The Glacier carved valley’s of New Hampshire’s White Mountain range is a geologically ancient region within a fairly discrete adventurer’s haven.
Tucked up in Northern New England, far from the beckoning peaks of the Rockies and Cascades, The White Mountains are often an afterthought to adventurers looking to take to the slopes of the American West.
With the highest peak not breaking 6,500ft, experienced mountaineers and hikers often scoff at the thought of embarking on expeditions into these quaint mountains which are only a two hours drive from Boston, Massachusetts.
Though the reality is that time and time again, climbers discover that venturing into this range unprepared both in gear and in mentality, invites not just massive surprise but often serious peril.
In 2022 alone, 22 hikers died whole roaming the slopes of the Whites and the common theme among nearly all fatalities was a negligence in preparation.
Though they lack glaciers and deep crevasses of the likes of Mt. Rainier, above treeline in The White Mountains during winter months is an environment akin to the arctic tundra.
This alpine zone is contorted by some of the most malign weather on earth, as three jet streams collide over New Hampshire to produce some of the most erratic and unpredictable conditions in the world.
Barring witness to how these conditions sculpt these mountains, is by itself a great reason to climb in The Whites.
At the base of the Range, is a forest of northern hardwoods, followed a bit higher by a forest of spruce and fir Trees. As more elevation is gained, trees become much smaller and stunted. These dwarf and gnarled trees of the sub-alpine zone are called krummholtz.
Krummholtz can often be seen growing sideways, with foot long ice spikes protruding from their branches.
Above Tree line is about 4,000 feet in the White Mountains, but exposed conditions with terrain clearly maimed by the harsh wind can begin even lower than this.
Mt Washington, the highest mountain in New England, has gained its fame for this weather and in 1934, the highest wind gust ever observed, not coming from a tornado, was recorded at a mind numbing 231 mph.
Combining these types of winds with snow, sleet and frigid temperatures, obviously produces conditions completely inhospitable to human life. Experienced Climbers in New England often remark that only in the Himalaya or upon Alaska’s Denali does such trying conditions exceed the windy wrath of Mt. Washington.
Just in early February of 2023, the mountain recorded a record low wind chill in The United States with Temperatures dropping below -105 and winds topping 125mph. To put it simply, being atop Mt. Washington on February 4th would be like setting foot upon Mars.
Though often forgotten is the fact that these extreme conditions are found throughout the range and are not just unique to Mt. Washington.
In winter time, the conditions above treeline can quickly shift from a calm day, to white outs with violent gusts of wind ripping through one’s layers.
If climbers aren’t experienced in navigating white out conditions, nor bring appropriate gear such as a wind mask, crampons, goggles and adequate layering, things can get hairy pretty fast.
Since November of 2022, two hikers have died on the slope of Mt. Lafayette, a peak with an elevation of 5,249ft.
One of these hikers was relatively well experienced and also a trained EMT, but both were found to be lacking in appropriate gear for the ascent.
Experienced hiker and Author of “The Last Traverse; Tragedy and Resilience in the Winter Whites,” Ty Gagner says many hikers “overestimate their ability and underestimate the time, complexity and risk associated with hiking in the White Mountains.”
I myself, completed the Franconia Notch Loop trail up Mt. Lafayette this past January and it was easy to see how folks could get themselves into a quite a bit of trouble upon these peaks. The terrain above treeline is an icy mess with dispersed pockets of incredibly deep snow that occasionally go above the navel (I’m 6.1’).
It would not have been possible to complete the route without crampons, goggles, and a wind mask. While the weather was quite tame that day for the Whites, there were still moments where the cloud cover produced visibility issues and the wind knocked me off my steps.
Having scored ascents of peaks like Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood in the Pacific Northwest, I was a bit startled how this route presented such similar challenges and perhaps was equally as physically strenuous as climbing some of the routes in The Pacific Northwest.
I certainly cringe at the thought of attempting these mountains in basic hiking boots and microspikes, as the route above treeline was so icy and frigid, the potential to lose footing and take a hard fall or develop dangerously cold feet is quite high.
The entire Franconia Notch trail which scales Lafayette and smaller Mt. Lincoln, took me 8 hours and was nearly 9 miles up and down.
After completing the climb, I caught up with Phillip Carcia at The Notch Hostel, an accomplished hiker in The White Mountains. He summed up the reality of hiking in New Hampshire.
“Its common to completely underestimate these mountains. They are incredibly beautiful, so its easy to understand why you can get Summit Fever. But when things go wrong above treeline, there is pretty much not a worse place to be.”
1.) The Last Traverse: Tragedy and Resilience in The Winter Whites- Ty Gagner
2.) The Notch Hostel
3.) Mt. Washington Observatory