Mt. Monadnock winter hike
I got an invitation from friends to hike up Mt. Monadnock after the first big snow of the season. It had snowed through the night and we left Boston early in the morning. I chatted for a while with my neighbor who was outside shoveling the sidewalks before 6am. There is a lot I don’t like about living in the city, but I do love my street in the snow.
So despite the fact that Mt. Monadnock is the most hiked mountain in New England, and only a couple hours away from Boston, this was my first time there. A “monadnock” is a mountain that stands by itself, not part of a larger range. There are a couple similarly named mountains in New England, but this one in Jaffrey, NH is the big one, sometimes called “Grand Monadnock.” The summit is only 3,137′ and a round trip of less than 4 miles on the route we took. The predicted high temp for the day was 19 degrees, and I wasn’t sure how much snow there would be out there, so I packed snowshoes and microspikes, hand warmers, extra hat and gloves and fleece. Other than the very windy and exposed summit, it was easy to stay warm because we were always moving and it was so cold that there was no danger of getting wet from melting snow. It’s surprising how comfortable you can stay for a long time in the bitter cold if you’re well prepared. As usual I never needed to use any of the extra items I brought.
I thought we were hitting the trail early but there were several sets of tracks ahead of us when we set out at 8:15. We crossed paths with a few other pairs and groups of hikers, and a few soloists, but probably not more than a dozen people all day. Pretty incredible considering that on a summer weekend there are often upwards of 50 people on the summit at once. We hiked mostly silently through the woods on the lower part of the mountain. In the winter, with snow and no leaves on the trees, the woods feel so much different. Because of all the carving and spoon work I’ve been doing, I have my eye out for different species, and I’m thinking about the age, condition, and histories of the trees around me. I notice trees with bends in their trunks where they once blew over then straightened themselves over the years, and other markers of noteworthy life events. The lower woods were full of oaks and beeches, some of them very old. It’s interesting to wonder about the history of the woods. It’s likely that this tree stood at the corner of a large field not too long ago, relatively speaking. There were a lot of young and older birches as well. It may be a cliche New England thing, but there is not much in the world that’s prettier than snow on birch trees.
We climbed steadily up the mountain, following the White Dot trail, which is the most direct and steepest route to the summit. Climbing in snowshoes is actually easier than climbing on bare ground in many ways, mostly because you’re not contending with all the smaller rocks and roots. Most other hikers we saw were using microspikes or just winter boots, but I was glad for the snowshoes even though the trail was already decently packed. Mine are so comfortable and lightweight, and have such good traction that I kept them on even at the summit where the snow cover was thin. The top 1/4 of the mountain is mostly bare, but not because its above tree line. Here’s some interesting history, courtesy of Wikipedia:
“It remains clear largely because of fires set by early settlers. The first major fire, set in 1800 to clear the lower slopes for pasture, swept through the stands of virgin red spruce on the summit and flanks of the mountain. Further fires and hurricane damage left the forests a tangle of fallen timber. Between 1810 and 1820, local farmers, who believed that wolves were denning in the blowdowns, set fire to the mountain again. The conflagration raged for weeks, destroying the topsoil and denuding the mountain above 2,000 feet (610 m).”
The wind was howling up there! Because Monadnock is the only mountain for miles around, there are some great views. There was one particular spot just below the summit where the view cleared up and I had a few minutes to take it in while the wind slapped me across the face. At the summit itself we found one other hiker who took our picture for us. We didn’t stay long. Standing at the top of the highest point for in 30 miles around in wind-driven snow isn’t the smartest or most comfortable idea. It was beautiful and exhilarating though. A little way down, we tucked into some trees to eat our PB&Js before cruising back down the trail, sliding on our butts across icy and steep rock sections and floating down through the deeper powder all the way back to the car.
This past week, a young man died while hiking and sledding on Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch. He is the second “friend of a friend” that I have known to be killed right in that area, both in winter accidents. There have been several bad accidents, injuries, and deaths every year in the mountains and lakes where we hike, paddle and camp. No one goes out into the wilderness with the intention of doing something that will get them killed, but smart people realize the potential. Knowing that the danger is there and chosing to put yourself in those situations is a calculated risk. Conditions change and need to be reevaluated all the time, and even the most prepared and experienced people can experience a mis-step or unexpected circumstance that completely changes the game. Still, we are drawn to the mountains and the wilderness to escape the monotony and “comforts” of the daily grind, to push ourselves physically and mentally, to reach places more beautiful than you’ll ever see from a car window, and to connect with what is real and natural and necessary in life. The mountains are always calling.