Hiking the Presidential Range in New Hampshire used to be a regular part of my winter agenda. A continuum of battles with arthritic knees and hips had kept me off the big peaks for three years. Recently, a couple of cortisone injections and an invite from friends Gary and Suzanne Cole to climb Mounts Madison and Adams provided a window of opportunity to end the drought.
My first experience with winter mountaineering in the Whites was thirty-five years ago. Outdoor sidekick John Stokinger and I packed into the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Hut at Carter Notch. Completing ascents of Carter Dome and Wildcat Mountain, we met hut visitors who related experiences climbing Mount Washington. A spark was ignited. Shortly after, John and I succeeded in an ill-advised ascension of Washington in frigid gusty weather. I was hooked.
During the ensuing years, I had the good fortune to share scores of winter climbs in the Presidential Range with many great hiking friends. Initially, the primary focus was the five tallest: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison. Later, Eisenhower, Pierce, Garfield, and Lincoln became recurring executive accomplishments. Then Father Time delivered the arthritic setback. Instead of bagging the big fellas, whining was a too frequent substitute.
When I received Gary and Suzanne’s proposal, the timing was near perfect. Pain free for a few weeks, I had recently completed a five mile mountain hike in the Camden Hills with a full winter pack. Ready to go, my wife Nancy decided to join us for a shorter excursion below tree line.
Old age brings a handful of benefits. Wisdom is sometimes one of them. History can be didactic for those willing to learn from it. In February 2015, experienced mountaineer Kate Matrosova froze to death between Mounts Madison and Adams. Scores of hikers have died in the Presidential Range where winter winds can exceed 100 MPH and wind chills sometimes dip to minus 50 below Fahrenheit. My friends and I no longer attempt risky above tree line climbs in the high peaks. We wait for optimum weather. That was the forecast for our planned endeavor: partly sunny, mild temperatures, and light to moderate winds.
Concluding the two hour drive to Appalachia Trailhead near Gorham, we arrived early on a cool gray January morning to find the large parking area almost full. Since frequent mountaineering companion Brent Elwell had joined the group, we would be a prudent foursome above tree line. All retired, Over the Hill Gang might be an apt moniker.
Several trails begin at or near Appalachia. Our plan was to ascend Valley Way Trail 3.8 miles to the closed Madison Hut, climb Madison followed by Adams, and if conditions permitted, return on the more exposed Air Line Trail. Nancy would hike on Valley Way.
The trek up Valley Way was demanding but uneventful. We were greeted with almost unimpeachable weather when we arrived above tree line at the hut. The only imperfection was far too much exposed rock on the Madison summit cone. Because micro spikes were necessary due to the widespread presence of ice, it’s actually less challenging to climb a predominantly ice and snow covered surface.
Since the weather was exceptional and footing awkward we left our packs at the bottom before finishing the steep half mile scramble to the crest. Views were phenomenal. Gazing west, our next goal, Mount Adams, the second highest peak in New England towered above. Slightly southwest, Mount Washington dominated the distant skyline.
The 1.5 mile trek from Mount Madison to Mount Adams entails scaling the shoulder of Mount John Quincy Adams. Considered a mere subsidiary peak of Mount Adams, the unfairly diminished sixth president doesn’t merit full mountain status.
Although higher than Madison, more ice and snow facilitated an easier ascent of Adams. The alpine-like summit is one of the most extraordinary locations in New England. Views of the surrounding barren peaks of the Presidential Range were breathtaking. The weather was fantastic, too. Calm and partly sunny, we relaxed at the craggy pinnacle enjoying a conversation with longtime friend, Ed Hawkins, who was leading a New Hampshire climbing party. A peak bagging legend in the Whites, Ed has had two knee replacements so there is hope for me.
Meanwhile, Nancy was enjoying a quiet outing on Valley Way where she was thrilled with a rare fisher sighting. Observing predominantly exposed rock on Air Line Trail, the Over the Hill Gang returned via Valley Way completing an eleven mile expedition. At the end of the day, we were all feeling presidential.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at ronchaseoutdoors.@comcast.net