With record snow in the mountains and popular trails packed down, trail conditions have been excellent, though much warmer temperatures will soon return and change will come quickly.
Recently, I took a quick early-morning hike up Mount Jackson (4,052 feet) in the southern Presidentials. The 5.2-mile round trip on the Webster/Jackson Trail was a great way to start the day.
Crawford Notch was in shadow as I drove up through it. Just after the height-of-land, I turned left into the parking lot used by ice climbers on Mount Willard and by those hiking up the Webster/Jackson Trail on the other side of the road. I crossed the road and sat on the snow bank to attach my Stabilicer Hike Macro traction devices (check them out online at stabil.implus.com/products/outdoor-recreation/stabil-hike-macro).
These have been my favorite foot traction lately. They have rugged half-inch cleats, and your foot is secure in a thermo-plastic elastomer top. As the snow melts and trails get icy from constant compression by hikers, this is a good time of year to make sure you have solid traction.
Mount Jackson is a popular 4,000-footer. The trail was packed, solidified and in great shape. In a mere 10th of a mile, I decided to take a right on the spur out to Elephant Head, a prominent granite bulge above the notch’s height of land. Crawford Notch and environs were still in the early morning shadows.
Back on the main trail, I turned off again in 0.6 miles and walked the short distance out to the lookout on top of Bugle Cliff. By then, the sun shone on the upper half of Mount Wiley across the notch. Mount Avalon was in the sun, and just before I left, the Mount Washington Hotel was lit up with direct sun.
After the hike, I happened to look up two 19th century paintings of scenes looking towards the height of land from the north. In the famous “Notch of the White Mountains” painted in 1839 by Thomas Cole, both Elephant Head and Bugle Cliff are present. In the earlier painting, “Gate of the Notch,” painted in 1834 by Alvan Fisher — purported by art collector Sam Robbins to be the first painting of the Presidential Range — only Elephant Head is visible.
I headed up the trail above Bugle Cliff, and in 1.4 miles reached a junction in the trail where the Mount Webster Branch continued straight, and the Mount Jackson Branch bore left. I headed up the much more packed down Mount Jackson Branch.
A morning chill pervaded the shadowy woods, and was prefect for maintaining a steady pace. I reached the level site of Tisdale Spring, and looked up to the left at sun reflecting off snow on the nearby open summit. I headed that way, enjoying the pleasant feeling of an upcoming open summit.
Then, something happened that brought the reality of spring home.
In the winter, when you reach timberline, inevitably it gets colder because you are more exposed to wind, even if the wind is only slightly moving air. When I climbed up the last few yards to the top of Mount Jackson, the morning sun hit me and it was instantly warming. There were three good things upon arrival there: the trees falling away around me, the warming sun and then the short walk over to the spectacular northern lookout, where the vastness of the southern approaches to Mount Washington were spread out before me.
Of course, I lingered for quite a while. There were interesting views in other directions as well. Looking south toward Mount Webster, many gray lines of “fir waves” crossed the wide green slope of conifers.
What causes fir waves? When a tree falls, a gap is created. This exposes trees on the downwind side of the gap to more wind and winter desiccation. These trees die quicker, expanding the gap. Young trees begin to grow on the upwind side of the gap, protected by the other trees. This combination of dying trees downwind and re-growth upwind create curving lines of fir waves that move in the direction of the prevailing wind, in this case from the northwest to southeast.
I headed back down. Just below the summit I remembered the rescue of experienced hiker Julie Horgan a few years ago, who climbed Mount Jackson in the deep of winter and on a day of approaching bad weather, and lost track of the trail just below the summit on her way down.
Her search for the trail was unsuccessful, and mid-afternoon she called the AMC to have someone come look for her. With the worsening weather, the N.H. Fish and Game and Mountain Rescue Service got involved. They didn’t find her, and she ended up spending the night, and was located the next morning. She was fine, and walked out with Mountain Rescue Service volunteers.
Afterward, the Fish and Game wanted to charge her $7,000 to cover its expenses in the search. Members of the Mountain Rescue Service took issue with her being charged. Aside from initially getting turned around, she did all the right things and had sufficient equipment to get through the night unscathed.
She ended up having a hearing in Concord. The case was transferred to the Attorney General, and she was charged, but the amount she paid is not clear.
This event was before the Hike Safe Card was available. Today, for $25, purchasing a Hike Safe Card from N.H. Fish and Game, you can be rescued without charge if you are negligent. But you will be charged anyway if you were glaringly irresponsible. To buy one online go to nhfishandgame.com/HikeSafe.aspx.
Walking down from the summit to Tisdale Spring, I could see how one could get turned around on that slope of varied terrain and vegetation. Below the spring the trail was straightforward.
I got back to my car at 9:30 a.m. and looked forward to a day with a glow and clarity found on an early morning hike.