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|
The forecast called for a windy and cold night with a weather pattern coming from the west. So we chose a campsite with plenty of west facing wind protection and some degree of protection on all sides. We felt this would put us in the best position for a safe night. After that we rolled out our sleeping bags, changed into dry clothes and began getting ready to cook dinner.
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.
15 thoughts on “A Winter Overnight Between Mount Adams and Madison”
AmyC @ running escapades
Ok, so every time I read one of your posts, I think about the book I teach Into Thin Air. Would you be interested in spending a day talking to a couple of classes of sophomore English students about your experiences? I think it would be so amazing. I teach the book in April/May.
Amy, Into Thin Air is an amazing book and that is very cool that you teach it to your class. I can't claim to have done anything that is anywhere near as extreme as what they went through in that book. However I would be beyond honored to speak to your class about my experiences. Thank you for suggesting this!
Scott, thanks I am glad you enjoyed it!
Epic night for sure. Glad you guys weathered it OK and got back down and didn't wind up as a story in the back of an edition of Appalachia. 😉
If you want to check out some photos of Star the Madison Moose go to Views From The Top and search for star lake moose. There are several threads with great pictures of her. Tim (bikehikeskifish) and Patrick (forestgnome) have the best ones.
Mark, I must agree with you that it is always better when the story ends up here instead of as bad news written by someone else :).
I will definitely check the VFT forum for pics of the moose. It is amazing that a moose would want to hang out up there!
Amazing photo-documentation of an overnight stay on the high peaks of the Whites! So often reports such as this will only show images of the outside world. Your report was unique by including images that showed a glimpse of what was going on “inside”.
Extremely well done!!
Thanks John…its true that many trip reports just capture the summit images. It was my intent to show what goes on from start to finish so anyone who chooses to venture up there will know what they are getting into.
What a trip! I applaud you for taking on these tough conditions in a responsible and safe way…it sets a great example for those planning similar trips.
Legen…wait for it…DARY!!! What an awesome trip. You guys are definitely awesome mountaineers. I'm not sure if this was your toughest night out, but I feel as I've read this blog for over a year now, your treks become more challenging over time. This was definitely an “edge of your seat” story. As Owen said, I applaud your good, safe practices up there.
How far away were you guys from the Madison Hut if you did in fact run into some major issues? Also, how did you handle your boots filling up with snow? Did that cause some wet feet heading back down?
I don't think I could ever do anything like this but love reading about it! Congrats on becoming a guest speaker on such a riveting topic too!
Owen – Thank you, it is sometimes much harder to turn back from a summit than to actually go for the top. I feel being cautious is the best way to make sure I have a long climbing career.
Karl- Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading for over a year! I would say this was my toughest night because of the wind and limited options for retreat. We were just .3 miles from the hut but it is closed for the winter so we would not be able to go there for help. We cleaned out the snow from the boots as best we could, thankfully we kept the liners inside the tent so those stood dry! Being a guest speaker will surely be more challenging than any hike!
Grant – saw a few more pics today of the Madison moose. She was still up there yesterday when Trish, Alex and TimC did Madison/Adams. If you want to check her out go to VFFT and search for Madison moose. The best shots are Patrick's in the BeccaM finishes the grid thread. She's quite the amazing creature!
Mark, thanks for the moose suggestions! I sort of wish I had come across her while I was up there, I have not seen a moose on the trail in years!
I did the same thing last year, except we decided to continue on and do Madison, but it was slow going, and we ran out of light, and had to hike back in the dark. I'm impressed that you got down, we spent a day in our tent. Well done!
James, I am glad you made it back in the dark! That must have been intense to hike in the winter in the dark. Spending the day in the tent must be a challenge, how did you pass the time?