Carter Dome and Mt. Hight: Winter Wonderland in the Whites
Yesterday was my first winter weathered 4000 footer. Man was it difficult! My original plan was to hike Middle and South Carter and Carter Dome on Thursday and stay at Carter Notch hut. Then I was going to hike over the Wildcats where my family was going to be skiing so I could ski down instead of hiking. This plan changed many times but I realized this is probably a common occurrence in the winter.
For the last two months, the weather has not been in my favor. I've made the trek up to the mountains three times only for there to be hurricane-like conditions one day, freezing rain another, and a final one with 75 mph winds and 100 mph gusts. I had been planning this Thanksgiving trip for a while so I was hopeful that the weather would be in my favor. Unfortunately it was the coldest Thanksgiving in history with a high of -22 degrees paired with 65mph winds forecasted on the top of Carter Dome. This left me bailing on my hut stay and day hiking yesterday instead.
On Thanksgiving day I did a short hike with my dad to test out some new gear before the big hike yesterday and it was -5 degrees where we were. We did Artists Bluff and Bald Peak, a short 2 mile hike in Franconia Notch. I just got new winter hiking boots (Oboz Bridger BDrys) and snowshoes (MSR Evo Ascents) so it was great to try those out for a couple hours in the freezing weather. You also need a lot more equipment in the winter so it was good to train with a full pack before hitting the 4,000 footers.
When I got to the 19 Mile Brook trailhead yesterday it was already gorgeous outside. It was a chilly but bearable 5 degrees and sunny bluebird skies. My plan was to hike to Carter Notch Hut and then up the steep slope to Wildcat A all the way to Wildcat D where my family was skiing. I started on the trail about 45 minutes later than I had intended but still early at 7:15. I wore microspikes (Hillsound) over my boots for the first 1.9 miles to the junction of Carter Dome Tr because the path was nicely packed down and relatively flat.
Along the way I met another hiker planning on doing Carter Dome and South Carter. I was a little nervous about hiking by myself in the winter conditions and I got to the trail junction in half the time I had expected, so I decided to join him up to Carter Dome. In retrospect this was a very good decision and I'm glad that I changed my plans. We strapped on our snowshoes and headed towards Zeta Pass. The trail was broken out for the first mile or so (someone had been there before us and made a path through the snow) so that was really helpful because we were only walking through a few inches of fresh powder on top of that. There was one really tricky water crossing that was difficult to maneuver but I managed to get across without getting too wet. I was very thankful to have waterproof boots for that one because if not my feet would have been frozen.
After the nice first mile, the wind and fresh snow filled in the previous people's tracks leaving us dredging through feet of snow. I knew breaking trail would be difficult but I had no idea what kind of physical toll it would take. The other hiker that I met and I took turns breaking out the trail which made it a lot easier on both of us. It's exhausting work trying to make your way through two or sometimes three feet of snow even with snowshoes. It was also mentally draining. When you put in so much effort to take one step and it only gets you a few feet it can be really frustrating. Luckily I had a buddy to chat with and take my mind off of that aspect. We reached Zeta Pass at 10:00 and took a little break to prepare ourselves for the coming trek up to Mt. Hight.
Mt. Hight is not an official 4,000 footer because of the prominence rule which states that each 4,000 foot mountain in the whites must drop 200ft of elevation and gain 200ft of elevation between itself and the next one. Hight only drops/gains 125ft between Carter Dome technically making it a subpeak. This being said, Hight is known for the best views in the area and it definitely didn't disappoint. On our way up while we were breaking trail in waist deep snow we saw glimpses of Mt. Washington and the Presidentials. The trail was steep and seemed to go on forever.
When we finally reached the summit at 10:45 the views were absolutely gorgeous. We didn't stop long because the 60mph winds were blowing us over, but we did look around and take in the view a bit.
We then went down and back up to Carter Dome, a nice and gradual climb but with the snow still challenging. At this point I was realizing that breaking trail was taking a lot longer than I had expected and making it over to Wildcat D was becoming less and less of a realistic feat. Luckily, I was able to send a quick text to my family to let them know that I would meet them at the bottom of Wildcat instead of at the top.
