open enough view in their direction. We ended up at the Howard Logan Field in Lebanon, NH, and trudged through the new foot of snow for a less obstructed view. Ted set up the tripod while I worked on camera settings with my numb hands, and we were blown away by what we captured. Often, photos don't do things justice, but this time, I feel like it was just as pretty in real life as the photos depict. The pillars were more transient than we expected them to be. They were really good for only a short period of time, and seemed to fade in and out, but mostly out after the first few minutes in the baseball field. But just like undercasts and auroras, it was alluring enough to keep me up again last night, hoping for their return. 

20 Hours of Adventure

Most people I know usually spend their long weekends, vacations, and time off relaxing, catching up around the house, or lounging around a boat, beach or campsite. For us, our down time is the long car ride to whatever adventure we've planned, which often consists of cramming as many things into our time there as possible. For Memorial Day weekend, we decided to do some exploring in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and I got super lucky to find a campground with an available campsite at the last minute. I was hired as a Contributor on Assignment for Outdoor Project this summer as part of their effort to expand to the east coast, and several of the hikes they were interested in publishing happened to be both in the Lakes Region and already on our to-do list. 

Ted's been talking about wanting to climb Chocorua for a long time, and the Appalachian Mountain Club was leading a hike to it on Saturday, so we tried to sign up for that first. The trip filled up quickly so we were wait-listed, but decided to still do it anyway on our own. Saturday morning, we drove up early to ensure a parking space at the trailhead, and headed up the Liberty Trail. Mosquitos were an issue at the trailhead, but as we got moving they seemed to lessen. I was happy to have my gaiters as the lower section of the trail was pretty wet with lots of rock hopping. Higher up, the trail became steeper and ledgy, requiring us to use our hands a little bit here and there to maintain balance. The views got increasingly better, until we had an open 360-degree view from the open, rocky summit. Looking down from the summit, we could see hikers traversing a long section of open rock below, and we wanted to check it out. After consulting the map, we decided to descend that direction for more time above the trees, and then return via the "bad weather" route to make a small loop around the top. 

Ted got a new pair of binoculars as a PhD graduation gift recently, so he's been enjoying stopping at wildlife viewing areas to look for birds on our drives. While heading to Moultonborough, I commented about how the surrounding landscape looked like moose country just before we passed a brown binoculars sign. Ted hit the brakes, and pulled over at the Thompson Sanctuary, and we quietly made our way along the boardwalk to view the wetland. Expecting to see nothing more than the usual red-winged blackbird, to our surprise, there was a moose feeding in the water, and in the other direction, a bull watching from the tree line! 

At the campsite an hour later, we pitched the tent and wondered what to do now. It was too early for dinner, and we aren't good at sitting around when we're not completely exhausted or hanging out with friends. So, back to the map we went, and off to nearby Red Hill to check out the view from the fire tower! On the drive over, a large black bear darted across the road in front of us, which was a treat! We found an array of different wildflowers, including patches of red columbine along the trail. We saw lots of blue columbine living in Colorado, but this was the first time I'd seen any on the east coast. Red Hill doesn't have much of a view from its wooded summit, but head up a few flights of stairs, and the tower reveals endless beauty in every direction. Looking out around and beyond Squam Lake and Lake Winnipesaukee, we could see the familiar peaks of Mount Cardigan, Mount Major, Mount Moosilauke, and the Kinsmans. We could even see Mount Chocorua, where we stood a few hours earlier. 

Back at the campground, Ted jumped into the unheated pool to cool off before we took showers and made dinner. We watched as a thin crescent moon moved behind the trees and the sun set, finally feeling like we might be tired enough to lay down. Before heading into the tent, Ted took his phone off airplane mode just long enough to do his usual geomagnetic storm checks, and next thing I know he's driving into the darkness while I look for possible north-facing views on the map.

The northern lights aren't often noticed in the northeast, since they're typically so faint they're impossible to see with any light pollution. Photographers capture their color using long exposures and being in the right place at the right time. We've  caught the aurora in photos only 3 times before, and once was by accident while taking star shots in the Badlands. But this night was a rare treat, as the green glow was visible to the naked eye, with the curtains shining like beams of light moving across the sky. If the clouds didn't move in, we could have stayed there all night, but we'd been up for 20 hours and if we wanted to hike again tomorrow, we had to sleep sometime. 

