The Christmas season had been a long one in terms of being away from mountain hiking (our last real outing prior to this was our November 22 hike of the Wildcats
), and it was time to get out again. Although I'm only two peaks away from completing my NH48, I opted not to go for either [of the two remaining peaks] on this outing. Instead, I wanted to start re-climbing some of the great peaks of the Northern Presidentials that I'd done many years before when I first visited this area. So, for this day's outing, the object was the furthest north and east of those: Mount Madison.
Although Mount Madison is the lowest peak of the Northern Presidentials, it is still by eastern standards a very prominent peak. With an extensive area of alpine terrain on its top and with a superb view up the Great Gulf towards Mount Washington, Mount Madison is a worthwhile 4,000 vertical foot climb from nearby trailheads.
This would be my first winter outing of a Northern Presidential Peak, and we drove down well-prepared, with all manner of synthetic clothing, face-covering gear, thermoses, and grippy snowshoes. We stayed the night at a low-cost motel in nearby Gorham so that we could get started nice and early in the morning. The forecast was for sunny skies becoming somewhat cloudy, with temperatures in the mid minus teens (C) and moderate winds in the 80km/hr (50mph) range. Moderate for the White Mountains, that is.
We parked at the Great Gulf Trailhead, opting to go for a loop hike that ascended Osgood Ridge and Descended the Daniel Webster Trail.
Starting off in the dark from the parking lot, we crossed the Peabody River on a suspension bridge, then arrived at the junction with the Great Gulf Trail. We turned left onto the Great Gulf Trail, following a well-packed snowshoe track. My assumption at this point was that the trails would be well-tracked out after a week or two of relatively little precipitation. After all, these were fairly major trails we were on.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at our first turnoff -- the Osgood Cutoff Trail -- we discovered that it wasn't broken out. At all. If this was true for all the way up, we were looking at a tougher day than we had expected!
The snow was moderately difficult to break trail through, and we started a rotation to give a break to the person in the lead. I hoped that the upcoming Osgood Ridge Trail itself, being part of the AT, would be broken out.
Shortly we arrived at the Cutoff trail's junction with the main Osgood Ridge Trail. The trail-gods were not smiling upon us this day: the Osgood Ridge trail was also completely devoid of recent snowshoe traffic. It looks like we'd be trail-breaking the whole way up!
After a break to re-hydrate and down some calories for the effort ahead, we set off. The snow got softer and deeper as we ascended, and we became more rigorous about our rotation schedule: we'd break and rotate every 250 feet of elevation.
Jenn was the lucky one to be in the lead when we hit the steepest section of trail not far below treeline. Above this point, the trail lessened in steepness and increased in hardness as we approached open terrain.
The weather had started to turn from brilliant blue sky to interspersed streaks of gray clouds as we reached treeline. The clouds were still quite high, though, and we were treated to a fabulous wintry view of the Great Gulf, the Northern Presidentials, and Mount Washington. Although there had been only a faint breath of wind below in the trees, up here a slightly gusty flow of air came upon us from the north-west. Although we were hot and sweaty from the windless toiling up the soft snow, we now had to stop and put on several layers of clothes, including covering up our heads. If it was at all windy here, it was probably more so farther up in the alpine.