We took a few breaks on our way over to Carter Dome and had some snacks. Another challenge that comes with winter hiking is finding snacks that don't freeze solid when it's cold. This meant my staple
of Cliff bars and jerky were pretty much out of the question. I went with a trusty combo of peanuts and chocolate covered espresso beans which were just the caffeine boost I needed to continue on. Another issue is water. Obviously, water freezes below 32 degrees and with the temperature being well into the negatives up there it was hard to keep my bottle from freezing. The trick as I learned was to keep it in a sock on the inside of my bag upside-down so that when it does freeze you can still get the top off of the bottle to drink (bottles freeze from the top down). This worked for the most part but my water did turn into slush at some point between Mt. Hight and Carter Dome.
When we got to the summit of Carter Dome we were pleasantly surprised with the level of difficulty it took to get there. It had been a gradual incline which ma the difficult work of breaking out the trail so much easier. Just past the summit there was a long section of 4ft drifts that seemed insurmountable. Every time I took a step I sunk in to my waist, making it super difficult to pull myself back out. This stretch of trail was the most difficult of the day leaving me sucking wind and completely gassed.
Finally we made it to the steep downhill section and final descent to the hut. This was the most fun I had all day. For the last half of a mile, I sat down with my snowshoes in front of me and butt-sledded down the mountain. It was so much fun! The snow was fluffy and light all around me, carrying me down the steep slope leaving me grinning from ear to ear with pure joy. It was refreshing after the exhausting feat we had just endured.
At the junction of the trail to get to the hut I parted ways with my hiking buddy who had to get back early, and went to fill my water. When I got inside and realized they had brownies for sale I was in heaven! I swear they were the best I've ever tasted. I refilled my water bottles and started making my way back to the car.
At the hut I talked to a few people planning on making their way over to Wildcat A and started doubting my decision to bail on my original plan. With them breaking the trail up I thought that maybe I could squeeze in the Wildcats after all! I ultimately decided against this because it was already 1:00 and even without breaking trail it's super steep to get up there and I was really tired already. This was a good decision and although I was a little disappointed it was still a really successful day even without bagging the extra peaks.
The 19 Mile Brook trail back to the car was still well packed out so I got to trade my snowshoes for spikes which was a relief. Although they help a lot, snowshoes are heavy and make me even more clumsy than I am at baseline. I made really good time back to the car, doing the 3.8 miles in just under an hour and a half. When I got back to the car at 2:45 I was relieved and also overjoyed with what I had accomplished. It was a long day but so much fun and I got some great views!
In my first unofficial winter 4,000 footer hike I learned many things:
1. Breaking trail is much more difficult and it takes a lot longer than I expected.
2. It's just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one.
3. Bring a friend when the trail isn't broken out because it's so much easier to have a buddy to switch off with and talk to.
4. Hiking in the snow is much easier for a super clumsy person like me. There are no rocks or roots to trip over or twist an ankle on and when you do fall there's a nice fluffy blanket of snow to catch you.
5. Winter hiking is no joke! I underestimated how hard it would be and I was humbled by the difficulty of climbing these mountains once again.
All of this being said, I think I like winter hiking as much if not more than summer hiking! Yes it's exhausting and frustrating at times, but it's so rewarding when you reach the summit and have that beautiful snow covered view. This was also the first hike I've done where I didn't twist an ankle and when I fell it didn't hurt. Another thing I loved was the community of people out there. Only pretty hard core hikers go out in this kind of weather (although I wouldn't put myself in that category). It was nice to meet people with so much experience and knowledge of these mountains and a real appreciation for the beauty that they hold. All in all this was one of my favorite hikes I've done so far and I can't wait to get back out there for some more snowy hikes!
#43 Carter Dome (4,832 ft) and Mt. Hight via Nineteen Mile Brook Tr, Carter Dome Tr, Zeta Pass, and Carter-Moriah Tr [11.8 mi, 3819 ft, 7:20]