Sunday morning, we returned to the Thompson Sanctuary again to see if any other wildlife might be out feeding in the early hours. Sure enough, a beaver was swimming back to its hut and a deer was barely visible over some tall grass. We sipped coffee in the fog, listening to frogs and woodpeckers, and a heron flew over our heads. Then we drove over to Squam Lake and wandered up to the viewpoint on West Rattlesnake Mountain, before facing the crowds on Mount Major. As if that wasn't enough, we hiked the waterfall loop to Falls of Song in the Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area before returning to the campsite for the night. We didn't plan much for Monday other than driving back since the forecast called for rain, but since the rain held off until midday, we stopped to explore Sculptured Rocks on the way. Hot showers and a comfy couch were welcomed luxuries at this point, so the afternoon was spent relaxing and uploading photos. For anyone interested in checking out any of the places we visited, stay tuned for descriptions of each adventure on Outdoor Project in the near future! 

A Presidential President's Day (Ted's Account)

The forecast as we pulled into the trailhead.

Five friends set out to tackle the highest summit in the northeast, home of the “world’s worst weather” in the dead of winter. The forecast called for clearing skies; but upon departure, the winds at the summit were howling at hurricane force with temperatures in the lower single digits and zero visibility. A little while later, hunkered down just above the tree line, the frigid winds ripped in from the west and the blowing fog and snow made it difficult to distinguish up from down. Alone and fighting the cold, the group faced the decision of whether press on, or retreat back down the mountain to warmer climes.

Prologue:

A winter ascent of Mt. Washington has been on my radar for quite a while, but it’s a long drive, life gets busy, and my car is, well, not all that reliable. However, a recent move has substantially shortened the drive to the Whites. Things came together once I spotted a good weather forecast for the long weekend (good by Mt. Washington in February standards), and we called up some friends in NY who were eager to make the trip. Originally, we planned to climb via the classic Lions Head route, but while hiking the Osceolas on Saturday I chatted with another hiker who recommended going up from the west via the Ammonoosuc Ravine. After reading a bit more about Ammonoosuc, I settled on this. Game on.

The Approach:

We arrived at the cog base station trailhead around 7am under mostly cloudy skies and intermittent flurries. We suited up in the parking lot and talked briefly with a few other hikers and skiers heading up for the day. After a few minutes we started out in snowshoes, following a well-packed trench through the woods. The trail was probably hard packed enough to lose the snowshoes, but occasional knee (waist!?) deep post holes on the periphery seemed a good reminder to stick with the floatation. We came to a small pool labeled on the map as Gem Pool, the trail climbed steeply above this. In no time, we left the hardwoods below us and continued into a mix of firs and scrub. The higher we climbed, the deeper and more impressive the snow became. Near the tree line we ran into a solo hiker on his way down, having turned back due to poor visibility.  He joined us in hopes that he’d have better luck with a group, and shared stories of his climbs up Denali and Aconcagua. We continued up in snowshoes until just above tree line where a flow of thick glare ice warranted a switch to crampons. During this time we took stock of the weather. It was not good. The visibility was limited to maybe 100 feet, and without trees or rocks to stand out, the ground and sky merged into one. Another group coming up behind us reached tree line and abruptly made the decision to turn back, and the solo hiker who joined us earlier turned with them. Yelling back and forth to each other over the wind, we strongly considered following suit. I mean, the mountaineer who’s climbed Denali just turned around. Would we be stupid to try to continue?

Then, for a very brief moment, the fog thinned enough to see that ahead maybe 200 yards was the Lakes the Clouds Hut, covered with rime and tucked into the snow, offering us a break from the wind to collect our thoughts and weigh our options. Then, as soon as it appeared, the view was gone, but now we knew the direction, so we headed up. We got into the lee of the hut where it was calm and rested, sipping hot chocolate.

The Climb:

Hiking/climbing is a constant struggle to find the line between fear that’s just in your head, and legitimate danger. Today was one of those days where we had to bring all of our focus to ensure we stayed on the right side of that line. At the hut we tried to acclimate to let the initial fear of the poor conditions subside and consider the situation. The visibility was BAD. It wasn’t that the fog itself was terribly thick, it’s that the ground was completely white with snow and rime. This fact made the ground the same color as the sky, which reduced visibility from what may have been a couple hundred feet to less than fifty. Walk 100 feet away from the hut, and it would be invisible. With the signs and cairns all rimed over, they would provide little help. All that said, by objective metrics, the weather wasn’t THAT bad. It was cold, though not too cold (10 degrees), and while the wind was strong, it wasn’t knocking us off balance. I put it at a stout 35mph with occasional gusts to near 50mph. This was much better than this morning’s higher summits forecast suggested we might encounter. Add that to the fact that it was early and the weather was forecast to improve throughout the day, and I wasn’t quite ready to call it. After a few minutes and some coaxing, I convinced our group to head the 0.4 miles over to Monroe and see how that went. We developed a plan in which we would try to cairn hop up the slope using each other as visual markers to make sure we didn’t get lost along the way. I planted a snowshoe within visual range of the hut to make it easier to find our way back, and off we went. We started off towards Monroe, keenly aware of how easily we could get disoriented and wander off into the abyss. The cairn hopping kind of worked for a bit, but we pretty rapidly lost the cairns. No matter, as long as we were still going up, we were going the right way. But it wasn’t finding our way up I was concerned about, it was finding our way back down. Even with compass bearings and good route finding, it was pretty disorienting. It is abundantly clear how people routinely get lost up there in the fog. However, on the way up, I came up with a plan to chisel out rocks from the ice, providing a black marker to stick out against white backdrop. This actually worked pretty well, and I was confident we’d be able to use these breadcrumbs to help find our back to the hut.

After a little wandering around the summit ridge we did eventually find the true summit, then headed back down following our markers and compass bearing until we reached the base of the mountain where the trail splits off in multiple directions. Looking around, we noted that the only thing visible in the “distance” was a small red snow shoe sticking out of the snow, confirming the way to go. Soon we were back at the hut, only now there were a number of hikers there all taking shelter deciding whether to keep climbing or turn around. A few headed off toward Monroe, a few others remained at the hut, and others simply headed back down the mountain. From what we gathered from the folks at the hut, no one could remember seeing anyone head off toward Washington, perhaps one group of two? So here we were, and now we had to decide whether to forge on and give Washington a shot, or quit while we were ahead.

After about 15 minutes of contemplation and rest, we decided to go for Washington. At this point, the visibility had improved slightly (or maybe I was seeing things), and I was still holding out hope that it would clear up. We got a couple of skeptical looks from people at the hut … and at least one lecture, before heading off, but shortly after heading towards Washington we were joined first by a solo skier, and then another hiker, who didn’t want to make the trek alone. Shortly after leaving the hut we came across a sign encased in snow and ice. I used my ice axe to knock off the ice and snow, and the sign was the infamous “STOP: world’s worst weather…” sign… an ominous sign in the swirling fog and snow.

As we made our way up, following a compass bearing (and cairns when we could find them), we chiseled out rocks and cairns from the ice to help us find the way back if the visibility didn’t clear. But as we climbed, we first started to get short breaks in the clouds, then some patches of blue sky, and finally a little direct sun. As we climbed higher, the visibility continued to gradually improve, and soon we could see the broad slopes of the summit cone looming ahead. As we made the final approach to the summit, the skies cleared, and the few remaining clouds broke around and below us. We continued to chip the occasional cairn out of the ice just in case, but route finding was easy now. Then we were on top. We walked over and hid out in the lee of the wind with a couple of other groups who came up from Lions Head and dropped pack. We wandered around the summit for a little while taking pictures, eating, drinking, etc. The winds were quite strong and it was quite cold, but with the improved visibility and sun in and out, we didn’t care. We ran all over the summit, taking in the views, ducking in and out of the wind, and snapping photos.

Then it was time to pack up and head back down the mountain. With any remaining clouds above the summit and with gravity on our side, we made our way back to the Lakes of the Clouds hut pretty quickly. The ridge was amazingly white, nothing penetrated through the snow and rime, no rocks, no signs, only the trail of black dots that we chipped out of the ice to lead us back. We snacked at the hut and then proceeded back down the mountain, butt sliding and laughing all the way back to the car.

Epilogue:

Given its notoriety, I was happy to have to work for a winter ascent of this peak, and I feel as though it would have been a disappointment had it been a straightforward and mellow ascent. And I’m not exaggerating about the visibility, I’ve seen it bad on Marcy and Algonquin, but here I felt swallowed up like I never have before. At times I started to get paranoid and I would wonder if my compass was telling me the right direction, or if there was iron in the rocks messing with the needle. I’ve hiked the ridge between Washington and Monroe probably half a dozen or more, and in that fog I could barely tell up from down.  All in all, a great and challenging experience, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.